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Sunday, July 25, 2010

A "Watershed Moment" "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


On their way up Black Ridge, King’s characters deduce, as best they can, the nature of the situation in which the descent of the dome has involved them. They surmise that the radiation belt, like the animals’ cadavers, is but window dressing, meant to discourage human trespass upon the area in which the dome’s generator is located. It didn’t stop Joe McClatchey and his friends Norrie Calvert and Benny Drake because they are kids. Barbie, finally doing something useful after cooling his heels in the local jail for roughly a third of the novel, employs a teleological argument of sorts, but one geared toward aliens rather than toward God: the existence of the dome generator implies the existence of its creators, an extraterrestrial “they” who are technologically sophisticated enough to keep “the whole world out of Chester’s Mill” and, therefore, capable of preventing their party from trespassing upon the dome’s sanctuary, should they have wished to do so. Therefore, it seems likely that the aliens want them to enter the area: “If they wanted to keep us away from their box, why not put a mini-Dome around it?” (887) Others suggest other deterrents that the dome’s inventors could have opted to use, including “a harmonic sound that would cook our brains like chicken legs in a microwave” (Rusty Everett) or “radiation” (Ernie Calvert). (None of the characters rebuke Ernie for bringing up radiation as Colonel Cox censured the FOX News correspondent who asked about the possibility that the dome was being protected in this manner.)

Rusty, who suddenly seems a more primitive thinker than he has been shown to be in the past, asks why a barrier of any kind is needed to protect the dome generator, recalling that he’d been unable to lift or even move it. (Has Rusty forgotten about machines such as cranes? the reader wonders.) Jackie seems a bit more astute: “If they’re protecting it, there must be some way of destroying it or turning it off.” Instead, the aliens appear to want them to approach the “box.” They seem, in fact, to be “pointing to it,” Barbie says, rather than protecting it (888). Finally getting with the program, Rusty adds that it appears almost as if the aliens were daring them to approach the dome generator: “‘Here it is you puny earthlings,’ Rusty said. ‘What can you do about it, ye who are brave enough to approach?’” If the reader hadn’t thought of this eventuality, he or she does now, thanks to King’s characters’ making the question clear.

After they pass through the “glow-belt” that surrounds the mountaintop upon which the dome generator is located, Jackie Wettington undergoes a seizure during which she cries out, in italics, “He’s holding up a cross and everything’s burning!” and “The world is burning! THE PEOPLE ARE BURNING!” When she comes out of the seizure, she says, “everything was on fire. It was day, but it was dark. People were b-b-burning” (889). She also offers more details about the man with the cross: “A big white cross. It was on a string, or a piece of rawhide. It was on his chest. His bare chest. Then he held it up in front of his face” (890). Ernie also had an erotic vision of his wife on their honeymoon. No doubt, in Jackie’s case (and perhaps in Ernie’s as well), these hallucinations will foreshadow future incidents in the story’s action. Foreshadowing by way of hallucination: the reader must hand it to King; the master storyteller knows how to add glamour to the most mundane purposes of his plot.

For the reader who likes to keep a headcount, King creates a reunion scene as Barbie, Rusty, Ernie, and Jackie arrive at the once-abandoned McCoy cabin, joining up with their confederates, who have now been joined by the two former employees, Pete Freeman and Tony Guay, of the defunct Democrat newspaper: Romeo Burpee, Julia Shumway, Piper Libby, Lissa Jamieson, Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, Benny Drake, Claire McClatchey, Rose Twitchell, Joanie Calvert, and Julia’s Corgi, Horace. Unless there is a Judas Iscariot or a Benedict Arnold among the company, this small group represents King’s traditional chosen ones, the elect who will sacrifice much, including their lives, if need be, to save the day and to reestablish the status quo. As is typical in King’s fiction, they make up a cross-section of their community, respectively, an Army colonel (and former cook), a physician’s assistant, a retired supermarket manager, a former deputy, a former news photographer, a former sports reporter, a department store owner, a former newspaper owner and editor, a pastor, a librarian, three kids, a mother, a restaurant owner, a grandmother, and a dog. These are the salt of the earth, the just plain folks, who, in King’s fiction, are the true heroes of their community. It is upon them, rather than the United States government or its economic, political, and military capabilities, that the fate of the world depends. If, to use an analogy that some of King’s characters used earlier in the story, a town may be thought of as a body, Big Jim Rennie may be the community’s head, but this band of citizens are its blood, muscles, nerves, bones, and internal organs, the entrails of freedom and the innards of democracy.

While waiting for Barbie, Rusty, Ernie, and Jackie to arrive, the rest of the party, almost rapturous, had gone to the dome generator, where they’d seen a never-before-seen symbol and had visions of the extraterrestrials, whom Julia describes as “faces without faces” and as “high faces,” although she does not reject Rusty’s description of the extraterrestrials as “leatherheads,” either, saying, “Yes, I suppose you could call them that” (891). Rusty is ashamed as he recalls how he and his friend Georgie had used Georgie’s magnifying glass to set fire to ants. He and Georgia later fought over Georgie’s wanting to set more ants afire, and Rusty broke his friend’s magnifying glass. Ernie says that Rusty need not agonize over something he did as a child, recalling, without sharing his recollection with the others, as Rusty does, how he and his friends had set fire to a cat’s tail, just to watch the animal run. However, Rusty sees a parallel between the story he tells and the situation he and the rest of Chester’s Mill face: he broke the magnifying glass “on purpose,” he says, “the way I’d like to break that box [the dome generator], if I could. Because now we’re the ants and that’s the magnifying glass” (893). Rusty’s confession makes the others remember cruel acts they had committed against others, and Barbie says he wants to see the dome generator “for himself” (892). Rusty accompanies him.

The title of this section of the novel is “Ants,” and, alerted by Rusty’s confession of having tortured ants with his friend’s magnifying glass to the similarity of the ants’ situation and that of Chester’s Mill’s residents, the reader may expect that this section (pages 885-937) will focus, rather like sunlight concentrated into a single point, upon the suffering that results from the townspeople’s captors’ cruelty. The aliens seem to be intent upon causing as much pain and suffering among the populace they have trapped under the dome as possible. The dome is a magnifying glass in that it enlarges the view of human suffering both by condensing it and by intensifying it on an isolated and confined sample of humanity. The townspeople of Chester’s Mill are specimens. The dome also magnifies humanity’s inhumanity of, by, and to itself by its own members, showing the effects of their isolation from civilization, larger society, and culture. The dome may also represent horror fiction, in a sense, for the horror writer, like the inventors of the dome (the horror genre) often trap an isolated group of people in a dire situation that leads to their anguish, suffering, grief, despair, and death, for the entertainment of readers with a monstrous appetite for such entertaining fare. It is fun, the child thinks, to watch the death agonies of ants which one has oneself set afire with sunlight brought to an incendiary point by a magnifying glass held over a colony of their victims. King suggests that we humans are also ants when we are fried alive beneath the lens of horror fiction. Therefore, the dome, which is a metaphor for both the earth and the human condition, as it exists in and of itself, in its natural state, may also be regarded as a metaphor for the very experience that results from the writing and the reading of horror fiction. The writer places the dome; his characters struggle beneath the transparent barrier; and the reader is amused by the spectacle of the characters’ agony.

Having been notified of his son’s murder, Big Jim Rennie cradles Junior’s head on his lap and sings a lullaby to his son’s corpse. He intends to pin Junior’s death and the deaths of the other police officers on Barbie. He thinks that he loved his son, despite the fact that he had been prepared to “sacrifice” Junior for his own ends, comparing his decision to do so to God’s sacrifice of his own son, Jesus, on the cross. Big Jim’s comparison of Junior to Jesus and of himself to God the Father shows how mad he has become, although he sees nothing amiss in his comparison. His heart continues to splutter and to stutter, and Big Jim reminds himself to visit Andy Sanders’ pharmacy to get the medication that he needs for his heart as soon as he gets a chance to do so, although, he believes, more important matters require his attention at present. Now that Junior is dead, Big Jim informally adopts his bodyguard, Carter Thibodeau as a surrogate son.

Carter gives Big Jim the file of incriminating evidence against the selectman that the special deputy retrieved from the Town Hall meeting after Andrea Grinnell was killed, telling the politician that he wants to be Big Jim’s “guy.” The two men agree that Chief Randolph is a “joke” (897), and the chief has just offended Big Jim by stopping by for orders as to how to control the crowd at the press conference scheduled for tomorrow’s Dome Visitors’ day without paying him the respect of offering his condolences regarding Junior’s death. It seems that the chief may soon be out of a job (and possibly dead), replaced by Carter, Big Jim’s bodyguard and most trusted lieutenant. Big Jim and Carter return to the Town Hall, where they plan to burn the documents in the file.

At the dome generator, or “box,” Barbie has visions of the aliens who, he believes, have created the dome, believing that they are light-years away from Earth, on their own planet, enjoying the spectacle of the townspeople’s grief and suffering. The aliens are laughing at their pain. The scene in his vision switches to “the gym in Fallujah,” where he sees himself, the leader of an interrogating team, abusing prisoners who planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that killed Barbie’s fellow soldiers. During the interrogation, questioning is replaced by torture, which results in one of his men’s killing one of the tortured. He leaves the scene, badly shaken, agreeing with Rusty that the sadistic aliens may be children of their species. Rusty asks Romeo Burpee whether any of the lead rolls from his department store remain available. Rommie tells him that there are more on hand.

Grief-stricken over the loss of his student-girlfriend, Carolyn Sturges, who was shot to death during Big Jim’s speech at the Town hall, Thurston Marshall visits Linda Everett, who is taking care of both her own daughters, Judy and Janelle, and the children, Alice and Aidan Appleton, for whom Thurston and Carolyn were caring.

After telling Thurston of Junior’s death, Linda also informs him of the rescue of Barbie and Rusty, of the dome generator, and of the conspirators’ hiding out in the abandoned McCoy residence atop Black Ridge, suggesting that, after stopping at Burpee’s department store to pick up a lead roll, they join the others there, the next day, with Judy, Janelle, Alice, and Aidan.

All those among the men, women, and children at the McCoy residence who have had hallucinations (most of them horrific) during seizures or at the dome generator recall what they had seen or heard. Clearly, something terrible seems to be forecast for Halloween, which, Barbie suggests, may be coming earlier than the thirty-first, which is, as Claire points out, “still five days away” according to the calendar (905). A Freudian explanation is offered, by Rusty, for his having seen the same dummy that Lissa Jamieson displayed at the library: “‘Relax people, I probably saw the dummy before all this happened, and my subconscious just coughed it back up.” However, when Piper asks him whether he recalls seeing it before his hallucination occurred, Rusty admits that he does not, declining to “add that he hadn’t picked up the girls at school,” which is opposite the library, “since very early in the month,” when it is unlikely that Halloween decorations or displays would have been in place (904).

At the Town Hall, Big Jim burns the incriminating files and has Carter stuff the empty envelope with blank photocopy paper. They will say that Andrea Grinnell, had been hallucinating during her withdrawal from her addiction to pain pills, about her having proof of Big Jim’s criminal activities and that the envelope she’d waved around at the Town Hall meeting had contained nothing but blank sheets of paper. As Junior inventories the propane tanks stored in the Town Hall’s bomb shelter, Stewart Bowie telephones Big Jim, offering him his condolences and promising to do his utmost in preparing the selectman’s son for burial. Big Jim confirms Stewart’s guess that the raid on the methamphetamine lab behind the Holy Redeemer Church is still going forward at noon tomorrow, as planned, and that Stewart, his brother Fern, Deputy Fred Denton, Roger Killian, and Special Deputy Melvin Searles will carry out the operation against Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey and selectman Andy Sanders.

After Big Jim lays out plans for how Chief Randolph should conduct police operations during tomorrow’s Dome Visitors’ Day, he asks Carter Thibodeau whether “the Bushey girl. . . was good” (911), referencing Carter’s participation in her rape. This question, like many of the other seemingly peripheral or incidental comments by Big Jim remind the reader of how truly diabolical this self-confessed man of God is, a technique of characterization that King handles with his usual narrative adroitness. Especially since the reader has come to sympathize with Samantha, who turned out to be a likeable character despite he weaknesses, Big Jim’s insensitive question, followed by Carter’s sexist response and the selectman’s raucous laughter further alienate the reader from the antagonist, the grudging admiration for whom, the reader is apt to find, slowly but surely continues to evaporate. However, this question-and-answer bantering, like Carter’s declaration of his admiration for Big Jim and his methods, probably further solidifies the bond between the now-childless selectman and his surrogate son.

Romance (of a sort) blossoms between Barbie and Julia Shumway as they sit side by side in the woods outside their hideaway cabin, the colonel’s hand upon the newspaperwoman’s breast, talking about morality, extraterrestrial life, the joys of sadism, and “watershed moments,” or turning points, in people’s lives. Julia tells Barbie about one that happened in her own life, during fourth grade: a conscientious girl who planned to attend Princeton University to prepare for taking over her family’s newspaper business, she was the envy of her peers; one day, after tattling on another student, four girls ambushed and took her to the bandstand, where they insulted, spit on, beat, and stripped her. Later, one of her attackers, Kayla Bevins, returned and gave Julia a sweater, telling her to “wear it home; it’ll look like a dress” (917). The beating and the humiliation she felt made her feel “smaller. . . and smaller.. . and smaller. Until the bandstand floor was like a great flat desert and I was an insect stuck in the middle of it. Dying in the middle of it” (916) Julia took Kayla’s advice, wearing the sweater home, where her parents, worried, were awaiting her late return from school.

During Julia’s account of her “watershed moment,” Barbie asks her whether she’d felt as if she were “an ant under a magnifying glass” (916), and she replies, a bit later, “I am not an ant” (919). The incident changed her life. She continued to excel, she tells Barbie, but not in as blatant manner, and she cultivated the friendships of other girls from less economically stable backgrounds than her own--or her father’s own--even purposely throwing her appointment as her class’ valedictorian by reducing the level of her academic work “just enough to make sure Carlene Plummer would win instead of me” (919). She also went to Bates University instead of Princeton. She never told on her attackers, she tells Barbie, because she thought she had “bought and paid” for their treatment because of her prim and proper calling attention to herself and her need to stand out from, and to be considered superior to, the other girls in her school. It was because of this incident, she says, that she became, “in large part,” who she is today (919), a defiant, courageous, woman of the people who demands truth and justice, even at great personal risk and suffering, and who insists upon exposing corruption and wrongdoing, political and otherwise. The scene closes with Barbie and Julia making love, an act which signifies their political and personal compatibility and seals their intimate bond with one another. If Barbie and Julia had seemed a bit one-dimensional and even unfeeling up to now, they take on greater depth and humanity in this scene. Julia’s response to her humiliating beating suggests the difference between the “ants” of whom Big Jim speaks, when he uses this metaphor rather than that of humans as sheep, and human beings, too: overcoming adversity and trauma by a defiant regard for truth and justice that may be costly to oneself and require a change in personal conduct but allows one to transcend the moment by helping, rather than hurting, others.

4 comments:

lazlo azavaar said...

"[The dome]may also be regarded as a metaphor for the very experience that results from the writing and the reading of horror fiction. The writer places the dome; his characters struggle beneath the transparent barrier; and the reader is amused by the spectacle of the characters’ agony."

This reminds me of a quote by a famous writer, can't remember who, about how great fun it was to "put characters in the fire of one's imagination, and watching them pop like chestnuts."

Gary L. Pullman said...

That's a great quote, Lazlo!

Anonymous said...

"Rusty, who suddenly seems a more primitive thinker than he has been shown to be in the past, asks why a barrier of any kind is needed to protect the dome generator, recalling that he’d been unable to lift or even move it. (Has Rusty forgotten about machines such as cranes? the reader wonders.)"

Has this journalist forgotten about the impenetrable nature of the Dome, and thus that if there were no cranes alreadly contained within the town when the Dome came down, this is a pretty redundant criticism? the reader wonders.

Gary L. Pullman said...

You could be right about there being no cranes in Chester's Mill, but it seems likely that there would be bulldozers, tractors, or similar equipment inside the dome, available for use, and, at this point in the story, none of the characters know whether the generator could be moved using such heavy equipment. Still, your point about the crane is well taken.

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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