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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Universal and the Particular “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

After smoking more methamphetamine, Andy Sanders has a seizure, during which he sees two orange trucks approaching WCIK radio station and the meth lab that he and Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey occupy behind the station. Whether the prophetic hallucination is the result of the drug or the dome is questionable, but The Chef accepts the vision as intelligence, and he and Andy plan to resist the approaching men’s attempt to take more propane from the site, murdering them, if necessary.

Earlier, through Linda Everett, Stephen King announced one of the themes of Under the Dome. He had her say that there are sides and that everyone needs to decide which side he or she will serve. He reiterates this idea, emphasizing that no one is exempt from this choice: “they were all involved, weren’t they? Under the Dome, involvement was no longer a matter of choice” (793), Claire McClatchey thinks, and, later, the omniscient narrator declares, “Claire opened her mouth to say she didn’t want to get involved, then didn’t. Because there was no choice” (794).

The “sides” of which she spoke were those of law and order versus lawlessness and disorder, but King, in commenting upon his apocalyptic novel’s title, suggests that the same is true for each and every reader, for each and every American, for each and every human being: “We’re all under the dome,” since we are alone, as far as anyone knows, on the planet Earth. We’re all in it together, he implies, and we all have to decide which side we will join in the battle against--what? Law and order versus lawlessness and disorder? Good versus evil?

Law and order versus lawlessness and disorder would be dichotomies large enough to support a 1,074-page novel, but King’s either-or is more pedestrian, more localized, and more ideological. His characters and his omniscient narrator, as his spokespersons, have time and again pointed out the enemies and the heroes. The villains are corrupt, unscrupulous, self-serving, and hypocritical politicians like Big Jim Rennie who use their strengths and talents to hurt, not help, their fellows, and his heroes are those who use their strengths and talents to help, not hurt, their fellows.

This seems a sound basis for developing a practical and pragmatic morality, and, as such, is perhaps as good as it gets in a secular society that is distrustful of, and seeks to thwart, even the idea of the desirability of divinely sanctioned morals. Although Desperation shows that King is capable of appreciating the power of God and of faith (although not in a wholly traditional way), Under the Dome, like several of his earlier works, such as Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Needful Things, show Christianity to be a dangerous breeding ground for fanaticism, repression, and violence, rather than as a force for good.

Unfortunately, Under the Dome also divides good and evil according to a second criterion, which is based upon his characters’ political beliefs rather than the helpful or harmful effects of their behavior. In Under the Dome, the heroes are largely liberals and Democrats who watch and listen faithfully to CNN, believing its newscasts to be unswervingly accurate and trustworthy. If it’s “CNN BREAKING NEWS,” it is also, for King and his characters, CNN BREAKING TRUTH. Julie Shumway, the token good Republican in Under the Dome (and, indeed, it seems, in all of King’s fiction) is more a Republican in name only, or RINO, perhaps, because she is told that she’s not all that bad as Republicans go.

I have spoken of King’s partisan politics in earlier posts concerning Under the Dome, but reiterate my complaint in this one because King himself makes this distinction between good liberal/Democrat and bad conservative/Republican again and again throughout his novel, having, he himself admits, modeled Big Jim Rennie, heart condition and all, it appears, upon former Vice-President Dick Chaney and President George W. Bush. The fact that Big Jim’s power grab in the wake of a crisis--or series of crises, some of his own making--could have been modeled more easily upon Barack Hussein Obama suggests how superficial and flimsy King’s political biases really are, although King himself seems unaware of this weakness.

Like Rham Emmanuel and President Obama, Big Jim believes that a crisis should never be allowed to go to waste: “Really, there was nothing like a scene of destruction,“ Big Jim thinks, “to get people playing follow-the-leader” (800). King would have been better off in writing a novel that he wants compared to Lord of the Flies being less the political partisan and more the universal moralist.

Of course, with King, where narrative itself is concerned, politics and other peripheral matters aside, the good often outweighs the bad. He is one hell of a good storyteller, and, of course, that’s what the reader is seeking in purchasing his work.

When Roger Killian, Stewart Bowie, and fern Bowie arrive in the orange trucks that Andy Sanders saw in the vision that accompanied his seizure, The Chef, backed up by Andy, turns them men back, confiscating one of their trucks and delivering the message to Big Jim that the methamphetamine lab is now theirs. After the men leave, The Chef tells Andy that, from now on, WCIK radio will be playing music much different than traditional Christian songs, hymns, and gospel music.

Hearing of the conduct of The Chef and Andy, Big Jim decides that he will lead an attack upon them after he speaks to the police and the people of Chester’s Mill, blaming Barbie’s followers for the methamphetamine operation as well as the arson involving Julia Shumway’s newspaper and residence, just as he has already charged Barbie himself with beating, raping, and murdering citizens of the town. The final paragraph of this scene sums up the character of Big Jim better than many pages might. The selectman says goodbye to his son, Junior, who has a malignant brain tumor: “He started out of the room, then went back and kissed his sleeping son’s cheek. Getting rid of Junior might become necessary, but for the time being, that too could wait” (800).

In Under the Dome, more so than in many of his other novels, it seems, upon one’s initial thought, that King’s omniscient narrator makes his presence known to the reader, not only speaking directly to him or her, but also paraphrasing T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, the effect of which is reminiscent of the stage manager’s address to the audience of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology:

Another night is falling on the little town of Chester’s Mill; another night under the Dome. But there is no rest for us; we have two meetings to attend, and we also ought to check up on Horace the Corgi before we sleep. Horace is keeping Andrea Grinell company tonight, and although he is for the moment biding his time, he has not forgotten the popcorn between the couch and the wall.

So let us go then, you and I, while the evening spreads out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go while the first discolored stars begin to show overhead. This is the only town in a four-state area where they’re out tonight. Rain has overspread northern New England, and cable-news viewers will soon be treated [via CNN, the reader may be assured] to some remarkable satellite photographs showing a hole in the clouds that exactly mimics the sock-shape of Chester’s Mill. Here the stars shine down, but now they’re dirty stars because the Dome is dirty (801).
This (apparent) emphatic calling of attention to the omniscient narrator as an entity rather than as an objective and descriptive, impersonal voice is similar to the effect that King created by assembling his cast of characters at the midpoint of his novel, as if they were actors answering an encore. These techniques, well known to both playwrights and novelists, are not frequently used by either, not in modern times, at least, because they call attention to the artificiality of the story, to its fictitious nature, disturbing the reader’s suspension of disbelief by reminding him or her that the narrative is invented, a chronicle of merely imaginary events.

The example, quoted above, is not the only instance of King’s (apparent) omniscient narrator’s intrusion of himself into the novel he’s narrating, nor is it the sole instance of his paraphrasing Eliot, for the narrator interrupts his tale several more times during this scene. After a brief mention of CNN’s meteorologist Reynolds Wolf commenting upon the “fascinating phenomenon” caused by the backing up of rain clouds against the dome, the narrator again puts himself front and center:

That’s enough cable news; let us float through certain half-deserted streets [Eliot again], past the Congo church and the parsonage (the meeting there hasn’t started yet, but Piper has loaded up the big coffee urn, and Julia is making sandwiches by the light of a hissing Coleman lamp), past the McCain house surrounded by its sad sag of yellow police tape, down Town Common Hill past the Town Hall, where janitor Al Timmons and a couple of his friends are cleaning and sprucing up for the special town meeting tomorrow night, past War Memorial Plaza, where the statue of Lucien Calvert (Norrie’s great-grandfather; I probably don’t have to tell you that) keeps his long watch.

We’ll stop for a quick check on Barbie and Rusty, shall we? There’ll be no problem getting downstairs; there are only three cops in the ready room, and Stacey Moggin, who’s on the desk, is sleeping with her head pillowed on her forearm. The rest of the PD is at Food City, listening to Big Jim’s latest stemwinder [sic], but it wouldn’t matter if they were all here, because we are invisible. They would feel no more than a faint draft as we glide past them.

There’s not much to see in the Coop, because hope is invisible as we are. The two men having nothing to do but wait until tomorrow night, and hope that things break their way. Rusty’s hand hurts, but the pain isn’t as bad as he thought it might be, and the swelling isn’t as bad as he feared. Also, Stacey Moggin, God bless her heart, snuck him a couple of Excedrin around five PM.

For the time being, these two men--our heroes, I suppose--are sitting on their bunks and playing Twenty Questions. It’s Rusty’s turn to guess (802).
After another dramatic segment, wherein Barbie and Rusty are brought forward, so to speak, to speak for themselves, and the reader sees that, indeed, quite literally speaking, the inmates actually are playing Twenty Questions, King again reverts to what appears to be the direct intrusion of his omniscient narrator into the story he is telling:

We’ll leave the to shift the weight of the next twenty-four hours as best they can, shall we? Let us make our way past the still-shimmering heap of ashes that used to be the Democrat. . . (802-803).
The voice, the reader begins to suspect, is actually not that of the omniscient narrator, but that of the entities whom Rusty had discerned, in his vision at the site of the dome generator of the “leather faces,” the suspected aliens the physician’s assistant believes they are, who invented and operate the dome that keeps the town of Chester’s Mill imprisoned and cut off from the rest of the world outside the barrier. If this is the case, the use of a second omniscient narrator, that of the extraterrestrials (or presumed extraterrestrials) in addition to the conventional, narrative omniscient narrator, is extraordinary.

Why does King employ it? Some of the more obvious reasons are that the technique, being rare, adds interest to what might otherwise be drier, duller exposition; it allows King to remind the reader of the pair of meetings yet to come; of the incriminating file concerning Big Jim’s corruption, which is still available, under the end table with the spilled popcorn in Andrea’s living room and of many other narrative threads and subplots; and it reinforces the theme that pollution has an undesirable and dangerous effect upon those who live under the dome (a metaphor for the planet Earth, the atmosphere of which is the “dome”). These are minor gains, though, when the cost is a disturbance of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

What bigger benefits does King enjoy as a result of having called attention to the presence of his behind-the-scenes omniscient narrator in such a blatant way? Certainly, the technique, calling attention to the artificiality of King’s narrative, as a fictional construction, as it does, suggests that the town under the dome is itself something of an artificial construct--that is, the world, the planet Earth, although it is a natural object, is also an artificial phenomenon: it’s culture is a human artifact, as are the nations, societies, and communities that make up the human-designed and engineered aspect of the planet.

King’s inclusion of the intrusive alien intelligence (if that is what it turns out to be--I am writing these blog entries as a reader, as I read the novel, as an example of the sort of dialogue, as it were, that occurs between the reader and the literary work as he or she imagines it to be) alongside of, or in place of, the conventional, narrative omniscient narrator, is an astonishing one and, as such, one that must be regarded as intentional and deliberate.

It invites the reader to step outside him- or herself, as it were, and, indeed, outside his or her own consciousness not only as an individual but as a human being, to see his or her world (or, at least, that part of it that is Chester’s Mill, Maine) from the more universal perspective of an invading extraterrestrial intelligence, as C. S. Lewis does, for example, in The Screwtape Letters, as Jonathan Swift does in Gulliver’s Travels, and as Thornton Wilder does in Our Town (and many others have in other works as well). This is an appropriate level, whether considered from the vantage point of a global perspective, such as all humanity’s would be, or the perspective of an extraterrestrial intelligence. However, its relationship to that of the traditional, narrative omniscient narrator is unclear and perhaps problematic.  (It remains problematic--perhaps even more so--if I am wrong in assuming that this omniscient point of view is not that of alien intruders, but the established narrative one, because the voice in which this viewpoint is delivered differs vastly from the established one, which causes a good deal of unnecessary confusion if it is not a separate and distinct narraor's voice--i. e., the aliens'.)

Something else is problematic as well. King invites the reader to step outside him- or herself and, indeed, the human race and to view Chester’s Mill (and the planet) as a curious and, yes, polluted affair, but, at the same time, he remains extraordinarily provincial in his “us” liberals/Democrats/CNN aficionados (the good guys), versus “them” conservatives/Republicans/FOX News fans (the bad guys). Once again, King’s vision as an artist is itself bifurcated. He wants to think globally, but his sympathies (and perceptions) are local.

Still, he is a compelling storyteller, and, as always, the reader reads on.

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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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