Fascinating lists!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Area 51

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The Soviets took this picture of Area 51 from an orbiting satellite.

According to its website, Rachel, NV is home to 98 humans. The count of extraterrestrials, or aliens, is unknown. Rachel is also home to the A’Le’Inn, which serves ale (actually, hard liquor and beer) and boasts an inn of sorts (a group of trailers that vistors can rent for the night or longer). The name of the combination restaurant-bar-and-souvenir shop is a play on words. It is also the last local business in the town.

Situated alongside State Road 375 (“Extraterrestrial Highway”), Rachel is the nearest civilian community to Area 51, where top secret projects are conducted on behalf of the Air Force. It is rumored that some of this research may involve extraterrestrial spacecraft, or UFOs, many of which, people claim, have been sighted over the skies above Rachel.

Sorry, but I'm no videographer, especially while driving!

A friend of mine, Paula, and I made a recent trip to Rachel, to visit both the A’Le’Inn and to drive down Groom Lake Road to the signs that flank the entrance to the top secret facility.


The exterior of the front door and the front wall.

Outside the A’Le’Inn, an extraterrestrial visitor and his or her spacecraft, a UFO, are painted on the front wall, and the front door bears the message, “All Species Welcome.” A wrecker equipped with a crane supports a captured or recovered disc-shaped UFO. 20th Century Fox, the film studio that produced the movie Independence Day, donated a time capsule encased in or buried beneath a large block of stone. Behind the bar-restaurant-gift shop trailer are other trailers that, collectively, make up the “inn” portion of the A’Le’Inn.

The entrance side to the A'Le'Inn.

At the A’Le’Inn, my friend ordered an Alien Burger with cheese, and I ordered a green chili omelet and home fries, which came with buttered toast and home fries. Although we ate a late breakfast (or an early lunch; it was about 11:30 AM), we ordered diet Pepsis to wash down our respective meals. The food was fairly good, as was the service.

"Proof" that we are not alone!

The souvenir shop sells alien items of all kinds: tee shirts, ashtrays, banks, mugs, glasses, plaques, masks, and sundry other items. One wall bears numerous photographs of UFOs on a bulletin board sandwiched between the ladies’ room and the men’s room. An “Evidence Room” is decorated with a poster warning of the penalty (death) for trespassing. Also along the wall are three dummies tricked out to resemble aliens. Along the front wall, tee shirts and jackets are available for purchase. The front of the bar is painted with planets and suns protected by panels of Plexiglas.

Perusing a book for sale in the gift shop, I learned that the road to Area 51, Groom Lake Road, is situated about halfway between mile markers 34 and 35. Going back toward U. S. Highway 93, east from Rachel, one comes to mile marker 35 before mile marker 34. The marker is approximately 20 miles east of Rachel. Turning right (heading south) on Groom Lake Road from the Extraterrestrial Highway, one travels for approximately fifteen miles along the unusually wide, well-paved gravel road before reaching the warning signs that flank the road and mark the entrance to Area 51. On the way, one passes a couple of intersecting gravel roads and a lot of cacti and Joshua trees in the uneven desert terrain.

Maybe the source of the alien stories?

The signs have changed. In fact, the new ones have been placed over the old ones. The latter once warned that the installation commander had authorized personnel to shoot trespassers on sight. The newer signs have toned down the rhetoric considerably, warning only of a fine and/or a prison sentence for anyone who crosses the line into Area 51. (There is no gate, but one is apt to see the camouflage-uniformed security guards in their black reconnaissance vehicle atop a hill overlooking the boundary between civilian and military terrain, which is an eerie sight.)

Overall, my trip (actually, it’s my second) to Rachel and Area 51 (or the warning signs at its border, anyway) was enjoyable. However, it also deflates the mystique of the place. It’s not at all like Hollywood (or UFO fans) picture it. I mean, there’s not even a gate or an armed guard at the entrance to the place! If you plan a drive to Rachel, fill your gas tank in Ash Springs (60 miles east of Rachel) or Tonopah (110 miles northwest of Rachel). Otherwise, you might be walking . . . through alien territory!

Not really part of the A'Le'Inn, but everyone wants to get on the act. . . .

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bits & Pieces

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Today, Chillers and Thrillers introduces a new column, Bits and Pieces, which will largely replace the essays that I have written to date concerning various aspects of the theory and practice of writing horror fiction. These items will be more topical and informative--and much shorter--rather than pedagogical or critical. On occasion, however, I will offer the essays that have been the main focus of this blog until now.

I kick off Bits and Pieces with announcements concerning horror maestro Stephen King, gleaned from USA Today's September 29, 2010 issue.

According to Brian Truitt, King puts the teeth--or fangs--back into vampires with his back story concerning Vertigo/DC Comics’ American Vampire comic book. In an attenpt to visualize "U. S. history through the eyes of a newly immortal bloodsucker," Truitt writes, King, who has been charged with writing "the origin of the. . . outlaw Skinner Sweet," has Sweet "killed in the 1880s-era Old West" so that Sweet can experience firsthand much of American history since then

King explains that "a traditional vampire is always a taker, and that's the story of American expansion and laissez-faire and the rise of industrialism." One may or may not agree with King's assessment of the character of the nation's history, but, in any case, most are likely to welcome the horror maestro's contribution to the comic.

Meanwhile, King is expected to release Full Dark, No Stars, "a collection of four novellas with retribution themes" on November 9, 2010, "and he is toying with another comic book idea called Afterlife"--either that or becoming a "gourmet cook" ("King bites back with 'American Vampire,' 2D).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Story Ideas Journal

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Like many other writers, Mark Twain kept a notebook--or a series of the, actually--I which, among other entries, he jotted down story ideas. I find that the USA Today’s “Across the USA: News From Every State” column, quite unintentionally, I’m sure, provides fruit for me (and for others), on a daily basis, for story ideas, ripe for the plucking. Notebooks and notebooks of the, in fact. By applying a bit of Gahan Wilson logic or Gary Larson perspective to the news items reported in this column, I find that I can transform at least a few of the straightforward reports into ideas for potential horror stories. For example, five of the fifty reports, or a full ten percent of the, in the September 27, 2010 issue of the newspaper show promise, which is to say, with a little revision., could become the bases of stories from the dark side of the soul. Courtesy of the great states of Louisiana, Montana, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, here they are, followed by my revisions to them and the bases of the revisions.
[Original:] Louisiana: Leesville--Work on a new veterans cemetery begins this week next to Fort Polk. Mike Sewell, project manager for Pat Williams Construction, said a survey crew should be preparing for timber clearing in about two weeks. He said the $6.1 million project should be completed late next year.
Revision: Louisiana: Leesville--Work on a new veterans cemetery begins this week next to Fort Polk. The $6.1 million project, the project manager for the contractor said, will kick off the U. S. military’s combined forces’ Operation Alpha, which is expected to ignite a theater-wide war in the Middle East, requiring at least 100,00 graves by the end of the anticipated five-year conflict. (Story Idea)

Basis of Revision: The revision is based on a reversal of cause and effect, assuming that cemeteries occasion casualty-producing wars rather than answering the need for burial sites that is caused by wars--in other words, that the cemeteries are completed prior to the wars that are fought to fill the cemeteries.

[Original:] Montana: Missoula--The art work of a former war prisoner who created drawings of atrocities he witnessed while the Japanese held him during World War II has found a home at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. The museum announced that it has acquired 11 oil paintings and nearly 80 drawings by Ben Steele, 92. The Montana native was taken prisoner when he was 23.
Revision: Montana: Missoula--The art work of a former war prisoner who created drawings of atrocities he witnessed while the Japanese held him during World War II has found a home at the Montana Museum of Magical Realism. The museum curator announced that the 11 oil paintings and nearly 80 drawings by Ben Steele, 92, represent “performance art,” that is capable of magically recreating the actual experience that the artist underwent so that whoever views his work will actually live through the same atrocities that the artist experienced when he was taken prisoner at age 23. (Story Idea)

Basis of Revision: By transforming drawings and paintings into items of magical “performance art” that recreate the artists’ experiences as a prisoner of war so faithfully and completely that viewers actually undergo the atrocities that the art depicts, this story idea plays with the idea of art as a representation of human experience, taking the concept to fantastic extremes.

[Original:] Texas: Houston--Area residents turned over more than 3,000 pounds of expired, unused and unwanted prescription medications to federal authorities. The Saturday collection was the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s first effort to round up unused prescription medications at 3,400 locations nationwide as part of its campaign.
Revision: Texas: Houston--Area residents turned over more than 3,000 unwanted infants and toddlers to federal authorities. The Saturday collection was the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’ first effort to round up unwanted children at 3,400 locations nationwide for use in cloning and bioengineering research. (Story Idea) This story idea obviously lends itself well to satirical treatment of the federal government’s heavy-handed intrusions into citizens’ lives. (Other horrific ideas might stem from the substitution of “virgins” or “spouses” for “prescription drugs.”)

Basis of Revision: The substitution of babies for prescription drugs is an interesting revision to the original news report, to be sure, and one that calls for explanation; the explanation is as monstrous as the federal bureaucracies that involve themselves in such “health” concerns as abortion, fetal stem cell research and similar matters, replaced, in my revision with “cloning and bioengineering research.”

[Original:] Virginia: Lexington--Washington and Lee University is stepping up efforts to recruit Jewish students as part of efforts to create a more diverse campus. Jewish students currently make up 4.5% of about 1,760 undergraduate students. Recruitment efforts include attending college fairs and visiting Jewish schools, community centers, and teen groups.
Revision: Virginia: Lexington--Washington and Lee University is stepping up efforts to recruit human oddities as part of efforts to create a more diverse campus. Human oddities, or “freaks,” as they were once know currently make up 4.5% of about 1,760 undergraduate students. Recruitment efforts include attending county fairs and visiting circuses and carnival sideshows. (Story Idea) This politically incorrect storyline is certainly insensitive and bigoted, but it is one that pokes fun at political correctness and, as such, could lend itself to a satirical send-up of social and collegiate concerns for “diversity.”

Basis of Revision: Again, by simply substituting one group of people (“human oddities”) for another (“Jewish” students), an unlikely and, in this case, offensive, storyline suggests itself that could have horrific possibilities.

[Original:] Washington: Bellingham--State officials said they stopped a boat that was contaminated by zebra mussels before the invasive species could spread in the state’s waters. Officers with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington State Patrol in Cle Elum inspected the boat being hauled from Michigan to British Columbia.
Revision: Washington: Bellingham--State officials said they stopped a boat that was contaminated by extraterrestrial spores that could have fertilized animal ova, resulting in a hybridized alien-animal life form such as the world has never seen. (Story Idea) The original report could also have changed by substituting an alien virus for the “zebra mussels,” causing a potential pandemic or by replacing “zebra mussels” with a reference to an extraterrestrial germ or other agent that causes a reverse-terraforming of the Earth that makes it inhabitable to humans but livable for the aliens who will soon arrive to replace the humans they’ve killed in advance of their arrival.

Basis of Revision: Substitution of terms.

Every day, USA Today provides writers with another column featuring “news from every state.” If only two items per day result in potential ideas for horror stories, a year will provide 730 entries to one’s journal of story ideas. Very likely, the column will suggest many more. If one generates as many as five each day, as I gleaned from among today’s news items, a year’s yield will provide a whopping 1,825 entries--way more than even the most prolific writer could hope to use in a lifetime!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

To date, Chillers and Thrillers has had precious little to say concerning the latter term in its title, having focused, instead, almost exclusively on chillers (that is, horror stories) and such related fare as fantasies and science fiction. In this post, thanks to Charles Derry’s excellent book on thrillers, this oversight is finally corrected.

In the second chapter of The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, “Thrills; or, How Objects and Empty Spaces Compete to Threaten Us,” Charles Derry identifies the objects that are used, in several films, as symbols, or “visual correlatives”: “The cymbals in The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which represent “the assassination and the whole movement of the narrative”; “the windmill in Foreign Correspondent,” which symbolizes “the arrival of an airplane to take away the villains”; and “the glass of milk in Suspicion,” which signifies “the imminent poisoning of Joan Fontaine [sic]”; and “the blood-stained doll in Stage Fright,” which suggests “an accusation of murder” (21).

According to Derry, other symbolic objects include:

The painting of the Madonna in Obsession, which works as a symbol of the protagonists’ dilemma and the narrative; the escaping balloons in La Rupture, which works as a complex symbol of escape and freedom; Faye Dunaway’s [sic] photographs in Three Days of the Condor, which work as a symbol of trust in a morally bankrupt world; the mirrors in Lady from Shanghai, which work in part as a symbol of the destructive nature of the American woman (21).
In addition to such symbolic objects, thrillers also employ both “ocnophilic” and “philobatic” objects, Derry argues, employing terms coined by Michael Balint in Thrills and Regressions. Essentially, the former type of object is apt to be one among many that are associated with the safety and security of one’s everyday environment, whereas the other (usually one or a few “special” objects) is linked to potential dangers or risks. Examples of the ocnophilic object to which the philobat “clings,“ Derry says, include the lion-tamer’s whip, the tight-rope walker’s pole, the skier’s ski-poles, the conductor’s baton, the soldier’s rifle, the artist’s paintbrush, and the pilot’s joy-stick (25). The ocnophilic object, Derry adds, “is perhaps the antithesis of the safe ‘ocnophilic object’ embraced by the philobat and represents the most overwhelming symbol of the philobat’s inability to get away from objects that are unconquerable and oppressive,” although “the objects that the philobat encounters need not be instantly harmful” (25). Moreover, the philobat may transform a threatening or dangerous oncophilic object into “a co-operative partner” by “showing consideration, regard, or concern about” it, as “Cary Grant [sic]” does in North By Northwest when he :turns the objects at the auction into his cooperative partners and is thus able to escape the villains” or as Paul Newman‘s character does in Torn Curtain when he “allows the paper flames in the ballet set to provide him with inspiration to escape from the theatre” (26). Since the ocnophil equates ocnophilic objects with safety and security, he or she is disturbed when one or more of these objects must be abandoned or he or she is abandoned by it or them. “For the octophil,” Derry says, “the world consist of objects which are separated by terrifying empty spaces,” and, Balint contends, as Derry notes in quoting him, “The octophil lives from object to object, cutting his sojourns in the empty spaces as short as possible. Fear is provoked by leaving the objects, and allayed by rejoining them” (26). For this reason, too, “an object which remains no threatening is a source of much security, and the philobat certainly doesn’t want this object taken away” (27).

Before I had encountered Derry’s book or heard of Balint’s taxonomy of the thriller, I unknowingly described a different type of ocnophilic object in my article, “Taking Away the Teddy Bear,” except that the object was more a state of mind than an object per se. The person (or, perhaps, place or thing) that anchors us to our existence, giving us a reason to go on, despite the vicissitudes of fate and the traumas and crises of life, might be regarded as an ocnophilic object of sorts, for its possession makes us feel that life is worth living. The ultimate “teddy bear,” I suggest is one’s faith in God, which, taken away, results in despair and horror in face of the monster of meaninglessness.

Although neither Derry nor Balint identifies such an object, one might argue, for the existence of anti-ocnophilic, as opposed to both ocnophilic and philobatic, objects as well, which is to say, things--or even states of mind--that remind men and women of persons, places, or things that they find repulsive rather than comforting; an African-American might view a rebel flag in such a manner; a racist, an interracial couple; a homophobe, two men or women holding hands with one another. Rather than finding reassurance in such objects and seeking to retain or to be reunited with them, a character would seek to avoid or discard them. In some cases, an object that is initially regarded as ocnophilic might later be considered anti-ocnophilic, as, for example, one might argue, the monkey’s paw in W. W. Jacobs’ short story first is and later becomes to the elderly couple who come into possession of this talisman.

In the thriller, Derry argues, based upon his reading of Balint, the protagonist fears a “real external danger,” to which he or she voluntarily exposes him- or herself, confident in his or her hope that he or she can survive it. Balint contends that “this mixture of fear, pleasure, and confident hope is what constitutes the fundamental elements of all thrills,” and, likewise, according to Derry, comprise the “three-part progression” of “most suspense thriller plots,” to which may be added thrills “associated with high speed, such as racing, horse-riding, skiing, sailing, and flying”; thrills “associated with exposed [or risky] situations, such as jumping, diving, rock climbing, taming wild animals, and traveling into foreign lands”; and thrills “associated with unfamiliar forms of satisfaction, such as new foods, new customs, and new sexual experiences” (22).

In Thrills and Regressions, Balint coins the words philobatism and ocnophilia to refer, respectively, to the thrill seeker and his or her opposite, who is quite content to avoid thrills of any kind. Using Balint’s terminology and Derry’s insights, one could define a suspense thriller as a story in which an initially ocnophilic protagonist enters the philobatic world of external danger, triumphs over the peril, and is able, thereafter, to balance the extremes of a safe but uneventful existence with the dangerous but thrilling aspects of life.

Although the thriller plot’s emphasis upon a “real external threat” and an ultimately thrill-seeking protagonist suggests that such stories are more likely to be addressed to male audiences, it is clear, given the synopsis of Wait Until Dark, which involves a female protagonist, that this storyline can also involve female protagonists and can be directed toward female audiences:

In Wait Until Dark. . . the ocnophilic and clinging Audrey Hepburn [sic] loses the secure protection of her husband and home base, faces a series of terrifying thrills which she conquers, emerges victorious, and returns unharmed to the security of her husband, although now in touch with her own philobatic abilities and no longer in need of his protection” (24-25).

Indeed, as Derry himself points out,

there are many notable female protagonists in thrillers (as for example in Shadow of a Doubt, Le Boucher, or The China Syndrome) who become adventurers. . . and there are so many female spectators who have been moved by the thriller that it would be wrong to argue that these works are--more than any other popular genre--unusually reflective of sexist male fantasy (29).
In this chapter of his book, Derry also suggests how empty spaces can threaten the philobatic protagonist. For example, Derry contends that “in Wait Until Dark. . . it is precisely the empty spaces that are terrifying to the blind heroine; the empty spaces are blank, and she is unable to maneuver herself from place to place without the help of the anchored objects which make up her world” (26).

Two passages in Derry’s book explain how and why the suspense thriller differs from the horror story. In the first of these passages, Derry, alluding to the observations of both Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle, suggests that the suspense thriller “excludes horror,” just as it excludes “traditional whodunnits and detective films,” because, as Hitchcock insists, “the whodunnit generates a kid of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient in suspense” and horror often includes “supernatural suppositions” that identify the genre as “outright fantasy.”

For his part, Castle defines horror as the use of a monster to frighten audiences, whereas he defines a thriller as using “an identifiable person” such as someone the moviegoer could actually encounter and with whom he or she could empathize “in jeopardy” so that the audience can “root for” him or her (8-9).

The second passage adds a contemporary, all-too-human monster to the traditional ones that Castle featured in his films: “in certain horror films,” Derry points out, “the ‘monster’ is not a mystical or fantastic creature, but an insane individual who commits crimes,” and “because their murderous protagonists are presented as objects of horror and virtual monsters, films such as Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965), and The Collector (1965) might most accurately be perceived as belonging to both the suspense thriller and horror genres simultaneously” (324-325). One could argue, indeed, that Dean Koontz’s much-vaunted “cross-genre” novels represent an even greater hybridization of genre fiction, often including, as it does, elements of science fiction, romance, the thriller, and the traditional horror story.

In the table of contents of The Suspense Thriller, and based upon his study of the thriller genre, Derry identifies six specific subtypes and promises (“To Be Continued”) more, perhaps, in a future volume: the thriller of murderous passions, the political thriller, the thriller of acquired identity, the psychotraumatic thriller, the thriller of moral confrontation, and the innocent-on-the-run thriller (vii). Perhaps Chillers and Thrillers will feature more summaries and commentaries upon these chapters of Derry’s excellent book in the future. Stay tuned (so to speak.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Adolescent and Adult Themes

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In any television series, a few (sometimes, many) episodes will be dedicated to establishing and developing the season’s arc, or the plot’s tangent. The other episodes in the season are often one- or two-part stories. As such, they suggest the types of themes, or topics, that a series of a particular type, directed toward a specific audience, may address. For example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, directed at middle-class American teenagers and young adults, deals with themes of interest to such an audience. The series deals with unbridled ambition (“The Witch”), inappropriate adult-teen romance (“Teacher’s Pet”), the demands of duty and their conflict with personal desire (“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”), the perils of negative peer pressure (“The Pack”), the dangers of young romance (“Angel”), the dangers of Internet dating (“I Robot, You Jane”), child abuse (“Nightmares”), the callous disregard for one who doesn’t measure up to the superficial standards of the clique (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”)--and these all in the show’s first, shorter-than-normal season!

Although the episodes of horror or fantasy series that are written with an adult audience in mind may take the “monster of the week” approach, featuring a specific type of antagonist weekly or periodically, the episodes of such shows typically don’t deal with a specific concern that their viewers share They are not, in this sense, as didactic as shows oriented toward younger viewers. Instead, the more “adult” shows may seek to unsettle their audiences by suggesting that the world may be quite different than it seems and is generally understood to be and that, beyond the ordinary and the everyday, there may exist extraordinary and mysterious persons, places, and things.

The “Squeeze” episode of The X-Files is a good example, as is the series’ use of the skeptical, empirical Dana Scully as a foil to her more open-minded, experiential partner, Fox Mulder. Although both are Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), each has his or her own investigatory methods.

Scully develops a profile of a suspect in a murder and the cannibalism that followed it (the killer ate the victim‘s liver), and, when, during a stakeout, she captures a suspect, Eugene Victor Tooms, he is subjected to a lie-detector test. Her investigatory methods are typical and routine.

Mulder, however, finds a fingerprint at the scene of a murder, and, using a computer program, matches the print to those that were found at several other murder scenes, and, during Tooms’ polygraph test, he asks several questions that makes his fellow agents doubt the validity of the test, and the suspect is released. The fingerprint that Mulder found is stretched out, which makes Mulder believe that Tooms may be a mutant who is able to elongate his body and who has a longer-than-human lifespan, sustained by his diet of human livers between his thirty-year periods of hibernation. Tooms, Mulder believes, committed not only the current murders but those in 1903, 1933, and 1963 as well.

Mulder’s investigatory methods are both routine (at times) and unusual, to say the least. He helps Scully to research Tooms. They can find neither a birth certificate nor a marriage certificate for the suspect, and the agents meet with a former detective, Frank Briggs, who tells them where Tooms resided in 1903. When Scully and Mulder visit the suspect’s apartment, they find it abandoned. However, Tooms manages to snare Scully’s necklace to add it to his collection of his murder victims’ possessions, which he keeps as souvenirs. Adopting another routine investigatory method, Mulder asks Scully to join him in another stakeout, this time of Tooms’ address, but they are instructed to abandon the surveillance.

Tooms enters Scully’s apartment through the ventilation system, but Mulder arrives in the proverbial nick of time, preventing Tooms from killing his partner, and the agents handcuff the killer. Tooms is subjected to medical tests that show that the killer has abnormal skeletal and muscular systems and an unusual metabolism. The jailed killer smiles when his guard delivers a meal, sliding the tray through the narrow slot in the prisoner’s barred door. Tooms has seen his escape route.

Scully represents the no-nonsense, realistic, down-to-earth, sensible, empirical, and skeptical adult, Mulder the open-minded, curious, even enthusiastic investigator of paranormal and supernatural phenomena who, by his own admission, wants “to believe.” The plots of the episodes play out between the extremes represented by Scully’s relative skeptical empiricism and Mulder’s relative faith and experiential approach to investigating the bizarre cases that seem to fall into his and his partner’s laps. Most adults would tend to side with Scully, seeing the world as largely understood and ordinary. The oddities, aliens, and monsters that appear, week after week, in one guise or another, on the show, however, suggest that Scully’s view may not be altogether effective in explaining some of the more mysterious experiences that he and Scully have or the stranger beings they meet. As Shakespeare’s open-minded Hamlet tells the skeptical Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth. . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, Lines 159-167).

That the world may not be what it seems frightens many adults, the same way that the monsters and villains of Buffy frighten younger audiences. Both series exemplify the uneasiness with which younger and older alike live their lives in stifled fear and trembling, looking, always over their shoulders and toward the ends of shadows, to see who--or what--is casting them.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Heads Will Roll

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

According to Wikipedia’s article concerning the event, “the scientific revolution began with the publication of two works that changed the course of science in 1543 and continued through the late 17th century: Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and Andreas Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body (“Scientific Revolution”).

Before then, and even as late as the early twentieth century, the supernatural realm often served as the basis for horror stories, novels, and films. Gradually, the principles of science replaced the tenets of theology and the mad scientist replaced the mystic in such fiction. Whereas, before the scientific revolution, what occurred among the heavenly powers, both fallen and steadfast, determined human affairs, afterward, as Shakespeare argues, “he fault” began to lie more “in ourselves” than in “the stars.”

Nature, rather than the supernatural realm, became, more and more, the stage for human affairs and the human being him- or herself, rather than God or demons, increasingly became the actor upon this stage. In horror, ghosts, werewolves, witches, and vampires became less frequent villains (and less respected ones) than mad scientists, just as technology replaced magic. Where creatures such as zombies persisted, scientific, rather than mystical, explanations were offered by authors and filmmakers to explain their origin. Perhaps they were nothing more than human beings who had had the misfortune to have been infected by a bizarre virus or were victims of unscrupulous “witch doctors” who employed a mixture of “tetrodotoxin, a powerful hallucinogen called Datura, and cultural forces and beliefs” to convince uneducated and illiterate men and women that they had been resurrected from the dead and now owed their allegiance to the witch doctors who had performed this miraculous feat (“The Serpent and the Rainbow (book),” Wikipedia). In short, the change from mysticism to science fiction, or from faith to knowledge, as the primary basis for horror fiction is not accidental; it stems from the change in Western culture’s Weltanschauung.

In the past, humans were in danger of losing their souls and becoming demonic parodies of their true selves (images of God), damned forever to hell. With the general acceptance among scientists of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, human beings might fall victim, instead, to the animal nature within, which they had suppressed, more or less successfully, over the millennia since the first human beings emerged from their original, primordial ape-like ancestors. Since the industrial revolution, people have feared their affinity, as so-called ghosts in the machine (of the human body), to automatons, with cyborgs and robots replacing feral creatures as symbolic expressions of human degeneration. In the information, or computer, age, men and women fear that even their very personalities may be replaced by software encoded with artificial intelligence.

The theological has given way to the evolutionary, which has given way to the mechanical, which has given way to the digital or cybernetic. At each point, men and women have become both less and less fleshly and human and more and more incorporeal and inhuman, alienated, literally and figuratively, from both themselves and their world. Such stories (plays, novels, television series, or films) as Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), the televisions series The Six Million Dollar Man (1970s), and Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973), upon which Donald Cammell’s film adaptation of the same title (1977) is based.

Although utopian fiction sometimes projects a paradisiacal future civilization based upon the scientific pursuit of knowledge and the technological inventions that often results from such a pursuit, horror fiction that is based upon science (or, more often, science fiction) has frequently opposed such an optimistic vision, showing that science, as an invention and enterprise of human origin, is, at best, a morally neutral activity, its beneficial or destructive effects being determined by the scientists (and, more often, the corporations or government agencies that underwrite the scientists’ work).

Horror writers generally take a dim view of human nature, considering it to be corrupted or corruptible, limited, fallible, and, perhaps, even innately evil. Edgar Allan Poe sums up the general view of horror writers as much today as he did in the nineteenth century: “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. an is now only more active---not more happy--or more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Often, horror stories tend to be cautionary tales in which the object to be feared is not the mythical box of Pandora but the manipulation of nature, human and otherwise, for individual scientist’s own gain or as a means to the government’s end, which is usually, world domination or the control of nature itself, as H. G. Wells warned: “Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.”

In horror, science has given birth, as it were, to such terrors as aliens; cloned dinosaurs, psychotic cyborgs; disease and pestilence; gigantic plants, insects, and animals; human-animal hybrids; renegade robots; mad scientists; serial killers; super-soldiers; and a host of other menaces representative of the dangers of runaway technology or the application of science without concern for morality; the lust for political, military, or financial power at any cost; and just plain old human hubris. We can’t blame God or nature; as Shakespeare taught us, “The fault. . . lies not in our stars but in ourselves.” The attempt to avoid blame for our own cruelty, stupidity, greed, and callous indifference to anyone but ourselves that was evident in evolutionists’ insistence that we are to expect some such behavior as natural and normal, since, after all, imperfect and fallible human beings are evolving from lower life forms may be logically sound, should one accept the basic primitive that human beings are evolving in such a fashion, but horror writers don’t let their characters off the hook as easily as that, insisting, instead, that a price--and often a brutal one and a collective one--be paid in blood and guts and fear.

Horror fiction is one of the few remaining genres that seeks to hold humanity accountable for its actions toward one another and toward nature itself. Perhaps human behavior is determined, rather than elective, but, even if it is, a price must be paid for immoral or amoral behavior. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense to punish people for the dastardly deeds that they cannot help doing (if their behavior is determined rather than free), the price must be paid, horror fiction declares. Heads must roll.

Otherwise, if heads do not roll, and everyone is permitted to do whatever he or she likes, without regard to whether an action might be considered by others, and even by a vast majority of others, to be wrong and harmful, or even disastrous, the effect will be much as would follow from a theory of morality (or amorality) such as that which Ted Bundy held and articulated, a monstrous, but perhaps irrefutable, notion of what constitutes the good in a universe devoid of evil.
Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles. . . . I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.
(On January 24, 1989, Ted Bundy’s own head “rolled,” which is to say, he was electrocuted--for the murder of 12year-old Kimberly Leach.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bond, James Bond: A Lesson Concerning the "Inversions and Variations" of a Plot Formula

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

James Bond, as Ian Fleming envisioned him.

Note: In this and a the two previous posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.

According to Umberto Eco, Ian Fleming used nine plot elements to structure every one of his James Bond novels. The only real difference between any two of the books was the order in which their author presented these elements: “The scheme is invariable in the sense that all the elements are always present in every novel. . . . That the moves always be in the same sequence is not imperative” (161).

Eco’s analysis posits three recurring characters: Bond himself, the villain whom Bond defeats, and the woman whom Bond seduces. Some of the elements of Fleming’s plots themselves contain alternative possibilities of development, so that the nine can be presented with some variety that is additional to that which is supplied by Fleming’s changing the order of their presentation from one novel to the next.

Using letters of the alphabet, Eco lists “the invariable scheme” as consisting of:
A M. . . gives a task to Bond.
B Villain. . . appears to Bond (perhaps in vicarious forms).
C Bond. . . gives a first check to Villain or Villain gives first check to Bond.
D Woman . . . shows herself to Bond.
E Bond takes Woman (possesses her or begins her seduction).
F Villain captures Bond (with or without Woman, or at different moments).
G Villain tortures Bon (with or without Woman).
H Bond beats Villain (kills him, or kills his representative or helps at their killing).
I Bond, convalescing, enjoys Woman, whom he then loses (“Narrative Structures in Fleming,” 161).
“The invariable scheme” that Eco detects in Fleming’s fiction represents a formula.

Eco’s analysis of Fleming’s plot structure allows him to summarize the plots of various novels simply by referring to the elements by the letters with which he designates them, in the order in which these elements appear in any of the novelist’s works. For example, Eco says,

A minute detailing of the ten novels under consideration might yield several examples of a set scheme we might call ABCDEFGHI (for example, Dr. No), but often there are inversions and variations . . . For example, Goldfinger presents a different scheme, BCDAECDFGHEHI, where it is possible to notice repeated moves: two encounters and three games played with the Villain, two seductions and three encounters with women, a first flight of the Villain after his defeat and his ensuing death, and so on (161).

Likewise, the length at which Fleming treats any of the elements of his plot are apt to differ from one novel to the next. In From Russia with Love, for example, Eco discerns both “a long prologue in Russia. . . [and] a long interlude in which Kerim and Krilenku appear and the latter is defeated” (161-162) among shorter treatments of other elements.

Additionally, to further vary the typical elements, Fleming sometimes includes several “side issues” in his books, Eco observes. In Diamonds Are Forever, Fleming includes such “side issues” as a “long, curious prologue that introduces one to diamond-smuggling in South Africa”; a “detailed journey by air” during which, “in the background two vicarious Villains” appear and there is an “imperceptible duel between hunters and prey”; a “meeting with Felix Leiter, who brings Bond up to date about the Spangs”; a “long interval at Saratoga at the races,” where. “to help Leiter, Bond, in fact, ‘damages’ the Spangs”; “appearances of vicarious Villains in the mud bath and punishment of the treacherous jockey, anticipating symbolically the torturing of Bond; the whole Saratoga episode” and Bond’s decision “to go to Las Vegas” followed by a “detailed description of the district”; and numerous other such incidents, all while the standard elements are in play (162-165).

Despite such “inversions and variations” and such “side issues,” however, “the true and original story remains immutable,” Eco argues, “and suspense is stabilized curiously on the basis of a sequence of events that are entirely predetermined” (165). Each plot, in essence, Eco contends, “may be summarized as follows”:
Bond is sent to a given place to avert a ‘science-fiction’ plan by a monstrous individual of uncertain origin and definitely not English who, making use of his organizational or productive activity, not only earns money but [also] helps the cause of the enemies of the West. In facing this monstrous being, Bond meets a woman who is dominated by him and frees her from her past, establishing with her an erotic relationship interrupted by capture by the Villain and by torture. But Bond defeats the Villain, who dies horribly, and rests from his great efforts in the arms of the woman, though he is destined to lose her (165).
Fleming’s technique works, despite its limitations and predictability, Eco suggests, for the same reason that a game or an athletic competition works” “The reader finds himself immersed in a game of which he knows the pieces [Bond, the Villain, and the Woman] and the rules [the nine plot elements]--and perhaps the outcome--and draws pleasure simply from following the minimal variations by which the victor realizes his objective” (166).

Eco’s analysis of Fleming’s plot structure has application for horror writers who employ the plot elements that, in a previous post, I identify as typical for one standard horror storyline, in which--
In previous posts, including “The Calm Before the Storm,” I advance the claim that the general formula for the horror story consists of these phases:
  1. There is a period of normality, or everydayness.
  2. A bizarre incident occurs.
  3. The initial bizarre incidents gives rise to a series of additional bizarre incidents.
  4. The protagonist learns the cause of these incidents.
  5. The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to end the incidents.
Eco’s analysis of Fleming’s structure and the “inversions and variations” that James Bond’s creator interjects into his own nine-element scheme suggests ways by which horror writers can expand, rearrange, lengthen, and strengthen their own basic formula. For example, rather than the traditional 12345 organization, the horror story formula’s plot elements might be arranged as 1234512345. Although an arrangement of 451231345 is somewhat unusual, it is not impossible. Stephen King’s novel It has, in fact, a similar structure. After battling a protean monster as children, the protagonists (except one, who commits suicide) return to the hometown of their childhood, as adults, to take on the entity again, hoping, this time, to destroy it forever. The complete story is thus made up of these two smaller stories. Beowulf consists of three stories: the hero’s slaying of Grendel, his slaying of Grendel’s mother, and his slaying of the dragon that also slays him and thus takes the form of 1234512512345.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stephen King: Homophobia? Repressed and Sublimated Homosexuality? We Report; You Decide

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: In this and a few subsequent posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.

“The horrors of [Stephen] King’s world,” Robin Woods writes in “Cat and Dog: Teague’s Stephen King Movies,” “are the horrors of our culture writ large, made visible and inescapable” (Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, edited by Glenwood Irons, 310). If this insight is true (and King’s enormous popularity suggests that it may be), the implications are likely to be horrifying, indeed, for many, for Woods sees, in the horror maestro’s works, four “culturally specific disturbances” that take the forms of “ambivalence about marriage and the family,” “male aggression and masochism,” “homophobia,” and “repressed and sublimated homosexuality” (304-311), the latter two of which are the concerns of this post.

According to Woods, King’s fiction discloses the author’s homophobic attitude, both in the author’s occasional “derogatory reference” to homosexuals or homosexuality (in Firtestarter, a male character “who exactly parallels the little girl’s strange, dangerous and defiantly anti-establishment abilities” is referred to as a “faggot” [306]), but, more often, by way of “association”:

The corruptible pimply fat man in The Stand. . . has been afraid that he might be homosexual; Stillson, the monstrous future president of The Dead Zone who may bring about the end of the world, never goes out with women and has a constant male companion; one of the supreme horrors witnessed by the little boy (in Kubrick’s film by the mother) in The Shining is. . . [a] homosexual [act]; the vampire and his assistant in ‘Salem’s Lot. . . are rumored to be a gay couple (306).
Those who have read King’s novels are apt to agree with Woods’ assessment; King does seem to give vent to homophobic biases in his work, just as he champions his own causes, interests, and beliefs (CNN and liberal politics, for example, in Under the Dome and abortion and feminism in Insomnia), and he isn’t shy about damning organizations, institutions, agencies, and individuals which or whom he finds objectionable, whether they are homosexual men, lesbians, or others. If King is homophobic, as Woods (and King’s own work) suggests, Woods’ insights concerning the causes of homophobia are all the more interesting, although Woods himself is careful to indicate that he is interested, in “Cat and Dog” “in psychoanalyzing a group of texts (and through those texts the tensions and struggles within our culture), not the author as a person” (304).

Sigmund Freud, Woods believes, has conclusively demonstrated that men and women are, from birth (that is, “innately”) capable of responding to, and perhaps enjoying, sex with either their own or the opposite sex (that is, are “bisexual”). However, society demands “that the homosexual side of that bisexuality” be “repressed in order to construct the successfully ‘socialized’ adult.” However, as Freud points out, repressed tendencies are apt to resurface, and the “homosexuality” that adults repress may, meanwhile, be “experienced as a constant, if unconscious threat”--or, in horror fiction, as an inner demon or monster. Woods believes that homophobia arises from an individual’s failure to adequately repress his or her (mostly his) “own bisexuality,” which causes him to act out in violence against either other men or women: “Masculine violence in our culture. . . must be read as the result of the repression of bisexuality. Violence against women: the woman represents the threat of the man’s repressed femininity. Violence against other men: the man represents the threat of the arousal of homosexual desire” (307).

Woods’ definition (or redefinition) of homophobia and his association of it with male violence against both other men and women as representations of the homophobe’s own threatened sense of heterosexual masculinity on the one and his own threatened sense of the feminine aspects of his nature on the other hand are certainly astute; perhaps they are even true. If they are accurate, his hypotheses provide critics of literature in general, and horror fiction in particular, with useful tools of analysis. He applies these observations to King’s fiction, suggesting that “the ‘beautiful [that is “non-sexual”] friendship’ of a man and an adolescent boy” in ‘Salem’s Lot is the means by which “the vampires are finally (though ambiguously) destroyed” in “an extraordinarily precise account of the enactment of repression.” Likewise, Woods argues, “Thinner. . . Can easily be read as a paranoid fantasy about AIDS” (308).

In King’s fiction, Woods argues, “the repressed and its inexorable return” is dramatically set forth in specific, well-defined places or is embodied in particular individuals such as “the Marsten House of ‘Salem’s Lot, the Overlook Hotel of The Shining, the possessed car of Christine, the Micmac burying-ground of Pet Sematary, the gypsies of Thinner,” and, he adds, “the fascination of the novels is clearly the fascination of these potent evocations of the repressed, to which the protagonists and the reader are irresistibly drawn” (311). It is as if these locations and individuals, set off from mainstream society’s arena of affairs and participants, are profane places and impious persons, condemned places and damned people, our inner demons, or shadows (to employ the Jungian term), which we, unable to disown completely, incarcerate in places we mark as off limits or embody in persons we identify as pariahs. When we stumble across such a place or encounter such a person, we meet the inner demons whom we have banished; the repressed returns, but, even then, we recognize these repressed urges and desires as monstrous. They are to be resisted, banished anew, exiled, or destroyed, never embraced. By confining them to places or persons possessed, as it were, we both identify these tendencies and instincts as other than ourselves and as urges that are rightly to be avoided when possible and banished or destroyed when they can no longer be ignored. Had we not cast these parts of our own unconscious into the outer limits of our existence as human beings, we would become our inner demons, and our society would change, perhaps irrevocably.

Woods even offers a picture of the hell that would result should we embrace the monsters in our looking-glasses:

Centrally, it would involve the full recognition and acceptance of constitutional bisexuality, with all the implications and consequences of such an acceptance: the transformation of male and female roles and heterosexual relations, the rethinking of the family, the positive acceptance of homosexual love as natural rather than aberrant, the overthrow of socially constructed norms of masculinity and femininity, the recognition of infantile eroticism (310).

In a word, the consequence of the acceptance of the other within us, of the shadow that is both male and female without being either sex exclusively, would be the chaos of social and cultural nihilism. It is to the brink of this abyss, Woods suggests, that King’s “homophobic” fiction brings his readers, but it is an abyss from which the horror maestro himself balks, unable, at last, to give rein to his inner demons which are, likewise, “the horrors of our culture writ large”:

Yet in the novels, as in the Gothic generally, the energies that give the world its potency can only [sic] be depicted as monstrous: they threaten that normality to which the books believe themselves to be committed. The impasse of the novels is the impasse of our culture. There are roads beyond it, but they lie necessarily outside the Gothic. To travel them would require a total rethinking of the ‘return of the repressed’ in positive terms. Firestarter, the most positive of all King’s novels and the least related to the Gothic genre, suggested that he was about to engage on just such an undertaking, though the subsequent novels have conspicuously withdrawn from it (310).
There are some places too deep and dark, it seems, for even King, and, if his fears are those of “our culture,” too deep and dark for the rest of us, too, which may be just as well, since only the fools among us would be likely to rush in where King fears to tread.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Final Girl: Transsexual? Homoerotic? We Report; You Decide

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: In this and a few subsequent posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.

Transgender, especially transsexual, images disturb many because such pictures suggest that not only one’s sexual orientation, but also his or her very gender--and, therefore, a person’s identity as an individual--may be more fluid and flexible than people generally suppose.

Horror fiction plays with notions of both gender and sexual orientation. For example, traditionally, women, not men, have been the victims of the monster’s or the madman’s misogynistic rage, in part as Edgar Allan Poe implied, decades ago, because “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (“The Philosophy of Composition”).

In “Her Body, Himself,” Carol J. Clover summarizes a number of loosely related “figurative readings” (283) of “slasher films,” which “present. . . a world in which male and female are at desperate odds with one another but in which, at the same time, masculine and feminine are more states of mind than body” (Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, 252).

When directors film death scenes from the perspective of the monster or the madman, the moviegoer sees what the antagonist sees; arguably, to some degree, the audience also thinks and feels as the monster or the madman thinks and feels. Such a perspective certainly invites the viewer to identify with the killer, but, according to Clover, it also invites the viewer to identify with the killer’s victim: “Just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror films. . . . We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, the horror, comes from ‘knowing’ both sides of the story” (258).

In slasher films, defined by Clover as movies in which “a psycho-killer. . . slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived” (252), the antagonist himself is often a victim of “gender confusion” and arrested development, or “infantile fury” (260-261), and “even killers whose childhood is not immediately at issue and who display no overt gender confusion are often sexually disturbed” (261). It is with this confusion, this arrested development, and this disturbance that horror films are concerned, Clover suggests.

The “gender confusion” that is often at the heart of male slashers is an effect and a reflection, perhaps, of the psychologically, socially, and, indeed, politically plastic, even protean, nature of culture itself, of culture’s own accidental (as opposed to necessary) and constructed (as opposed to given) character. Just as gender, if not sexuality, is not biologically determined but is culturally shaped, so are the other elements of civilization, such as its psychology, social communities and nations, and political structures and institutions.

The protean, variable, mutable, and, above all, synthetic nature of culture allows horror not only to exist but to shift its shape and to take on new forms--in a word, to transform. The transformative nature of culture benefits the fantastic as it is represented in cinema, too: “If the fantastic depends for its effect on an uncertainty of vision, a profusion of perspectives, and a confusion of subjective and objective,” Clover contends, “cinema is pre-eminently suited to the fantastic” (256). The transgender themes discernable in horror fiction, both printed and filmed, dovetail with the transformative nature of culture and fantastic art. Moreover, either sex is able to identify with itself or its opposite because both males and females share the “threat function and the victim function,” which “coexist in the same unconscious, regardless of anatomical sex” (276). Regardless of an individual’s sex, transgender perception, like “gender confusion,” is rooted, it seems, as much in nature as it is in the individual’s nurturing..

With the introduction of the “Final Girl,” who “alone looks death in the face. . . [and] finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)” (266), Clover sees a transformation, rather than a mere development, of the formula that Alfred Hitchcock established in his 1960 movie Psycho, a forerunner, of sorts, to the slasher genre:

With the introduction of the Final Girl. . . the Psycho formula is radically altered. It is not merely a question of enlarging the figure of Lila [Marion Crane’s sister] but of absorbing into her role, in varying degrees, the functions of Arbogast (investigator) and Sam (the rescuer) and restructuring the narrative action from beginning to end around her progress in relation to the killer. In other words, Psycho’s detective plot, revolving around a revelation, yields in the modern slasher film, to a hero plot, revolving around the main character’s struggle with eventual triumph over evil (270-271).
Like the monster or the madman, the “final girl” is also apt to blend gender. She is, Clover says, “a “boyish” figure (266), and “lest we miss the points,” she adds, “it [her masculinity] is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry. . . Stretch, Will” (270). If the viewer is invited to see him- or herself as both the “attacker and [the] attacked,” as both “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” then he or she is also invited to see him- or herself as both masculine and feminine, as both male and female, or, in a word, as transgender. In short, Clover says, “filmmakers seems [sic] to know better than film critics that gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane” (275).

Clover sees a Freudian dynamic at work in the cross-gendering of the final girl. This character, she contends, is a stand-in for the adolescent male who is progressing, via the Oedipal complex, from the latent to the phallic stage of his psychosexual development. The killer represents the father, the final girl the son who fights for both his own life and his emerging manhood:

It is the male killer’s tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the Final Girl’s victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realized (phallicization). . . . The moment at which the Final Girl is effectively phallicized is the moment that the plot halts and the horror ceases. Day breaks, and the community returns to its normal order (279).
Although Clover’s tone, as she summarizes these “figurative readings” of slasher films is objective to the point that the reader may assume that she herself shares these interpretations, she makes it clear, toward the end of her essay, that she finds fault with some of their assertions. She questions whether the basically “homoerotic” interpretation that views the final girl as a surrogate male adolescent struggling to realize her--or his--phallic promise in the Oedipal murder of the killer (father) can account for the enjoyment of these films by female moviegoers. Perhaps some other dynamic accounts for young women’s pleasure in witnessing “a psycho-killer. . . [as he] slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived.” However, Clover’s questions suggest that “gender confusion” is certainly an element of such movies and, probably, among such moviegoers:

Some such notion of differential understanding underlines the homoerotic reading. The silent presupposition is that reading is that there can be no male identification with the female as female, and that the male viewer/reader who adjoins feminine experience does so only by homosexual conversion. But does female identification with male experience then similarly indicate as lesbian conversion? Or are the processes of patriarchy so one-way that the female can identify with the male directly, but the male can identify with the female only by transsexualizing her? Does the Final Girl mean ‘girl’ to her female viewers and ‘boy’ to her male viewers? If her masculine features qualify him as a transformed woman (in which case the homoerotic reading can be maintained only by defining that ‘woman’ as phallic and retransforming her into defining that ‘woman’ as phallic and retransforming her into a male)? (283)
Nevertheless, Clover agrees that slasher films are basically about “gender confusion”: “The gender-identity game. . . is too patterned and too pervasive in the slasher film to be dismissed as supervenient. It seems instead to be an integral element of the particular brand of bodily sensation in which the genre trades” (286). Instead of the transsexual or homoerotic readings that are typical among Freudian film critics in their discussions of slasher films, Clover simply suggests that the final girl’s feminine-masculine characterization reflects the contemporary understanding of sex as being both fixed and determined (“a less-than interesting given,” Clover says) but gender as fluid and flexible (“theater,” Clover says):

Abject fear is still ‘gendered’ feminine. . . . By 1980, however, the male rescuer is either marginal or dispensed with altogether. . . . At the moment that the Final Girl becomes her own saviour, she becomes a hero. . . . [and] the willingness of one immensely popular genre to re-represent the hero as an anatomical female seems to suggest that at least one of the traditional marks of heroism, triumphant self-rescue, is no longer strictly ‘gendered’
masculine . . . .(298)

. . . The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female--parent and Everyteen, respectively--seems, especially in the latter case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the equation ‘sex = gender’ (292).
Moreover, Clover believes that she knows what sociopolitical upheaval has caused the phenomenon of the hermaphroditic final girl; she is the product of the feminism of the 1960s and the societal changes that this movement effected:

The fact that the typical patrons of these films are the sons of marriages contracted in the 1960s or even the early 1970s leads us to speculate that the dire claims of that era--that the women’s movement, the entry of women into the workplace, and the rise of divorce and woman-headed families would yield massive gender confusion in the next generation (292).

What’s in a Name?: More (and Less) Than One Might Think

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Anyone who has entered his or her name in an Internet image browser is likely, unless he or she has a truly unique appellation, to have had the rather disconcerting experience of having come face to face, so to speak, with a stranger who shares the same name. This experience is all the more unsettling if the other person is of a different race or ethnic group or (if one bears a unisex name) the opposite sex. Social utility websites allow the same distressing experience.

Sometimes, other media provide the same result. In Las Vegas, a billboard advertises George Wallace, an African American comedian who appears at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Younger folks often miss the irony of the entertainer’s name’s being identical to that of the racist former Alabama governor who resisted the initiation of segregation during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to bar the 1963 enrollment of the school’s first black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood (“George Wallace,” Wikipedia).

According to Wikipedia’s “disambiguation” list for “George Wallace,” no fewer than eleven more-or-less famous men share this name, among them the former governor; his son; the American comedian and two other such entertainers; a football player; several politicians; foreign and domestic; an actor; an army officer; and a politician. No doubt, there are several less-famous men with this name as well.

Occasionally, people also change their names, Norman Jean Baker becoming Marilyn Monroe and Marion Mitchell Morrison becoming John Wayne, for example, and others who would not have shared the names with such celebrities now having their names in common with such an entertainer. (One thinks of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, for example, sharing a name with the Western film star but not with the actor previously known as Marion Mitchell Morrison.)

To most of us, our name is a representation not merely of syllables of sound but of who we are, of ourselves. We think of ourselves as unique. Indeed, we are told, in our youth, that there is no other person quite like us, that we are in a class by itself, the one and only of our kind. Discovering that we share a name with someone else or that we can change our names or that our names can come from other names, even from names that are associated with the opposite sex, is surprising; it is also a bit disconcerting, suggesting that our identities might not be as fixed and permanent as we had previously supposed them to be. If we can share our names with others, maybe we could also become other. We could become a member of the opposite sex. We could become a serial killer. We could become a bigot. We could (if we are women) lose our own identities to those whom we wed. The truth of the matter, of course, is that our identities are not as fixed and permanent as we might believe. Over time, our attitudes, our beliefs, our feelings, our tastes, our values all change; we change. Nevertheless, we believe (or hope) that, at the very core of our being, our hearts and souls remain unchanged. We trust that the essence of ourselves remains unique and incorruptible, both to time and to events. Otherwise, we fear, at some point, we would cease to exist. The loss of identity is the loss of the self to madness or to death. Eve on our gravestones, our names remain--for a time. When the elements have finally obliterated our names, it shall be as if we never existed. There will be no remnant of our identities, of our being, or ourselves.

Therefore, we are jealous of our names, and we guard them zealously, fearing identity theft as much because it is a violation of who we are as because it promotes financial disaster for us as individuals.

Prisoners abhor the loss of their names, which occurs when they are issued numbers in place of their names. They feel that they have been made less than human by being designated numerically rather than alphabetically, as if their identities have been reduced to the nomenclature of mechanical parts and assemblies. Marines also dislike drill instructors’ refusal to allow them, as recruits, to refer to themselves in the first person, as “I” or “me,” and the demand that, instead, they speak of themselves only as “the private.” They perceive the dehumanization that such attempts at resocialization have upon them as individuals.

Horror fiction plays upon our fears of transformation, of loss of identity, and of life itself. Horror writers and filmmakers know what is and is not in a name and how to translate these fears onto a printed page or onto the silver screen. Human beings undergo terrible transformations, becoming werewolves or vampires. They lose themselves to madness. They suffer agonizing deaths at the hands of others who have lost their own minds and souls.

Such films as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), a remake of the 1958 version directed by Kurt Neumann; Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982); the several versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1982), John Carl Buechler’s Troll (1986), and Laurence Huntington’s The Vulture (1967) are just a few of the many, many titles of horror movies involving transformation that Buried.com lists for this category.

Edgar Allan Poe’s stories often feature protagonists who suffer a loss of themselves to madness, but this is a current theme among writers and filmmakers today as well, as is attested by such stories as John Fowles’ 1963 novel The Collector, the Friday the 13th movie series, the 1995 John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness (based upon the 1936 H. P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness), and, of course the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho (based upon Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same title).

Why should our sharing our names with strangers be disconcerting? I think it is because we invest symbolic value in them. Our first names are given to us by our parents. Our last names identify our families and, therefore, our lineage. Perhaps it is unsettling for those women who opt to take their husbands’ names in lieu of the surnames by which, until they marry, they have been known all their lives. Certainly, the custom alters their perspective--and that of society’s--to some degree as to married women’s identities. Women are seen as more fluid than fixed in their identities. Not only do they shift shape (during pregnancy), but they are also likely to change their very identities, Miss Emily Jones, for example, becoming Mrs. Emily Smith. In formal correspondence, married women may be stripped even of the very remnant of their personal identity and their femininity that their first, or given name, provides them, becoming the “Mrs. John Smith” whose name appears after her husband’s: “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” Even women who remain single often derive their identity from another person of the opposite sex: Paulette and Paula both owe their names to the masculine Paul, for instance, just as the name Denise is derived from the masculine name Dennis. It must be disconcerting, indeed, for a Samantha to realize that her feminine name is based upon a variation of the masculine Samuel.

Death is a staple of horror stories, novels, and films. Virtually every one of them alludes to or, more often, features at east one (and usually several, or even many) savage murders. However, the so-called slasher movies, wherein nubile hotties for the most part, are sliced and diced for audience members’ vicarious viewing pleasure, is perhaps the most extreme sort of this type of fare. Slasher titles include Jack Sholder’s Alone in the Dark (1982), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (based upon the 1973 Lois Duncan novel of the same title), Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers (2001), Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell (1980), Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp (1983), Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn (2003) (reminiscent of my own 2008 Blue Mountain Detour), and a host of others.

While writers and filmmakers are careful to disguise the fact that they are playing with readers’ and moviegoers’ identities by casting their treatments of this theme in terms of other “people’s” names (those of the characters who populate their pages or screens), make no mistake about it: a reader or a moviegoer by any other name would suffer the same existential angst as the characters who experience physical transformation, madness, or death in place of their voyeuristic audiences.

What’s in a name? More (and less) than one might think!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Isolating Your Characters

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post (“Horror as Image and Word”) , I spoke of the benefit that authors of horror stories can derive from physically isolating their characters. By locating the story’s action in a remote setting, a writer heightens their vulnerability. They are more helpless than they might be otherwise, had they not been cut off from the larger community, society, or nation in which they live, having no access to emergency medical services, law enforcement personnel, financial institutions, or even friends and family. They are on their own, with no one and nothing else to assist them.

There’s another way to isolate characters besides that of locating them in remote places, far from the madding crowd: separate them from others by making them shy, emotionally detached or withdrawn, or even antisocial. (I touch upon this topic in my earlier post, “Ray Bradbury’s ‘Love Potion ’: Learning from the Masters.”) Psychological or emotional isolation has similar effects to physical isolation, making it difficult for a character to share his or her true and deepest thoughts and emotions with others. A shy or socially withdrawn character is likely to be incommunicative beyond the most superficial level, and an antisocial character is apt to go so far as to lie to others, even on a routine basis.

Wikipedia describes shyness as a manifestation of such tendencies as an avoidance of “the objects of their apprehension in order to keep from feeling uncomfortable,” which initiates a vicious circle of sorts, in which “the situations remain unfamiliar and the shyness perpetuates itself.” Shyness, the article indicates, may be a temporary or a permanent condition, and it may be mild or extreme, adding:

The condition of true shyness may simply involve the discomfort of difficulty in knowing what to say in social situations, or may include crippling physical manifestations of uneasiness. Shyness usually involves a combination of both symptoms, and may be quite devastating for the sufferer, in many cases leading them to feel that they are boring, or exhibit bizarre behavior in an attempt to create interest, alienating them further. Behavioral traits in social situations such as smiling, easily producing suitable conversational topics, assuming a relaxed posture and making good eye contact, which come spontaneously for the average person. . . may not be second nature for a shy person. Such people might only effect such traits by great difficulty, or they may even be impossible to display. . . In fact, those who are shy are actually perceived more negatively because of the way they act towards others. Shy individuals are often distant during conversations, which may cause others to create poor impressions of them, simply adding to their shyness in social situations (“Shyness”).
Jack Torrance, the protagonist of The Shining isn’t shy as much as he is socially detached from the world, or socially withdrawn. He is a mystery, if not exactly a stranger, even to his own wife and son. In discussing this character in an earlier post, “Narrative and Dramatic Techniques,” I indicated how, according to literary critics, the filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, used his motion picture camera’s photography of a mountain to characterize Torrance as emotionally cold and detached.

Extremely wide vistas of the mountainous landscape induce a cold, detached and depersonalized perspective. Humans are unimportant in this vast physical, and metaphysical, terrain. . . .

Jack undergoes a freezing of emotional warmth and empathy. His blood runs cold, both figuratively and literally, as he becomes one with the forces of winter and death (Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film, 43-44).
As a result of his detachment, Torrance both becomes a monster, and his cold-heartedness becomes the death of him when, trapped inside a maze following a blizzard, he freezes to death as he pursues his young son, intent upon murdering the boy.

The antisocial personality disorder is different than shyness. Recognizing it as a mental illness of sorts, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines this condition as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder,” Wikipedia). Serial killer Ted Bundy, among others, is said to have had such a condition. The disorder is marked by such symptoms as

[a] persistent lying or stealing; [an] apparent lack or remorse or empathy for others; cruelty to animals; poor behavioral controls. . ; a history of childhood conduct disorder; recurring difficulties with the law; [a] tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others; substance abuse; aggressive, often violent behavior. . . [an] inability to tolerate boredom; [and a] disregard for safety” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder”).
Such additional conditions are often associated with ant personality disorder as “anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, substance-related disorders, somatization disorder, pathological risk-seeking, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, [and] narcissistic personality disorder” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder”).

In short, those who are afflicted with the antisocial personality disorder are hard to get along with. They are dangerous not only to themselves, but to others as well. Moreover, despite the dazzling array of symptoms and associated disorders, such individuals can, and do, pass as normal among others. Bundy was not only considered sane by the team of psychiatric and psychological doctors who examined him, but by the coworker (and author of The Stranger Beside Me) Ann Rule, who worked alongside him in a Seattle crisis clinic for a year and a half. Young women often found the brutal killer attractive, and he had no problem in finding victims among the college coeds he frequently targeted. Even during his incarceration and trial, he had suitors among the female sex, one of whom, Carole Ann Boone, married him on the witness stand as Bundy cross-examined her, allegedly bearing the serial killer a daughter. During his career as a serial killer, however, Bundy killed somewhere between thirty and a hundred and thirty young women, one as young as twelve years old.

Interestingly, one critic, John E. Reilly, diagnoses the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” as a “paranoid schizophrenic” (“The Lesser Death-Watch and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, Second Quarter, 1969, 3-9), a diagnosis with which another critic, Brett Zimmerman, agrees in “‘Moral Insanity’ or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, 39-48). This storyteller’s mental illness has obviously alienated him (or, some critics recently claim, her) from both reality and his (or her) kinsman, whom he (or she) murders.

One need not suffer from either antisocial personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia to be emotionally detached or withdrawn. Shyness will also accomplish the goal of psychologically isolating a character from his or her peers and making him or her emotionally (and, indeed, physically) vulnerable to the monster, human or otherwise, who stalks a group of men and women, and a shy person may be regarded with sympathy on the part of the reader, whereas, despite his or her mental illnesses, neither an antisocial nor a paranoid schizophrenic is likely to garner much in the way of the reader’s compassion or even understanding. The writer may want to make a character who is stalked but not killed shy, but the character who is both stalked and killed antisocial or schizophrenic--or, for that matter, make the killer him- or herself antisocial or schizophrenic. There is, of course, another option for writers who want to isolate their characters so as to cut them off from all outside support and assistance: isolate them physically, by locating the story’s action in a remote and inaccessible setting, and then further isolate them by making one or more of the characters shy, antisocial, or schizophrenic.

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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