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Monday, September 6, 2010

Dinner Parties

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

One way to devise plots is to picture people sharing a meal at a restaurant. The diners could be a man and a woman, two men, or two women. Something as simple as the sex of the diners may suggest storylines. A man and a woman could be involved in a romance; two men could be business rivals; two women could be lifelong friends. Any number of other diners is fair game, too, of course. In fiction, what binds a relationship together, whether the nature of the relationship is, for example, one of romance, rivalry, or friendship, is conflict. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren point out in Understanding Fiction, “no conflict, no story.”

More than two can dine together at the same table. The addition of a third diner complicates the plot. The number of combinations of characters increases from three (two men, a man and a woman, two men, or two women) to six: a man and two women, a woman and two men, two men and a woman, two women and a man, three men, or three women. What’s on the menu? As always, conflict. Once again, in some cases, the combination of diners itself may suggest the nature of the conflict itself in which the diners are involved.

For example, let’s say that our combination of diners consists of one man and two women. I intend the dining scenario to be an analogy. The restaurant = the setting; the diners = the characters. The menu = the conflict. What the diners say and do during their meal = the dialogue and the action, respectively. The whole dining experience = the story. However, in this example, involving one man and two women, the setting could be an actual restaurant and the characters actual diners.

Imagine that the story starts with just two of the characters, Alex and Beth, present. However, three places have been set, because, as Beth informs Alex, she has invited someone else to join them. Perhaps she is vague about the other person’s identity, referring to him or her as “an old friend” or “a mutual acquaintance.” The occasion of the meal might be the celebration of Alex’s and Beth’s anniversary. They might recall the times that they have shared as a married couple--those that were amusing, challenging, enjoyable, adventurous, and romantic. Their reminiscences might include the times they have shared with their children over the years of their marriage.

Toward the end of their meal, Alex might profess his deep and abiding love for Beth, just before the couple is joined by the mysterious third party whom Beth has invited to join them--Alex’s second wife, Cynthia. Alex is a bigamist, and both Beth and Cynthia, having discovered their mutual husband’s secret, have agreed to confront him together concerning his matrimonial betrayals.

The idea for this story is based on the life of Charles Kuralt (1934-1997). A television journalist, Kuralt is best known, perhaps, for his distinguished career with CBS, and especially for his series On the Road with Charles Kuralt, which aired as segments of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He traveled the nation, filming sentimental and nostalgic interviews with everyday Americans, offering viewers a sort of Norman Rockwell vision of the country and its citizens that proved immensely popular with viewers and earned him two Peabody Awards. After he died, however, it came to light that Kuralt had, in effect, had two marriages, one legitimate and the other the result of common law, and had had children by both wives:

But two years after his death, Kuralt's personal reputation came under scrutiny when a decades-long companionship with a Montana woman named Pat Baker was made public. Kuralt apparently had a second, "shadow" family with Baker while his wife lived in New York City and his daughters from a previous marriage lived on the eastern seaboard. Baker asserted that the house in Montana had been willed to her, a position upheld by the Montana Supreme Court (“Charles Kuralt,” Wikipedia).
The journalist’s actual life, it was clear, had been at odds with the homespun, morally upright subject matter of his series, and his reputation never recovered from the bigamist lifestyle that he had led.

Kuralt’s victims--his two wives--never met over dinner, with or without him, but the possibility of their having done so could inspire a story such as the one that I envision here. Again, such characters need not meet in a restaurant. The confrontation might take place in a less hospitable and far more dangerous environment, the two women having conspired to kill their two-timing husband after confronting him about his years-long infidelities. The analogy of dinner as a story is intended as a way of setting the stage, not the table.

In using this technique, a writer should also assign a vocation to each of his or her characters. Giving those who attend the dinner party different vocations could, in and of itself, suggest interesting possibilities for plot, character, and conflict. There are quite a few possible combinations even when three characters share the same general vocation. For example, three business rivals might each be the chief executive officer, or CEO, of his or her respective company, with one attempting a hostile takeover of his rivals’ businesses; the three may wish to establish an illegal monopoly by secretly fixing prices for the goods or services that they provide; the trio may be conspiring to “steal” the natural resources of an emerging nation; the threesome may be in cahoots against a foreign government’s attempts to control their market through tariffs or even military means. . . . the list goes on and on.

Once a writer has worked out the appetizer, the entrĂ©e, and the desserts of the story’s menu, the story itself can begin, possibly in media res, as, say, an army of mercenaries attacks a South American nation guarding the rain forest habitat of the rare species of plant that a pharmaceutical company needs (and can obtain nowhere else) for a new drug that cures the disease of the writer’s choice. At first, the mercenaries, wearing the uniforms of an adjacent nation, might be taken for actual troops of the neighboring state. As a result, war could loom between the two countries. Perhaps this was the real goal of the mercenaries’ attack. The companies financing their paramilitary operation might have wanted to instigate a protracted war against the two countries so that their own collection of the plant they need could proceed apace as the nation whose resources they are plundering is occupied with the war it is waging with its “aggressor.” The story would progress from this point, perhaps after another “dinner” among the business executives or other parties to stimulate ideas for further plot development.

The same process (a dinner between a couple or among a group of parties) can work as well for horror as for any other genre of fiction. Grave robbery was once big business. Fresh corpses were in high demand among medical schools whose professors wanted to use actual cadavers for dissection in anatomy classes despite religious and sociopolitical prohibitions upon such uses of the dead. There was a demand for dead bodies, both male and female, but no supply--until enterprising grave robbers stepped forward, pickaxe and shovel in hand to fill in--or, I should say, to uncover--the gap. Now that such sanctions have ended and men and women donate their bodies to medical school students to slice and dice--posthumously, of course--grave robbery has gone out of fashion, pretty much, even among desperadoes.

There are a few exceptions, though. Imagine Ed Gein, Jack Hughes and “Big Jim” Kennally, and Molly and Clayton Daniels having g dinner together. Entrepreneurial madmen that they were, they might find some reasons for digging up the dead even when there isn’t a large demand for their, uh, services. In fact, they actually did find reasons for doing so. Gein robbed graves so he could skin female corpses and wear their flesh as masks, vests, and leggings. After Molly came up with the idea, Clayton dug up a woman’s body to use as a stand-in for his own, and they set the corpse afire inside his car in an ill-fated attempt to fake Clayton’s own death. Hughes and Kennally conspired to steal the body of President Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. Even when a market doesn’t exist for one’s goods or services, the enterprising individual can create one, even if the market consists of only him- or herself or an aggrieved nation.

Dinner parties needn’t be moribund affairs. In fact, imaginary ones can suggest endless ideas for stories that, once conceived, can be developed in numerous ways that have nothing to do with appetizers, entrees, and desserts and everything to do with characters, conflict, and suspense.

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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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