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Monday, July 19, 2010

Tyranny and Solidarity "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Romeo (“Rommie”) Burpie visits his department store, telling his clerks that he is conducting inventory. Instead, he loads up shopping carts with the radiation-protection items that Rusty Everett has requested for use in his pending visit to Black Ridge, where Joe McClatchey and his friends, Norrie Calvert and Benny Drake, believe the dome generator is located. His clerks wear blue armbands, which makes Rommie believe that they have been sworn in as special deputies. They assure him that they have not; the armbands are merely intended to show “solidarity” with the local firefighting and police departments. Rommie decides that he and Rusty should wear these bands, too, as “camouflage,” so Big Jim and his supporters will falsely assume that Rommie and Rusty, too, support him. After gathering the equipment that Rusty has requested, Rommie also hides several rifles in his store’s safe, in case Big Jim rounds up all the citizens’ weapons.

Meanwhile, Big Jim Rennie refuses to surrender his authority to Andrea Grinell, as Colonel Cox suggests when the Army officer makes contact with the selectman via telephone, even after Cox lets Big Jim know that the Army knows about his manufacture and dsitribuion of illegal drugs and promises not to prosecute the politician if he agrees to do so. Big Jim adopts Carter Thibodeau as his personal bodyguard, dispatching him with a message to Chief Randolph: fire Deputy Wettington. Big Jim also orders Thibodeau to instruct Deputy Stacey Moggin to assemble “every officer we’ve got on our roster” at Food Town supermarket, where Big Jim plans to deliver “another speech” in which he will “wind them up like Granddad’s pocketwatch [sic]”(707).

Fired, Jackie commiserates with the Reverend Piper Libby, and the two women compare notes, Jackie telling Piper about Rusty’s visit to the funeral home and his determination that a baseball was used to kill the Reverend Lester Coggins and that someone broke Brenda Perkins’ neck. (In an earlier scene, Rommie, who is quite the womanizer, vowed to avenge himself upon whoever killed Brenda, who was former girlfriend of his.) Jackie also notifies Piper of her plan to break Barbie out of jail. Jackie asks Piper to allow a meeting between eight trusted citizens who oppose Big Jim and Chief Police Pete Randolph at her parsonage that night. Among the invited are librarian Lssa Jamieson and retired Food Town manager Ernie Calvert. They complete their discussion as Helen Roux, Georgia’s mother, arrives at Piper's house for counseling concerning her daughter Georgia’s death at the hands of Georgia’s victim, Samantha Bushey.

Just as Big Jim’s enemies are choosing followers, Deputy Henry Morrison believes that Big Jim likewise plans to assemble a cadre of trusted lieutenants, eliminating Jackie and other officers whom the selectman thinks may be loyal to the former chief of police rather than to Police Chief Randolph and himself. Henry believes that he will be the next to be fired and that others who will be terminated will likely include Linda Everett and Stacey Moggin. As Linda Everett told her husband, Rusty, earlier, “There are sides, and you need to think about which one you’re on” (527). Both Big Jim and his enemies are clearly doing just this, preparing for war.

Except for an occasional mention of the depletion of gasoline and propane reserves, Stephen King does not devote much attention to the need to conserve natural resources, and, apart from a few brief mentions of pollution and environmental destruction, King does not belabor this theme of his novel. Plants and trees, his characters learn, are dying. The atmosphere inside the dome seems to be affected adversely by the presence of the barrier, to the outer side of which particulates of pollution cling. The air inside the dome is stale. Children (and a few adults) have seizures and hallucinate, perhaps as a result of the dome’s influence upon them. Animals seem to kill themselves for no discernable cause. A few of the residents of Chester’s Mill (Junior and his father, Big Jim Rennie, included), seem to be losing their minds. Additionally, King’s omniscient narrator clearly associates the dome with pollution and its effects as Rusty, Rommie, Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, and Benny Drake approach the site at which the children believe the dome’s generator is positioned:

But even away from the [dead, maggot-ridden] bear, the world smelled bad: smoky and heavy, as if the entire town of Chester’s Mill had become a large closed room. In addition to the odors of smoke and decaying animal, he [Rusty] could smell rotting plant life and a swampy stench that no doubt arose from the drying bed of the Prestile [Stream]. If only there was a wind, he thought, but there was just an occasional pallid puff of breeze that brought more bad smells. To the far west there were clouds--it was probably raining. . . over in New Hampshire--but when they reached the Dome, the clouds parted like a river dividing at a large outcropping of rock. Rusty had become increasingly doubtful about the possibility of rain under the Dome. . . (720).
This paragraph helps to reinforce the novel’s concern about the Earth’s pollution.

In investigating the site, Rusty and the others determine that the dome’s effect upon children (and some adults) in causing seizures and hallucinations works “like chickenpox” in the sense that it resembles a “mild sickness mostly suffered by children, who only” catch “it once” (721). As Rusty drives further into the orchard, he feels faint, and a strange change in perception overtakes him as he feels “as if his head were a telescope and he could see anything he wanted to see, no matter how far”; he sees “the dirt road perfectly well. Divinely well. Every stone and chip of mica,” and then, in the middle of the road, he sees a “skinny” man. . . made taller by an absurd red, white and blue stovepipe hat, comically crooked,” who wears “jeans and a tee-shirt that read SWEET HOME ALABAMA PLAY THAT DEAD BAND SONG.” The thought occurs to Rusty that he is seeing “not a man,” but “a Halloween dummy” with “green garden trowels for hands and a burlap head” with “stitched white crosses for eyes,” and then the hallucination, or vision, vanishes and all that remains are “just the road, the ridge, and the purple light, flashing at fifteen-second intervals, seeming to say Come on, come on, come on” (722).

The oddity of the scene keeps the reader reading, as does the repeated connection of such bizarre events to Halloween.

Outfitted in his makeshift radiation suit, Rusty leaves the others behind as he makes his way toward the radiation source.

In one of the novel’s more chilling scenes, Deputy Morrison comes across Junior Rennie, who has wet his pants. Junior is sitting on the curb, “rocking and back and forth” and talking what seems to be gibberish. (Actually, he is lamenting the deaths of his “girlfriends,“ Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders, whom he has killed: “They were my goolfreds,“ he says, adding, “I shilled them so I could fill them”) (727). Deputy Morrison, “alarmed as well as disgusted,” tries to get Junior on his feet so that the special deputy can accompany him back to the police station and sober up. However, once he sees Junior up close, Deputy Morrison is certain that, whatever Junior’s problem may be, it’s much worse than intoxication and that “Junior didn’t need to go to the station for coffee,” but “to the hospital”:

This time Junior turned, and Henry saw he wasn’t drunk. His left eye was bright red. Its pupil was too big. The left side of his mouth was pulled down, exposing some of his teeth. That frozen glare made Henry think momentarily of Mr. Sardonicus, a movie that had scared him as a kid (727).
Deputy Morrison seems to suspect that Junior may have confessed to having assaulted a woman, or worse, when Junior mutters “She just made me so franning mad!. . . I hit her with my knee to shed her ump, and she frew a tit!” However, rather than follow up on his suspicion, Deputy Morrison decides “he wouldn’t go there,” for “he had problems enough” (728). The deputy appears to lack the intestinal fortitude that, in Stephen King’s world, makes a character a hero. He is a moral coward whose failure to pursue his suspicions--suspicions concerning a police officer and not merely a civilian--are tantamount to criminal negligence since a possible crime is involved and its perpetrator, if perpetrator Junior had proved to be, is obviously a madman who may harm others yet again. Such dereliction of duty harms, not helps, others. Therefore, by King’s standards, Deputy Morrison, despite former chief of police Howard (“Duke”) Perkins’ high estimation of him, is one of the story’s villains.

As Rusty closes in on the suspected dome generator, the scene shifts to East Street Grammar School, where sisters Judy and Janelle Everett, snacking outdoors with their friend Deanna Carver, witness a bizarre sight--one similar to the sight that Rusty had seen during the momentary shift in perspective he’d experienced when he’d approached the site of the suspected dome generator, a dummy that librarian Lissa Jamieson put together as a Halloween lawn decoration:

The head was burlap with eyes that were white crosses made from thread. The hat was like the one the cat wore in the Dr. Seuss story. It had garden trowels for
hands (bad old clutchy-grabby hands, Janelle thought) and a shirt with something written on it. She didn’t understand what it meant, bust she could read the words: SWEET HOME ALABAMA PLAY THAT DEAD BAND SONG.
The children, already frightened of Halloween because of the nightmares and hallucinations they’ve had in which they have seen and heard dire warnings that “something bad was going to happen, something with a fire in it,” and there would be “no treats, only tricks” which are “mean” and bad,” are afraid that “it’s Halloween already” (735).

By tying the children’s nightmares and dreams of Halloween and the dummy that Lissa makes to the hallucinatory, possibly prophetic visions that Rusty has had (and to Phil [“The Chef’s”] claim that, on Halloween, he’s making an appearance as an angry Jesus), King creates a sense of imminent and widespread evil and suffering in which neither adult nor child will be safe. He closes out this scene with a bit of foreshadowing. To take her sister’s mind off the unsettling sight of the dummy and their memories of their dark visions concerning Halloween, Janelle suggests that she, Judy, and their friend go inside the schoolhouse and sing songs. “That’ll be nice,“ she declares. King’s omniscient narrator disagrees: “It usually was, but not that day. Even before the big bang in the sky, it wasn’t nice. Janelle kept thinking about the dummy with the white-cross eyes. And the somehow awful shirt: PLAY THE DEAD BAND SONG” (734).

There is definitely a sense of foreboding.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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