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Friday, July 16, 2010

A Plot Hole “Under the Dome”?

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

At 1,074 pages, Stephen King’s latest work, Under the Dome, isn’t a novel; it’s an experience!

Since the riot at the Food Town supermarket, much of the story’s action has concerned repercussions of this food fight and of other previous incidents that have occurred following the mysterious descent of the dome over Chester’s Mill, Maine.

Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie has seized the opportunity presented by this sudden crisis to seize more power for himself, becoming a dictator, always, he says, for the good of the town he serves. This “good” includes the two murders he’s committed, those of the Reverend Lester Coggins of Christ the Holy Redeemer Church, and Brenda, the elderly widow of former Police Chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins, who was an early casualty of the dome. By getting rid of the chief law enforcement officer of the community and replacing him with Pete Randolph, a fairly stupid, eager-to-please follower, Big Jim Rennie ensures that there is no law except that which he chooses to enforce for his own purposes. King thus returns Chester’s Mill to a more-or-less uncivilized state of the “noble savage” similar to that of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau waxes poetic and against which novelist William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, cautions.

Because King has a lot of ground to cover, he alternates between relatively short scenes that develop his multiple subplots and connect them to the central storyline. Perhaps for himself as much as for his reader, the author provides both a map of Chester’s Mill and a list of many of the characters who appear in the novel. This list is a handy way to keep track of the characters and their actions and of the plot in general.

By and by, this post will delve into a few implications of these actions; but, initially, it will be more concerned with summarizing the major events that have transpired since the food fight.

Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara has been jailed on the pretext that he is the killer of Angie McCain, Dorothy (“Dodee”) Sanders (First Selectman Andy Sanders’ daughter), Lester Coggins, and Brenda Perkins, whereas in fact the true killers are Big Jim and his son Junior. Andy visits Barbie in jail, raving at him for having murdered his daughter. (Andy’s wife Claudette was an early victim of the dome; the airplane in which she was taking flight instructions flew into it.)

Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell kicks her addiction to pain pills cold turkey.

Peter Randolph’s police force is bolstered by additional thuggish young recruits.

Henchmen of Big Jim burn down Julia Shumway’s newspaper and her home, which was located on the same building’s second floor. Homeless, Julia spends the night at Andrea’s house, sleeping on the couch with her dog, Horace. Although Big Jim sends his henchmen around town to collect the last edition of Julia’s newspaper, which questions Barbie’s guilt, a few of the issues are collected by townspeople, read, and passed around until the copies literally fall apart from the handling.

In the food fight, Special Deputy Georgia Roux, who assisted her colleagues Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, and Carter Thibodeau, in the beating and rape of Samantha Bushey, was severely injured and is in the hospital. After abandoning her eighteen-month-old son Little Walter (as both the baby and she herself were abandoned by her husband, Phil, who, a drug-crazed addict, now goes by the nickname “The Chef,” living at Big Jim‘s methamphetamine lab behind the Holy Redeemer Church), Samantha obtains a handgun, using it to kill both Georgia and her after-hours visitor Carter, before turning the same weapon upon herself and committing suicide.

Andy is about to commit suicide when he receives a telephone call from the hospital, asking him to come to the aid of the medical staff, as there has been a double murder and a suicide there.

English professor Thurston Marshall and his student-girlfriend Carolyn Sturgis take in orphans Alice and Aidan Appleton, and Thurston assists physician’s assistant Eric (“Rusty”) Everett at the hospital. Aidan experiences seizures during which they hallucinate about Halloween and pink stars that trail lines behind them.

Other children who have these same visions include boy genius “Scarecrow” Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, and Benny Drake, who, using a Geiger counter supplied by Barbie, discover, atop Black Ridge, beyond the McCoy apple orchard, what they believe is the generator that has created and sustains the dome. They report their discovery to Rusty. Later, pink stars fall over Chester’s Mill. Although it seems that these stars may have a paranormal or even a supernatural origin, they are explained as a meteor shower (“falling stars”), the pink color of which is an effect of the pollution adhering to the outer surface of the dome.

Having framed Barbie for multiple murders (and his friends for the arson that burned down the newspaper), Big Jim shuts down his methamphetamine operation, returning some of the stolen propane tanks that he’d used to fuel the works to the hospital. The men who return the tanks, chicken farmer Roger Killian, undertaker Stewart Bowie, and Stewart’s brother Fernald (“Fern”), see a “cryptic message” that “had been painted on the storage building behind the WCIK studios” near the Holy Redeemer Church. Referencing the book of Revelation’s prophecy that “the beast will be cast into a burning lake of fire,” the message calls upon its readers to “burn the wicked” and “purify the saintlie” (566), a directive which, the novel’s reader suspects, may have been painted by the mad meth addict Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey. Does The Chef himself intend to play the role of “purifier”? one wonders, believing himself to be an implement of divine wrath? The Chef has wired the storage shed that serves as the meth lab with explosives. Perhaps he also has other surprises in store for those whom he considers to be sinners.

A second attempt by the military to penetrate the dome, this time, with a pair of Cruise missiles, fails. The town remains cut off, an incubator for corruption and the empowerment of those who would benefit themselves by hurting, rather than helping, their neighbors.

Rusty, refusing to believe that Barbie murdered anyone, persuades his wife, Deputy Linda Everett, who has come around to his way of thinking after her initial suspicion of Barbie's guilt, to accompany him to the Bowie funeral home, where he examines the victims’ bodies while Deputy Stacey Moggin stands watch outside, ready to alert them over her walkie-talkie if anyone approaches the scene. Rusty discovers that Brenda died as the result of someone’s having broken her neck; however, his finding does not exonerate Barbie as the murderer.

A few things beyond the mere summary of the plot do merit mention in regard to the theory and practice of writing horror fiction, which is the purpose of this blog, after all.

One, already mentioned, is how King alternates between brief scenes to keep his reader apprised as to what is happening throughout town among his various characters, keeping the pace moving forward at a fairly rapid clip despite the scenes' heavy exposition, and dovetailing the main storyline with the novel’s many subplots. This technique also unifies the action. In fact, several times, King has his characters cross paths as they execute their own plans. For example, Rusty drives past both Joe McClatchey and, later Samantha Bushey. Another means of tying the action together is to have a character go to several other characters’ homes or places of business in succession, as Brenda Perkins does when she is seeking a safe place to keep the incriminating evidence that Howard Perkins had compiled against Big Jim and as Julia Shumway does in seeking a place to spend the night after her home and business are burned down.

Another point to consider is the characterization of Barbie as one who outmatches his adversaries. His captors fancy themselves accomplished inquisitors, as is seen in Junior Rennie's attempts to tempt Barbie with a glass of water to quench his thirst if Barbie will sign a confession, admitting he’s killed the murder victims. Barbie is aware of such tricks:

Barbie was. . . very thirsty, and it didn’t surprise him much when one of the new officers showed up with a glass of water in one hand and a sheet of paper with a pen attached to it in the other. Yes, it was how these things went; how they went in Fallujah, Takrit, Hilla, Mosul, and Baghdad. How they also now went in Chester’s Mill, it seemed (585).
He’s not only knowledgeable about such techniques; he’s presumably seen them used and has perhaps used them himself in the past, for “he had done interrogations in Iraq and knew how it worked over there” (584). However, Barbie also knows how resourceful the recipients of such torture can be, and he is able to adopt their practices to outwit his captors and survive his ordeal without succumbing to their devices:

. . . They ere amateurs at this: they had forgotten the toilet. Probably none of them had ever been in a country where even a little ditch water could look good when you were carrying ninety pounds of equipment and the temperature was forty-six Celsius. Barbie poured out the salt water [Junior had salted it, possibly by urinating in it] in the corner of the cell. Then he knelt in front of the toilet bowl like a man at his prayers and drank until he could feel his belly bulging (588).
A man who will drink water from the toilet bowl--and from a jailhouse stool, at that!--is a man who is resourceful enough, tough enough, and resolute enough to survive and, given the chance, triumph over even those as brawny, sadistic, and unscrupulous as his present enemies, Big Jim Rennie and Police Chief Randolph and his special deputies. This description of Barbie puts him in the same class as John Rambo.

It also suggests a problem, relating to the novel’s verisimilitude. Just before the description of Barbie’s drinking from the commode, the omniscient narrator shared the prisoner’s thought that “if he got out of this police station alive, it would be a miracle,” and, previously, King, several times, emphasized how easily Barbie might be shot under the pretext of his having tried to escape from custody. Even if he is a Rambo-like character, Barbie could easily enough be dispatched in this manner, and, if he’s truly violent enough to have raped two women and killed four individuals after beating three of them savagely, his attempt to escape would be credible to most of the townspeople and to the federal authorities as well. Surely, this would be the easiest and most certain way for Big Jim to dispose of the greatest threat to his continued position as selectman while, at the same time, covering up the murders that Big Jim and his son Junior have committed.

King seems aware of this potential plot hole, for, later, he has his characters discuss the situation; by the way, King adroitly sets the scene, identifying the participants in the action in its opening sentence: “There were four people in Rusty’s living room: Linda [Everett], Jackie [Wettington], Stacey Moggin, and Rusty [Everett] himself.” The topic of their conversation soon turns to Barbie’s plight:

“What if they kill him?” Rusty asked bluntly. “Shot while trying to escape?”

“I’m pretty sure that won’t happen,” Jackie said. “Big Jim wants a show-trial. That’s the talk at the station.” Stacey nodded. “They want to make people believe Barbie’s a spider spinning a vast web of conspiracy. Then they can execute him. But even moving at top speed, that’s days away. Weeks, if we’re lucky” (666).
It seems unlikely that Big Jim, a good planner in everything else, would take such a huge and unnecessary risk. By having Barbie killed as he allegedly attempts to escape from custody, Big Jim would still have framed him; in addition, he would have prevented a problematic trial, which would draw public scrutiny, both in Chester’s Mill and beyond, and could end in Barbie’s exoneration and Big Jim’s own proved culpability. No one knows how long it may be, if ever, before the dome is penetrated or destroyed, and each day that passes could create more opportunities for the discovery of the methamphetamine lab or of evidence for either Big Jim’s own or his son’s murder of their victims. The safer and more expedient measure would be to kill Barbie while the chance exists for them to do so rather than wait until a trial can be conducted on trumped-up evidence. Therefore, this situation is, if not a plot hole, a rather incredible state of affairs. The reader may well have to suspend his or her disbelief to accept it as possible. What makes the lack of verisimilitude even worse is that this situation is an important feature of the plot.

A final note on the text concerns King’s nimbleness in creating an eerie sense that something is amiss, something that is unsettlingly dark and deep. He does this masterfully in Desperation, when Sheriff Collie Entragian, possessed by the demon Tak, gives voice to strange declarations and is described as literally coming apart at the seams as the demon’s vitality consumes him from within. In Under the Dome, King’s omniscient narrator does something similar, with equally eerie effect, in describing the deterioration of Junior Rennie, who, until now, has merely been said to experience frequent tremendous, migraine-like headaches. As he attempts to goad Barbie into signing a false confession, Junior’s speech becomes more and more confused as he suffers another headache, and he is seen to have developed a limp:

The new officer was Junior Rennie.

“Well, look at you,” Junior said. “Don’t look quite so ready to beat guys up with your fancy Army tricks right now.” He raised the hand holding the sheet of paper and rubbed his left temple with the tips of his fingers. The paper rattled.

“You don’t look so good yourself.”

Junior dropped his hand. “I’m fine as rain.”

Now that was odd, Barbie thought; some people said right as rain and some said fine as paint, but none, as far as he knew, said fine as rain. It probably meant
nothing, but-- (585).
Having alerted the reader to the oddity of Junior’s speech, King supplies the reader with additional oddities of his speech, each of which is also unsettling, indicating, as they do, Junior’s loss of sanity. What is even more alarming is the fact that Junior is unaware both of his speaking nonsense at times, in passing, as it were, and of the slipping away of his reason.

Mixed in with Junior’s unintentionally absurd phrases are descriptions of his physical deterioration--his hand trembles, he has a massive headache, an “inflamed left eye” that leaks “tears at the corner,” and a pronounced limp--and Barbie’s thoughts concerning them:

Junior yodeled again. Some of the water in the glass spilled on his wrist. Were his hand shaking a little? And that inflamed left eye was leaking tears at the corner. Junior, what the hell’s wrong with you? Migraine? Something else. . . ?

It isn’t a migraine making him do that. At least not any migraine I ever heard of.

. . . “You guys come back with all sorts of problems. At least, that’s what I breed and see on TV. Right or false? True or wrong?” (586)

. . . “My theory is that you came back. . . [with] PTSS, STD, PMS, one of those. . . .”

. . . “. . . Think about getting. . . some food. Big old cheeseburger in paradise. Maybe a Coke. There’s some cold in the fridge upstairs. Wouldn’t you like a nice cone Cole?” (587)

. . . As he went upstairs, Barbie observed that Junior was limping a tiny but--or dragging. That was it, dragging to the left and pulling on the banister with his right hand to compensate. He wondered what Rusty Everett would think about such symptoms. . . (588).

Although it is difficult to overlook the rather glaring improbability that Big Jim would prefer to risk everything to conduct a “show-trial” than to kill Barbie as the prisoner allegedly seeks to escape, King’s description of Junior’s deterioration compensates for lack of believability. Characterization has long been one of King’s strong suits. Plotting usually is sound, too, although, in Big Jim’s failure to have Barbie killed when he has the chance to do so, an exception to the rule.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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