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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shades of Barack Hussein Obama “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Although in the letter by which he appoints Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara a colonel in the United States Army, the intuitional version of President Barack Hussein Obama promises to do all that he can, regardless of cost, to rescue the trapped members of Chester’s Mill, Maine, from the mysterious transparent dome that has descended over them, cutting off their community from the rest of the world, the chief executive’s attempts to do so, through the use of the nation’s military forces and best scientific minds, has not only negative, but ludicrous, effects. The two Cruise missiles that detonate against the barrier merely start fires on either side of the dome, and the super-strong experimental acid with which the barrier is later doused is simply absorbed by the unharmed dome.

Meanwhile, pollutants collect upon the outer surface of the barrier, and its interior is polluted by the smoke that the townspeople produce when they must revert to the use of wood in their stoves as their reserves of propane dwindle. Gasoline is also in short supply. Food and water supplies may be next to show shortages. Clearly, “the bastard” who “had signed” the letter “himself, using all three of his names, including the terrorist one in the middle” (i. e. Hussein), the president who holds office in Under the Dome, is obviously intended to be Obama, and he is depicted as running an operation every bit as incompetent as the Gulf oil leak cleanup mission, despite his soaring rhetoric and his solemn vow that “we will never abandon you. Our firmest promise, based on our finest ideals, is simple: No man, woman, or child left behind. Every resource we need to employ in order to end your confinement will be employed. Every dollar we need to spend will be spent” (269).

In a conversation with Colonel Cox, Julia Shumway sums up the effectiveness of the Cruise missiles this way: “Watched them hit. And bounce off. They lit a fine fire on your side--.” Likewise, “one of the older gentlemen who had been running tests” after the acid was doused on the dome sums up the effect of this attempt to liberate the trapped townspeople by saying, concerning the acid, “The thing that isn’t there [i. e., the dome] ate it up.” The military’s failures, do not inspire confidence among the townspeople.

Big Jim Rennie also parallels Obama at times. He doesn’t listen to his advisors. When the chief of police, Peter Randolph, suggests that closing the town’s supermarket, Food City, and convenience store, Gas and Grocery, might be a mistake, since the action could cause panic among the townspeople, Big Jim refuses to her of it: “’Closed up,’ he repeated. ‘Both of them. Tight as ticks.’” (Didn’t Obama summarily and single-handedly order the cessation of oil drilling operations in the Gulf, following the leak of the British Petroleum leak?) Moreover, Big Jim declares, “And when they reopen, we’ll be the ones handing out supplies. Stuff will last longer, and the distribution will be fairer. I’ll announce a rationing plan.” (It sounds as if, like Obama, Big Jim plans to spread the wealth around a little and take charge of the citizenry’s needs for food, if not yet health care.) Rham Emmanuel counseled Obama not to pass up the opportunity a crisis provides to effect what otherwise might not be doable, and Big Jim, in a similar fashion, plans to capitalize on the crisis that the dome’s isolation of the town he governs represents: When First Selectman Andy Sanders expresses reservations about their “authority to close down businesses,” Big Jim replies in a manner similar to Obama’s assertions about his own expansion of presidential powers during both the financial crisis and the Gulf Oil crisis he faces: “In a crisis like this, we not only have the authority, we have the responsibility.” Again, just as Obama spoke of his perceived need to marshal a civilian police force as well funded as the U. S. military to keep order in a world beset by terrorism, Big Jim tells Chief Randolph, “We may have to increase the size of our police force quite a bit if this crisis doesn’t end soon. Yes, quite a bit” (449-450).

King himself is a devoted liberal who, until his creation of Republican Julia Shumway, had little positive to say about the Grand Old Party and its members. In a rather puerile fashion, and in simplistic black-and-white terms, he seems to have believed Democrats were the pure-hearted good guys and that Republicans were the black-hearted black hats. He hedges his bets even with Julia, having Dale Barbara remark that she isn’t much like the typical members of her party. His novel makes several references to CNN and its reporters and commentators, but none to Fox News and its journalists and pundits. He compares an unshaven Big Jim to Richard Nixon. His heart is clearly still with the Democrats, but, with Julia, there is a tiny concession, at last, to the notion, however unlikely, that maybe not every last Republican everywhere is the devil in disguise. Politically, King seems to be maturing in his views. If so, better late than never.

Possibly because he is willing (to some extent, at least) to see Republicans as individuals rather than as stereotypes, he has also perceived some of the contradictions between Obama’s speech and his behavior, between his words and his deeds, between his promises and his actions, and that he had incorporated these perceptions in his characterizations of both his fictional version of Obama and the bombastic Big Jim Rennie. Another possibility is that these parallels are unintended. Critics have long ago found that not every implication of a writer’s work is a conscious and deliberate, which is to say, an intentional, statement in his or her writing. Lots of ideas are accidents, as it were, rather than intended deliveries, born of unconscious, or even repressed, thoughts and impulses. Be that as it may, there seems to be more than a few caricatures of Barack Hussein Obama in King’s characterizations of the president’s fictional counterpart and Under the Dome’s Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie.

Throughout Under the Dome, Big Jim claims that all that he does is for the good off the town he governs, despite the fact that his often illegal activities line his own pockets and maintain or expand his personal power and influence. Most recently, Big Jim insisted that the town’s only two sources of food supplies, Food Town and Gas and Groceries, be shut down, causing a panic--and, indeed, a riot--among the townspeople. As a leader, he has said time and again, it is his duty to provide for the public welfare, even when doing so is unpopular. Recently, President Obama insulted Nevadans, nd, indeed, all Americans by telling them, in a speech in Las Vegas (a place, according to him, which is to be avoided as a devil’s playground, unless one is Barack Hussein Obama, of course, or one of the other of the nation’s privileged elite), that both he and Senator Harry Reid, for whom he was stumping, knew that the passage of the health care reform act (as they call it) was “unpopular” among the unwashed masses, but that they persisted in defying the will of the American people because “it was the right thing to do,” as if only the supposed representatives of the people, and not the people themselves, know what is morally correct. Moreover, Obama has shut down the oil industry, putting thousands out of work in a brutal economy, part of the collapse of which is his own fault, as a former senator, just as its prolonged continuance is largely his fault as president. During his speech, Obama also championed more of the prescriptions for economic recovery that economists contend will only worsen the country’s (and the world’s) dire economic situation and that the vast majority of the American public does not want. Like Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, Obama and his team are loathe to let a good crisis, even a manufactured one, go to waste.

A final parallel: Big Jim manufactures and distributes methamphetamines. Didn’t the president admit to using cocaine?

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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.

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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