Fascinating lists!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Team Spirit “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Following the riot at Food Town, in which most of the injured are the police themselves, including several of the special deputies who raped Samantha Bushey, Brenda Perkins tries to put into effect the plan to blackmail Big Jim Rennie so as to thwart the selectman’s attempt to jail Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara on one trumped-up charge or another.

Unfortunately, since neither Julia Shumway, the owner and editor of the local newspaper nor Romeo Burpie, the owner of the largest independent department store in America, are home when she comes to call upon them to hide the incriminating documents that her late husband, former police chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins had compiled against Big Jim, she entrusts them to Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell. Attempting to kick her addiction to pain pills cold turkey, Andrea is in no shape to deal with such a responsibility. Soon after accepting the documents and agreeing to conceal them, Andrea passes out; when she awakens, she doesn’t remember Andrea’s visiting her.

For her own part, Brenda has hidden the laptop computer upon which her late husband had saved the original, electronic files inside her home safe, and, against the advice of Barbie, she decides to confront Big Jim by herself, accusing him of manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine. For her trouble, she receives death at the murderous hands of Big Jim.

Her belief that “Big Jim would” not “actually hurt her” is, the omniscient narrator points out, in a bit of the foreshadowing with which King’s novel is replete, “a dreadful miscalculation on her part, but understandable; she wasn’t the only one who clung to the notion that the world was as it had been before the Dome came down,” (488) a sentiment that echoes politicians’ own insistence that post-9/11 America is forever different than pre-9/11 America and that, as a result, changes have to be made and personal freedoms must be lost--for the good of the country, of course, just as everything that Big Jim does is (according to him) for the good of the town he governs.

Such a “miscalculation” has dire consequences for Brenda, as it may for Americans in general who, it appears, live “under the dome” of environmental terrorism (and political terrorism): “Brenda Perkins heard a bitter crack, like the breaking of a branch overloaded with ice, and followed the sound into a great darkness, trying to call her husband’s name as she went” (495). She is a damsel in distress, to be sure, but she is one without a rescuer or a defender.

The reader hopes that her fate doesn’t parallel Americans’ own, especially given the numerous parallels that King’s novel draws between current events in the United States (and around the world) and the incidents that occur in his massive story. As always, King’s work is something of a cautionary tale concerning real-world situations and events, many of the latest ones of our own devise. “It may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma,” Edgar Allan Poe, in a technologically and politically less complicated time declared, “which human ingenuity may not, by proper application, resolve.” Let’s hope that the master of the macabre was right.

Under the Dome appears to offer a turning point in King’s understanding of politics, morality, and group dynamics. It seems to be a watershed novel, in which the author deepens and broadens his understanding of the complexities of civilization, culture, and society, no longer assuming the existence of simplistic dualities of Democrat vs. Republican, adult vs. child, or other forms of us vs. them. Watching current events from the relative safety of the Florida Keys seems to have taught him quite a bit about life during the time, “November 22, 2007-March 14, 2009,” that he wrote his latest novel. He’s a better storyteller because of his maturation, because he offers a more balanced perspective concerning the themes he takes up in this volume.

One of the themes of Under the Dome, common to many of King’s novels, is that it takes a village (or at least a group) to defeat the monster. In fact, one of the sections of Under the Dome has as its title “We All Support the Team.” Of course, in a contest, athletic or otherwise, one team must compete against another. In his early novels, the two teams were often heroic children (teens or preteens) and either corrupt, indifferent, or incompetent, usually unaware, adults. It was, consequently, the children who led the way and, usually, the children who defeated the monster.

There is a bit of this thinking in Under the Dome as well, as this exchange between Norrie Calvert, Joe McClatchey, and Benny Drake, who are smoking stolen cigarettes under Peace Bridge, when Norrie spots Brenda Perkins (whose death was recounted ea a couple of pages back but who is, courtesy of the miracle of the flashback, alive and well at the moment and approaching the children’s hideaway):

“Let’s get going,” Benny said.

“We can’t get going until she’s gone,” Norrie said.

Benny shrugged. “What’s the big deal? If she sees us, we’re just some kids goofing around the town common. And know what? She probably wouldn’t see us if she looked right at us. Adults never see kids.” He considered this. “Unless they’re on skateboards.”

“Or smoking,” Norrie added (502).

However, some adults are not only aware of children but also entrust them to accomplish vitally important tasks. Julia Shumway has convinced Joe’s mother to allow him and his friends to deliver a “gadget” that Barbie considers vital to their cause.

In general, in this matter, King appears to have matured as both a thinker and a writer, no longer dividing his fictional worlds into an “us“ against “them,” black-or-white dichotomy of innocence and experience, righteousness and evil, heroes and villains. Instead of an us-children against them-adults, he posits two teams of adults (or four, if one takes Big Jim’s view that “ants,” “grasshoppers,” and “locusts” make up the population of Chester’s Mill: on one side, the team of Dale Barbara, Julia Shumway, the late police chief Howard Perkins and his recently murdered widow Brenda, Romeo Burpie, and others, standing against the team of Big Jim Rennie, Andy Sanders, Pete Randolph, Junior Rennie, the late Lester Coggins, and their followers.

Big Jim explains the situation to Lester, just before killing him:

“Every town has its ants--which is good--and its grasshoppers, which aren’t so good but we can live with them because we understand them and we can make them do what’s in their own best interests, even if we have to squeeze em a little. But every town also has its locusts, just like in the Bible, and that’s what people like the Busheys are. On them we’ve got to bring the hammer down. . . “ (260).

The reader must take Big Jim’s analysis with a grain of salt, perhaps, because, obviously, he is the most corrupt of all the characters in Chester’s Mill. The context of the novel allows one to identify the groups named by Big Jim: the ants are the productive citizens, the hardworking blue-collar folks who produce the goods and provide the services that keeps the town’s economy humming; the grasshoppers are the merchants, entrepreneurs, and financiers who control and regulate the means of production, including human resources, profiting from the goods and services that the working class create; and the locusts are the poor and needy, often emotionally damaged, sometimes drug-addicted or alcoholic citizens who deplete the town’s treasury. In Machiavelli’s terms, the ants and the locusts are the masses; the business owners, the aristocrats; and the governing party (unmentioned by Big Jim except as “we”) are the monarch and his royal “family” and patrons.

Jimi Hendrix, or King’s quotation of the late musician, provides the perspective of Barbie’s team: “When the power of love becomes stronger than the love of power, the earth will know peace.” Barbie, Julia, and Romeo, like Howard and Brenda Perkins, act out of a true concern for justice, liberty, and respect for one’s fellow, all of which values stem, ultimately, from love (for if one has not love for oneself and one’s neighbor, neither justice, liberty, nor respect is likely to be considered of any importance; rather, one is more likely to operate according to the principles of Big Jim and his cronies.)

Big Jim’s understanding of the motivation of high school girls’ basketball clarifies the values he and his team members hold even more than his brief speech to Lester Coggins concerning ants, grasshoppers, and locusts. Big Jim is attracted to girls’ basketball because “young female players are invested in a team ethic that the boys,” being more interested in showing off their skills as individual players, “rarely match” (445). Because of this devotion, “The girls took the sport personally, and that made them better haters,” the omniscient narrator asserts, explaining that they “loathed losing. They took loss back to the locker room and brooded over it. More importantly, they loathed and hated it as a team. Big Jim often saw that hare rear its head. . . .” (446). (One need only recall Georgia Roux cheering on the town’s special deputies as they beat and raped Samantha Bushey to understand what King is describing; bullies often delight in their power to inflict pain and suffering on others and tend to band together as a pack, or “team,” against lone individuals. Corrupt politicians, King seems to suggest, are no different.)
A season-ticket holder, Big Jim frequently attends these games, and, in the process, he has chosen a champion worthy of his admiration:

Before 2004, the Lady Wildcats had made the state tournament only once in twenty years, that appearance a one-and-done affair against Buckfield. Then had come Hanna Compton. The greatest hater of all time, in Big Jim’s opinion. . . .

. . . Hanna had taken the game over with the single-minded brutality of Joseph Stalin taking over Russia, her black eyes glittering (and seemingly fixed upon some basketball Nirvana beyond the sight of normal mortals), her face locked in that eternal sneer that said, I’m better than you, I’m the best, get out of my way or I’ll run you. . . down. . . ( 446-447).

In his portrait of Hanna, whom Big Jim admires as the athlete par excellence, because of the girl’s “out-of-my face ‘tude” no less than for her amazing athletic prowess, King highlights the girl’s arrogance (“I’m better than you, I’m the best, get out of my way or I’ll run you. . . down”) as the key energizing element in her personality; it is this arrogance, or pride, that fuels both her hatred and her drive, and it is one that, sharing with her, Big Jim recognizes and respects. However, as a self-avowed Christian (a confession open to serious doubt), Big Jim should heed the Bible’s declaration that “pride goeth before a fall.”

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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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