Fascinating lists!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Quick Tip: Let Your Setting Be Your Characters’ World

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Mrs. Radcliffe

Doesn’t this sound like the plot of a decent horror novel (or movie)?

. . . Heroines discover a nightmare world beneath the pastoral. . . . [This] underground is a world of chaos, where the forces of the supernatural and of the illicit hold full sway. The ruined castles and abbeys are graphic symbols of the disintegration of a stable civilization; their underground reaches are the hiding places for all those forces which cannot stand the light of day.
It is, sort of. It’s David Durant’s description of the twilight world of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic romance novels. One, in particular, he says, “Sicilian Romance establishes the gothic geography.” In this novel, “Julia finds that the world consists of an interconnected series of underground sites, each one peopled with viler felons than the last.” These “felons” include the “bandits, rapists, and murderers” who “fill the. . . caverns,” as well as Julia’s own “villainous father.”

Not all of these villains are human, it seems, for some of them “can apparently pass through walls and come back from the dead to work their revenge” (Ann Radcliffe and the Conservative Gothic,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22, No. 3 [Summer 1982]: 523-25).

Horror writers who ground their fiction in a detailed, complex, and believable world also ground their horrors in their readers’ acceptance--and, more often than not, it seems likely, in their appreciation as well.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Quick Tip: Monstrous Motivations

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

To start, let’s list a dozen horror stories and the antagonists, or monsters, which each of them features. No, on second thought, let’s make that a baker’s dozen; thirteen seems a more appropriate number for horror:
Now, let’s list the motivation of each monster.

Wait a minute! you say. Monsters aren’t human (well, at least not all of them are); they don’t reason; they don’t have objectives; they don’t act upon emotions. They’re monsters!

You may have a point, logically speaking, but fiction isn’t logical--at least, not entirely. Sure, there’s a cause-and-effect relationship among the incidents that comprise a plot, but causes need not be reasons, any more than motives must be rational. Motives can be rational, but, in the broad sense, they can also be emotional or, for that matter, even instinctive or reflexive. So, yes, monsters do have motives.

Ergo, let’s list the motivation of each monster on our list:

As we’ve seen, monsters, even non-human ones, do have motives. Why? For dramatic, more than for realistic, purposes.

In reality, it is unlikely that creatures such as bogeymen, aliens, trolls, dragons, demons, vampires, gorillas, and ghosts have motives (other than, in the case of gorillas or other animal antagonists) that can be known or even surmised with anything approaching certainty. But, like a jury who is expected to convict a defendant who risks a life sentence or execution, readers want to know not only the who?, what?, when?, and where?, but, above all, the why?, before they’re willing to believe in the monster and to want its imprisonment or execution.

Besides, motivating a monster, even a non-human one, makes the monstrous antagonist at least somewhat understandable to the reader (or moviegoer). It’s hard to believe in an antagonist that is so alien from us that we cannot comprehend why it wants to spindle, fold, and mutilate the human characters in the story.

So, here’s the upshot of this “quick tip”: motivate your monster.

Horror vs. Humor: A Case in Point

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullma


“The Haunted House” episode of The Andy Griffith Show could easily have been a horror story rather than an installment of the famous television sitcom. It has all the elements of a classic horror story: a decrepit, abandoned house that is allegedly haunted, a visit to this house by law enforcement personnel, frightening and bizarre incidents of an apparently supernatural character, and a rational explanation for these incidents. However, the story is comical, not horrific. Why?

The answer to this question takes us a long way toward understanding not only the affinities between humor and horror but the nature of horror fiction itself.

Let’s start with a summary of the story’s plot, courtesy of Dale Robinson and David Fernandes’ The Definitive Andy Griffith Show Reference: Episode-by-Episode, with Cast and Production Biographies and a Guide to Collectibles (McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, NC, and London, 1996):


Opie hits a baseball thrown by a friend and breaks a window at the abandoned Rimshaw house. Both boys are nervous about retrieving the ball because the house is rumored to be haunted. As they approach the door, they hear a spooky noise that scares them away. They go to the courthouse and tell their story to Andy and Barney. The men tell them it was probably just the whistling wind. Andy wants them to stay out of the house because it is likely that the floorboards are loose. Then, sensing that Barney was putting up a false front when he said there was nothing to be afraid of, Andy asks his deputy to go get the ball for the boys. While it is clear that Barney doesn’t want to do it, he can’t back out now. When Gomer suddenly comes by, Barney quickly enlists him to come along.

The nervous deputy enters the house first--”Age before beauty,” says Gomer. Unfortunately, they don’t get much farther than the boys did. Ghostly moans send them scrambling for the door.

Back at the courthouse, Andy chides Barney for failing to get the ball and for believing the house is haunted. Barney says that he recalls that when old man Rimshaw died, his last wish was for his home to remain undisturbed. Otis Campbell chimes in with rumors he has heard: the walls move, the eyes on the portrait of Mr. Rimshaw seem to follow a person around the room, and axes float through the air.

Andy dismisses all this as nonsense, and he goes to the Rimshaw house with Barney and Gomer in tow. They quickly locate the baseball, and despite objections from his
cohorts, Andy insists they look around the place. While he wanders off into another room, Barney and Gomer slowly move around the room, looking scared to death. Suddenly, Gomer disappears! Barney panics, and Andy returns. Gomer suddenly reappears. He had inadvertently stepped into a closet or something. The eerie thing is, Gomer says that someone or something pushed him out. Next, Andy notices that the wallpaper above the fireplace is peeling and the wall is warm. Barney suggests that maybe an old tramp has been using the fireplace.

Andy ventures upstairs and asks Barney and Gomer to check out the cellar. Gomer correctly surmises that the cellar is downstairs. When Barney opens the cellar door, he sees an ax. Too scared to go down the stairs, he softly inquires, “Any old tramps down there?” then quickly shuts the door. Gomer tells Barney that legend has it that Rimshaw put chains on his hired hand and then killed him with an ax.

Barney notices the eyes on the Rimshaw portrait following him. When he tells Andy, Andy responds that it’s probably a trick of the light.

Barney knocks on the wall--and his knock is answered. Andy gets the same result when he knocks. Suddenly, Andy appears frightened. He orders loudly, “Let’s get out of here!” Barney and Gomer quickly bolt out of the house, but Andy remains. He has a plan in mind.Suddenly, we see Otis and the notorious moonshiner Big Jack Anderson in the house. They are laughing, and Big Jack is quite proud of the fact that his scare tactics have worked. He has found the perfect spot for his still, and claims he could probably stay there for twenty years.

As they come out of their hiding place, believing the house is empty, they get the shock of their lives. They witness an ax hanging in the air, a baseball rolling down the stairs, and the eyes moving on the portrait. They make tracks leaving the house. Meanwhile, Barney has bravely determined he must go rescue Andy, so he comes in the rear entrance. He sees the suspended ax and hears moaning. He nearly passes out from fright before Andy can explain things.

The lawmen later use the infamous ax to smash Big Jack’s still. Andy captures Anderson and surrenders him to Federal Agent Bowden of the Alcohol Control Division. Mr. Bowden has been after the tough and tricky outlaw for years. As usual, Andy generously shares the capture credit, in this case with both Barney and Gomer.

Since much of the plot, just as it stands, could be used for a horror story, the key difference that differentiates it from that of a horror story is not the action--the series of incidents, including characters’ behavior--but the characters’ comical reactions to these incidents. In a horror story, the elements of humor--exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures, poses and postures, attitudes and responses, slapstick, clowning, and farce, irony and satire--would be minimal, if they were included at all, and the story would focus upon the evocation, through the characters’ responses to the situation, of revulsion and fear. It’s possible--probable, even--that the rational explanation of the incidents--a tramp has been residing in the house--would be shown to be false and that the incidents would, in fact, have a paranormal or a supernatural cause.

Largely, then, horror stories stress elements of the uncanny and the inexplicable and concentrate upon feelings of revulsion and fear, rather than offering rational or natural explanations for suspected supernatural phenomena and poking fun at characters’ foibles. To better see how a master of the horror story might handle a similar storyline to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s “The Haunted House,” read H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Red Room.” Both stories are concerned with an allegedly haunted domicile, and both focus on their characters’ reactions to uncanny incidents which may or may not have a natural or a rational as well as a paranormal or supernatural explanation.


Note: For a discussion of this same television episode from a humorous perspective, visit my other blog, “Writing Hilarious Humor

Monday, February 22, 2010

Oddities' Horror

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Eyes with vertical slits for pupils. Red irises. A third eye. Eyes in the back of one’s head. Eyes instead of nipples. An eye inside a navel. Eyes in kneecaps.

Eyes that don’t belong.

Fangs instead of teeth. Steel incisors among the enamel ivories. Teeth that glow in the dark. Extracted teeth.

Teeth that don’t belong.

Claws instead of fingernails or toenails. Elongated or serrated claws. Talons. Claws along the arm or leg.

Nails that don’t belong.

Although these are examples so extreme as to be unlikely, real-life counterparts do exist, such as supernumerary body parts (extra breasts or nipples, additional ribs, two penises, a set of both male and female genitals, additional teeth, an extra head, an extra arm or leg, more than two testicles, a third kidney, webbed digits, double vaginal canals or uteri).

Although, fortunately, the public’s attitude toward such “freaks” (actually individuals unfortunate enough to have suffered a deformity as the result of a genetic abnormality, a birth defect, or a disease) has greatly improved since such conditions were regarded as proof of the devil or the wrath of God (see my article on “Teratology”] , horror maestros, both of print and film, continue to use them, both as sideshow performers or, more often, in cameo-style appearances which focus upon their oddities rather than their personalities.

Depending upon their visibility and their extremeness, such “extras” may horrify us because they don’t belong. They are out of place. They defy the neat categories of existence and of understanding. They challenge the world as we know it, which is the world as it is supposed to be.

They are signs of chaos, signs of the unraveling of the universe’s order, signs of the end, my friend.

As children, we played a game, circling the one object that did not belong among the others of a set. Hence, we might circle the fish among the fowl or the mammal among the reptiles or the amphibians. The odd man out was odd; therefore, he was out, whether a carp among hens, an ape among frogs, or a troll among the Danes.

That which doesn’t belong is horrific; it must be cast out, and it must be kept out. If it finds a way in, among us, there will be suffering, and there will be death.

This is one of the basic principles of horror. Carrie White is an outcast who tries to get “in,” to become accepted by, if not popular among, the peers who reject her. Before she is admired by the prince, Cinderella is rejected by her stepmother and her stepsisters. Grendel attacks, kills, and devours the Danish warriors of Heorot hall because he envies them their camaraderie, which is denied to him, the ostracized son of Cain.

If you’re in need of something monstrous for your next short story, novel, or film, seek that which is lost, and give it a home among those who have banished, exiled, evicted, or dispossessed it.

Then, things will get interesting.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Quick Tip: Think BIG

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Imagine a confederation of banshees, demons, ghosts, monsters, vampires, werewolves, witches, and zombies with a single goal to unify them against a town, a region, a country, or even the world. Now, you’re thinking BIG. Your scope is large--huge, in fact--with regard both to the numbers (and types) of characters your story (or, more likely, your series of stories) and your setting will include.

You’re talking a novel here, at least, or a whole sequence of novels--chronicles, you might decide to call them. You need a title for them, though, which not only suggests the commonality among the books but also sounds cool, as in elevated or grand: The Chronicles of Mayhem might serve your purpose. Perhaps the federation of monsters could call themselves “Mayhem” as their collective name.

Now, you’re rolling! Or not. Maybe you think this idea, whether for a single, stand-alone novel or for a series of book-length stories, is lame. That’s okay. I wasn’t trying to sell you on the idea of The Chronicles of Mayhem per se; rather, I was showing you a way to think big, to enlarge the arena of your imagination so that it encompasses a whole town, or region, or country, or planet and any number of antagonists. You can people your novel or series with whatever characters tickle your fancy and set it wherever you like. It’s your story (or stories), after all.


The point is that, to think big, you have to, well, think BIG.

But once you have decided on your characters and your setting, you can enhance your plot by introducing intrigues among different characters or groups of characters, developing romantic interests and triangles, establishing allegiances and feuds, and so forth. You have enough characters and a setting big enough in scope, now that you have thought BIG, to encompass all these plot angles and twists and more. You can write on an epic scale.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Taking the Scenic Route

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Clayton Tunnel

Would it be more difficult to imagine horror when you are seated amid luxurious surroundings on a clear and sunny day than it might be if you were you crawling, knee deep, through a slime pit, in the fading dusk, with unknown animal noises all around you?

Mysterious settings are keys to creating narrative or dramatic suspense. When the actual surroundings in which one is writing are not only mysterious, but also eerie, they’re a pretty good inspiration for scary fiction.

Why not find someplace off the beaten track, go there, alone, and drink in (or absorb, as by osmosis) the bad vibes; let them chill you, thrill you, and become a part of you, as you let your imagination run wild.

If you don’t have a heart attack, you’ll probably come away with an idea (and maybe a dozen of them) for a spooky chiller or an uncanny thriller.

With the economy the way it is, getting away to, say, the catacombs or your favorite bat-filled cavern may be too dear a journey to make. That’s where your Internet service provider’s images browser can be of assistance. (I prefer Yahoo!, but several others are probably as good.)

Type in the would-be destination of your choice, and, with the click of your mouse button, you’re there. Describe what you see, as well as you can, but don’t merely describe it. See it. Hear it. Feel it. Smell it. If possible, taste it.

Let the scenes depicted in the photographs become one with you, as you become one with each of then in turn. Imagine that you are a character in a story. Why are you there, in the catacombs or the bat-filled cavern, by yourself? How did you get there? What happens to you? (Whatever it is, it has to be horrible or horrific, if you’re writing a horror story.) What happens next?

Stanley Hotel

Similarly, actual horrors sometimes become connected to a place, and the place to which these horrors are connected can itself inspire tales of terror. For example, Charles Dickens is believed to have based his eerie, supernatural short story “The Signalman” on the 1861 Clayton Tunnel crash, and a night as a guest in the Stanley Hotel near Estes Park, Colorado, gave Stephen King much of the material that he needed to write his novel The Shining. “It was like God had put me there to hear that and see those things. And by the time I went to bed that night, I had the whole book in my mind,” he said.

By taking the scenic route, as it were, and merging your consciousness with your surroundings (as they are depicted in the photographs and in your descriptions of them), and imagining that you are your protagonist, your antagonist, or another of your characters, you will create, for your reader, the same suspense and fear, the same horror and terror, the same panic and certainty of doom as you yourself feel.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Discerning Meaning, or The Theme of the Story

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

One of the skills that we learn fairly early in our academic careers is how to spot the key idea of a passage such as a paragraph, an essay, or a book. Often, these passages are of non-fiction prose. We learn to look at the beginning of the paragraph, the chapter, or the book for a topic sentence, an introductory paragraph, or a foreword or preface. In shorter passages, we learn that the main idea may also be presented at the end of the paragraph. Seldom will we find it in the middle of the paragraph, however, because what is written first and last are emphatic, and what is presented between these two parts of the whole tends to get somewhat lost in the shuffle, as it were.

We also learn, eventually, to decipher such literary texts as short stories, novels, and poems. But, in doing so, we are taught to consider not any particular sentence or even any specific part of the work so much as the whole of the story, the novel, or the poem, for in the literature of the imagination, we learn, the meaning is in the whole, and not the parts. Fiction (and drama) ask us to fathom the meaning of an entire experience. Therefore, before we can interpret the significance of such a work, we must first summarize it. Then, we must consider the cause and effect of the experience, which is represented, in the literary work, as action or what we sometimes call the storyline.

Ask yourself what are the cause and the effect of each of the following storylines?

Father Damien, a priest, exorcises a preadolescent girl named Reagan MacNeil (The Exorcist).

Beowulf, a Geatish warrior, slays Grendel, a troll that has been terrorizing Danes (Beowulf).

Carrie White, an abused telekinetic girl, avenges herself against her mother, high school bullies, and her hometown (Carrie).
If you can answer this question, you will not only be able to understand what you read but there’s a good chance that you will also be able to write intelligible fiction.

To damn Father Damien, a doubting priest (cause), the devil possesses Reagan; the priest’s recovery of his faith, borne of his desire to deliver the girl, results in Reagan’s deliverance and Father Damien’s victory (effect). Theme: Love conquers doubt.

A man of valor, Beowulf slays Grendel (and his mother) (effect) to gain immortality through fame and to establish a bond with a foreign king (cause). Theme: Great deeds bring lasting fame.

Carrie’s mother, a religious fanatic, does a poor job in preparing Carrie for life in the
real world (cause), and, when her high school’s bullies take their harassment too far, Carrie is unable to cope and seeks vengeance through violence (effect). Theme: As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

Horror Masters


Free of charge, at Horror Masters , such authors as Mary Shelley’s (Frankenstein), Bram Stoker’s (Dracula), Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, William Beckford, Horace Walpole, Hans Christian Andersen, Louisa May Alcott, Honoré De Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Charlotte Brontë, Lord Byron, George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nikolai Gogol, Bret Harte, Leigh Hunt, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Washington Irving, Charles Lamb, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Matthew Gregory Monk, George Macdonald, Niccolò Machiavelli, Herman Melville, Charles Perrault, Thomas De Quincy, Sir Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harriet Stowe, Jonathan Swift, William Makepeace Thackeray, Mark Twain, and many others.

On this same site, you will also find, absolutely free, works by L. Frank Baum, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Willa Cather, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Winston Churchill, Christabel Coleridge, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Lord Dunsany, Eugene Field, E. M. Forster, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ellen Glasgow, Oliver Goldsmith, Maxim Gorky, H. Rider Haggard, Edward Everett Halle, Thomas Hardy, O. Henry, William Hope Hodgson, William Dean Howells, W. W. Jacobs, Henry James, M. R. James, Franz Kafka, Jerome K. Jerome, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Arthur Machen, Katherine Mansfield, Guy De Maupassant, Brander Matthews, A. Merritt, John Metcalf, Edith Nesbit, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Damon Runyon, Saki, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Louis Stevenson, Frank R. Stockton, Leo Tolstoy, H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and W. B. Yeats.

There are non-fiction stories, novels, novellas, short stories, poems, early and late Gothics, and such categories from which to choose as “Classic Horror,” “Dark Stuff,” “Ghost Stories,” “Horror History,” “Monsters,” “Occult,” “Psychos,” and “The X-treme,” which includes “Decadent Traditions in Horror,” including works by the Marquis de Sade, Giovanni Boccaccio, and others.
Stories are listed both by writer and by title. You’ll find names as familiar as your own and altogether unknown, but the creator Horror Masters has compiled a huge list of winners, and they’re absolutely free!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Formulating Horror Fiction

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


To formulate horror fiction, ask four simple questions:

Who or what is under attack?
Who or what is attacking it?
How is he, she, they, or it being attacked?
Why is he, she, they, or it being attacked?
Turn each question into one word:

Who or what is under attack = victim
Who or what is attacking it = antagonist
How he, she, they, or it is being attacked = technique
Why it is being attacked = motive (or cause)
Now, flesh out the sentence; for example, here is the storyline for The Exorcist:

To effect Father Karras’ damnation (motive), the devil (antagonist) possesses technique of attack) Regan MacNeil (victim).
Here is the storyline for A Nightmare on Elm Street:
To avenge his murder (motive), Freddy Krueger (antagonist) invades the nightmares of (technique of attack) the children of the parents who murdered him (victims).

The plot storyline for ‘Salem’s Lot:
To feed (motive), vampires (antagonists) bite (and kill) (technique of attack) the townspeople of ‘Salem‘s Lot (victims).
Notice that this formula describes the storyline from the antagonist’s point of view. This is good, because it identifies the villain’s purpose, or motive, in attacking his, her, or its intended victims and the technique that the villain uses to do so. However, stories are written from the protagonist’s point of view, not that of the antagonist. Therefore, once you’ve identified the antagonist’s motive, technique of attack, and intended victims, you need to turn the angle from which the storyline is being viewed around, so to speak, so that you are seeing it from the hero’s or the heroine’s point of view. In other words, the protagonist is now the doer of the deed (and, therefore, the subject of the sentence), the deed is the action of the story (and, therefore, the verb of the sentence), and the antagonist is the person or the thing upon which the action is performed (and, therefore, the direct object of the sentence). His or her motive can be supplied in an introductory infinitive phrase:


To rescue Regan MacNeil (motive), Father Karras (protagonist), exorcises (method of attack) the devil (antagonist).
You’ve identified the main character, his or her motive, the victim, and the villain, and you’ve related them through the action that the protagonist performs upon the antagonist. Applying the same technique, you can reorient other storylines from the antagonist’s to the protagonist’s point of view. Occasionally, when there is more than one motive, protagonist, action, or antagonist, you might have to extend the sentence to express the storyline more fully, as is done with regard to the storyline for ‘Salem‘s Lot.

To survive (motive), Nancy (protagonist) captures (method of attack) Freddy Krueger (antagonist).

To protect humanity (motive), Ben Mears (protagonist) returns to ’Salem’s Lot and kills (methods of attack) vampires (antagonist).

By first starting with the plot as it appears from the antagonist’s point of view, you will be clear as to the villain’s motive, method of attack, and intended victim. By then switching the perspective from which you view the story’s events, you are clear as to the protagonist’s motive, method of attack, and antagonist

You can now combine these two perspectives into a single, comprehensive depiction of the storyline:

To effect Father Karras’ damnation, the devil possesses Regan MacNeil, but Father Karras rescues her by exorcising the fiend.

To avenge his murder, Freddy Krueger invades the nightmares of the children of the parents who murdered him, but Nancy survives by capturing him.

To feed, vampires bite (and kill) the townspeople of ‘Salem’s Lot, but Ben Mears returns to save humanity by killing the vampires.
Of course, these storylines are but the bare bones of a fully developed plot. However, they do give you a framework--a skeleton--upon which to build by asking pertinent questions related to each element (the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s respective motive, method of attack, and intended victim):

Protagonist

Who is he? Father Karras. Who old is he? Middle age. What is he (occupation)? Catholic priest. What are his strengths of character? He is compassionate, honest, humble, or teachable, and persistent. What are the flaws in his character? He doubts his faith. Why does he want to rescue Regan? Obviously, it is the right thing to do. However, Karras’ protective impulse would be likely to be activated by Regan’s plight, as an innocent child abused by an evil power. In addition, by exorcising the devil, Karras might be able to silence, or even eliminate, the doubts that plague him concerning his faith in an all-powerful and loving God.

The same sort of questions can be asked regarding the antagonist of your story. Concerning the antagonist of The Exorcist, questions might include:

Antagonist

Who is he? Is he Satan? Some other demon or group of demons? What are his strengths of character? He is intelligent, strong-willed, and persistent. What are the flaws in his character? He is full of hatred, dishonest, unscrupulous, treacherous, cruel, and unredeemable evil. Why does he possess Regan? Primarily, by giving evil a face--and that of an innocent young girl--and tormenting her cruelly so that she suffers horribly, the devil hopes to get Father Karras to renounce his faith in God so that he will be damned to hell. His possession of the girl is primarily a means to this end, although he enjoys corrupting and degrading her and causing the girl‘s mother grief and emotional anguish as well simply because he is evil and sadistic.
Why does the devil select Regan as his victim?

Victim

What makes Regan attractive to the devil as a victim? Her youth? Her innocence? Why is the victim a girl, rather than a boy? Is a girl a more sympathetic character? She is physically weaker and, perhaps, more emotionally vulnerable (or is likely to be perceived to be such, at least, by much of the audience), and the devil’s deep, masculine voice, speaking through her, will seem more perverse and unnatural, heightening the effect of horror. Also, Father Karras feels guilty for having (he feels) abandoned his mother, a female. Regan is also a helpless female, even more vulnerable than the priest’s aged mother, because she is a child.

In this manner, you build up your plot and characters. You could use the same method to develop the plots and characters in the other stories, A Nightmare on Elm Street and ‘Salem’s Lot, or any other novel or motion picture. (victims).

Notice that this formula describes the storyline from the antagonist’s point of view. This is good, because it identifies the villain’s purpose, or motive, in attacking his, her, or its intended victims and the technique that the villain uses to do so. However, stories are written from the protagonist’s point of view, not that of the antagonist. Therefore, once you’ve identified the antagonist’s motive, technique of attack, and intended victims, you need to turn the angle from which the storyline is being viewed around, so to speak, so that you are seeing it from the hero’s or the heroine’s point of view. In other words, the protagonist is now the doer of the deed (and, therefore, the subject of the sentence), the deed is the action of the story (and, therefore, the verb of the sentence), and the antagonist is the person or the thing upon which the action is performed (and, therefore, the direct object of the sentence). His or her motive can be supplied in an introductory infinitive phrase:

To rescue Regan MacNeil (motive) Father Karras (protagonist), exorcises (method of attack) the devil (antagonist).

You’ve identified the main character, his or her motive, the victim, and the villain, and you’ve related them through the action that the protagonist performs upon the antagonist. Applying the same technique, you can reorient other storylines from the antagonist’s to the protagonist’s point of view. Occasionally, when there is more than one motive, protagonist, action, or antagonist, you might have to extend the sentence to express the storyline more fully, as is done with regard to the storyline for ‘Salem‘s Lot.

To survive (motive), Nancy (protagonist) captures (method of attack) Freddy Krueger (antagonist).

To protect humanity (motive), Ben Mears (protagonist) returns to ’Salem’s Lot and kills (methods of attack) vampires (antagonist).

By first starting with the plot as it appears from the antagonist’s point of view, you will be clear as to the villain’s motive, method of attack, and intended victim. By then switching the perspective from which you view the story’s events, you are clear as to the protagonist’s motive, method of attack, and antagonist

You can now combine these two perspectives into a single, comprehensive depiction of the storyline:

To effect Father Karras’ damnation, the devil possesses Regan MacNeil, but Father Karras rescues her by exorcising the fiend.

To avenge his murder, Freddy Krueger invades the nightmares of the children of the parents who murdered him, but Nancy survives by capturing him.

To feed, vampires bite (and kill) the townspeople of ‘Salem’s Lot, but Ben Mears returns to save humanity by killing the vampires.

Of course, these storylines are but the bare bones of a fully developed plot. However, they do give you a framework--a skeleton--upon which to build by asking pertinent questions related to each element (the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s respective motive, method of attack, and intended victim):

Protagonist

Who is he? Father Karras. Who old is he? Middle age. What is he (occupation)? Catholic priest. What are his strengths of character? He is compassionate, honest, humble, or teachable, and persistent. What are the flaws in his character? He doubts his faith. Why does he want to rescue Regan? Obviously, it is the right thing to do. However, Karras’ protective impulse would be likely to be activated by Regan’s plight, as an innocent child abused by an evil power. In addition, by exorcising the devil, Karras might be able to silence, or even eliminate, the doubts that plague him concerning his faith in an all-powerful and loving God.

The same sort of questions can be asked regarding the antagonist of your story. Concerning the antagonist of the Exorcist, questions might include:

Antagonist

Who is he? Is he Satan? Some other demon or group of demons? What are his strengths of character? He is intelligent, strong-willed, and persistent. What are the flaws in his character? He is full of hatred, dishonest, unscrupulous, treacherous, cruel, and unredeemable evil. Why does he possess Regan? Primarily, by giving evil a face--and that of an innocent young girl--and tormenting her cruelly so that she suffers horribly, the devil hopes to get Father Karras to renounce his faith in God so that he will be damned to hell. His possession of the girl is primarily a means to this end, although he enjoys corrupting and degrading her and causing the girl‘s mother grief and emotional anguish as well simply because he is evil and sadistic.
Why does the devil select Regan as his victim?

Victim

What makes Regan attractive to the devil as a victim? Her youth? Her innocence? Why is the victim a girl, rather than a boy? Is a girl a more sympathetic character? She is physically weaker and, perhaps, more emotionally vulnerable (or is likely to be perceived to be such, at least, by much of the audience), and the devil’s deep, masculine voice, speaking through her, will seem more perverse and unnatural, heightening the effect of horror. Also, Father Karras feels guilty for having (he feels) abandoned his mother, a female. Regan is also a helpless female, even more vulnerable than the priest’s aged mother, because she is a child.

In this manner, you build up your plot and characters. You could use the same method to develop the plots and characters in the other stories, A Nightmare on Elm Street and ‘Salem’s Lot, or any other novel or motion picture.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Imagining the End

Copryright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


This is the end, my friend,
Of all our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes again, the end. . . .

-- The Doors
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe argues that the end of a story so important that it should be imagined before any of the story is actually written and that all incidents of the plot and other narrative details should drive inexorably toward this predetermined ending (without it being obvious, of course, to the reader).

Hollywood directors apparently believe that the means must justify the ends, too, as it were, and, to this end, more than a few have devised alternate endings to the same story. Wild, wooly Wikipedia, which seems to have an article on virtually everything, although some articles are more reliable than others, and some are fairly unreliable altogether, features an essay concerning these endings, including a list of many of the films that include them.

According to Wikipedia, an alternate ending is one “that was planned or debated but ultimately unused in favor of the actual ending.”

Some of the examples of these endings, courtesy of the same source, are:

1408: . . . Mike Enslin dies in the fire he causes. At his burial, his wife is approached by the hotel manager, offering his personal belongings. She refuses, and he lets her know that her husband did not die in vain. Back in his vehicle he listens to the tape recorder, and screams in fear as he sees Enslin’s burned deformed body in his back seat for only a moment. The film closes with an apparition of Mike Enslin still in 1408, muttering to himself, and finally exiting the room, hearing his daughter's voice. . . .

The Astronaut's Wife: When Spencer is killed, Jillian is not possessed by the alien. Instead, she moves out to the country. Sitting beneath a tree, looking up at the stars, she tunes her radio to the same signals Spencer was receiving while possessed by the alien--her twin babies controlling her movements from inside the womb, listening--and waiting. . . .

The Butterfly Effect: Evan watches a home video of his mother pregnant with him and returns to the memory of himself as a fetus. Convinced that his very existence has ruined the lives of those around him, he strangles himself with his umbilical cord and dies, stillborn. This “Director’s Cut” ending is much darker than the theatrical ending, where he simply stops himself from becoming friends with Kayleigh.

I could go on (and on), but it’s not my purpose, really, to discuss alternate endings per se or to give an exhaustive list of examples of them. My purpose is to discuss such endings as a means of devising plots that are not predictable.

For an alternate ending to serve the purpose I suggest, though, it would have to be more of a departure than the ones exemplified in Wikipedia.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Quick Tip: Vilifying Villains

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In popular fiction, including horror, it is to the writer’s advantage to make his or her villains despicable so that readers will despise them. In other words, it behooves writers to vilify their villains.

Normally, this feat is accomplished fairly easily. One need only show the antagonist, monster or otherwise, do something that is so utterly atrocious that readers refuse to sympathize with him, her, or it.

As human beings, we want to sympathize with others. We would prefer to like them, but, if we are unable to do so, we would, at least, like to understand them, for understanding others, even those who are cruel and evil, humanizes them.

That which is inhuman is more than merely frightening; he, she, or it is terrifying, largely because he, she, or it is altogether alien. What is totally strange and unknown is also unpredictable, and the unpredictable is terrifying.

Some deeds, by their very nature, put those who do them in the Totally Other, or Alien, category. We cannot sympathize with them, and we refuse to identify with them; they are inhuman. They are monsters. Their despicable deeds make them so.

Genres other than horror also sometimes make their antagonists inhuman and, therefore, monstrous. The Western Tombstone begins by depicting a band of outlaws’ slaughter of a wedding party, including the bride and groom--and the priest who was to marry them. From the outset, audience members regard them as fiends in human form and are rooting for Wyatt Earp to destroy them.

Usually, stalking, harming, and, especially, killing an innocent, such as a faithful canine or feline companion or, worse, a child will automatically put the perpetrator of such a crime on the readers’ most wanted list. Stephen King adopts this tactic in many of his novels; IT and Desperation are good examples. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is another.

The brutal beating or rape of a woman also suffices to render a villain beyond contempt. King employs this stratagem in Rose Madder, and Dean Koontz favors it in many of his novels. Likewise, in the Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact, even Dirty Harry lets the killer of her sister’s rapists off the hook when she takes the rapists to task with a bullet to the groin, followed by a second to the brain.

Vilifying the villain has another benefit for writers, too. After an antagonist’s inhuman deeds has rendered him, her, or it monstrous, readers will support virtually anything the hero or heroine does to the villain, including torture, for such a fiend, they will believe, deserves whatever befalls him, her, or it. Some deeds bring not only retribution, but also vengeance with a vengeance, so to speak. Think of Hitler. What punishment would have been too harsh in repayment for the horrors he inflicted upon millions? Or Ted Bundy. Was electrocution too light a penalty for what he did to all the women he tormented and killed?

Vilifying the villain allows writers to up the intensity of the action and, when payday finally comes, the price that he, she, or it is forced to pay at the hands of the protagonist-become-avenger.

Vladimir Propp’s 31 Dramatic Situations and 7 Character Types

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Russian formalist scholar Vladimir Propp analyzed his country’s fairy tales to identify their simplest narrative constituents, which, following the linguistic approach that breaks language into its smallest elements, he called “narratemes.” Using this method, he catalogued the thirty-one dramatic situations, several of which, following a story’s opening situation, appear, in various combinations, again and again in such tales. Occasionally, a situation is inverted. Typically, each is played out three times, the first two occurrences ending in failure or negation.

Based upon his analysis of fairy tales, Propp also contends that their characters can be grouped into seven categories.

Although his theories have attracted some criticism, especially by Claude Levi-Strauss, an advocate of structuralism, Propp’s views remain influential among readers, writers, and critics and have been applied to both narrative fiction and drama in general, rather than just to fairy tales in particular. Therefore, his theories may also be applied to horror fiction.

According to Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), the thirty-one dramatic situations are:

  1. ABSENTATION: A family member leaves the security of the home or community. This may be the hero or the heroine or another family member whom the hero or the heroine later needs to rescue. This division of the family creates conflict. The hero or heroine, if introduced here, is often shown to be an ordinary person, which allows the reader identify with the this character as someone who is similar to the reader him- or herself.
  2. INTERDICTION: An interdiction is addressed to the hero or heroine (he or she is told not to go somewhere or not to do something).
  3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION: The interdiction is violated (the villain enters the tale, although the villain does not necessarily confront the hero or heroine). If the villain stalks or spies on the hero or heroine without (yet) attacking him or her, the villain’s presence nevertheless heightens suspense through dramatic irony: the reader, unlike the hero or heroine, is aware of the villain’s threatening presence.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain reconnoiters, seeking children, jewels, or other valuables or the intended victim questions the villain). The villain (often disguised) seeks information. He or she may speak to a family member who innocently divulges information. The villain may also seek to meet the hero or heroine, perhaps knowing already that the hero or heroine is special in some way. The introduction of the villain adds suspense to the story, particularly when the villain is in proximity to the hero’ or heroine’s family or community. The villain’s eloquence or power may also add suspense through dramatic irony: the reader knows that the persuasive rhetoric is false its speaker dangerous, but the intended victim or the hero or heroine may not.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain gains information about the victim. This information may be acquired in the form of a treasure map or the location or the intent of the hero or heroine. As the villain obtains this intelligence is obtained, his or her fortune improves as the hero’s or heroine’s declines. This change is the characters’ respective fortunes creates suspense concerning the ultimate outcome of the story: will the villain triumph, after all?
  6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts kidnap the victim or steal his or her belongings through trickery, such as the wearing of a disguise and the gaining of the victim’s confidence. The villain’s treachery shows conclusively that he or she is truly evil and again heightens suspense as the reader is left to wonder whether the hero, heroine, or victim will come to harm through the villain’s duplicity.
  7. COMPLICITY: The victim, deceived, unwittingly helps the villain, perhaps by supplying the villain with a map or a magical weapon or by working against good characters whom the villain has convinced the victim are actually wicked. The reader is apt to despair as the hero, heroine, or victim acts in a villainous manner.
  8. VILLAINY and LACK: The villain causes harm or injury to a family member by abduction, theft of magical agent, the spoiling crops, plunder, kidnapping, the casting of a spell on someone, the substitution of an object for a child, murder, imprisonment, forced marriage, or torment. Alternatively, a family member lacks something or desires something, such as a magical potion. There are two parts to this stage, either or both of which may appear in the story. In the first stage, the villain causes some harm. In the second stage, a physical or emotional lack is identified.
  9. MEDIATION: The misfortune or lack is made known and the hero or heroine is dispatched, responds to a summons, is sent away, or freed from imprisonment. The hero or heroine discovers the act of villainy or the lack
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: The hero or heroine agrees to, or decides upon, a counter-action as a means of obtaining what he or she lacks.
  11. DEPARTURE: The hero or heroine leaves home.
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero or heroine is tested, interrogated, or attacked, which incident prepares the way for his or her receipt of the magical agent or helper (donor).
  13. HERO'S REACTION: The hero or heroine reacts to actions of future donor: he or she passes or fails a test, frees the captive, reconciles a dispute, performs a service, or uses the villain’s powers against him or her).
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: The hero or heroine acquires the use of a magical agent which is directly transferred, located, purchased, or prepared, or which spontaneously appears, is eaten or drunk, ort appears in the form of help that another character offers).
  15. GUIDANCE: The hero or heroine is transferred, delivered, or led to the whereabouts of an object of the search.
  16. STRUGGLE: The hero or heroine and the villain join in direct combat.
  17. BRANDING: The hero or heroine is branded (wounded or marked, or receives a ring or a scarf).
  18. VICTORY: The villain is defeated by being killed in combat, defeated in a contest, killed while asleep, or banished.
  19. LIQUIDATION: The initial misfortune or lack is resolved as the object of search is discovered, a spell is broken, a slain person is revived, or a captive is set free.
  20. RETURN: The hero or heroine returns home.
  21. PURSUIT: The hero or heroine is pursued, as the pursuer tries to kill, eat, or undermine the hero or heroine.
  22. RESCUE: The hero or heroine is rescued from the pursuit as obstacles delay the pursuer, the hero or heroine hides or is hidden, the hero or heroine transforms into an unrecognizable form, or the hero or heroine is saved from an attempt upon his or her life.
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero or heroine arrives home unrecognized or arrives in another country.
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero or heroine presents unfounded claims.
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: A difficult task is proposed to the hero or heroine, such as a trial by ordeal, riddles, or a test of strength or endurance.
  26. SOLUTION: The hero or the heroine accomplishes the difficult task.
  27. RECOGNITION: The hero or heroine is recognized by a mark, a brand, or an artifact that has been given to him or her.
  28. EXPOSURE: The false hero or heroine is exposed.
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: The hero or heroine receives a new appearance as he or she is made handsome or beautiful or receives new garments.
  30. PUNISHMENT: The villain is punished.
  31. WEDDING: The hero or heroine marries and ascends the throne (is rewarded or promoted).

    These dramatic situations are not usually all present, and the order in which they occur may change from one narrative or drama to another.

Propp identifies these seven character types:

  1. VILLAIN: struggles against the hero or heroine.
  2. DONOR: prepares the hero or heroine or gives the him or her some magical object.
  3. MAGICAL HELPER: helps the hero or heroine in the quest.
  4. PRINCESS and her FATHER: gives the task to the hero or heroine, identifies the false hero or heroine, marries the hero or heroine, often sought for during the narrative. Propp notes that, functionally, the princess and the father can not be clearly distinguished.
  5. DISPATCHER: makes the lack known and sends the hero or heroine off.
  6. HERO/HEROINE or VICTIM/SEEKER: reacts to the donor, weds the princess or prince.
  7. FALSE HERO OR HEROINE: takes credit for the hero’s or heroine’s actions or tries to marry the princess or prince.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Retake

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman



One of the things I enjoy reading about is how businesses solve problems. When the business involves storytelling, the reading is, for me, all the more interesting.

Consequently, reading about how Merian C. Cooper, the executive producer of Son of Kong (he had also produced King Kong, of course) was told that he had to limit himself to a budge to a budget of $250,000 (originally $238,000), solved the problem of making the movie on a shoestring, as it were, was fascinating.

What he did was to “scale the project back considerably,” Ray Morton recounts in King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson. This scaling back required Cooper to revise “the script, condensing and simplifying all the way through,” so that some scenes were eliminated altogether and the film’s action sequences were combined or juxtaposed without the originally intended transitions. For example, Morton writes:
To save money on recreating the native village and the Great Wall, the scenes set in the village were eliminated--the natives would nor confront the landing party on the beach and refuse to allow them to come ashore, forcing them to row around the island looking for a landing spot. When Denham’s party finally did land, it would be right near the site of the temple, eliminating the need for any lengthy treks through the jungle. The remaining jungle and temple scenes were all consolidated so that they would take place in just two primary locations. . . (95).
Short story writers and novelists don’t face such restrictions, because they don’t have to film their stories. However, by imagining that they are forced, by the vagaries of the economy, the whims of studio executives, or other unanticipated problems, to make similar changes to their plots, settings, or cast of characters, such writers could learn (or hone) their skills in plot development, description, and characterization, which is always a good thing.

Imagine that you are plotting a story about a radio talk show host, while operating a metal detector, which he does as a hobby, finds an artifact in the Nevada desert. It is inscribed with odd characters. Suspecting that the piece may be worth a fortune (and that it may even be of an otherworldly origin), the man attempts to decipher the strange characters inscribed upon the relic. He is unable to find the characters in any of the sources he consults at a major university. Finally, he decides to copy them onto a sheet of paper and take the paper to an anthropologist at the same university. Unable to identify or decipher the characters, the anthropologist consults a linguist. The linguist is a consultant for a secret government project which is recording a history of an alien species in its own language--the strange characters on the artifact that the talk show host found--and the linguist alerts the government that the talk show host has discovered the object that was lost decades ago. The talk show host is taken for a ride by government agents who inform him that the government has confiscated the artifact and threaten him not to divulge anything about his discovery. After going into hiding, the talk show host tells everything to his audience during a show and promises to share the characters with the world in the hope that someone somewhere can decipher them and interpret the message on the artifact that the government has confiscated.

So far, so good, you think.

But, then, out of the blue, you are told that your story cannot feature either an alien species or the government. You have to shoot a retake, as it were, to provide another explanation for the mysterious characters.

Perhaps you come up with something like this: a radio talk show host, while operating a metal detector, which he does as a hobby, finds an artifact in the Nevada desert. It is inscribed with odd characters. Suspecting that the piece may be worth a fortune (and that it may even be of an otherworldly origin), the man attempts to decipher the strange characters inscribed upon the relic. He is unable to find the characters in any of the sources he consults at a major university. Finally, he decides to copy them onto a sheet of paper and take the paper to an anthropologist at the same university. Unable to identify or decipher the characters, the anthropologist consults a linguist. The linguist identifies the characters as belonging to a lost tribe of ancient mystics. Finally able to interpret the characters, the linguist says that they are the words to an incantation that supposedly summons The Nameless One, which he believes is the tribe’s guardian daemon. On his show, the radio talk show host recites the linguist’s “wild story” and reads the translated text aloud, joking that he hopes he hasn’t thereby summoned the tribal daemon.

You’d now have two explanations for the origin and significance of the characters. As a result, you can create a more sophisticated plot. For example, perhaps the linguist’s account of the artifact’s characters is a deliberate falsehood, told to deceive the talk show host as to the true origin and significance of the inscription, which is that it really is a history of an alien species, written in their own language, which the government wants to cover up. When he subsequently learns the truth, the host can then tell everything to his audience during a show and promise to share the characters with the world in the hope that someone somewhere can decipher them and interpret the message on the artifact that the government has confiscated.

By further tweaking the original storyline, you can add more twists to the plot. Maybe your imaginary studio executive says he wants the host to advertise the characters on billboards before he announces the truth bout his discovery on his radio show, and, in major market areas across the country, the strange symbols appear on billboards, without explanation (ore perhaps with the caption, “Curious? Listen to KXYZ radio’s Hot Talk.” At first, you may think the exec’s demand asinine, but what can you do but humor him. You revise your plot, incorporating the billboards. In the process, you must explain why the talk show host posted the message on billboards rather than just explain things on his radio show.

Maybe his show is local, but he wants a national audience. Maybe he wants to protect himself against possible reprisals by the government or the aliens (or both). Maybe he is trying, as it were, to smoke the extraterrestrials out of their hideout, wherever it may be.

In this manner, by forcing yourself to plot and revise, shooting “retakes,” as it were of scenes and acts that you’ve already filmed (that is, written), you may facilitate your creativity as a writer, develop less straightforward (and predictable) plots, heighten suspense, and compose more sophisticated and complex plots.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Viva la Difference

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

One might suppose that readers of horror fiction and viewers of horror films would be difficult to offend about much of anything. Such is not the case--or not always, anyway.

This article is not intended to offend, and, hopefully, it won’t offend.

That having been said, please, if you are easily offended, do not read this post.

Otherwise, duly warned, proceed at your own risk.

The subject matter of horror fiction is simple and familiar, for the most part: demons, ghosts, monsters, vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, and the like.

However, these bogeymen are exhausted, sooner or later, as villains who are both (a) villainous and (b) scary. How many times can readers or audiences be expected to shriek at the same, tired menace? After a few hundred demons or ghosts, they’re really not all that menacing.

Therefore, writers, being a creative sort, seek other means than just the monster of the week, so to speak, to horrify and terrify their fans.

For Dean Koontz, the solution has been to cross-pollinate horror with most of the other popular genres of fiction to create a sort of hydra-headed hybrid of narrative that is part action-adventure, part comedy, part mystery, part science fiction, and part romance--and, oh, yes, part horror story. And there has to be an almost-human dog, with or without psychic powers. (Hey, it works for him.)

For Stephen King, the trick seems to be to investigate the psychology and the sociology of small-town life, exposing the pale underbelly of apparent goodwill and friendliness that, in the final analysis, goes only skin deep and doesn’t usually apply to strangers, who’d be best advised to keep moving and pass through without stopping.

For Bentley Little, everything is a matter of creating eerie atmospheres and seasoning the whole bizarre stew with plenty of spicy forbidden sex.

Another trick, less often used and, therefore, perhaps more effective in some ways than the tried and the true approaches to energizing horror’s menaces is a technique that I like to call viva la difference because it’s French and it sounds good. (Really, it’s because it identifies the technique.) This approach is simply this: make some element of the narrative different than it is normally. Step outside the norm, and deliver, in one detail, the unusual.

The Alien series does this with reproduction. Men and women are bypassed as the vehicles for dissemination and conception, to be replaced with the so-called face-hugger (also known as a xenomorph) (Wikipedia) describes the critter’s “life cycle” as horrifically as any other source:

Their life cycle comprises several distinct stages: they begin their lives as an egg, which hatches a parasitic larval form known as a face-hugger, which then attaches itself to a living host by, as its name suggests, latching onto its face. The face-hugger then “impregnates” the host with an embryo known as a chest-burster, which, after a gestation period of several hours, erupts violently from the host’s chest resulting in the death of the host. The chest-burster then matures to an adult phase within a few hours, shedding its skin and replacing its cells with polarized silicon. Due to the transfer of DNA during the gestation period, the alien also takes on some of the basic physical attributes of the host from which it was born.
Not surprisingly, women have seen more than a bit of misogyny in this image of reproduction. However, something similar occurred much earlier in the notions of the succubus, a demon who assumes a womanly form to rape men during their sleep (the male counterpart was the incubus) and in reports, made (perhaps under torture) by suspected witches, in which sexual intercourse with the devil is not only described as a painful experience, but his seed is also characterized as ice cold.

These are examples, sexual in nature, of the application of viva la difference to horror threats: a difference in one or two details (casting reproduction as a parasitic rape of sorts or representing semen as a substance as freezing as it is fertile) of a larger process, sequence, or situation is introduced, thereby making the whole event seem all the more horrible, since, otherwise, it remains much the same (that is, unchanged).

This technique is a micro-level adaptation of what horror stories routinely do on a larger level. In many horror stories, everything is as it should be (or, at least, as it usually is) at the beginning of the narrative or drama. However, before long, something slightly out of kilter takes place. Then, something else uncanny (or, at least, unsettling) occurs. And then something else, worse, and so on, until it becomes clear, even to the most inattentive protagonist that something unnatural or otherworldly is happening. Instead of making something bizarre happen at the level of the community, the region, the nation, or the world, viva la difference makes something strange take place at a much smaller and more localized level, such as in the “life cycle” of a species or even at the microscopic or cellular level (semen is cold, like ice, instead of body temperature, as normally it is--and should be).

The difference need not relate to sex, of course. The difference might be the appearance of a ghostly figure in a photograph, especially one that was not present--as far as anyone could see--when the picture was taken. Usually, such differences should be subtle, although I recall being spooked by the description of one man’s look of abject terror in a family portrait in which the others all looked serenely normal, and the addition, in The Shining, of Jack Torrance’s image to a much earlier photograph on display in the Overlook Hotel is quite eerie and frightening.

Viva la difference does not have to be objective. Maybe the difference that is introduced is entirely subjective. In flipping through an album of mounted family photographs, for instance, maybe it’s only Aunt Millie who sees corpses where everyone else sees Uncle Joe and Cousin Betty.

So, what have we learned today?

To effect horror and, possibly, disgust, manipulate a detail or two in a normal or natural process, series, or situation so that it (or they) are made bizarre without otherwise distorting the process, series, or situation as a whole. In short, remember that a birth is neither horrible nor repulsive, but a birth defect can be both.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cunning Devices: Plot as Invention

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” Mark Twain observes that the author of the Leatherstocking series lacks inventiveness:

Cooper’s gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it as he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go.
(For Twain‘s own “rules governing literary art,” refer to “Mark Twain’s ’Rules For Governing Literary Art”).

The analogy in which a narrative plot is compared to an invention is fruitful as an aid in understanding the plotting of fiction.

Many patents are issued not for original inventions but for improvements to them. For example, the original mousetrap could be patented, but so could a better mousetrap.

This fact suggests something analogous in regard to fiction. To devise an original plot for oneself, a writer can adapt the plot of another writer. But, wait! Isn't that plagiarism? It could, but need not, be. Huh?

Let me explain. To steal another writer’s plot is definitely plagiarism, but ideas cannot be patented. Therefore, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, among many others, which all feature dinosaurs, are acceptable (that is, legal). If more than one writer has succeeded with a particular type of monster (dinosaurs, for instance), you might do likewise, provided that you use only the idea of dinosaurs as your monsters and not the specific treatments of dinosaurs that others have employed.

Here’s a way to go about the business of “improving” upon (or tinkering with) the plots of others so as to produce a story idea of one’s own. Consider the original in terms of its categories or elements: character, setting, theme, conflict, plot. Can you think of a twist on any (or more) of them?

In the 1932 film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a scientist, Henry Frankenstein, creates a monster from parts of human cadavers which he electrifies in his laboratory. (In the novel, it is unclear how the protagonist, medical student Victor Frankenstein, animates his monster, although a chemical [or alchemical] means is suggested.)

The film version departs from the novel in these, and other, ways, but Shelley’s novel could also have suggested H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells’ setting is an island laboratory. Instead of human cadavers, human-animal hybrids are the mad scientist’s raw materials, and Dr. Moreau uses vivisection, rather than chemistry or electricity, to accomplish his wonders. Although it is debatable whether Shelley’s novel suggested The Island of Dr. Moreau, these sorts of innovations do represent the kind of adaptations to the plot of another, earlier work of which I speak.

Thinking of plots as inventions also suggests a caution. Twain was a great writer, but a poor investor, and he lost a fortune in his investments in the James W. Paige’s “compositor,” a typesetting machine which boasted 18,000 parts! Sadder but much wiser, the author gave up “speculating” as a means of getting rich (or richer) quick and recouped his fortune by returning to what he did best: writing and reading his literary works to paying audiences.

The moral of the story? To a degree, complexity in a story, especially a novel-length narrative, is a good thing. Readers want twists and turns in their stories. However, a plot that is more labyrinth than zigzag is apt to lose the reader. After all, one typically has only so many hours or days that he or she is willing to devote to the reading of a novel. If readers complain of, rather than praise, the length of a story, as even Stephen King’s most ardent “constant readers” are wont to do on occasion, their grievances may suggest more maze than meander.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What Constitutes Horror?

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

What constitutes horror? The answer is both simple and complex.

To understand the meaning of a word, it helps to know its origin. Originally, words usually have simple meanings which relate either to the body or to the world at large. It is only through repeated usage and adaptation of meaning that they develop more complex significance.

According to Online Etymology Dictionary (a great resource for writers), “horror” made its debut in the fourteenth century, from Old French horreur, meaning “bristling, roughness, shaking, trembling.” In other words, it referred to the standing of hair on end and to the shuddering of the body, not from cold, one may surmise, but from fear--to the physiological manifestations of terror.

It is similar, the Dictionary suggests, to the Sanskrit word harsate (“bristles”), to the Avestan term zarshayamna (“ruffling one’s feathers”), to the Latin noun eris (“hedgehog”), and to the Welsh word garw (“rough”). The Latin word horrifus (“horrific”), the same source informs its readers, means “terrible, dreadful,” or literally “making the hair stand on end,” and the Latin adjective horrendous, likewise, means “to bristle with fear” and to “shudder.”

Scientists tell us that animals make themselves as big as they can by assuming an erect posture, rearing upon their hind legs, and raising their forelegs; by bristling their fur or quills; ruffling their feathers; or, in the case of frogs, for example, puffing up. These physiological responses to a perceived threat are intended to intimidate and warn. They are protective postures. People have similar responses: their hair stands on end. They swell their chests and raise their arms.
They glower. Perhaps they will even display their teeth in a snarl.

Horror fiction concerns both the physiological effects of fear: the standing of hair on end, an increased heart rate, hyperventilation, the widening of the eyes and the gaping of the mouth, and so forth, and the objects of fear--that is, the causes of such physiological responses. The horror writer, in fact, brings the two together in a cause-and-effect relationship: the appearance of the monster (or the monstrous) causes the standing of hair on end, an increased heart rate, hyperventilation, the widening of the eyes and the gaping of the mouth, and so forth. In a nutshell, horror writers use words to create pictures and situations that produce a fight-or-flight response in their readers.

How writers perform this amazing feat is the complex part, but it is answered, more or less, in many of the articles I have already posted on Chillers and Thrillers, and, no doubt, it is an issue that I will continue to revisit and update.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Horror Story Failures

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

When one analyzes the cause of the failure of a horror story, one realizes, in short order, that the failure usually results from an inept handing of one (or more) of the basic elements of fiction, such as action, character, or theme, or from artistic self-indulgence.

M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film, The Happening (2008), is a good study in all of the following failures, any one of which could be sufficient, of itself, in some cases, to kill a film. With all these problems in the same piece of, uh, work, it would be truly astonishing if the horror film managed to survive its own debut let alone actually frighten anyone. Mercifully, it was stillborn.

The Happening fails because of its:

  • Lack of compelling action
  • Unsympathetic characters
  • Clunky dialogue
  • Unbelievable monster
  • Obtuse theme
  • Artistic self-indulgence

Let’s consider these items point by point, for there is something to be learned from artistic failure, just as there is something--much, in fact--to be learned from artistic success.

Lack of Action

The Happening doesn’t happen. That is, there is no action--or, rather, during the occasions that actors and properties are in motion, there isn’t any interest in, or suspense concerning, what is (allegedly) happening, partly because we don’t really give a fig what happens to the wooden characters who are supposed to be our hero and our heroine (a problem which we will consider in the next section of this post).

Unsympathetic Characters

To be of interest to an audience, the main character and those about whom he or she cares and to whom he or she is in some way related must be sympathetic. By “sympathetic,” I don’t mean kind and considerate (at least not necessarily), but understandable and believable. We have to know where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, and why. We have to know enough about them to say to ourselves, I may not agree with your perspective or your goals, but I understand both you and what you want to accomplish; you seem like a true-to-life individual with hopes and pain and plans. The Happening’s characters are none of the above.

Clunky Dialogue

Dialogue should sound natural. It should be a good imitation of the way that real, flesh-and-blood people actually talk, and it should mirror the inner worlds of the individuals who speak it. In short, it should be realistic. The dialogue in The Happening is clunky at best, absurd at worst, and destroys verisimilitude in either case.

Unbelievable Monster

Shyamalan asks his audience to believe that plants are mad as hell and refuse to take any more of humanity’s environmental abuses.

Really.

Obtuse Theme

What’s this movie about? It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature? We've only ourselves to blame for greenery’s coming curse? What happens in America is sure to happen elsewhere, too, especially in France? Current events in science can make money for filmmakers as well as scientists? Global warming may not be that big a deal, after all? Killer bees are the least of our problems? It doesn’t matter what kind of garbage a director delivers if he is selling his name instead of his art?

After spending ten bucks and a couple hours of one’s lifetime, a moviegoer expects to learn, or be reminded of, something worthwhile. Again, The Happening doesn’t deliver.

Artistic Self-Indulgence

Being a film director, even an auteur, doesn’t give anyone, least of all M. Night Shyamalan, the right to indulge his own personal and private takes on society, politics, or anything else--at least not without entertaining his audience first and foremost. Like the messianic Lady in Water (2006) (recipient of four Golden Raspberry Awards), this film is nothing more than a vehicle for narcissistic and sanctimonious self-indulgence.

With only two successful films, The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002), to his credit, Shyamalan's career is desperately near extinction, and one can only wonder how long it can continue while he himself is running on empty.

Hieroglyphic Horrors


Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

When images are used symbolically, to suggest identities, situations, statuses, or other qualities, conditions, or states, a nearly subliminal effect may be obtained.

Stephen Crane, an impressionistic writer, achieves such effects in his writings. In The Red Badge of Courage, for example, he implies that nature is indifferent to humanity. As the protagonist, Henry, wanders away from the horrors of the battlefield, during the American Civil War, he stumbles into a forest, which Crane describes as if it were a cathedral.

At first, he takes heart at the sight of a squirrel that flees when he throws a stick at it, reassured that his own desertion is not a cowardly, but a natural, act. However, as he continues to wander the deep woods, he sees a predatory act: an animal seizes a fish. He encounters the ravaged corpse of another soldier, and he realizes that the forest, despite the resemblance of its canopy to a cathedral, offers no protection from war.

Despite the clashing of the armies and the hundreds and hundreds of dead who rot upon the battlefield, the sky is serene, undisturbed by the catastrophe that men have unleashed upon themselves. The juxtaposition of human struggle against nature’s peaceful disregard, as it were, of this struggle makes it clear to Henry that nature is indifferent to humanity.

Through his narrator’s comments, Crane occasionally offers direct statements concerning how his imagery should be interpreted, but his message is mostly implicit, conveyed through his imagery and the juxtaposition of violent human conduct and nature’s apparent indifference to such behavior as it goes about its own processes. Here is an example from Chapter 7 of The Red Badge of Courage:

This landscape gave him assurance. A fair field holding life. It was the religion of peace. It would die if its timid eyes were compelled to see blood. He conceived Nature to be a woman with a deep aversion to tragedy.

He threw a pine cone at a jovial squirrel, and he ran with chattering fear. High in a treetop he stopped, and, poking his head cautiously from behind a branch, looked down with an air of trepidation.

The youth felt triumphant at this exhibition. There was the law, he said. Nature had given him a sign. The squirrel, immediately upon recognizing danger, had taken to his legs without ado. He did not stand stolidly baring his furry belly to the missile, and die with an upward glance at the sympathetic heavens. On the contrary, he had fled
as fast as his legs could carry him; and he was but an ordinary squirrel, too--doubtless no philosopher of his race. The youth wended, feeling that Nature was of his mind. She re-enforced his argument with proofs that lived where the sun shone.

Once he found himself almost into a swamp. He was obliged to walk upon bog tufts and watch his feet to keep from the oily mire. Pausing at one time to look about him he saw, out at some black water, a small animal pounce in and emerge directly with a gleaming fish.

The youth went again into the deep thickets. The brushed branches made a noise that drowned the sounds of cannon. He walked on, going from obscurity into promises of a greater obscurity.

At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light.

Near the threshold he stopped, horror-stricken at the sight of a thing.

He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip.

The youth gave a shriek as he confronted the thing. He was for moments turned to stone before it. He remained staring into the liquid-looking eyes. The dead man and the living man exchanged a long look. Then the youth cautiously put one hand behind him and brought it against a tree. Leaning upon this he retreated, step by step, with his face still toward the thing. He feared that if he turned his back the body might spring up and stealthily pursue him.

The branches, pushing against him, threatened to throw him over upon it. His unguided feet, too, caught aggravatingly in brambles; and with it all he received a subtle suggestion to touch the corpse. As he thought of his hand upon it he shuddered profoundly.

At last he burst the bonds which had fastened him to the spot and fled, unheeding the underbrush. He was pursued by a sight of the black ants swarming greedily upon
the gray face and venturing horribly near to the eyes.

After a time he paused, and, breathless and panting, listened. He imagined some strange voice would come from the dead throat and squawk after him in horrible menaces.

The trees about the portal of the chapel moved soughingly in a soft wind. A sad silence was upon the little guarding edifice.
Of necessity, motion pictures must also employ images that are packed with symbolic value. They do not, as a rule, have as much time to devote to extended treatments, and although dialogue allows them the opportunity of making direct comments on the images they display, films rarely do so, leaving it to audiences, instead, to interpret the symbolism of these images themselves. However, on occasion, the same or similar images will be repeated to establish a motif by which characters’ actions should be evaluated or interpreted.

For example, in his film version of Stephen King’s novel Carrie (1976), Brian De Palma wants to make it clear that protagonist Carrie White is a target of her peers’ harassment. When she misses a volleyball return during a physical education class, she is bombarded by her fellow students, who take turns slamming the ball into her. Later, surprised by her first menstrual period (her mother, a religious fanatic, has not bothered to tell her the facts of life), Carrie, terrified, calls for assistance, only to be pelted by the tampons and sanitary napkins that the other girls throw at her. Twice, without a word of direct commentary concerning Carrie‘s status (or lack thereof) among her peers, De Palma has identified her as a target of her peers’ hatred and abuse. (He has also made Carrie a sympathetic character, whom the audience pities.)

Tony Williams points out another example of this technique in Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film. Concerning Alice, Sweet Alice (1978) (which is also available by the alternate titles Communion [1976] and Holy Terror [1981]), he observes: “Alice’s credits show a female communicant holding a cross. She lifts it up, revealing its lower end as a blade. . . . This image aptly signifies Catholicism’s repression of female sexuality and its unexpressed eruption into violence. A virginal Bride of Christ is also a psychotic murderer” (169).

A similar image is presented in Cruel Intentions (1999) when, at the end of the movie, Kathryn Merteuil’s hypocrisy in posing as a blameless, virginal, saintly young woman is exposed and her conniving and fraudulent character is revealed as the headmaster of her private and exclusive school opens the crucifix she wears around her neck and the cocaine inside the cross spills into the air, for all to see.

Sometimes, not even an image is needed to reveal character or suggest a theme. A camera angle can be sufficient, as Williams points out. Following Carrie’s death, he says, “a dark legacy remains. As Sue [one of Carrie’s tormentors, now repentant] awakes from a traumatic nightmare in Carrie’s climax, the camera cranes out to show Mrs. Snell comforting her daughter. Her words, “It’s all right. I’m here” are ironic. Mrs. Snell was never a good mother. The final camera movement dwarfs mother and daughter into insignificance” (240).

In a previous article, “Building Suspense the Tobie Hooper Way,” I indicate other examples of writers and moviemakers who characterize or suggest identities, situations, statuses, or other qualities, conditions, or states through the use of images, symbolism, and other forms of indirect communication.

Writers of horror can follow the examples of Crane and moviemakers, using symbolic images to effect subliminal suspense, fear, and other emotions. In doing so, forego direct commentary through narrative exposition or dialogue between characters, and, instead, limit yourself only to the use of symbolic images.

Describe (show) a trait in action (for example, a jealous character acting in a jealous fashion) or associate a character with a physical object, or property, that symbolizes something important about him or her, shows how he or she is regarded by others, or what is at the core of his or her being.

The use of a dream dictionary can help you to select such objects, because such a reference shows what various commonplace things often represent psychologically.

An examination of William Shakespeare’s use of images and symbols in his poems and plays will pay huge dividends, because these works are written not only in blank verse but also, by and large, in symbolic images that, rather often, link to and build upon one another. Seeing how the bard accomplishes this literary feat will help you to become accomplished at it as well.

Finally, another way to research how artists translate intangibles such as thoughts and emotions into pictures is to consider the images in the works of visual artists such as illustrators, painters, and photographers, whose very media are dependent almost exclusively upon their use of symbolic imagery. How does an illustrator represent fear? How does a painter portray hope or despair? How does a photographer suggest victimization, evil, saintliness, or honesty? Search the works of fine artists rather than their popular counterparts, for there is a reason that classic art is classic. Then, sure, take a look at the popular forms, too, after you’ve seen what the masters do. An Internet images browser is a helpful tool in tracking down such images, but I also suggest A World History of Art as an excellent starting point.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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