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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!

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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