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Friday, July 9, 2010

Seizures “Under the Dome”: Unity and Suspense

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Several of the characters in Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome, suffer seizures. Some are thought to be petite mal epileptic seizures; others are presumed to be cause by too much exposure to the sun; still others are said to result from too much excitement. (Only later does physician’s assistant Rusty Everett suggest that the seizures may be “a side effect of whatever force is powering the Dome” [396]).

Among the children who experience such seizures are sisters Judy and Janelle Everett, Little Walter Bushey, and Aidan Appleton. Judy, Janelle, and Little Walter are children of Chester’s Mill residents Linda Everett and Samantha (“Sammy”) Bushey; and Aidan is the orphan son of an out-of-town mother who is killed by the descent of the dome.

Their seizures are accompanied by murmurings about strange visions. “Stop Halloween,” Janelle warns, “you have to stop Halloween.” Judy reports, “The pink stars are falling,” adding “it’s so dark and everything smells bad” (389). Little Walter hasn’t had a visionary experience, as far as anyone knows, but, at only 18 months, he may not be able to articulate any such hallucination or prophecy if he has had one. Nevertheless, the reader learns, from Ginny Tomlinson, a nurse at the local hospital to which Sammy took her son after his crib collapsed (and she herself had been gang-raped): Little Walter, she tells the Reverend Piper Libby, is “your basic healthy eighteen-month-old, but he gave us quite a scare. He had a mini-seizure. It was probably exposure to the sun. Plus dehydration. . . hunger. . .” (384). (It is also from Ginny that the pastor learns that Sammy was raped; the pastor quickly accomplishes what no one else has been able to do, extracting from Sammy the names of her rapists.)

A few pages later, Aidan has the same bizarre vision as he experiences a seizure:
“He’s having some kind of seizure,” Carolyn [Sturges] said. “Probably from overexcitement. I think he’ll come out of it if we just give him a few m--”

“The pink stars are falling,” Aidan said. “They make lines behind them. It’s pretty. It’s scary. Everyone is watching. No treats, only tricks. Hard to breathe. He calls himself the Chef. It’s his . He’s the one” (391).
Upon recovering, none of the children remembers seeing, hearing, smelling, or saying anything unusual. However, their seizures and their hallucinations, like the migraine headaches that Junior Rennie suffers, suggest that something is very bad, indeed, in Chester’s Mill and that, as bad as things may be, events are likely to get worse soon. Halloween and pink stars point to something sinister. According to Aidan, the Chef is the one responsible for the coming catastrophe, whatever it might be. The last time the reader encountered the Chef, he was lurking about inside the methamphetamine laboratory that Big Jim Rennie and Andy Sanders operate behind Christ the Holy Redeemer Church. The pastor of the church was also a partner in the manufacture and sale of the illegal drug before Big Jim killed him. Police officers Jackie Wettington and Linda Everett, who had checked on the church, the parsonage, and the church’s radio station missed the Chef:

A door neither woman had noticed eased open at the back of the studio. Inside were more blinking lights--a galaxy of them. The room was little more than a cubby choked with wires, splitters, routers, and electronic boxes. You would have said there was no room for a man. But The Chef was beyond skinny; he was emaciated. His eyes were only glitters sunk deep in his skull. His skin was pale and blotchy. His lips folded loosely inward over gums that had lost most of their teeth. His shirt and pants were filthy, and his hips were naked wings; Chef’s underwear days were now just a memory. It is doubtful that Sammy would have recognized her missing husband. He had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand (he could eat only soft things now) and a Glock 9 in the other.

He went to the window overlooking the parking lot, thinking he’d rush out and kill the intruders if they were still there; he had almost done it while they were inside. Only he’d been afraid. Because demons couldn’t actually be killed. When their human bodies died, they just flew into another host. When they were between bodies, the demons looked like blackbirds. Chef had seen this in vivid dreams that came on the increasingly rare occasions when he slept.

They were gone, however. His atman had been too strong for them.

Rennie had told him he had to shut down out back, and Chef Bushey had, but he might have to start up some cookers again, because there had been a big shipment to Boston a week ago and he was almost out of product. He needed smoke. It was what his atman fed on these days.

But for now he had enough. He had given up on the blues music that had been so important to him [as he had given up on sex, too, according to Samantha, his wife, in favor of his drug of choice] in his Phil Bushey stage of life--B. B. King, Koko and Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf, even the immortal Little Walter. . . he had even pretty much given up on moving his bowels, had been constipated since July. But that was okay. What humiliated the body fed the atman.

He checked the parking lot and the road beyond once more to make sure the demons weren’t lurking, then tucked the automatic into his belt at the small of his back and
headed for the storage shed, which was actually more of a factory these days. A
factory that was shut down, but he could and would fix that if necessary.

Chef went to get his pipe (320-321).
Judy, Janelle, Aidan, and Little Walter are not the only ones to have had seizures, the reader later is told: according to the omniscient narrator,

During the first fifty-five hours of the Dome’s existence, over two dozen children suffered seizures. Some, like those of the Everett girls, were noted. Many more were not, and in the days ahead the seizure activity would rapidly taper down to nothing. Rusty would compare this to the minor shocks people experienced when they came too close to the Dome. The first time, you got that almost electric frisson that stiffened the hair on the back of your neck; after that, most people felt nothing. It was as if they had been inoculated (424-425).
King associates characters through their sharing of a common environment, through their sharing of a common experience, and through such relationships to one another as those of family, friendship, and business. In addition, a few are associated with one another more particularly than others. For example, not only do Judy, Janelle, Aidan, and Little Walter share the common environment of Chester’s Mill, but they are also connected by the seizures they suffer and by the resulting hallucinations they experience. Samantha and her son Little Walter are also connected to Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey, the one whose “fault” some yet-to-occur catastrophe related to Halloween and the falling of pink stars it is (according to Aidan). They are a family, and, the reader suspects, they will somehow oppose one another during the future incidents of which the children, during their seizures, seem to predict will occur.

In one case, a character--Junior Rennie--is associated also with the dead, both the “girlfriends” he has killed and whose company he keeps, in the dark pantry of one’s home, and the Pastor Lester Coggins, whose body he has hidden with those of Angela McCain and Dodee Sanders after his father killed the pastor. There are hints of necrophilia between Junior and the female corpses. Junior suffers frequent migraines, and he often retreats to the makeshift tomb when such a headache seizes him, and he always feels better, he asserts, after spending time with his “girlfriends.” Not only do such associations unify the plot of King’s sprawling novel, but they also add to the story’s suspense.

Other loose threads of the plot also intrigue the reader. What, if anything, will happen to Samantha Bushey? Her attackers warned her not to tell anyone about the brutal assaults they committed against her; nevertheless, Sammy identified them to the Reverend Piper Libby. Will the children be cured of whatever causes their seizures? Will Big Jim Rennie succeed in his bid to wrest more power from the community’s residents? Will he and his son Junior get away with the murders they’ve committed? Will Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell be able to beat her addiction to pain pills? Will Big Jim and Junior be able to frame Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara for the murder of the Reverend Lester Coggins? Will Barbie connect the stolen propane tanks with Big Jim’s methamphetamine manufacturing operation? Will the dome ever be destroyed? These questions, and those related to the ethical issues that King raises early in his novel, are at least as compelling as a video game, a TV program, a movie, or surfing the Internet.
It isn’t long before Judy’s visionary experience proves prophetic. . . .


lazlo azavaar said...

As one who has already read the book, I've found your questions and suspicions about what will happen to mirror in many ways my own, when I was reading it. I've enjoyed these latest essays of yours quite much Gary (Sorry for calling you Gus!). The experience is akin to giving a friend a book you've read, and having to field questions about what's coming down the pike for their favorite characters. (Will so-and-so die? At least tell me that!) Good reading!

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks, Lazlo. I am trying, in these posts, to give an example of the types of thoughts and feelings that run through the mind of a typical reader as he reads a King novel. Granted, my perceptions may differ from other readers' views, but I think that's a good thing, too, as it may open dialogue, either in other readers' own minds or in comments to the blog. No doubt, some of my anticipations will prove faulty--for example, I see now that Romeo Burpee may end up being one of the story's heroes (or not), but I still think King does tweak his entrepreneurial capitalism as opportunistic. I'm glad you're enjoying my comments; I hope to continue them throughout my reading of the novel.

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.

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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