Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ironic Endings

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In “Spectral Forms,” a chapter of The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror, and Fear, Dani Cavallaro presents an observation with which, one might expect, most readers would agree: “Many people would probably be disinclined to confront disembodied voices and floating shapes, let alone share a dwelling with them.” However, having established this seemingly self-evident premise, she introduces “some potentially amusing exceptions, not only in fiction but also in real life,” one of which is recounted in Karen Farrington’s The History of the Supernatural and involves a homeowner who, disappointed that his recently purchased house has not lived up to its reputation, so to speak, of being haunted, sues the seller for what amounts to fraud (79).

Cavallaro’s example provides the basis for introducing a spin or a twist to one’s tale, which, although simple, is, or can be, effective, depending upon one’s treatment of it: suggest that one’s narrative will be resolved in one direction, but end the story in the opposite way. Such an approach depends upon the use of situational irony that is effected through the human mind’s seemingly natural tendency to think in, and, indeed, to create, polarities. The one to which Farrington, through Cavallaro, alludes involves that of the undesirable (the rule, as it were, which applies to interacting with “disembodied voices and floating shapes”) and the desirable (the “exception” to this rule, represented by the disappointed homeowner’s hope of encountering a ghost in the supposedly haunted house he’s recently purchased).

To apply this formula to other narratives, which may or may not involve ghosts or rumors of ghosts, a writer need only to construct a pair of opposites, drive his or her narrative toward one of the two possibilities for resolution, so that, unexpectedly, the story ends in the opposite manner to that which the author has led the reader to expect the tale will conclude. Alfred Hitchcock does this in Psycho. Encouraging viewers to assume that Norman Bates' mother has committed murder, the resolution of the plot shares the secret that it is the protagonist himself, who, impersonating his deceased mother, kills his victims. The movie The Others, directed by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Newman, is an example of this technique at work as well. The film suggests that Grace and her children are haunted by a family of ghosts when, in fact, as it turns out, it is she and her children who are the ghosts who haunt the house’s human tenants. Likewise, in The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, who helps Cole Sear, a disturbed boy with dark secrets and claims to see ghosts, one of these phantoms, as it turns out, is Crowe himself, who has returned from the dead, after having been murdered by another patient, named Vincent, to assist Cole and to find closure for his own previous existence.

Shyamalan is a notoriously uneven director with more failures than successes to his credit, and his unsuccessful ventures, Lady in the Water and The Happening in particular, show how an inept handling of situational irony results in the introduction of a plot twist that leaves an audience disappointed and annoyed rather than satisfied.

Rather than constituting an integral part of the overall plot, many of the director’s endings appear tacked on, as it were, solely to deliver the supposed surprise for which he and his films have become known. The surprise endings are forced to fit, having become the trademark for his films.

To the contrary, Psycho, The Others, and, yes, even The Sixth Sense represent effective ways to employ situational irony to create a surprise ending; in each case, the endings issue from the characters of the protagonists: Norman Bates’ transvestism is a manifestation of his dead mother’s unbreakable hold upon his ego; Grace Newman’s guilt in murdering her own children caused her to kill herself and to spend what appears to be purgatory for her sins; Malcolm Crowe comes back from the dead the business of the living which has led to his own untimely demise and his failed marriage.

The twist ending to The Happening (a toxin secreted by plants who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore from environmentally insensitive people who pollute the planet are causing people to go insane and kill themselves) has no bearing upon the personal crisis of the protagonist (whose problem appears to be that his wife had lunch with a male coworker). Thousands of years ago, in Poetics, Aristotle wrote of the necessity for the end of a narrative to be integral to everything that precedes it rather than being a dues ex machina that unrealistically and illogically concludes the tale. This is a lesson lost on the likes of Shyamalan, apparently, but, when a plot twist is executed with finesse, it can introduce a surprise ending that both jolts and satisfies. The films of Alfred Hitchcock, Alejandro Amenábar, and, indeed, Shayamalan (at one time, for a film or two) are proof of this.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Implications of the Fantastic

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

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 say that the works belong to another genre; 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 (41).

Indeed we distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the “uncanny”). . . and that of the supernatural accepted (the “marvelous”) (41-42).

-- Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Whatever one may think about Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, he or she would likely admit that the philosopher does a good job, for the most part, in defining his terms. The fantastic is either the supernatural or the apparently supernatural, depending upon whether it is resolved as explicable in terms of “‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion” (that is, as the “uncanny,” or “supernatural explained”) or it remains inexplicable (that is, “marvelous”).

One of the terms that is not as explicitly defined is “‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion.” This term is more vague, although, within the context of the other terms’ definitions, its meaning is fairly clear, referring, it seems, to the scientific world view in which the universe is synonymous with nature, cause-and-effect relationships govern all events, knowledge is obtained through the application of the scientific method, and the results of this method of inquiry are codified in theoretical principles often called “laws of nature,” “laws of thermodynamics,” “laws of physics,” and so forth. It is “reality” in this sense upon which the fantastic itself is predicated, Todorov says, and which the fantastic actually supports:

The reader and the hero, as we have seen, must decide if a certain event or phenomenon belongs to reality or the imagination, that is, must determine whether or not it is real. It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.
. . . Far from being a praise of the imaginary. . . the literature of the fantastic posits the majority of a text as belonging to reality--or, more specifically, as provoked by reality (167-168).
It is also for this reason that the literature of the fantastic ultimately reaches its end, or, as Todorov declares:
Today, we can no longer believe in an immutable, external reality, nor in a literature which is merely the transcription of such a reality. . . . Fantastic literature itself--which on every page subverts linguistic categorizations--has received a fatal blow from these very categorizations (168).
In short, as I myself suggest in “Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?”:
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.
 However, in general, individuals follow, rather than lead, developments in cultural and theoretical paradigm shifts. The cultural Weltanschauung changes, usually centuries before, the individual’s world view, and what is accepted among the elite of specialized communities such as those of academics, scientists, and philosophers usually becomes accepted much more slowly, often centuries later, in fact, if ever, by the general public. For this reason, outmoded views of the “reality” of which Todorov speaks continue to inform and to direct, if not determine, their thoughts, behavior, and, to a lesser degree, perhaps, their feelings. For them, such divisions as those listed below will continue, more or less, to hold sway:

The Fantastic (or what might be called the “supernatural undecided”): The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Shining (film version; directed by Stanley Kubrick), The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King), The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson). 

The Uncanny (“supernatural explained”): “The Red Room” (H. G. Wells), The Island of Dr. Moreau (H. G. Wells), The Food of the Gods (H. G. Wells), The Invisible Man (H. G. Wells), Hide and Seek (film, directed by Ari Schlossberg), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), King Kong (film, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack), Subterranean (James Rollins), Relic (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child), Watchers (Dean Koontz), The Tommyknockers (Stephen King), Swan Song (Robert McCammon), The Funhouse (film, directed by Tobe Hooper). 

The Marvelous ("supernatural accepted" as such): “1408” (Stephen King), “Dracula’s Guest” (Bram Stoker), “A Christmas Carol” (Charles Dickens), It (Stephen King), ‘Salem’s Lot (Stephen King), Carrie (Stephen King), Desperation (Stephen King), The Taking (Dean Koontz), Summer of Night (Dan Simmons), Fires of Eden (Dan Simmons), The Green Mile (Stephen King), Silver Bullet (Stephen King), The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty), Dracula (Bram Stoker), The University (Bentley Little).

Such a division also has the benefit of allowing authors, critics, and readers the ability to discern, in short order, whether a writer’s oeuvre tends more toward the fantastic, the uncanny, or the marvelous.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“The Apparitional Lesbian” as a Key to Interpreting “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Marcie Ross performs her disappearing act.

According to Lucie Armitt’s “Ghosts and (Narrative) Ghosting,” Terry Castle regards “the image of the apparition as a key leitmotif for closet lesbianism in literary history.” “When it comes to lesbians,” Castle writes in The Apparitional Lesbian, “many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them” (Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the Fantastic, 106). This insight offers a key to unlocking a deeper meaning to “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” an episode of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series that has hitherto come to light.

Usually, this episode is regarded as offering, in the form of a cautionary tale, a lesson, so to speak, concerning the dangers that can result from the bullying--in the case of this episode, mostly through ignoring or insulting--of someone who, for whatever reason (or no reason) doesn’t fit the mold of other people’s narrow-minded perceptions as to how one should dress, speak, and act. The victim, Marcie Ross, becomes literally invisible after she is repeatedly ignored or overlooked by her high school and teachers and is rebuffed by the cliques she seeks to join. No reason is given for her rejection other than that she doesn’t measure up to the ideas of those with whom she tries to communicate or whom she seeks to befriend.

Castle’s insight, however, offers a subtext for understanding why Marcie may have been rejected that goes beyond the issue of personal popularity (or the lack thereof), or at least addresses this issue from a different, perhaps more significant, perspective: Marcie is rejected by others because she is homosexual, or lesbian. Once this possibility is entertained, it finds support among other element’s of the episodes plot, including characters’ actions and other behaviors.

Cordelia Chase, who is arguably the sexiest and most beautiful of Sunnydale High School’s students, and who is competing for the coveted title of May Queen, attracts Marcie’s ire, which Marcie directs not at Cordelia herself but at Cordelia’s boyfriend, Mitch, whom Marcie attacks with a baseball bat as Mitch is dressing in the boys’ locker room--an obviously male bastion--possibly because Marcie, enamored of Cordelier, is jealous of Mitch, who has succeeded where Marcie herself has failed, having won Cornelia’s affections.

Across the face of several lockers, Marcie scrawls the word “LOOK!” Some regard this text as a message to those who have ignored her, as if she were commanding the attention that others have denied her, and, certainly, this interpretation makes sense. However, in the context of the understanding of the episode’s significance that is implied by positing Marcie’s rejection by others specifically because of her lesbianism, the message might be focused more upon her rejection of men, and Mitch, as Cordelia’s beau, in particular, as if, in having attacked her male rival for Cordelia’s affections, Marcie is issuing a warning to other presumptuous would-be suitors of the May Queen candidate. The message could also be more general: look at the results of homophobia when the target of such bigotry strikes back.

Her attack upon Mitch is not only a blow to the power of the patriarchy, but it is also a strike against heterosexuality. In both cases, Marcie, a female who prefers other females to males, delivers a blow to a majority of her peers with whom she, alienated from them because of her own sexual orientation, if not her gender per se, can never be a part. Her homosexual assault on a male in the boys’ locker room must be contrasted with heterosexual Xander Harris’ statement as to how he would use the power of invisibility, were he to have the ability: “I’d protect the girls’ locker room.” Where Xander would protect girls in an all-female environment, Marcie attacks a boy in a male bastion.

In a flashback, Marcie is ignored (that is, rejected) by both Cordelia and Harmony Kendall, Cordelia’s best friend, when Marcie approaches the other girls while they are discussing whether Cordelia is interested in dating Mitch now that he has broken up with a girl named Wendy. Marcie launches an attack upon Harmony, pushing her down the stairs at school, just as, earlier, Marcie had attacked Mitch with the baseball bat. Was Marcie’s attack an act of revenge upon the girl, Harmony, who had apprised Cordelia of Mitch’s availability when Marcie herself may have hoped to become Cordelia’s girlfriend?

Perhaps intentionally (although seemingly inadvertently), Marcie makes her presence known to Buffy (the latest object of her infatuation?) by playing a flute. In ancient Greece, women were sometimes represented as playing the flute in settings reserved for the gathering of men, such as banquets. In one such scene, by a Bygos painter, dated 480 B. C., which is now housed in the British Museum, a youth at a banquet pushes aside a flute-playing girl so that he will have a better view of the target--a nude young man--at whom he aims a missile. His pushing aside the woman who plays the phallic instrument seems to suggest that he rejects her offer of sexual favors in favor of the naked youth. Marcie, as a phallic woman of sorts, offers similar sexual favors to her female schoolmates, but she is rejected by them as well. The flute (her masculinity, as it were) both lures, but also causes her rejection by, others of her own sex. In this sense, she is the rejected flute girl in the ancient Greek banquet scene, transported to modern America and transformed into an aggressive, dominant suitor of present-day young women. The link between flute-playing girls in ancient Greece and Marcie, a present-day flute-playing girl in Sunnydale, California may seem a stretch, but the episode itself makes a connection in Xander’s speculation that Marcie owes her power of invisibility to cloaks that confer invisibility upon their wearers--the gods of ancient Greece.

In the next scene, as Buffy, having followed the sound of the flute, discovers Marcie’s hideout, Marcie herself attacks a teacher, Mrs. Miller, attempting to suffocate her with a plastic bag. Marcie’s motive? Mrs. Miller is not just any teacher; she is Cordelia’s English teacher, who has shown Cordeila a good amount of attention in class and who has agreed to meet with Cordelia after class on the day that Marcie arrives, just before Cordelia’s appointment, to suffocate her. Perhaps Marcie is jealous of the attention that Mrs. Miller has shown the object of Marcie’s own romantic interest or perhaps Marcie sees the teacher as a potential rival for Cordelia’s affections. In either case, it seems that Marcie’s attack upon the teacher is motivated by Marcie’s unrequited lesbian love for the May Queen candidate. Adding insult to injury, it is Cordelia who saves Mrs. Miller, arriving in time to remove the bag from her head before the teacher suffocates--and in time to see Marcie’s latest message, written on the chalkboard of what might have been the scene of the school’s second murder: “LISTEN.” The basis of Cordelia’s relationship, that of student and teacher, with Mrs. Miller is primarily verbal communication, in which the two take turns listening to one another; it seems clear that Marcie is making it know that she wants to be the one to whom Cordelia speaks and the one to whom Cordelia, in turn, listens. Speaking and listening, for Marcie, seems to represent more than mere communication. Conversation, from which she is always excluded, represents relationships.

The fact that Cordelia is competing for the title of May Queen is also significant, for Cordelia’s entry in the contest seems to have been the inciting moment, as it were, that sparks Marcie’s attacks. Marcie had not resorted to violence before now, although, as the episode’s flashbacks make it clear, she has been ignored, rejected, and insulted on several occasions well before the May Day contest. The competition, however, draws attention to Cordelia, casting her in the light of a beautiful woman rather than merely a popular peer. Cordelia’s popularity is joined with an emphasis upon her beauty and sex appeal by her participation in the contest, which, it seems likely, she will win, as does Cordelia’s recent dating of the athletic and manly Mitch. Indeed, another person who attracts Marcie’s attention, Buffy Summers herself, was the winner of a similar competition at the high school Buffy had previously attended. Although it is true that Buffy is also Cordelia’s protector, Buffy is also an attractive young woman who allies herself with Cordelia rather than with Marcie.

Willow Rosenberg, who, ironically, becomes or (depending upon one’s point of view concerning the matter) discovers her own homosexuality later in the series, finds that, like everyone else to whom Marcie had presented her high school yearbook, she has signed it “Have a great summer,” a throw-away--indeed, dismissive--pseudo-sentiment that, Xander informs the audience, is “the kiss of death.” As it turns out, the line is almost the seal of their own deaths, for Marcie lures Willow, Xander, and Buffy’s mentor, the school’s librarian, Rupert Giles, into the boiler room, where she locks them, after opening a gas valve so that their place of confinement will fill with the deadly fumes. Their ignoring (that is, rejection) of Marcie becomes her “kiss of death” to them.

Having won the May Day competition, Cordelia dresses for the award ceremony, and Marcie knocks her out. However, Buffy, who serves as Cordelia’s bodyguard, discovers her unconscious charge. Before Buffy can act, Marcie jabs her with a needle and injects her with a sedative. The girls awaken, strapped into chairs, the word “LEARN” on a curtain before them. Marcie, who has supplied herself with an array of surgical instruments, informs her captive audience that Cordelia herself will become the object lesson, after Marcie uses her instruments to carve up the beauty queen’s face. However, after Marcie cuts Cordelia with a scalpel, drawing blood, Buffy kicks the surgical tray from the attacker’s hands, frees herself, and does battle with the invisible girl. Buffy, who, the series makes abundantly clear through her multiple romantic liaisons with powerful males of unquestionable masculinity and virility, such as Angel, Spike, and Riley Finn, is heterosexual, takes on the lesbian threat in single, hand-to-hand combat, ironically using her sense of hearing to locate her invisible opponent, whom she defeats by revealing her presence in shoving her into a curtain that falls over and drapes Marcie, allowing Buffy to knock her out.

The method by which Buffy wins the fight with Marcie--listening--symbolizes, for Marcie, both interpersonal relationships and attention, and is becomes the vehicle, as it were, for Marcie’s possible redemption, for, following her defeat and capture, she is led away by government agents to a clandestine school for spies, where, as a new student among other invisible classmates, her first lesson, as her textbook’s title implies, is Assassination and Infiltration, specialties in which she has already demonstrated some expertise. The episode’s conclusion suggests that there is a place in society for Marcie and others of her kind--the “apparitional lesbians” of whom Castle writes--but it is not a place in which she can be visible (that is, be accepted as herself). To be accepted, even tacitly, she must remain in the closet, hidden and invisible, an apparition. In seeking an explanation for Marcie’s condition, Giles speculates that her invisibility has been caused, in fact, by her being ignored and rejected by her peers. According to a principle of physics, he says, the perceptions of the group can alter or mold reality itself, as has been the case, he thinks, with Marcie: her peers’ perceptions of her as virtually non-existent have caused her to become invisible to others. The conclusion of the episode reinforces Giles’ observation, concluding with Marcie’s marginal acceptance as a closeted, or “apparitional,” lesbian.

The series’ later transformation Willow into a lesbian (or its revelation of her homosexuality) and that of the minor characters Larry Blaisdell and Scott Hope, as well as Willow’s protracted lesbian affairs with Tara Maclay and Kennedy are further indications that Marcie Ross’ motive may have been to avenge her rejection by her peers because of her lesbianism, since such storylines demonstrate the Joss Whedon’s interest in same-sex themes. At the same time, Marcie’s treatment invites the same sort of criticism as the treatment that the series’ writers gave to Willow’s homosexuality and its expressions. Homosexuals do not fare well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and some contend that there is a reason for it: the writers’ own homophobia. Tara is killed, Willow grieves, Scott spreads rumors that Buffy is gay, and, when Larry is killed during a fight with his hometown’s demonic mayor, Willow dismisses him by telling Amy Madison (who, in the form of a rat, has been out of action for several years, in protective custody inside a cage in Willow’s bedroom), that Larry won’t be taking her to the prom, as she’d hoped, because “Larry’s gay, Larry’s dead, and high school’s kind of over.”

The mixed messages that Buffy the Vampire Slayer delivers concerning gays mirrors the ambiguity that surrounds them in contemporary society. The series, despite its boldness in delving into thorny social and political issues (albeit often in the disguised forms of demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and witches), is as much a mirror of its times, in many ways, as it is a corrective lens, and this ambiguity is as apparent in its depiction of gays and lesbians as it is in its portrayal of other minorities and their causes. Sometimes, when television crusades instead of entertains, it becomes more propagandistic, whatever its momentary view might be than it is educational. As long as viewers are aware of this and don’t take their television shows too seriously, an episode like “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” is fairly good fare, even with its “apparitional lesbian.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Adaptation of the Gothic

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

South cloister of Gloucester Cathedral, looking eastwards.  By William Avery.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Images of the Gothic no longer haunt us, perhaps, as they did earlier generations. Americans, in particular, do not identify much with aristocratic living or, for that matter, peasantry. Most Americans live in apartments or single-family dwellings. Their houses, although often spacious, are seldom the size of castles, and Americans are more likely to be haunted by natural, as opposed to supernatural, events. War, sickness, broken relationships, the deaths of loved ones, upward mobility, taxes, and the heartbreak of psoriasis are apt to frighten Americans more than things that go bump in the night.

Writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Simmons, Robert McCammon, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and James Rollins have survived the decline of fantastic literature in general and of horror fiction in particular by adapting the Gothic in various ways. King and Little bring it to contemporary small-town or rural America, substituting mansions, hotels, universities, and resorts for castles and middle-class neighbors for the peasantry. The nobility is pretty much gone from the picture altogether, with the exception of such stand-ins as occasional politicians, celebrities, and business tycoons. Koontz’s fiction adapts the fantastic and the horrific to modern life, too, but, in doing so, makes both the fantastic and the horrific merely elements of a more inclusive, “cross-genre” body of fiction that includes elements of such other genres as romance, science fiction, adventure, thrillers, and mystery. He even includes, more often than not, a dog of a purer and nobler character than any of his protagonists is likely to develop.

Simmons’ Summer of Night, a slow starter, is a rewarding read similar to King’s It, and other of his early novels tread ground that is likewise familiar to Gothic and contemporary readers alike as well: vampires (Carrion Comfort), ghosts (A Winter‘s Haunting), and even an irate volcano goddess (Fires of Eden). His more recent work, when it has dealt with horror rather than with science fiction, has reworked Gothic themes (Drood) or historical events (The Terror). McCammon’s novels often deal with sociological (The Sting) or psychological (Mine!) themes, especially as they relate to growing up (Boy’s Life). Preston and Child introduce elements of the police procedural and the thriller into their uncanny fiction by having the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast solve unusual, X-Files-type crimes that often take the reader into such exotic locales as museums, subway and sewer systems, cruise ships, Buddhist monasteries, and dream worlds, at the same time acquainting fans with specialized and esoteric knowledge about ancient artifacts, engineering marvels, the maritime trade, the finer points of Zen, and astral projection. Rollins brings special forces personnel into stories set in Amazon jungles, subterranean worlds, and other places similar to those of his literary mentors, the Doc Savage authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum, C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

The Gothic elements, although transformed, persist not so much in imagery as in mood and tone. Darkness. Shadows. Monstrous faces appearing out of the gloom. Fog. Images of decadence and death. Hints of a stranger, deeper cosmos beyond the familiar, everyday world. Portals to nowhere--and everywhere. Wraiths and apparitions that may be merely imaginary. Intimations of immortality. Mysterious ruins. Beautiful, but deadly, women. Hideous, half-seen shapes. The falling of divine judgment, like lightning, at the stroke of midnight. Time out of joint and space deformed. The themes and images may be interpreted to fit the prejudices and needs of the day, but they remain eternally Gothic, even when they are disguised.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hear ye! Hear Ye!

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add a note to the end of my "Paranormal or Supernatural: What's the Diff?" essay at the bottom of this page. It's quite interesting, if I do say so myself, and worth a perusal.

Horror Fiction and Weltanschauungs

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In an earlier post, I suggested that horror fiction awakens its readers from complacency about themselves, their lives, and life in general and, by reminding them of the things (for example, life and limb, family and friends, love and health), that matter most, serves as a rough guide to the good life.

It does.

However, horror fiction produces other equally profound effects as well.

As cultures, communities, and individuals, we develop Weltanschauungs, or worldviews, upon which, in large measure, we base our attitudes and from which, to some degree, spring our actions. Some such views are religious, others are philosophical, and still others are a hodge-podge of rather unexamined and even conflicting beliefs based upon untested assumptions and traditional folkways and mores. Horror fiction puts these views of the world, whether collective or individual, to the test, often showing how, in some way or another, these understandings of self, other, and world are mistaken, incomplete, or false.

By categorizing experience, we make sense of the world and of ourselves. The appearance of an anomaly threatens the categories of our understanding: the Euglena, which has both the chloroplasts of the plant and the cell wall of the animal, threatens our division of organisms into plants and animals; the hermaphrodite, which has the genitals of both sexes, imperils our concepts of sex and gender; the monster upsets our understanding of normality; the alien challenges our ideas about our place in the scheme of things and our belief that we may be the only intelligent life in the universe.

When possible, we seek to accommodate the anomaly. If we cannot do so, we must modify our scheme, as scientists are said to do with regard to their paradigms: When science is unable to account for an anomaly (a fact that doesn’t fit the existing scientific model of reality), it reevaluates and makes appropriate changes to the model, or paradigm, as may occur with discoveries of new species, whether in the field or as the result of the application of new inventions (e. g., the scanning electron microscope, the Hubble telescope, and onboard satellite cameras have enabled scientists to see data that had been previously undetectable to them) or the as the result of the adoption of revolutionary theories such as Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which replaced the theories of Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Sometimes, horror fiction has such a result.

More often, horror fiction’s anomalies are not directed as much at apparent violations of known scientific theories and principles as they are at violations, as it were, of human (i. e., personal, political, cultural, moral, philosophical, and religious) beliefs. The monsters of horror fiction are threats not so much to formal and expert worldviews as to personal and communal (or, sometimes, even idiosyncratic) understandings of the world and of one’s place in it. The “world,” in this sense, is apt to be much smaller, much less well-defined, and largely untested or, for that matter, even less well- known, than the world as it is understood (some might say as it is constructed) by the scientific community, consisting, for example, of families, friends, and coworkers and the organizations and institutions that bind these groups together and to oneself and to the values, beliefs, principles, attitudes, opinions, and emotions that derive from such a conglomeration of persons, places, and things, many of which are understood only vaguely and partially. (For example, how many Americans can analyze the Constitution as well as a Constitutional lawyer or scholar or, for that matter, can specify its contents in any detail or can recite the Apostle’s Creed or name all nine of the Supreme Court justices?)

Often, the anomaly (i. e., the monster) in horror stories appears not as the thing itself that he, she, or it represents (monsters are metaphors, after all), but in disguise. For example, the monster in Stephen King’s Cujo is adultery, which destroys a family, but it appears in the form of a rabid St. Bernard; likewise, alcoholism and child abuse are the true monsters of King’s novel The Shining, but they appear in the forms of ghosts. These monsters threaten the sanctity of the home and try the fidelity of the protagonists’ alleged values. Does Donna Trenton love her husband and son well enough to stay faithful to her marriage vows when temptation, in the form of itinerant repairman Steve Kemp, arrives on the scene? Will Jack Torrance choose his wife and son over his alcoholism and narcissism? Will the value of family, as reinforced by the institutions of marriage, law, and religious belief, win against the inner demons of the self, or, in Freudian terms, the monsters of the id? Sometimes, the forces of civilization and culture do win. Sometimes, they lose.

Whether the monster wins or loses, though, its threatening appearance has the effect of reminding the reader, who is expected to identify, to some extent, with the protagonist of the tale, of what’s at stake and of the consequences--death, destruction, injury, damage--to self and society that may result even if the monster doesn’t win. If the protagonist survives, a chink or weakness in his or her armor has been exposed, which may (or may not) be repaired (or reparable). If he or she does not survive, the reader does and may examine his or her own armor for chinks or weaknesses before the monster’s true-life counterpart, whether adultery, alcoholism, child abuse, or something else as evil appears, and it’s too late.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"The Judge's House": An Example of Gothic Technique

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Bram Stoker, the author of the novel Dracula and the short story “Dracula‘s Guest,” also wrote many horrific short stories other than “Dracula‘s Guest,” one of which is “The Judge’s House,” which, having fallen into the public domain, may be read, free, on several websites.

“The Judge’s House” is the subject of this post. However, before turning our attention to it, a few words concerning its author and the story in general seem to be in order.

Stoker, who as born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1847, died in London, England, in 1912. Between these fateful years, he wrote not only Dracula, which secured his literary fame, but also ten other novels and numerous short stories, yet, except for Dracula (and more as a character than as a work of fiction), he is largely unknown and underappreciated.

According to Michael Kelahan’s “Introduction” to Dracula’s Guest & Other Tales of Horror (New York, NY: Fall River Press, 2010), Stoker graduated “with honors in mathematics” from Trinity College, at which enrolled “at age seventeen.” (The protagonist of “The Judge’s House” is a mathematics student, too, possibly at Cambridge University.) A ghost story, “The Judge’s House” is (like H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,”) a study in Gothic technique, the use of setting to create suspense, and the application of a particular narrative formula--that of the horror tale--to a work of fiction. It is these points--technique, suspense, and formula--that I propose to discuss as I summarize Stoker’s haunting tale.

To differentiate my comments from my summary of Stoker’s story, I will include them in red font.

The story begins with protagonist Malcolm Malcolmson’s intentional isolation of himself from both his friends and “friends’ friends,” the better to devote himself to his preparation for an upcoming mathematics examination. To this end, he travels for three days, to Benchurch, where he rents an out-of-the-way, uninhabited Jacobean residence that appears “more a fortified house than an ordinary dwelling.” The house has stood idle for “a term of years,” with the result that it has acquired an unpleasant reputation, or “absurd prejudice.”

A ploy of the horror writer is to refer to an unsettling or unsavory reputation regarding a supposed place of evil, as Stoker does here. The servants in H. G. Wells’ short story “The Red Room” likewise declare that the castle that the protagonist visits is said to be haunted, and they give credence to the rumors, believing them to be true. In the movie based upon Stephen King’s short story, “1408,” the hotel’s manager also warns the protagonist (numerous times) that the room in which he wants to spend the night is haunted. In all three cases, the cautions fall upon deaf ears, as is, again, the traditional response (or non-response) of the main character to such warnings. Of course, such statements are a means of foreshadowing: through them, the author has all but promised the reader that something terrible will happen soon.

Asking the advice of the inn’s landlady, Mrs. Witham, as to what “stores and provisions” he is apt to need uring his proposed three-months’ stay, he horrifies her by announcing his intention of staying in “the Judge’s house,” which, she assures him, was home to a “judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences” and confesses that she would not stay in the house for even “one hour,” even for “all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank.”

Many tales of haunted houses associate the domicile with past evil or with a previous owner, such as the judge, who committed despicable acts or atrocities. The suggestion of such associations is that the past evil or previous owner is somehow the cause of the present evil.

The servants in Wells’ story also tell their guest that there is no way that they would stay in the haunted room and plead with him not to do so, either, just as Mrs. Witham suggests to Malcolm that renting the judge’s house is ill-advised. Such counsel is another of the haunted house conventions, and it is as operative in contemporary tales as it was in Gothic literature.

The student tells her that, although her concern touches him, she need not worry about him, because he will have no time to worry about “mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Typically, the protagonist is a hardheaded realist and thoroughgoing skeptic. Often, he or she is a scientist. A mathematician is an appropriate alternative, and, we should remember, Stoker himself was a student of mathematics during his college days.

Malcolm takes up residence in the house’s enormous dining room, where Mrs. Witham, a charwoman named Mrs. Dempster, and “several men and boys” set him up with furniture and provisions, Mrs. Witham suggesting that he put a screen around his “bed at night,” to ward off chilly draughts of air, although she herself would be too afraid of the “things” that might “put their heads round the sides, or over the top” to spy upon her as she slept. Her talk so disturbs her that she flees the house, much to Mrs. Dempster’s disdain. Unlike the inn’s landlady, the charwoman is, she says, unafraid of “all the bogies in the kingdom.”

Mrs. Witham is characterized as a superstitious person, prone to fear even imaginary “bogies,” as her opposite, or foil, the skeptical Mrs. Dempster refers to things that go bump in the night. Her foolish fears suggest that, perhaps, Malcolm is right to be skeptical about the reputation of the judge’s house. Perhaps we should be skeptical as well.

Mrs. Dempster’s own bravery derives, she suggests, from her knowledge that apparent “bogies” are really nothing more than natural phenomena that are misunderstood or unidentified:

“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things--except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles; and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night.”
Mrs. Dempster is much of the same mind concerning “bogies” as Malcolm, and, as a recipient of charity who is forbidden, upon the pain of the loss of her benefits, from sleeping anywhere other than the home that has been provided for her, free of charge, she has good reason to refuse to stay the night at the judge’s house. However, her situation may seem a bit too convenient to readers. Although true, her reason for not spending the night in the isolated house prevents her from witnessing or, worse, experiencing any of the phenomena that allegedly occur on the premises at night. She can, in short, afford her skepticism, for it costs her nothing and need not be put to the test.

Moreover, her doubt adds another element to Stoker’s story that is typical of its genre, which is that incidents that are alleged to be supernatural must be explainable, in principle, at least, by reference to natural causes so that it is possible to read the same story from two perspectives--the natural and the supernatural--at the same time.

After the charwoman cleans the house and lays Malcolm’s meal, she returns home, leaving the student to his studies. He prepares for the examination until eleven o’clock at night, when he pauses to stoke the fire and make some tea. As he enjoys the beverage, he hears “for the first time what a noise the rats” are “making.” He supposes that the rats have been quiet until now because they’d been intimidated by his presence and the fire, but have since grown accustomed to both and are “now disporting themselves as” is “their wont.” Sure enough, as he finds later, in examining the room more closely, there are rats in the walls: “Here and there as he went round he saw some crack or hole blocked for a moment by the face of a rat with bright eyes glittering in the light” of his lamp. What impresses him most, however, is the “great alarm bell on the roof,” which Mrs. Witham had mentioned to him previously, in passing: it is suspended “in a corner of the room on the right-hand side of the fireplace.”

The presence of rats, especially following Mrs. Dempster’s earlier declaration that “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things--except bogies”--“rats and mice” included, provides a natural explanation for seemingly otherworldly incidents as an alternative to a belief in the supernatural.

Returning to his studies, Malcolm forgets the rats, the alarm bell rope, and everything else, until, hours later, he is disturbed by the sudden cessation of the noise of the rats in the walls. He is even more disturbed to see “on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace. . . an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him.” When he pretends to throw something at the rodent, it amazes him by refusing to budge and, instead, displays “its great white teeth angrily. . . its cruel eyes” shining “in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.” Unfortunately, when Malcolm rushes at the animal with a poker, “to kill it,” the rat retreats “up the rope of the alarm bell,” escaping, and setting off a “noisy scampering of the rats in the wainscot.”

Were the rat of a normal size, it wouldn’t be nearly as intimidating as the “enormous one,” and Stoker’s anthropomorphic description of the rodent’s gaze as implying that the animal feels various emotions--all negative, of course--prepares readers for the narrator’s suggestion, later on, that the huge rat may, in fact, be associated with--or may even be--the judge himself.

Malcolm goes to sleep just before dawn and is dead to the world until Mrs. Dempster’s preparation of his breakfast awakens him. He goes for a walk, to study his books in a pleasant wood, stopping by the inn to say hello to Mrs. Witham on his way back to the judge’s house. When he tells her of the enormous rat, she refers to it as the devil, which Malcolm finds so amusing that he laughs, causing the elderly woman herself to chuckle as well.

Mrs. Witham’s half-serious, half-joking identification of the huge rat with the devil suggests another possible true identity for the rodent, besides that of the late judge, even though both Malcolm and she laugh at the absurdity of her suggestion. Readers may chuckle, too, or even roll their eyes; still, through Mrs. Witham’s statement, Stoker has suggested the possibility of a much greater source of evil, Satan himself, thereby elevating the suspense of the tale with but a few exchanges of dialogue between the main character and one of his new acquaintances, the inn’s landlady.

That evening, the rats’ commotion and noise is greater than it had been the previous evening. As on the previous night, the rats later become suddenly silent and Malcolm is disturbed to see the “enormous rat” staring at him again, “with baleful eyes,” from the “old high-backed carved oak chair beside the fireplace.” This time, the student throws a textbook at the rodent, but it doesn’t flee until he runs at it with the poker, at which point it scampers, again, “up the rope of the alarm bell,” its escape seeming to occasion “the renewal of the noise made by the general rat community.”

In most horror stories, the bizarre events of the action take place at night or, at least, in the dark, and Stoker’s haunted house story is no exception. Again, the reference to the rats allows a natural explanation for seemingly supernatural events. Notice, too, Stoker’s repetitions of similar events during successive days and nights. Most horror stories, past and present, offer some variation or other upon this strategy, repeating, with minor variations, one or more uncanny or fantastic incidents, or a series of such incidents, to heighten suspense while, at the same time, creating verisimilitude (or seeking to do so) by rendering the extraordinary ordinary--or at least familiar--through the recurrence of these incidents.

Thinking that he will trap the rat, Malcolm arranges his equipment so that it will disclose the spot through which the rodent disappears and then returns, again, to his studies:

Accordingly he lit another lamp and placed it so that it would shine well into the right-hand corner of the wall by the fireplace. Then he got all the books he had with him, and placed them handy to throw at the vermin. Finally he lifted the rope of the alarm bell and placed the end of it on the table, fixing the extreme end under the lamp. As he handled it he could not help noticing how pliable it was, especially for so strong a rope, and one not in use. “You could hang a man with it,” he thought to himself. When his preparations were made he looked around and said complacently:

“There now, my friend, I think we shall learn something of you this time!”
As I point out in other of my posts, the turning point of many horror stories occurs as the protagonist learns the origin or the nature of the threat that he faces. Through Malcolm’s talking to himself, Stoker suggests the nature of the turning point in this story and suggests, also, that it will hinge upon discovery or revelation.

When the sound of the rats again abruptly ends, Malcolm looks up to see the huge rat again, throws several books at it, and finally drives it off. The rodent retreats, Malcolm sees, through a hole in one of the paintings on the wall. Examining which books he threw at the rat to identify which tome caused it to withdraw, he sees that it was none of his mathematical treatises, but a holy book:

He picked up the books one by one, commenting on them as he lifted them. “Conic Sections he does not mind, nor Cycloidal Oscillations, nor the Principia, nor Quaternions, nor Thermodynamics. Now for the book that fetched him!” Malcolmson took it up and looked at it. As he did he started, and a sudden pallor overspread his face. He looked around uneasily and shivered slightly, as he murmured to himself:

“The Bible my mother gave me! What an odd coincidence.”
Indirectly, by pointing out through his narrator, that it is the Bible, and not human beings’ own rational faculties, as symbolized by the mathematics textbooks in the protagonists’ position, that drives the gigantic rat from the room, Stoker indirectly endorses the mystic’s point of view over that of the common-sense realist. Mathematics had not the power to banish the apparently supernatural villain, but the Bible, which contains a decidedly supernatural and, from a naturalistic standpoint, fantastic, worldview, exorcises the demon, so to speak. Although there is a bit of humor in Stoker’s description of the books, there may also be a suggestion that his readers would do well not to dismiss the otherworldly worldviews of religious and metaphysical or mystical sources of wisdom.  (At the same time, maintaining the tension between possible natural and supernatural explanations for the extraordinary incidents that take place--or appear to take place--in the story, the protagonist suggests that the Bible's frightening away the rat might be merely "an odd coincidence.")

After sleeping, Malcolm returns to his studies, paying Mrs. Witham another visit in the afternoon, where he finds her in the company of a gentleman identified to him as Dr. Thornhill, who admits to having come in answer to Mrs. Witham’s request that he see and advise the student. Malcolm is to avoid late nights and limit his tea intake. The physician also tells his patient that the rope up which the enormous rat runs is actually “the very rope which the hangman used for all of the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancor!” After Malcolm leaves, the doctor informs Mrs. Witham that he had deliberately planted the image of the hangman’s rope in his patient’s mind so that, should Malcolm suffer “some strange fright or hallucination,” he will use the rope to sound the alarm so that he may be assisted. He predicts that the student will sound the alarm this very night.

The reference to the hangman brings another element of eeriness to the book, and the doctor’s advice that Malcolm limit the amount of tea that he consumes provides another possible natural explanation for the protagonist’s apparently extraordinary experiences at the judge’s house: too much caffeine.

Back at the Judge’s house, Malcolm returns to his studies, and all is well until a storm begins to rage, causing the rope attached to the roof alarm to rise and fall and reminding the student of Dr. Thornhill’s declaration that the rope was the one that “the hangman used for victims of the Judge’s judicial rancor.”

Reminders to characters are, of course, reminders to readers as well, and such reminders maintain, if and when they do not also actually heighten, suspense by bringing to readers’ conscious awareness threads of the narrative that have been woven into the story in previous scenes. Again, the judge is characterized as irrational and as motivated not by a belief in justice but by “rancor.”

As Malcolm considers who might have been hanged on the judge’s orders, the enormous rat again descends the rope, “glaring at him steadily.” It swiftly retreats, stirring the other rats in hiding to commotion, and Malcolm is reminded that he has “not investigated the lair of the rat or looked at the pictures, as he had intended.” He lights a lamp and conducts his investigation. What he sees first startles, then frightens, him:

At the first glance [at the painting with the hole in it through which the large rat had vanished] he started back so suddenly that he almost dropped the lamp, and a deadly pallor overspread his face. His knees shook, and heavy drops of sweat came on his forehead, and he trembled like an aspen.
The reappearances of the larger-than-life rat are coupled with advancements of the story’s plot, serving as reminders to Malcolm to undertake actions that he has previously decided, but has since forgotten, to take. Earlier, the rat’s appearance reminded him to seek its avenue of escape; now, its appearance reminds him to “investigate the lair of the rat.” By coupling the rat’s multiple appearances with the protagonist’s forgotten intentions, Stoker prevents the rodent’s reappearances from becoming tedious to the reader, seeming, as they do, to serve a purpose; indeed, one begins, perhaps, to wonder whether the rat’s arrivals and departures are entirely coincidental or may be directed by unseen powers, even, perhaps, the ghost of the judge in whose house Malcolm has taken up temporary residence.

Gathering his nerve, he inspects the picture again, and sees that the painting is a portrait of the hanging judge, whose “face was strong and merciless, evil, crafty, and vindictive, with a sensual mouth, a hooked nose of ruddy colour, and shaped like the beak of a bird of prey. The rest of the face was a cadaverous colour,” and “the eyes were of peculiar brilliance and with a terribly malignant expression.” The eyes disturb Malcolm, for, in them, he sees “the very counterpart to the eyes of the great rat.” Malcolm returns his attention to the painting:

The Judge was seated in a great high-backed carved oak chair, on the right-hand side of a great stone fireplace where, in the corner, rope hung down from the ceiling, its end lying coiled on the floor.
If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, those of the rat, as a creature that lacks a soul, must seem terrible indeed, and alien. Again, the rat is linked to the judge, for in the stare of the rat Malcolm imagines the gaze of the judge.

Understanding that the picture represents “the scene of the room” as it presently stands, Malcolm is “awestruck,” and, feeling as if someone is “behind him,” looks “over the corner of the fireplace” and sees the enormous rat “in the Judge’s arm-chair, with the rope hanging behind,” staring at the student “with the Judge’s baleful eyes, now intensified and with a fiendish glare.”

He drops the lamp, which seems to awaken him, as it were, from his trancelike state, and, as he attends to the lamp, he calms himself. After a drink of brandy, he is able to return to his studies. Another sudden silence makes him aware of the sound of “the creaking of the rope,” and he witnesses the huge rat gnawing through the rope, which, as it falls to the floor, severed, makes Malcolm aware that his ability to summon “the outer world to his assistance” has now been “cut off.”

Up to this point, Malcolm has, by choice, isolated himself from others; now, his isolation is forced, his free will in the matter giving way to determinism and the fear that such loss of control (or apparent control) often entails. Moreover, Malcolm is unable to summon assistance (and readers an be quite sure that, sooner, rather than later, the protagonist is going to require it).

Angry, Malcolm throws a book at the rat, but the rodent drops to the floor and flees. The student decides to hunt for the animal and, removing the shade from his lamp, illuminates a greater extent of the room, including its “upper part.” The light reveals a sight that terrifies the student:

In the centre of the picture was a great irregular patch of brown canvas, as fresh as when it was stretched on the frame. The background was as before, with chair and chimney-corner and rope, but the figure of the Judge had disappeared.

At this point, unless Malcolm is hallucinating, any purely natural explanation for the incidents that he has witnessed firsthand and at length is impossible. Therefore, readers must assume, the story must be regarded as supernatural, for this incident is truly marvelous. Indeed, it may turn upon so supernatural a phenomenon as metempsychosis, a sort of reincarnation, wherein a human soul is reincarnated in the form of another living organism (as in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Metzengerstein,” for example).

Liberated, as it were, from the painting, the judge now occupies the room’s “great high-backed carved oak chair” and wears his judicial robes and “a black cap,” which he dons at the stroke of midnight. Rising from his chair, the judge retrieves the severed rope, fashioning one of its ends into a noose. Cutting off Malcolm’s path to the door and his escape through it, the judge attempts to toss the noose over the student’s head, but Malcolm manages, many times, to avoid it.

As the judge relentlessly pursues him, rats swarm the portion of the rope that yet hangs from the ceiling, their numbers and weight causing the roof alarm to sound. However, the “sound was but a tiny one.” Nevertheless, it enrages the judge, and he seizes Malcolm, who is now paralyzed with dread; secures the noose about the student’s neck; lifts him onto the great “oak chair”; ties the free end of the severed rope to the portion that yet hangs from the ceiling; and then pulls away the chair upon which he had stood Malcolm.

Marvel follows upon marvel now, as the judge, absent from his portrait, appears, apparently as a ghost, in the selfsame chair that Malcolm has beheld since moving into the dining room of the judge‘s house. With each new wonder, it becomes easier and easier to accept the premise that this tale involves the supernatural, after all, the protagonists’ and Mrs. Dempster’s skepticism notwithstanding--and just in time for the ending of the tale!

Previously, the story has intimated that the rope might be that of a hangman, and readers have heard, several times, characterizations of the judge as evil and cruel. Now, these hints and foreshadowing of the true nature of the rope and of the judge come together as the judge’s ghost becomes the protagonist’s executioner.

The action of the rats on the rope sets the “:alarm bell” pealing, summoning a “crowd,” led by Dr. Thornhill. They break through the door and find, “at the end of the rope of the great alarm bell. . . the body of the student,” hanging, “and on the face of the Judge in the picture. . . a malignant smile.”

The reader is left in the dark, so to speak, as to what the “crowd” will make of the sight they witness, although it is likely that, among them, will be both believers in the supernatural and skeptics concerning its existence so that the cause of the student’s hanging, whether as the result of his suicide caused, perhaps, by an overactive imagination fueled by the isolated and macabre surroundings in which he was living, or his murder by a malicious ghost, will remain forever a mystery. In either case, the incident is likely to add to the house’s unsavory reputation, or “absurd prejudice.” This ending preserves the tension between natural and supernatural explanations, although, for the reader, natural explanations seem impossible, considering the incidents that he or she has, as it were, witnessed firsthand.

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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