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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Survivors “Under the Dome”

Copyright 200 by Gary L. Pullman

The “Survivors” section of Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome, starts on an ominous note:

Only three hundred and ninety-seven of The Mill’s two thousand residents survive the fire. . . . By the time night falls. . . there will be a hundred and six.

When the sun comes up on Saturday morning. . . the population of Chester’s Mill is just thirty-two (997).
Ollie Dinsmore, equipped with a tank of oxygen and an oxygen mask takes refuge inside his farm’s potato cellar from the firestorm sweeping through the dome.

Sam Verdreaux, also equipped with oxygen, makes his way toward the McCoy cabin atop Black Ridge, lamenting his role in initiating the riot at Food Town and breaking Georgia Roux’s jaw.

Big Jim Rennie and Carter Thibodeau wait out the firestorm inside the Town Hall’s bomb shelter. Carter’s fawning admiration for the selectman has changed. Although the special deputy doesn’t voice his defiance, he thinks it. In the wake of the disastrous raid on the methamphetamine lab and the firestorm it has caused, a definite rift has opened between the politician and his surrogate “son” and bodyguard.

Sam joins Barbie and his party. Dialogue between Barbie and his newfound girlfriend Julia Shumway reveals that the military intends to try a “pencil nuke” against the dome on Saturday.

While policing the area outside the dome near the Dinsmore farm, PFC Clint Ames hears someone knocking on the interior of the dome and relays the news to his superior, SGT Groh that “There’s somebody alive in there!” and calling for fans.

Sam tells the group of people atop Black Ridge that he’d fainted as he approached their location, but, upon awakening, he was attracted to the McCoy cabin by the “fans” and :lights” (1017) he saw there. While he was unconscious, Sam dreamed of Julia, naked, but “covered with. . . . issues of the Democrat,” as she lay “on the bandstand in the Commons,” crying (1017-1018). Colonel Cox, on the other side of the dome, is interrupted by the news that the Army has found “a survivor on the south side” (1018) of town.

Carter decides to kill Big Jim so that the bomb shelter’s oxygen supply will last him, the sole survivor, longer than it would if he had to continue to share it with the selectman. After replacing a spent canister of the propane that fuels their air supply, he upholsters his Beretta.

At the McCoy cabin, Ernie Calvert dies of a heart attack. Colonel Cox calls with bad news: the pencil nuke “melted down” before it could be deployed to Chester’s Mill. A replacement won’t be ready for deployment for three or four days. The Everett girls’ golden retriever, Audrey, also dies. These deaths are reminders that many others will also expire under the dome, as this section of the novel indicated in its opening paragraph.

Before killing Big Jim, Carter allows the politician a final prayer. When Big Jim starts to sob (or pretends to do so), he asks Carter to turn out the lights, claiming that it is unfitting for Carter to see him cry. Carter places the muzzle of his pistol against the selectman’s neck and extinguishes the light. “He knew it was a mistake the instant he did it,” the omniscient narrator remarks, “but by then it was too late” (1028). Big Jim stabs Carter, “pulling the knife upward s he rose” from his knees, “eviscerating the stupid boy who had thought to get the best of Big Jim Rennie” (1028). Carter falls to his knees and then onto his face, and Big Jim finishes Carter off with a bullet to the brain stem--delivered by Carter‘s own dropped Beretta--after imparting a final bit of advice: “Never give a good politician time to pray” (1029).

Ollie’s condition is much worse, despite the fan’s forcing of air through the dome, and SGT Groh believes him to be near death. He and PFC Ames keep a death vigil. Word comes that another child, on the north side of the dome, has died: Aidan Appleton.

At the McCoy cabin, Benny Drake and Joe McClatchey’s mother Claire seem feverishly hot, and Joe shares his concern with Barbie that they--and the rest of them as well--will die. There is no deliverance for them from outside the dome, he says. Julia, half-asleep, wishes that the extraterrestrial children who the party believes created and maintain the dome as a sadistic game, wishes the aliens would tire of their pastime or be called away by their parents to ear. The others raise some disturbing possibilities: maybe the aliens don’t eat and don’t have parents ands maybe “time is different for them” (1033), moving much quickly, so that, for them, the week the town has spent under the dome seems only seconds.

Atop Black Ridge, Thurston Marshall dies, and almost all the members of Barbie’s group are near death. Their condition is juxtaposed to an earlier catalogue of the everyday activities they and other residents of Chester’s Mill routinely performed on Saturday night, the normal and customary making the horrible all the more horrific and life, measured against death and dying, all the more precious. In an earlier scene, King’s omniscient narrator implies that Julia may be devising some sort of solution to their predicament, a resolution being pieced together, as it were, by her unconscious: “Julia was looking toward the box with its flashing purple light. Her face was thoughtful and a little dreamy” (1033). The narrator repeats this suggestion in this scene: “Julia . . . is once more looking in the direction of a box which, although less than fifty square inches in area and not even an inch thick, cannot be budged. Her eyes are distant, speculative” (1035). The author ends this scene with paraphrases of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (“October is the cruelest month, mixing memory with desire” and “there are no lilacs in this dead land. No lilacs, no trees, no grass” (1035). It is obvious that King wants to associate his novel’s apocalyptic theme with the faithlessness of godless modern life that Eliot’s poem depicts. The question of whether he succeeds in doing so by making a couple of allusions to the poet’s work is a matter for each reader to decide for him- or herself, as is the question of whether King’s allusion to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies has any more significance than its representing a rhetorical device.

In the next scene, Big Jim’s heart goes haywire again, just as the generator’s alarm sounds, indicating that the canister of propane that fuels it has become depleted. Struggling, the politician arises, stumbles over Carter’s corpse, imagining that his former aide’s sightless, staring eyes move. Shocked and frightened, Big Jim feels for a pulse in the special deputy’s throat, finding none. Reassured, he moves forward in the bomb shelter, toward the generator. Behind him, he hears a sound, imagining that it may be “the whisper of a hand, perhaps, slipping across the concrete floor” (1037). As Big Jim removes “one of the four remaining tanks” of propane from the “storage cubby, his heart went into arrhythmia again. It subsides, but Big Jim drops his flashlight (a second time) and the lens breaks, leaving him in total darkness. The generator refuses to restart, and Big Jim fights down the panic that threatens to rise inside him. His prayers seem to go unanswered. Disoriented in the darkness as he searches for batteries for the flashlight or a book of matches, Big Jim stumbles over Carter’s corpse and bangs his head. He crawls onto the couch and calms himself. As he experiences pain along his left arm, he fears he may be having a heart attack, and his sanity begins to slip away as he imagines that Carter is breathing--that several others are breathing as well: his other victims, Brenda Perkins, Lester Coggins, and his son Junior. The dead begin to speak to him, recalling the omniscient narrator’s declaration, earlier in the novel, that the dead coexist with the living but most living people cannot discern the presence of the dead. Terrified, Big Jim flees the bomb shelter. The stagnant air outside is too much for his failing heart, and he dies of a heart attack. This scene includes both humor and horror. One of the humorous portions is King’s omniscient narrator’s description of Big Jim, which compares the selectman to one of the used cars that he sells:

Big Jim jumped and cried out. His poor tortured heart was lurching, missing, skipping, then running to catch up with itself. He felt like an old car with a bad carburetor, the kind of rattletrap you might take in trade but would never sell, the kind that was good for nothing but the junk heap. . . (1036).
On Sunday morning, Julia awakens Barbie with the news that Benny Drake has died. Julia says she wants to go to the dome generator, but Barbie reminds her that the air is so stale away from the fans that they can’t travel more than “fifty feet” (1043) and the dome generator is a half mile from them. However, Sam tells them that he knows a way they can take, offering to show them.

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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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