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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Connie's Plight

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Professor Joyce Carol Oates

In Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?” (1966), the teenage protagonist Connie meets antagonist Arnold Friend, who is, according to some critics, Satan (or perhaps a satyr) in disguise; an imaginary embodiment of Connie’s own confused notions of men and romance; or an actual killer.

The answer to the story’s first question is, most likely, to be raped and murdered. The question is obviously related to the second question, “Where have you been?” For many critics, the answer to this second question is, in a sense, nowhere. Connie’s mother is vain and superficial, and her father is disinterested in the matters of the family whom he helped to create. Neither parent has done any parenting; consequently, their teenage daughter has no moral basis upon which to base her own conduct and she is easy prey for Arnold and his accomplice, Ellie Oscar (in real life, John Saunders). Connie’s view of life, informed by the events, interests, artifacts, and pursuits of popular culture, is insufficient to sustain her in the crisis she encounters in the person of her adversary. She is as much a victim of her parents and the superficial society in which they live as she is of Friend.

Short Fiction: A Critical Companion by Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedemann (Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT, 1997) provides excerpts of critical texts that summarize much of the more important criticism concerning “Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?” and other short stories.

According to one of the critics whose views are included in this volume, despite its seemingly supernatural elements, the story should not be read as allegorical because it is based upon the actual rape and murder of a teenage girl, Alleen Rowe, by serial killer Charles Schmid. Connie is Rowe’s fictional equivalent, just as Friend is a stand-in for Schmid. As A. R. Courtland points out in “Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ As Pure Realism” (Studies in Short Fiction 26 [1989]: 505-010), Oates took many of the details of both Connie’s and Friend’s appearance and behavior from reports of the crime:
. . . [Like Connie,] Alleen Rowe was fifteen, had just washed her hair and was home alone. In addition, Schmid, although older, frequented teenage hangouts, was short though physically fit, dyed his hair, wore make-up, stuffed his boots, drove a gold car, and listened to rock music--all details that Oates incorporates into her story (173).
Moreover, the apparently supernatural elements of the story can be easily explained as natural incidents, Courtland argues:

His seemingly supernatural powers can be explained: his knowledge about Connie could easily have been acquired in her small town or even gathered through his own observations. Some of his statements are clever guesses (he mentions the type of food at the picnic, corn, and the activities of the guests, sitting and drinking) and other comments are wrong (he describes one guest as a fat lady, a statement that startles Connie, although she fills in a name and wonders why the woman is at the picnic (173).
Because the story is based upon actual, if fictionalized, events, to read it as fantastic is to do a disservice to the narrative, Courtland believes: “Reading the story as an allegory lessens its impact” (173).

Other critics disagree, arguing that an allegorical reading of the story enhances its values by adding verisimilitude to its plot. For example, Tom Quirk (“A Source for ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Studies in Short Fiction [1981]: 413:19) contends that “Oates’ fictionalizing of actual people and events does not detract from the impact of the story but rather heightens it, for the evil she depicts exists” (176).

Against the idea that Friend could not represent an embodiment of Satan, Joyce M. Wegs (“Don’t You Know Who I Am?” The Grotesque in Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” ed. Elaine Showalter, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994. Pp. 99-107) insists that “Friend is not just a murderer but also represents the devil. Connie, who has accepted the values of popular culture for her religion, mistakenly sees Friend as her savior.” Moreover, Wegs argues, some of Friend’s knowledge and behavior can just as well be attributed to supernatural as to natural powers, suggesting that he is a supernatural entity: “Friend, whose name suggests ‘fiend,’ appears to know all about Connie, cannot cross a threshold without being invited, places his sign on her, and wears boots to hide his cloven feet.” However, she also suggests that Friend is, in part, also a representation of “Connie’s sexual desires and fears.” As such, Wegs implies, Connie’s parents and the superficial culture that Americans tend to embrace are as much responsible for Friend’s existence as their daughter is responsible: “Connie cannot direct or control her actions, but the blame lies with her parents and a culture that gives her no moral guidance” (179).

Regarding the psychosocial origin and significance of Friend, Gretchen Schultz and R. J. R. Rockwood (“In Fairyland Without a Map: Connie’s Exploration Inward in Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Where Are We Going, Where Have You Been?’” Literature and Psychology 30 [1980]: 155-67) agree, indicating that “the story represents Connie’s view of the world and Arnold Friend, the Schmid figure, exists in her mind. Connie, a confused adolescent, who creates the Arnold who matches her view of reality, is at ‘the boundary between childhood and adulthood,’ hesitant and yet anxious to enter the new world of experience which is opening before her.” Although Schultz and Rockwood do not seem to go along with Weg’s idea that Friend is also literally a fiend (he’s an inner demon, in their view), they do concur that his origin is at least in part due to an insufficient view of the world: “Unfortunately Connie does not have the needed help that would enable her to make this passage successfully. . . . Connie has received her messages from movies and songs, insufficient guides with their romantic and idealized themes” (177).

Although male readers tend to enjoy “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” Oates’ story appeals more to adolescent girls and young women, perhaps, who can better relate to her plight. Connie is socially awkward and seems to have low self-esteem. She also lacks autonomy and a developed sense of herself as a self, or person. Rather than thinking and feeling for herself, she relies upon cues from others as to how she should think and feel about situations. Her mother, a vain woman whose own looks have faded, is envious of her daughter’s beauty and, assuming that Connie is as vain about her own looks as she herself once was, scolds the teen whenever she sees Connie looking at her reflection in a mirror. This is how Oates introduces her protagonist:

Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. "Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you're so pretty?" she would say.
Connie, as it turns out, is vain, as her mother suspects, perhaps for the same reason that her mother was once obsessed with her own appearance. Connie is astute at feminine psychology as it relates to the importance that society places on girls’ and women’s looks and, lacking self-esteem and confidence about herself as a person, she seeks to find a sense of self-worth in her appearance:

Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.
It is her insecurity and her vanity, her dependence upon being considered beautiful by others, that makes Connie such easy prey to Friend’s compliments. However, she is also vulnerable because she feels unloved. Left home by her parents and sister June, who is “so plain and chunky and steady” that her mother is always unfavorably comparing Connie to her, Connie dreams of “a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs.”

Connie’s father is seldom home to provide her with an example of adult masculinity that would counter such adolescent notions of love, to provide needed discipline, or to protect his family from the likes of Friend: “Their father was away at work most of the time and when he came home he wanted supper and he read the newspaper at supper and after supper he went to bed. He didn't bother talking much to them.”

On some level, however, Connie does appear to know that her behavior would not always be approved or even accepted at home. As a result, Connie affects one manner of dress and a certain manner of conduct at home and another “away from home,” her hypocrisy partly defiance, partly a seeking after of her own identity, partly an affectation of sensuality intended to heighten and maintain her popularity among boys, and partly a result of her insecurities:

She wore a pull-over jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out; her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—"Ha, ha, very funny,"—but highpitched [sic].
Connie is a complex, not a simple, character, yet she lives in a simple world that provides her with a simple--indeed, simplistic--view or life that is also dangerously superficial. Connie becomes the sort of girl the movies and magazines and songs suggest she should be; these media of popular culture are as much guides to how she should behave (and think and feel) as the “mirrors” into which she continually peers or the “other people's faces” she constantly checks “ to make sure her own was all right.” In the moral vacuum of modern America, popular culture’s shallow and phony values sweep in to fill the void of the adolescent self.

To get the full benefit of the multivalent themes and insights that Oates’ rich story contains, one pretty much has to bite the bullet and read it him- or herself. The beauty of the story is, after all, largely in its details and in the various ways in which it can be read, including, to my way of thinking, at any rate, both realistically and allegorically. Indeed, for horror fans, as soon as Friend and his friend, Ellie, arrive at Connie’s house, their bizarre behavior and grotesque dialogue leaves no doubt that, however real the actual crime upon which Oates bases her story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” goes so beyond the world of the everyday (without, paradoxically, ever leaving it) that there is no alternative but to read it both ways simultaneously, as realistic narrative and allegorical fantasy.

By the way, you can read about Charles Schmid’s crimes at TruTV’s Crime Library (“Charles Schmid: The Pied Piper”), and an online text of Oates’ story is available at Celestial Timepiece. I heartily recommend both. For film fans, there’s also Smooth Talk (1985), directed by Joyce Chopra and starring Laura Dern as Connie and Treat Williams as Arnold Friend. The set of large black-and-white photographs that appeared in Life magazine following Schmidt's arrest put a personal face on the true-life persons (except for Alleen herself) who were associated as friends, acquaintances, and victims of Schmid and of the law enforcement and judicial system representatives who finally brought him to justice. The images can be viewed at the LIFE photo archive hosted by Google. Just type in “Charles Schmid” (without quotation marks) to access the photographs.

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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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