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Friday, August 20, 2010

Leftover Plots, Part V

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Plot Generator XY112G

One way to come up with ideas for short stories and novels is to steal--I mean, borrow--them from other writers. I write of this practice in earlier posts, “Leftover Plots,” parts I through IV. Those articles are more general than this one (and, possibly, future ones, which will focus specifically on the works of horror fiction’s current bad boy par excellence, Stephen King.

I’m not really going to tell anyone how to steal from King (or anybody else, for that matter), of course, because (a) stealing is wrong and ( b) plagiarism can be costly, to one’s reputation as well as to one’s purse.

However, ideas (like titles) cannot be copyrighted. They are free to anyone and everyone, which is why, for example, The Lost World (1925), Jurassic Park (1993), and 10,000 Years B. C. (2008) (or, for that matter, The Land Before Time [1988]), and many, many more movies about either dinosaurs or dinosaurs in conflict with human beings have been made. No doubt, many another will follow.

Often, horror writers throw off ideas for short stories and even other novels in the novels and screenplays that they write. The concepts sometimes fall like sparks from the tail of a fiery comet (or, at least, comets of the type that we generally see in science fiction movies and tend to imagine in the theaters of our minds). King’s novel, Desperation, suggests a few ideas that could become the bases for additional short stories or, perhaps, even novels. Others of his many works offer similar suggestions.

One of these ideas, the one that appeals most to me, is that of someone’s discovery of idols that might or might not be like the images of the false gods that King depicts in Desperation. If one devoted his or her story to only one (or a few) idols, their properties, and the results of human interaction with them, he or she would be apt to write a short story, but were he or she to consider a number of these false gods, their characteristics, and their effects on those who make contact with them, he or she might well produce a narrative of novel, or even epic, scope.

One’s development of this idea would, of course, have to be one’s own; otherwise, borrowing an idea would, in fact, likely become stealing a treatment of such an idea, or, in a word, plagiarism.

In his novel, King depicts his idols as being like “some kind of stone artifact,” and they have a decidedly sexual effect upon those who make contact with them, as Cynthia discovers when she touches one of the idols with “a tentative finger” and “her hips jerked forward as if she’d gotten an electric shock and her pelvis banged into the edge of a table,” making her blush (254-255). King’s omniscient narrator then describes the idol in more detail, indicating that it has an animal shape:

It was a rendering of what might have been a wolf or a coyote, and although it was crude, it had enough power to make them both forget, at least for a few seconds, that they were standing sixty feet from the leftovers of a mass murder. The beast’s head was twisted at a strange angle (a somehow hungry angle), and its eyeballs appeared to be starting out of their sockets in utter fury. Its snout was wildly out of proportion to its body--almost the snout of an alligator--and it was split open to show a jagged array of teeth. The statue, if that is what it was, had been broken off just below the chest. There were stumps of forelegs, but that was all. The stone was pitted and eroded with age. It was glittery n places, too, like the rocks collected in one of the Dandux baskets. . . .
“Look at its tongue,” Cynthia said in a strange, dreaming voice.

“What about it?’ [Steve asks]

“It’s a snake” (255).
The narrator’s description is vivid and detailed, allowing the reader to visualize the artifact readily, which makes the idol seem both more bizarre and, paradoxically, more realistic than it would be had the storyteller merely glossed over the strange artifact with a few adjectives or descriptive phrases.

The idols can make those who touch them experience orgasms; can make them forget their surroundings; and, readers learn a few pages later, can have a devastating effect upon their self-esteem. As Cynthia later tells Steve, when she touched the idol, “it seemed like I remembered every rotten thing that ever happened to me in my life,” and, she admits, its touch made her think of “sex. . . the dirtier the better” (318). Moreover, contact with the idols can spur its victims into acting upon these lusts, as both Cynthia and Steve find out soon enough.

There are other idols than the image of the wolf or the coyote:

He thought at first that there were three odd-looking charms lying in her open palm--the sort of thing girls sometimes wore dangling from their bracelets. But they were too big, too heavy. Not charms, but carvings, stone carvings, each about two inches long. One was a snake. The second was a buzzard with one wing chipped off. Mad, bulging eyes stared out at him from beneath its bald dome. The third was a rat on its hind legs. They all looked pitted and ancient (480).
The artifacts are obviously images of gods or demons, as they have inexplicable, supernatural effects upon those who come into contact with them. At the same time, however, they are tangible; they are material; they have concrete form. Made of stone, they are subject to the long-term effects of natural forces; they erode: they are “pitted and eroded with age,” and they appear “ancient.” Moreover, they can be “broken,” “chipped” and, presumably, destroyed. They have powerful effects upon the humans who make contact with them, but the artifacts are not invulnerable. The

Were another writer to write about such statues, he or she would have to do so in such a way as to make them his or her own creations, with properties different from those whitish King ascribes to his, and with effects that also differ from those that King’s false gods have upon those with whom the carvings come into contact. There are various ways to accomplish this task, which are better left to each individual to determine for him- or herself.

Another idea that spins off, so to speak, King’s novel is the creation of demons out of the whole cloth of one’s imagination rather than to embody such evil spirits on the basis of research concerning demonology. King’s demon is a spirit from another dimension, utterly dependent for incarnation upon possessing the bodies of other, corporeal beings, such as humans or animals. However, the demon’s metabolism is extremely fast, and it soon wears out the body of its host, so that it must possess another and another. His possession results in the deaths of the possessed, whose bodies thereafter enlarge, possibly in response to the greater demands upon the organs of Tak’s greater metabolic rate. Tak is able to exercise control over animals and insects through a power similar to telepathy. He is also able to project his power into the stone idols, or can tahs, that various characters discover in Desperation. When he possesses a human being, the body’s senses, strength, and natural abilities are heightened, although Tak can also perceive phenomena by other, extrasensory means, as when he is aware of the presence of a nameplate inside the Carvers’ recreational vehicle without entering the vehicle of looking through any of its windows (“Tak [Stephen King],” Wikipedia).

By imaging one’s demon (perhaps on the basis of one’s own inner demons or the problems and issues that best society), one is pretty much guaranteed an original creation. This approach is as wide open as one’s own ability to think outside the box of tradition. Where King creates Tak, you or I might create Tik or Paddywack in the same fashion, by using our own imagination or our knowledge of social problems, past or present, to envisioned to embody our own concepts of the demonic, creating one or more demons in our own image and likeness as a result, as King apparently did in writing of the idols in his novel.

Another provocative consideration is what might happen to animals that survive Tak’s telepathic influence? Would their exposure to the demon’s mind have a long-lasting, or even permanent, effect upon them, and, if so, what, exactly, might the animals change? Perhaps they would become monstrous versions of their previous selves, retaining the enhancements of their natural abilities that they experienced as Tak’s cognitive thralls. Would big game hunters ally themselves with demonologists or scientists to hunt down these demonic beasts and capture or kill them?

At the end of the novel, not much remains of the town of Desperation, but what if it--or, rather, another small town, elsewhere, that has experienced a similar catastrophe--remember, be inspired to borrow, not to steal, and make other writers’ ideas your own--were to be rebuilt? With its horrific past, could new horrors occur to the community’s children or grandchildren, a generation or two after the original calamity? King’s novel It suggests that such could easily be the case.

Could the demonic entity that destroyed your first town return to destroy another community? The answer is in King’s simultaneous, mirror-image release of a twin novel, The Regulators, which features many of the same characters as appear in Desperation, but living wholly different lives in a wholly different community.

Other of King’s noels suggest other ideas for additional stories or novels, which, possibly, I will consider in future posts, although not necessarily in a continuous order.

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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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