Fascinating lists!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Monster as the "Mediator Between the Human and the Nonhuman"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


In Alien Encounters, Mike Rose, writing about science fiction, offers several insightful observations that also have application to horror fiction. Indeed, Chillers and Thrillers has made some of the very same claims that Rose makes, so Rose’s own insights often complement my own. However, since he is writing about science fiction, rather than horror fiction, some of his observations about his topic do not appear to apply to horror fiction as well.

One of the typical horror plots, I’ve argued, begins by introducing a threat, usually monstrous in some way, that disrupts the characters’ everyday lives--lives that they have often come to take for granted. Rose sees a similar situation as comprising the inciting moment of many science fiction stories, in which, he says, the basic conflict pits science against nature and the human (or spiritual) against the nonhuman (the natural or the material). The result of the clash of these adversaries, he contends, is a change in the way in which human beings relate to themselves, other human beings, or nature itself:

All forms of the fantastic--the gothic, the romantic tale, and modern fantasy as well as science fiction--are concerned with the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary (29).
In science fiction, Rose declares, the threat to humanity’s everydayness and the security that the ordinary often provides (or appears to provide) is apt to take one of four forms: space, time, machine, or monster:

At the level of theme and motif, science fiction seems bewilderingly diverse, composed of such disparate elements as aliens, time machines, spaceships, robots, and telepaths. If we proceed to a higher level of abstraction, however, we can observe the way the concern with the human in relation to the nonhuman projects itself through four logically related categories, which I shall call space, time, machine, and monster (32).
Interestingly, in science fiction, the conflict between such adversaries sometimes ends with the adoption of the nonhuman or with an extension of the concept of the human to include the nonhuman--or, at least, the particular instance of the nonhuman that the threat represents:

Science fiction’s role as mediator between the spiritual and the material is in alignment with its role as mediator between the human and the nonhuman. Generally speaking, the spiritual may be identified as the human, the realm of meaning that is opposed to the meaningless realm of the nonhuman. An atom, a star, or a galaxy in itself means nothing; it is, in every sense of the word, insignificant. The nonhuman acquires significance only when it is brought into relationship with the human. And when this happens the human versus nonhuman opposition is inevitably subverted: the nonhuman becomes part of human experience (48).
In horror fiction, such inclusion is rarely entertained; instead, the threat is overcome; the monster is cast out, neutralized, or destroyed. A strong rift remains between the human and the nonhuman. Between them, the chasm is usually unbridgeable and eternal.

One instance, however, in which an uneasy acceptance of the extraordinary in the context of the everyday occurs in horror fiction is the acceptance of Daniel (“Oz”) Osbourne, a werewolf in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by his girlfriend Willow Rosenberg and the other members of their clique, the so-called Scoobies: protagonist Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, Cordelia Chase, and Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles.

In most werewolf stories, the beast is hunted down and dispatched with a silver bullet (and, indeed, a werewolf hunter seeks to do just this in “Phases,” an episode of the series). However, as Giles observes, it seems inhuman to kill a werewolf when, except for three days each month, he is human rather than animal. The more merciful and moral course of action would seem to be the one that they take, which is locking Oz in a cage during the three nights that he transforms into a wolf.

However, in a different episode, “Beauty and the Beasts,” Oz escapes during Xander’s watch, and, in his werewolf form, is thought, at first, to have killed a person. Oz eventually leaves Sunnydale rather than to continue putting those for whom he cares at risk. Later, upon returning, after believing himself cured of his affliction, he does try to kill Tara Maclay, Willow’s girlfriend, when he learns that Willow is in an intimate relationship with her, preferring her newfound lesbian lover to him.

Ultimately, the series seems to suggest that accepting the bizarre into the realm of the ordinary is perilous and foolish. Compassion, mercy, and the desire to do the right thing can have problematic effects on the community, and harboring unnatural or supernatural outcasts could be not merely dangerous, but also fatal, indeed.

Perhaps science fiction more readily embraces the otherness of the nonhuman because the genre emerged from a tradition--science itself--that has accepted humanity’s displacement from a geocentric (and, indeed, an egocentric) world view to one in which human beings are understood as being insignificant, if not altogether irrelevant, motes, not in God’s eye, but the in the eyeless, nonhuman universe.

This willingness to accept the nonhuman was not initially the case, even in science (or science fiction). Indeed, early science fiction writers resisted the nonhuman (as some still do). The protagonist of H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Star,” hangs on to his humanity, even when the nonhuman, represented by a planet hurtling toward the Earth, threatens to destroy him, expressing a sentiment much like that of the speaker of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, who asserts:

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
--whereas the protagonist of “The Star” argues, as Rose observes, that he is capable of understanding the very nature that would seek, as it were, to kill him, and that he would not, therefore, trade places with, even if he could do so:

At one point, Wells’s mathematician is described as gazing at the approaching planet “as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. ‘You may kill me,’ he said after a silence. ‘But I can hold you--all the universe for that matter--in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now’ (30).

At first, even scientists themselves were reluctant to let go the anthropomorphic universe in which suns and planets were once thought gods and over which the one true God still ruled. “Galileo founded modern science,” Rose says, “but the shift from a sacramental to an alienated sense of the cosmos did not come into being until long after Galileo,” and even Copernicus himself maintained faith in the divine reality of an eternal Creator: “For Copernicus himself the solar system was a temple,” Rose reminds his readers, “and the sun was a magical sign of God” (51).

Later, however, Rose argues, science fiction accepted, if all of humanity has, as yet, not, the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme of things, and, with this acceptance, they (and science fiction writers) experienced an alienation from the ground of their being. “The sense of alienation that informs science fiction is inseparable from the modern scientific view,” which followed, if it was not caused by, the scientific revolution, and this sense of alienation continues to affect humans today: “The Victorian situation of urban man disconnected from God, cut off from nature, separated from other men, is of course our own; it is in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century spiritual loneliness as a manifestation of our culture’s longing to escape the prison-house of the merely human” (53).

Paradoxically, Rose suggests, it is science fiction that enables readers to bridge, if only imaginatively, the gulf between the human and the nonhuman. When nature was sacramental, God’s presence was perceived and, indeed, felt, in his creation, but once nature was conceived of as being merely material, and not spiritual, and was understood to act according to purely physical laws, rather than in response to a divine will, an anguished sense of alienation resulted. Orphaned by the death of God, humanity grieved--and continues to grieve. However, if science, in part, at least, helped, as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet: To Science” suggests, bring about the death of God, its offspring, science fiction, might help readers to bond again, as it were, with the nonhuman and material universe.

Poe laments:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
--to which Rose seems to reply:

Science fiction operates, then, not merely by sustaining the human versus the nonhuman opposition but by simultaneously and continuously subverting it, generating fables that transfigure both the idea of the nonhuman and the idea of the human. The space that the genre inhabits is not a prison, rigid and unyielding, but a flexible and dynamic field of semantic tension. It is this condition that makes a living genre possible (49).
Horror fiction, as I pointed out, takes a different tact. Instead of seeking, or, usually, even allowing, a reconciliation of the human and the nonhuman (usually, that is, the monstrous), horror fiction requires that the nonhuman, or the “other,” be vanquished, whether by exile (as Grendel is exiled, in Beowulf), neutralization (as Caliban is neutralized, in The Tempest, when he agrees to serve Prospero), or destruction (as Grendel is destroyed, in Beowulf, when he won’t accept his exile but, instead, attacks the Danes). Accepting a wolf into the fold, as it were, is too dangerous, as Buffy’s example of the Scoobies’ acceptance of Oz into their circle demonstrates (and as does their acceptance, for that matter, at one time or another, of the vampires Angel and Spike).

Rose sees monsters as symbolic representations of “self-alienation,” rather than existential alienation, a separation of the self from itself, which, he says, may or may not be associated with the split between man's consciousness of himself as distinct from his nonhuman, or material, opposite, nature, or a “violation of conceptual categories” (176-186).

When monsters arise from self-alienation, he says, they appear in “narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of man into something less than or more than human” (179). When they emerge from the continuous play between “conceptual categories,” monsters take the forms of the grotesque: “The grotesque, as Wolfgang Kayser suggests, may be understood as an aesthetic form associated with the violation of conceptual categories such as vegetable and animal, animal and human, dead and living” (186).

How does this process occur? “The grotesque,” Rose contends, “is the estranged world, the world made over according to new principles,” and, as such, it is also “the estranged world” and “implies the daemonic” (186-187). It is a world born, as it were, from “a continuing play with the categories of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the human and the nonhuman” (188), and “all mediating figures, whether machines of human origin or monsters or supermen of evolutionary or extraterrestrial origin, move readily toward the daemonic, playing roles in science fiction analogous to those of good and evil spirits of older forms of romance” (187).

When monsters arise from self-alienation, he says, they appear in “narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of man into something less than or more than human,” Rose contends, but, one might argue, in some cases--that of Buffy’s Oz, for example--that such a transformation is simultaneously “into something” that is both “less than” and “more than human,” for Oz certainly loses everything that makes him human (except, at times, at any rate, his bipedal gait), but he also gains the strength, stamina, heightened senses, and speed of a wolf who is unimpeded by moral, or even rational, decisions and choices. As werewolf-Oz, the taciturn Scooby is a beast to be reckoned with (except that, of course, he can’t be reckoned with).

In any case, following such a transformation, Rose opines, “dehumanized man, man as either monster or superman, is in principle indistinguishable from any other kind of alien” (179), and, as such, one might add, should probably be treated as such.

Rose’s book is full of comments and observations that spark one’s own imagination. For example, horror fiction’s monsters tend to disappoint once they come crawling out of their dark domains, into the light, and the reader sees, as it were, the form of the monster, for nothing can disturb or frighten as well as the shapes of things unseen except in the mind’s-eye. Theoretically, such disappointment need not occur, however, Rose suggests, in either horror fiction or in science fiction: “Since the universe is limitless, so too are the possible shapes of man,” a possibility that is associated, he thinks, with “the pervasive science-fiction concern with infinity. The vision of the genre as a whole is the conviction of infinite human plasticity” (184).

However, in practice, this ideal can never be realized. The day awaits the writer who can somehow transcend the limits of human imagination and envision a truly monstrous monster, because, alas, it is not possible to think outside one’s own frame of reference, which is the universe (or that portion of the universe about which humanity has learned the secrets of nature). The writer who pierces this limitation must, of necessity, be him- or herself an alien or a deity. Nevertheless, too often, in horror fiction, the monster is derived from the application of the same few principles, such as addition, subtraction, substitution, and the like, as I have argued in previous posts, including “Monster Mash: How To Create a Monster,“ Part 1  and Part 2 when others may exist that should be sought.

Interestingly, Rose includes transgender characters in his gallery of grotesques, listing “the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness” alongside “the two-headed Mrs. Grales of A Canticle for Leibowitz” and “the monstrous children of Childhood’s End” (186). Likewise, until the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed male and female homosexuals from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, same-sex lovers were considered mentally ill; before they were included with the mentally ill, they were criminals and, indeed, moral monsters. Today, transsexuals are still considered mentally ill (they suffer, it is said, from “gender dysphoria”).

Nevertheless, the public, like the psychological and psychiatric experts, seem to have, perhaps under political pressure, come to change their own minds concerning the nature of homosexuals, if not the transgender, regarding them, for the most part, as sane and moral. In other words, these individuals, who were once seen as monsters who must be cast out, are now regarded as having a place at the table with the rest of humanity. They, who were once seen as exceptional, if not nonhuman, are now regarded as unusual but human. More and more, they are accepted among the rest (that is, the majority) of humanity.

Having returned, rather indirectly, to the matter of humans’ acceptance of the nonhuman, there is also another reason, it would seem, for horror’s rejection of such otherness (or most of it). To adopt the world view that science suggests is to jettison a belief in God and, as a consequence, the basis, some would argue, of morality itself. If God is dead, such apologists would contend, there really is no objective basis for a belief in good and evil or right and wrong. Were God to be excluded from the picture, there would be, at best, a social contract between members of a society, and among societies, in which it would be agreed that this act is permissible, whereas the other is not, a contract that is arbitrary and capricious, allowing, for example, slavery in one century; suppressing the voting of minorities, including women, in another; and outlawing both in still a third.

A system of morality that is as susceptible to political change as situation ethics or moral relativism is too fragile and subjective, such critics contend. Horror fiction maintains its hold, rather fiercely, on the possibility of God’s existence and, therefore, the possibility of the existence of good and evil. Human behavior, horror fiction implies, can be right or wrong. Human conduct is not necessarily a matter of the alignment of the stars. The alternative to a moral universe has been expressed well by one of the monsters whom horror fiction would exile, neutralize, or destroy and whom American society, in fact, did put to death, serial killer Ted Bundy:

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.
In Western society, the solution to the dilemma of who and what merits a place at the table of humanity and who and what, for the common good, should be ostracized, neutralized, or destroyed rests, at present, upon such notions as the need to protect the public on one hand and the need to permit individuals to engage in activities, in private, which may offend many but do no physical harm to the participants (or need not do any such harm), as long as there is mutual consent between the adults who would participate in such conduct, whether the conduct is sexual or otherwise.

Therefore, were Ted Bundy a homosexual who had had an affair with a like-minded and willing partner, and had consummated his decision to do so in private, he would have been considered human, if unusual, and would have been accommodated by society. However, even as a heterosexual (whom society accepts unreservedly), he was sentenced to death, because he had raped and killed over thirty women, one of whom was only fifteen years of age. In other words, his acts were neither consensual nor harmless.

By carving out exceptions, qualifications, and extenuating circumstances, society has worked out a scheme for accepting some sorts of otherness while rejecting other sorts. Even so, yesterday’s monsters do not fare well in many horror stories, and those that society accepts, more or less, are often still rejected by horror fiction. For example, in general, homosexual characters still do not fare well in horror stories.

Horror fiction is more traditional than science fiction. Moreover, it clings to the possibility of the existence of the supernatural, including God. Consequently, it is more concerned with, even dedicated to, the defense of the status quo, the existing order, the way things are. Threats against everydayness may be welcome as a means of shaking up the complacent and reminding them that life is short and precious, but after the monster has done so, most writers’ stories give them the heave-ho or destroy them, if they cannot be made subservient to the reigning power elite or otherwise neutralized.

Science fiction is more alienated from both the world and the self, perhaps, than horror fiction tends to be, and what the latter rejects, the former may be inclined to accept. However, Howard Hawks’ 1951 horror-science fiction movie The Thing from Another World offers scientists a warning, because it was one of their own who reached out to the extraterrestrial invader, even trying to protect it from the military representatives of his own species, only to be killed himself by the monster.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it may well be that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. It may well be, too, that some things are better left alone and that vampires should never be invited into one’s home--or to one’s table.



Note: I have no animosity myself toward gays or lesbians, but, in the Western world, they are sexual “others” to the predominantly heterosexual majority in their culture and society and, as such, fit the monster mold, for some, albeit, less convincingly now, perhaps, than they did prior to 1974, when the APA declared them no longer victims of a “mental disorder.” It is for this reason that they (or the transgender) sometimes appear as threats to the status quo, as do “the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness.”

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Mystery of "The Cask of Amontillado"

Copyrigth 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


In “The Purloined Letter,” a detective story, Edgar Allan Poe makes a big show of a stolen (“purloined”) letter’s having been hidden in plain sight by its thief, Minister D--. Although another of the horror maestro’s short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not generally considered a detective story, at least one critic, Kathyrn M. Harris, author of “Ironic Revenge in Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ which appeared in Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 333-35, seems to think that the latter story is something of a mystery, complete with clues as to the murderer’s motive. For those who have forgotten the story’s plot, here is a brief recapitulation of the storyline:

A half century after having avenged his family’s name by killing his former “friend,” Fortunato, for allegedly insulting him, Montresor recounts his dastardly deed (some say on his deathbed), a crime which, apparently, still haunts him.

Having just acquired what he’d hoped was a cask of genuine amontillado, Montresor persuades the somewhat inebriated Fortunato, who has been attending Carnival dressed in motley (that is, in the costume of a fool), to accompany him to the family’s wine cellars to authenticate his purchase. On their way through the family’s catacombs, Montresor offers Fortunato wine and answers the expert’s question as to whether he is a mason, as Fortunato himself is, by showing Fortunato a hand trowel he had been hiding.

Pretending to be solicitous of Fortunato’s health, Montresor allays the wine expert’s fears. As they pass through the cold, clammy subterranean chambers, Montresor describes his family’s coat of arms to Fortunato. On a blue background, a foot stamps a serpent whose fangs are embedded in the foot’s heel. The accompanying motto reads Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one insults me with impunity”).

When they arrive at a niche, Montresor, telling Fortunato that the amontillado is inside, chains him to the wall. Using his trowel, Montresor then seals the niche, walling Fortunato up, alive, inside the alcove. Although his victim pleads for his life, Montresor mocks him. Just as Montresor sets the last of the bricks in place, Fortunato cries out, “For the love of God, Montresor!” The protagonist, replies, “Yes, for the love of God,” drops a lit torch into the niche, and finishes entombing his victim alive.
Fifty years have passed since, and Montresor’s deed, until now, as he confessed it, has gone undetected. As he ends his narrative, Montresor says, of Fortunato, In pace requiescat (“May he rest in peace”).

Often, this story is considered to be the confession of another of Poe’s madmen. Although Montresor claims that Fortunato has insulted him a “thousand” times, he never gives the reader (or his confessor) even one example to support his contention, and Fortunato, as he is described in the story, seems harmless, even genial. Indeed, he has agreed to interrupt his holiday to do Montresor the favor of authenticating the amontillado (or so, at any rate, Fortunato believes). If Fortunato’s query as to whether Montresor is a fellow mason smacks of arrogance, it is possible that it does so only in Montresor’s own too-easily-offended mind.

For James W. Gargano, author of “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” which originally appeared in College English 25 (1963): 177-81, Poe is careful to show that Montresor is “a deluded rationalist who cannot glimpse the moral implications of his planned folly” and a “compulsive and pursued man’ whose murder of his victim has resulted in his suffering the pangs of guilt for half a century.

For Harris, however, as the authors of Short Fiction: A Critical Companion point out, Poe’s story is really a mystery of sorts in which Poe provides all the clues necessary for the reader to figure out what led Montresor to kill Fortunato. In doing so, Poe hides his clues, as it were, in plain sight:

Montresor’s trowel is both an ironic “symbol of brotherhood and instrument of death,” thus unifying the story and offering a motive for the murder of Fortunato. . . . Fortunato is a freemason; Montressor is a Catholic. . . . Several references in the story further link Montresor to religion, especially Catholicism: the confessional beginning, the image on his coat of arms alluding to the church’s triumph over evil cited in Genesis, the pre-Lenten carnival setting of the story in catacombs reminiscent of the early church, and references to wine, an element of the Eucharist. . . . Montresor refers to “masonry” and “mason-work” again several times, most significantly and suggestively (noting the preposition) in “Against the new masonry I re-erected the rampart of old bones,” and ends his tale with In pace requiescat,” the close of the requiem mass. . . thus suggesting that his motive has been to conduct his own personal inquisition against Fortunato.
Certainly, Harris’ reading of the story is not far-fetched and, indeed, the story provides much evidence, as she points out, in support of such an interpretation. It seems to me, in fact, that her understanding of Poe’s masterpiece of horror and suspense complements the narrative’s own subtlety and sophistication, and Poe’s fondness for hiding clues to crimes in plain sight also supports Harris’ interpretation, the trowel that Montresor produces serving as the story’s equivalent to the missive in “The Purloined Letter,” only, in “The Cask,” it is you and I--or Kathryn M. Harris, at any rate--and not Auguste Dupin, who must be the detectives who spot the clues to Montresor’s motive and deduce their significance.

Note: Short Fiction: A Critical Companion by Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedemann (Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT, 1997) provides excerpts of critical texts that summarize much of the more important criticism concerning “The Cask of Amontillado,” including those of both Harris and Gargano (and others).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Schism Within

Copyright 201 by Gary L. Pullman


Charles Brockden Brown

In “Brown, Charles Brockden (1771-1810),” T. J. Lustig locates the central conflict in Brown’s Gothic fiction in a clash within Brown’s own mind concerning the limitations of the rationalism and ideal of progress that the Enlightenment represented and that he embraced:

The United States was uniquely founded on Enlightenment principles of reason and progress. It is, perhaps, the thoroughgoing demonstration of the fragility of optimistic rationalism that makes Brown’s American tales distinctly Gothic. For Brown the grounds of human decisions are inevitably imperfect, the effects of human actions are always unpredictable, and moral behavior usually conceals selfish motives. Brown is a rationalist with little faith in the power of reason, a follower of Locke without his predecessor’s belief in progress. Brown’s darkest insights spring from Lockean psychology. His is a world where sensory evidence is misleading and inferences from such evidence are frequently irrational. Brown’s novels show good producing evil and the rational giving rise to the irrational (The Handbook of the Gothic, ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 13).
Although Edgar Allan Poe did not write novels, his short stories and poems reflect much the same sense of ambiguity, if not outright pessimism, concerning the notion of human progress and reason. On the one hand, Poe obviously believed in science and its application in the form of technology and in the efficacy of reason in solving problems--often, it would seem, the selfsame problems that it had earlier created. “It may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma. . . which human ingenuity may not, by proper application, resolve,” he wrote. Nevertheless, he also found it necessary to declare that “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active--not more happy--or more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.”

Both Brown and Poe lived much closer to the founding of the nation than we live today. It is both heartening and disheartening to know that men of letters and philosophical and political acumen doubted the principles upon which the nation was founded then, as now, and to know that, so far, the United States has demonstrated the validity of Locke’s own faith. Of course, the country is still young in a world of ancient nations and the insights of writers such as Brown and Poe should give us pause. Poe doesn’t identify the cause of his misgivings concerning human perfectibility, but Brown does. There is a sense, in his thinking, that human behavior is dishonest, because, as Lustig points out, he regards there to be an egoistic self-interest at the base even of seemingly purely “moral behavior,” which suggests that men and women do what is right (or wrong) not so much because the act is right (or wrong) but because the deed benefits them personally in some way. However, it is likely that, in doing what is right, one is apt to lay claim to the good deed rather than to its motive, an act of hypocrisy if the deed is done for the good that it does oneself rather than the good itself that it accomplishes.

The rational uncertainty and moral ambiguity that Brown sees as characteristic of human behavior is demonstrated in his fiction in another way as well, Lustig argues: “Circuitries of physical resemblance link ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters so that any stable moral spectrum dissolves. Brown’s characters begin to look like the projections of each other’s fears, desires and possible identities” (13) (a statement that is often as much true of Poe’s characters as it is of Brown’s).

In every man or woman who writes, whether horror fiction or otherwise, there is one or more schisms of thought, belief, and sentiment that could become the wellspring of not one short story or novel but an entire corpus. In previous posts, I have written of how the experiences of such authors as Hans Christian Andersen, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others seem to have shaped much of their mature work. Like it or not, we must write from our own experiences. Therefore, one could argue, it is helpful to know what conflicts exist within one’s own outlook on life, in one’s own personal point of view toward the self, the other, and the world. These conflicts may be few or many, ranging from the personal, or emotional, to the social and political; they may involve philosophical perspectives or religious faith. They may be sexual or aesthetic, vocational or familial, practical or speculative, maternal or paternal. There are as many possibilities as there are aspects of personality and human experience. From one or more of these great conflicts within the soul, a volume of literary work may arise that is worth reading and, indeed, writing about.

However, crises need not be the source of one’s inspiration as a writer; a powerful interest, bordering upon the obsessive, can also motivate a writer to write, and his or her treatment of such a theme, in popularizing a genre’s essential elements, or ingredients, as it were, can make such a writer‘s more-or-less narrow or even idiosyncratic concern interesting to a wider audience.. The interest need not even be mainstream or entirely respectable. Indeed, for readers of Gothic fiction (and horror literature in general), the more bizarre such interests are in themselves, the more intriguing thy are apt to be. For example, as Helen Small points out in her article concerning “Bulwer Lytton, Edward (1803-73),” which also appears in The Handbook of the Gothic, “all Bulwer Lytton’s writing about the occult is informed by his knowledge of Rosicrucian lore,” although “the primary interest of connoisseurs of the Gothic lies in its recasting of the traditional subject matter of the genre--Faustian hubris, predatory sexual desire, supernatural forces, madness, revenge--in terms which made them more immediately relevant to the concerns of early Victorian readers” (16-17).

The Handbook of the Gothic does such an outstanding job of identifying sources of authorial inspiration and the themes of their work that Chillers and Thrillers will offer more of the anthology’s authors insights, always with his own as well, of course, in future installments of this series.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Horror Fiction: The Pleasure of Pain, or Painful Pleasures

Just as some philosophers see morality as emerging from a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, some psychologists regard sadomasochism as a universal basis for human conduct. Human existence, such students of human behavior contend, teeters and totters between active and dominant conduct and passive and submissive behavior. Today’s active, dominant person may become the passive, submissive party tomorrow--and vice versa. In “Sado-Masochism,” Elisabeth Bronfen’s gloss on the topic in The Handbook of the Gothic, the author puts the matter in Freudian terms:

From the onset of his work on instincts and perversions, Sigmund Freud emphasized that sadism as an active and masochism as a passive posture enlacing pain with pleasure are the two faces of the same perversion, although the one aspect may be more strongly developed than the other. At the same time he also emphasized that while these two terms could not be studied in isolation, it was equally true that the underlying contrast between activity and passivity extended beyond the question of sexual perversion, proving itself to be among the universal characteristics of sexual life. As such, the polarity reappears in psychoanalytic theory in the opposition between phallic and castrated, as well as in the opposition between masculine and feminine (231).
Obviously, for Freud, sadomasochism was not exclusively, or even primarily, a sexual disorder. Instead, it is the basis for all human activity. As such, it could be the ground of activities between male-male participants or between male-female participants. If sadomasochism were to take place between two men, it would be characterized as involving a phallic participant (the active, dominant party) and a castrated (passive, submissive party), whereas if sadomasochism were to occur between a man and a woman, the man would be masculine, the woman feminine. (Freud doesn’t seem to have reckoned a place in his scheme of things for masochism between two women, but, perhaps, sadomasochism between two women could be said to follow either the male-male paradigm, with the active, dominant participant adopting the role of the phallic woman while the other performed the role of the feminine party, or the male-female model, with the active, dominant participant adopting the masculine role while the other woman performed the feminine role.)

If sadomasochism truly underlies all human behavior, it is obviously a component of the conduct of horror fiction characters. Initially, the monster functions as the sadist, which is to say, the phallic, or masculine, and antagonistic, aggressive character, while the hero or heroine and the victims adopt the role of the castrated or feminine characters. However , during the course of the story, these roles are apt to be reversed, so that the sadistic-phallic-masculine monster becomes the masochistic-castrated-feminine character and the masochistic-castrated-feminine hero or heroine and the victims--those that remain alive, at any rate--become the sadistic-phallic-masculine predators. Indeed, in slasher movies, it has become a common motif for the sole survivor, a female character, to outlast even the monster, often banishing or destroying it so that she becomes the final girl (the last character standing). During the course of the story, the viewer (or, it may be, the reader), who identifies with the protagonist, is allowed to experience both poles of the sadomasochistic continuum (and, no doubt, several points between them).

The sadomasochism of the drama or narrative can be provided by an external source or it can occur internally, within the character, as Bronfen points out in the closing paragraph of her article:

Within Gothic literature phantasy enactments of sado-masochism can be found in the intersubjective conflict, the domination-submission played through in narratives where political institutions are shown to inflict violence on their subjects, notably [in]. . . scenes of torture. . . . But they can also be manifested in the register of intrasubjective conflict, where characters enact the struggle between a sadistic super-ego as a representative of the law and a masochistic ego as representative of forbidden pleasures, by suffering from guilt, self-punishment, or self-purging. . . (232).
As examples of novels in which the sadomasochism derives from “intersubjective conflict,” Bronfen cites the works of Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Maturin; as examples of stories that contain “intrasubjective conflict,” she mentions the works by Charles Brockden Brown, Herman Melville, and James Hogg.

For my own part, I believe that Freud’s theory concerning sadomasochism as a universal basis for human behavior has merit (although, typically, I am myself anything but Freudian in outlook and am not, in general, a big fan of psychology or, at least, of psychologizing), and Bronfen’s division of “enactments of sado-masochism” into “intersubjective” and “intrasubjective” conflict seems valid, although films like The Descent, it may be argued, are predicated upon both types of conflict, the threats to the characters coming at once from without and from within.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Connie's Plight

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Professor Joyce Carol Oates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bits & Pieces: The Travel Channel’s Tour of "Scariest Places"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman



Cheesman Park's acropolis

It’s October, and, in anticipation of Halloween, The Travel Channel is broadcasting a series concerning The Scariest Places in America. A recent installment included Denver’s Chessman Park, which was built atop a cemetery of 4,000. Some of the bodies were buried in “term graves.” These were temporary burial places; interment in them required that the remains be moved to permanent graves when they became available, and E. P. McGovern was hired to relocate the bodies. He provided the coffins, for which he received approximately two dollars each. Instead of using adult-size boxes, he used children’s coffins, breaking the corpses apart and casketing them indiscriminately. Those who believe that the present-day park is haunted believe that the mistreatment of the dead by McGovern is the cause of their ghosts’ unrest, and several visitors to the park claim to have seen the specters.



Resurrection Cemetery:  who wouldn't want to "live" here?

Fort Mifflin, near Philadelphia, Philadelphia; a devil’s tree; Manresa Castle, near Port Townsend, Washington; Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s Slater Mill; Resurrection Mary, the hitchhiking ghost who, trying to find her way to her relocated grave in Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, Illinois, seeks to thumb a ride along Archer Avenue; Chet’s Melody Lounge, also in Justice; and the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts (the place was once the actual home of the infamous Lizzie Borden) are the other “scariest places” featured on the show.

The official website of the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast summarizes the events of the double murder: “August 4, 1892. A wealthy businessman and his wife are found brutally murdered in their Victorian home in Fall River, Massachusetts. The Accused: the youngest daughter, Lizzie. The Verdict: Not Guilty!” According to a séance conducted for the show, a man named “Joseph” killed Lizzie’s parents--and that information comes directly from the ghost of the murdered matriarch herself , according to the psychic who conducted the séance.

The whole hour, from the story of Cheesman Park to the story of Lizzie Borden, is cheesy and, for that reason, more than worth watching.

Beside. It’s almost Halloween!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Edgar Allan Poe: An Obituary and a Eulogy

Copyright 2010 by Edgar Allan Poe


Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, and an obituary by his mortal enemy and biographer Rufus Griswold appeared three weeks later, on October 20, on page four of the New-York Weekly Tribune. It was another chance for Poe’s foe to lambaste the author, and he did so, claiming that Poe “had few or no friends” and suggesting that he was deserving of none. “Few,” Griswold felt sure, would “be grieved by” Poe’s demise.

Even the author’s reputation as a man of letters was questionable, Griswold implied: “Literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.” Griswold, assuming the name of “Ludwig,” characterizes Poe as a dissolute alcoholic who lived a penurious and friendless existence at the expense, as often as not, of his benefactors. He was, “Ludwig” all but insists, little more than a freeloader:

His wants were supplied by the liberality of a few individuals. We remember that Col. Webb collected in a few moments fifty or sixty dollars for him at the Union Club; Mr. Lewis, of Brooklyn, sent a similar sum from one of the Courts, in which he was engaged when he saw the statement of the poet’s poverty; and others illustrated in the same manner the effect of such an appeal to the popular heart.
Poe came to the attention of the literati as a result of an accident, Griswold claims. He had entered a literary contest, and his story won not because it had any merit, but because it was the first among the many entries that showed any legibility, and the judges, in selecting it as the winner, might be done as quickly as possible with their responsibility:

Such matters are usually disposed of in a very off hand way: Committees to award literary prizes drink to the payer’s health, in good wines, over the unexamined MSS, which they submit to the discretion of publishers, with permission to use their names in such a way as to promote the publisher’s advantage[[.]] So it would have been in this case, but that one of the Committee, taking up a little book in such exquisite calligraphy as to seem like one of the finest issues of the press of Putnam, was tempted to read several pages, and being interested, he summoned the attention of the company to the half-dozen compositions in the volume. It was unanimously decided that the prizes should be paid to the first of geniuses who had written legibly. Not another MS. was unfolded. Immediately the ‘confidential envelop’ was opened, and the successful competitor was found to bear the scarcely known name of Poe.
Had it not been for the intervention of another benefactor, “the accomplished author” John P. Kennedy, who’d written Horseshoe Robinson, it seems unlikely, Griswold would have his readers believe, that Poe would ever have been likely to have earned himself the position of editor of The Southern Literary Messenger at even the “small salary” that Poe was paid:

The next day the publisher called to see Mr. Kennedy, and gave him an account of the author that excited his curiosity and sympathy, and caused him to request that he should be brought to his office. Accordingly he was introduced: the prize money had not yet been paid, and he was in the costume in which he had answered the advertisement of his good fortune. Thin, and pale even to ghastliness, his whole appearance indicated sickness and the utmost destitution. A tattered frock-coat concealed the absence of a shirt, and the ruins of boots disclosed more than the want of stockings[[.]] But the eyes of the young man were luminous with intelligence and feeling, and his voice, and conversation, and manners, all won upon the lawyer’s regard. Poe told his history, and his ambition, and it was determined that he should not want means for a suitable appearance in society, nor opportunity for a just display of his abilities in literature. Mr. Kennedy accompanied him to a clothing store, and purchased for him a respectable suit, with changes of linen, and sent him to a bath, from which he returned with the suddenly regained bearing of a gentleman.

The late Mr. Thomas W. White had then recently established The Southern Literary Messenger, at Richmond, and upon the warm recommendation of Mr. Kennedy, Poe was engaged, at a small salary — we believe of $500 a year — to be its editor.
In keeping with his image of Poe as a ne’er-do-well who lived off others, Griswold also characterizes Poe as something of a vagabond, mentioning his moves from Richmond to Philadelphia; from Philadelphia to New York; from New York back again to Richmond; and, finally, as it seemed, judging by his death in Baltimore, back again to New York.

In the years following the death of his “poor” wife, whom Poe had married “hurriedly” and “with characteristic recklessness of consequences,” at a time when he was as penniless as she, the author was able to make a meager living on the basis of “an income from his literary labors sufficient for his support.” However, Griswold suggests, Poe continued to keep an eye out for the chance to freeload, for, as “Ludwig,” or Griswold, points out, Poe “was understood by some of his correspondents” to be planning “to be married, most advantageously, to a lady of that city: a widow, to whom he had been previously engaged while a student in the University.”

As a man, Poe didn’t amount to much, either, Griswold’s death notice suggests: “He was at all times a dreamer,” who walked about not with his head so much in the clouds as “in heaven or hell,” communing with imaginary beings, the “creatures and the accidents of his brain”:

He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.

He seemed, except when some fitful pursuit subjected his will and engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow. The remarkable poem of The Raven was probably much more nearly than has been supposed, even by those who were very intimate with him, a reflexion and an echo of his own history.
The true man is mirrored by his works, Griswold says, and Poe’s works are dark and dreary, indeed:

Every genuine author in a greater or less degree leaves in his works, whatever their design, traces of his personal character: elements of his immortal being, in which the individual survives the person. While we read the pages of the Fall of the House of Usher, or of Mesmeric Revelations, we see in the solemn and stately gloom which invests one, and in the subtle metaphysical analysis of both, indications of the idiosyncrasies, — of what was most remarkable and peculiar — in the author’s intellectual nature. But we see here only the better phases of this nature, only the symbols of his juster action, for his harsh experience had deprived him of all faith in man or woman. He had made up his mind upon the numberless complexities of the social world, and the whole system with him was an imposture. This conviction gave a direction to his shrewd and naturally unamiable character. Still, though he regarded society as composed altogether of villains, the sharpness of his intellect was not of that kind which enabled him to cope with villainy, while it continually caused him by overshots to fail of the success of honesty.
A friend of Poe’s, George R. Graham, answers Griswold’s character assassination-disguised-as-an-obituary with a eulogy in which he praises Poe (“The Late Edgar Allan Poe,” Graham’s Magazine, March 1850, 36: 224-226). Adopting the device of writing his eulogy to Willis, a mutual friend of Poe and himself, Graham begins by taking unto himself the task of writing a “defence [sic] of his character” as it was “set down by Dr. Rufus W. Griswold.”

“I knew Mr. Poe well — far better than Mr. Griswold,” Graham writes, and he immediately describes Griswold’s portrait of Poe an “exceedingly ill-timed and unappreciative estimate of the character of our lost friend,” which is both “unfair and untrue.” Graham believes that Griswold demonizes Poe out of spite, or “spleen.” Griswold’s obituary is, in fact, Graham argues, an attempt to avenge himself and his friends upon Poe for Poe’s honest criticisms of their literary works:

Mr. Griswold does not feel the worth of the man he has undervalued; — he had no sympathies in common with him, and has allowed old prejudices and old enmities to steal, insensibly perhaps, into the coloring of his picture. They were for years totally uncongenial, if not enemies, and during that period Mr. Poe, in a scathing lecture upon [[“]]The Poets of America,[[”]] gave Mr. Griswold some raps over the knuckles of force sufficient to be remembered. He had, too, in the exercise of his functions as critic, put to death, summarily, the literary reputation of some of Mr. Griswold’s best friends; and their ghosts cried in vain for him to avenge them during Poe’s life-time.
What Griswold and his friends were incapable of achieving during Poe’s life, Griswold sought to gain after his death, by cowardly accusing Poe of charges against which Poe could not now defend himself. However, Graham suggests, even if Griswold had not had an axe to grind, Griswold would have not been “competent. . . to act as his judge — to dissect that subtle and singularly fine intellect — to probe the motives and weigh the actions of that proud heart” because not only did Griswold not “feel the worth of the man he has undervalued” but he also could not measure Poe’s worth, since Poe’s “whole nature — that distinctive presence of the departed which now stands impalpable, yet in strong outline before me, as I knew him and felt him to be — eludes the rude grasp of a mind so warped and uncongenial as Mr. Griswold’s.”

As a man, Griswold found Poe to have had close friends and to have been “always the same polished gentleman — the quiet, unobtrusive, thoughtful scholar — the devoted husband — frugal in his personal expenses — punctual and unwearied in his industry — and the soul of honor, in all his transactions. This, of course, was in his better days, and by them we judge the man. But even after his habits had changed, there was no literary man to whom I would more readily advance money for labor to be done.” As for his being a ne’er-do-well or a freeloader, Graham says, Poe was of such a rarified genius that his writings found only a small audience, (and literature is an enterprise that seldom pays well, in any case). He drank because he made little at doing what he loved so well:

The very natural question — “Why did he not work and thrive?” is easily answered. It will not be asked by the many who knew the precarious tenure by which literary men hold a mere living in this country. The avenues through which they can profitably reach the country are few, and crowded with aspirants for bread as well as fame. The unfortunate tendency to cheapen every literary work to the lowest point of beggarly flimsiness in price and profit, prevents even the well-disposed from extending any thing like an adequate support to even a part of the great throng which genius, talent, education, and even misfortune, force into the struggle. The character of Poe’s mind was of such an order, as not to be very widely in demand. The class of educated mind which he could readily and profitably address, was small — the channels through which he could do so at all, were few — and publishers all, or nearly all, contented with such pens as were already engaged, hesitated to incur the expense of his to an extent which would sufficiently remunerate him; hence, when he was fairly at sea, connected permanently with no publication, he suffered all the horrors of prospective destitution, with scarcely the ability of providing for immediate necessities; and at such moments, alas! the tempter often came, and, as you have truly said, “one glass” of wine made him a madman. Let the moralist who stands upon tufted carpet, and surveys his smoking board, the fruits of his individual toil or mercantile adventure, pause before he lets the anathema, trembling upon his lips, fall upon a man like Poe! who, wandering from publisher to publisher, with his fine, print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled, finds no market for his brain — with despair at heart, misery ahead for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heels, thus sinks by the wayside, before the demon that watches his steps and whispers OBLIVION.
The solution might have been to sell out and write the hack work that a general audience more interested in entertainment than art seemed to crave, but Poe was too much a man of honor to do so, Graham declares: “Could he have stepped down and chronicled small beer, made himself the shifting toady of the hour, and with bow and cringe, hung upon the steps of greatness, sounding the glory of third-rate ability with a penny trumpet, he would have been feted alive, and perhaps, been praised when dead. But no! his views of the duty of the critic were stern, and he felt that in praising an unworthy writer, he committed dishonor.”

Rather than the idle, half-mad dreamer that Griswold had made Poe out to be, Poe was a man of genius, Graham states, whose thoughts occupied higher regions than those of men of more mundane interests:

He was a worshipper of INTELLECT — longing to grasp the power of mind that moves the stars — to bathe his soul in the dreams of seraphs. He was himself all ethereal, of a fine essence, that moved in an atmosphere of spirits — of spiritual beauty, overflowing and radiant — twin brother with the angels, feeling their flashing wings upon his heart, and almost clasping them in his embrace. Of them, and as an expectant archangel of that high order of intellect, stepping out of himself, as it were, and interpreting the time, he reveled in delicious luxury in a world beyond, with an audacity which we fear in madmen, but in genius worship as the inspiration of heaven.
It should be observed that contemporary critics hold a view of Poe that is much closer to Graham’s estimation of the author than to Griswold’s caricature of him.



Note: Both Griswold’s obituary and Graham’s eulogy may be read in their entireties at “A Poe Bookshelf: Books, Articles and Lectures on Edgar Allan Poe,” courtesy of The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Robert Sheckley’s “Gray Flannel Armor”: A Lesson on Love and Literature

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Published in 2005 by The NESFA Press of Farmingham, MA, The Masque of Manana offers science fiction fans forty one of Robert Sheckley’s often-satirical, always incomparable short stories, one of which, “Gray Flannel Armor,” I discuss here, because it offers a lesson not only in love but also in literature.

The protagonist is a young man named Thomas Hanley whose very ordinariness as an everyman makes him an appealing character. He is also made interesting by Sheckley’s omniscient narrator’s description of him. Hanley’s ordinary nature comes through in story’s first two paragraphs:

Thomas Hanley was a tall, slim young man, conservative in his tastes, moderate in his vices, and modest to a fault. His conversation with either sex was perfectly proper, even to the point of employing the verbal improprieties suitable to his age and station. He owned several gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimented stripes. You might think you could pick him out of a crowd because of his horn-rimmed glasses, but you would be wrong. That wasn’t Hanley. Hanley was the other one.

Who would believe that, beneath this meek, self-effacing, industrious, conforming exterior beat a wildly romantic heart? Sadly enough, anyone would, for the disguise fooled only the disguised [i. e., Hanley himself].
The narrator’s description of Hanley, in paragraph five, suggests that Hanley is also an everyman:

Young men like Hanley, in their grey flannel armor and horn-rimmed visors, are today’s knights of chivalry, Millions of them roam the streets of our great cities, their footsteps firm and hurried, eyes front, voices lowered, dressed to the point of invisibility. Like actors or bewitched men, they live their somber lives, while within them the flame of romance burns and will not die (427).

When Joe Morris, a salesman, appears at his apartment’s door, trying to sell him on a subscription to New York Romance Service, assuring Hanley that the “service” that the company provides has nothing to do with call girls, but, instead, will help him to find the woman of his dreams, the protagonist earns the sympathy of readers who, like Hanley, understand how difficult it is for men and women to find romance even in a city of millions. Therefore, they are likely to care enough about his plight (and, by extension, in many cases, their own), and the story’s opening sentence is likely to prompt them to continue to read, promising them, as it does, that, as a result, they will learn how Hanley met “the girl who later became his wife” ((427).

Most of Sheckley’s stories establish a problem for which their characters seek solutions. “Gray Flannel Armor” is no exception: Hanley’s problem is that he cannot meet a fiancée. The solution, he is told, is New York Romance Service, which employs “scientific precision and technological know-how” based upon “a thorough study of the factors essential to a successful meeting between the sexes” (429). These “essential” elements of romance, the salesman says, are “spontaneity and a sense of fatedness” (429). Readers may be curious as to how Hanley meets his future wife, but, like the protagonist himself, they are also apt to be skeptical that romance can be analyzed on the basis of science and secured through technology.

Still, the premise is intriguing, and, in the second scene of the story, the salesman’s claims are put to the test. On a trial basis, Morris loans Hanley “a small transistor with a tiny video eye” by which New York Romance Service can track and coach him in his quest for romance (neither sex nor love is guaranteed, just romance). Directed by a voice he hears through the radio, Hanley goes to a rooftop, where he meets a beautiful young woman who is there stargazing. When he is uncertain as to how to proceed, the voice advises him to talk about “the lights,” which results in the following romantic exchange:

“The lights are beautiful,” said Hanley, feeling foolish.

“Yes,” murmured the girl. “Like a great carpet of stars, or spearpoints [sic] in the gloom.”

“Like sentinels,” said Hanley, “keeping eternal vigil in the night.” He wasn’t sure if the idea was his or he was parroting a barely perceptible voice from the radio.

“I often come here,” said the girl.

“I never come here,” Hanley said.

“But tonight. . . .”

“Tonight I had to come. I knew I would find you” (431).
The voice on the radio next directs him to “take her in your arms,” and, when he opens his arms to her, she steps into them (431).

Although their encounter ends well, in romance, Hanley can’t help but feel that “something about it seemed wrong” (432), and he wonders “how many dreams the Romance Service had analyzed, how many visions they had tabulated, to produce something as perfect” as his seemingly spontaneous and fated meeting of the lovely young woman on a rooftop under the stars (431).

A second date, with a different woman, also ends well, in romance. Guided again by radio, Hanley arrives at the scene of a mugging just in the nick of time and, after saving the beautiful young woman from the muggers, enjoys both a “meeting that was not only spontaneous and fateful, but enormously pleasant as well” and “a wild, perfect, and wonderful” night with her. Nevertheless, he is still “disturbed” and cannot “help feeling a little odd about a romantic meeting set up and sponsored by transistor radios, which cued lovers into the proper spontaneous yet fated responses. It was undoubtedly clever but something about it seemed wrong” (432). He realizes--and his realization is the part of the story’s theme--that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love. Love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly” (434).

Hanley’s insight is confirmed when, walking through a park, his radio silent for once, he encounters a third beautiful young woman. At last, he experiences an “adventure” that seems “truly fated and spontaneous.” However, he soon discovers, that this experience, too, is staged, albeit by a company that employs more sophisticated methods than the use of “a small transistor with a tiny video eye”:

. . . I am your Free Introductory Romance, given as a sample by Greater Romance Industries, with home offices in Newark, New Jersey. Only our firm offers romances which are truly spontaneous and fated. Due to our technological researches, we are able to dispense with such clumsy apparatus as transistor radios, which lend an air of rigidity and control where no control should be apparent. . . (435).
Hanley is so disheartened by the sales pitch that, as he flees the scene, “he plucked the tiny transistor radio from his lapel and hurled it into a gutter” and “further attempts at salesmanship were wasted on Hanley” (435).

At the outset of the story, the narrator promises to show how the protagonist met “the girl who would later become his wife,” and the end of the story makes good on this promise: “It is interesting to note,” the narrator tells the readers, that Hanley was among the last to find a wife in the old, unsure, quaint, haphazard, unindustrialized fashion” (436), i. e., through a blind date arranged for him, and chaperone by, his old-fashioned aunt. Even this natural experience becomes the subject of a scientific study and crass commercialization:

And now one of the Companies’ regular and most valued services is to provide bonded aunts for young men to call up, to provide these aunts with shy and embarrassed young girls, and to produce a proper milieu for all this in the form of a bright, over-decorated parlor, an uncomfortable couch, and an eager old lady bustling back and forth at meticulously unexpected intervals with coffee and homemade cake.
Ironically, the narrator adds, “The suspense, they say, becomes almost overpowering” (436).

The story’s title reinforces the relationship between the narrative’s story and its theme. Hanley (the readers’ stand-in) learns that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love“ because “love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly,” especially when the “romantic meeting is set up and sponsored by transistor radios, which cued lovers into the proper spontaneous yet fated responses.” Fortunately for Hanley, as an everyman he is protected from such artificiality-by-design. He is armored, as it were, by his own everydayness and the conventions and traditions of conduct of such everydayness that are symbolized by his “gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimental stripes” (427):

Thomas Hanley was a tall, slim young man, conservative in his tastes, moderate in his vices, and modest to a fault. His conversation with either sex was perfectly proper, even to the point of employing the verbal improprieties suitable to his age and station. He owned several gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimented stripes. . . .
If part of the story’s theme is that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love. Love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly,” the rest of it seems to be that it is the interplay between the commonplace and the romantic, not contrived spontaneity and an artificial “sense of fatedness,” that makes encounters and relationships truly romantic.

Sheckley’s story is a more-timely-than-ever satire against dubious dating services and dismal lonely hearts clubs (or today‘s computerized equivalents), some of use (or claim to sue) scientific surveys, psychological testing, personality profiles, and statistical analyses to match strangers. However, “Gray Flannel Armor” is more than a lesson in love; it is also a lesson on literature, for Sheckley’s implicit critique of the absurdity of trying to quantify love is applicable also to fiction. Natural, but unpredictable, plotting creates true suspense, but there is something “wrong” with formulaic stories that are cranked out in assembly-line fashion. That’s a lesson that writers of horror as well as of science fiction (or any other genre) can take to the heart.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bits & Pieces: Story One-Liners

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pulman


No, I’m not endorsing USA Today. In fact, its political bent slants opposite of my own. However, I’m certainly not denigrating it, either. It’s a decent daily in many ways. Besides, I don’t depend upon it for my news (although, I must admit, I do enjoy reading its “Across the USA: news from every state” column. It offers something I don’t see anywhere else: news from every state.

But I also check out the “TV Tonight” listings on occasion. In doing so, I find, the one-sentence summaries of TV episode and movie plots frequently encapsulate, in nut-shell fashion, identifications of the protagonist, the antagonist, conflict (if only implicitly), and the conflict’s resolution. Not bad for a sentence. Here’s an example: “A man [protagonist] drinking himself to death [conflict] finds solace [conflict resolution] with a hooker [antagonist]” (6D). While this summary, which is of Leaving Las Vegas, is not of a horror movie, the same approach can be used to sum up a horror film. Here’s an example: Ben Mears (protagonist) leads a fight against vampires (conflict), liberating his boyhood hometown (conflict resolution) from the bloodsucking fiends (antagonists). The summary is, of course, of Stephen King’s novel ‘Salem’s Lot.

The one-sentence statement of a story’s basic plot keeps a writer focused on the narrative’s main character, antagonist, conflict, conflict resolution, and through-line, which is no mean feat when one writes novels of the length of ‘Salem’s Lot. The synopsis can fit on an index card that one can tape on his or her computer monitor, pocket to take with him or her to the library (for research beyond the Internet’s delivery capability), and keep close to hand during rewrites and revisions. Again, not bad for a sentence!

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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