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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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