Fascinating lists!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

G. K. Chesterton‘s “The Angry Street”: An Analysis

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
What is an altar but a table made sacred by convention and design?
The first-person narrator begins his story with a surprising statement: he is unable, he says, to recall “whether this tale is true or not”; he follows it with an even more remarkable declaration, stating that he believes that the incidents that he is about to commit to paper “happened to me before I was born.”

Having captured his readers’ attention with these statements, he next begins to relate the narrative proper, hinting at the fact that it involves “atmosphere.” A number of men, all of whom are in a hurry, are seated at lunch, each with one eye upon the clock. The narrator is among them, and, into their company enters another who is dressed as they are, in gentleman’s attire, but who, unlike the others, shows a reverence for the things about him, including his “long frock coat,” his top hat, the peg upon which he hangs his hat, “the wooden chair” in which he sits and the table at which he sits. As soon as he is seated across from the narrator, he begins a “monologue.” At first, the narrator considers him “ordinary,” but is soon disturbed by the other’s gaze, which he describes as that “of a maniac.”

The odd man’s odd manner and the odd thing that he next says continue to intrigue readers. “I thought,” he says, “that another of them had gone wrong,” by which, he clarifies, he means another street. For over forty years, he explains, he has traveled the same street, walking it in the same manner. It is not a long street, he observes; walking it takes him no more than “four and a half minutes.” However, he recently took his usual stroll and found it to be not only tiring but also to have taken him longer. The street also climbed a hill, which it had never done before. The curious gentleman guessed that he had perhaps “turned down the wrong” street, despite the many years during which he has made the same journey “like clockwork.” However, as he continued his walk, it became clear to him, by the landmarks he passed, that the street was, in fact, the one that he customarily traveled. As he continued his walk, the street, instead of turning, as it had always done before, veered steeply, “straight in front of” his “face,” ascending a sharp, long upward slope that caused him to nearly fall “on the pavement.” The street, he found, had “lifted itself like a single wave, and yet every speck and detail of it was the same.” At the very summit of the street, he was able to see the “name over” his “paper shop,” as if the sign were atop “an Alpine pass.”

Quite perplexed and more than a little frightened, the pedestrian was even more astonished when, peering through “the iron trap of a coal-hole” in the street, which had now assumed the aspect of “a long iron bridge into empty space,” he “saw empty space and the stars.” When he looked up again, he saw another man, who was “leaning over the railings,” staring at the hiker, to whom the man seemed to be “not of this world,” despite his “dark and ordinary” attire and the pedestrian’s sense that he had just come out of one of the “grey row of private houses” along the “nightmare road.” The sense of the stranger’s otherworldliness is intensified by the “stars behind his head,” which appear “larger and fiercer than ought to be endured by the eyes of men.”

Calling upon the stranger, whom the traveler supposes may be either an “kind angel” of a “wise devil,” to tell him what has become of the street, which, he identifies as “Bumpton Street, which “goes to Oldgate Station.” The stranger’s reply is bizarre (and, therefore, intriguing to the story’s readers): “It goes there sometimes, Just now, however, it is going to heaven” to seek justice for the traveler’s mistreatment of it. The neglect, the stranger informs the pedestrian, lies in the traveler’s ignoring of the street that he has used (and taken for granted) for over forty years: the street, he says, “has grown tired” of the traveler’s “insolence, and it is bucking and rearing its head toward heaven.”

The pedestrian expresses his opinion that the stranger’s talk is mad; it is “nonsense,” he argues, to imagine that a street should be offended or that it should go anywhere other than where it has always led before. To the stranger’s question as to whether the traveler has ever wondered whether the street has taken him for granted, supposing him to be a non-living thing among things, the traveler has no answer. However, he confides to the story’s narrator that he has “since. . . respected the things called inanimate!” and he bows “slightly to the mustard-pot” as he takes his leave of the restaurant.

This is a short-short story. It is an odd one, certainly, as well. Among younger readers, it is apt to seem not only strange but also absurd. Some older readers, however, will comprehend the story’s theme. Because they are created by men and women, objects of art and craft are, as artifacts of design and manufacture, each with an aesthetic or a utilitarian purpose, are invested with a significance beyond their importance as mere products of technology; they are imbued with the spirit of their manufacturers. They are humanized by virtue of the fact that they are made by men and women. In that sense, they have “souls,” a point that Chesterton makes in his essay “A Piece of Chalk” as well as in this story.

If one considers a coat, a hat, a chair, a table, a mustard-pot, or a street not as a simple coat or hat, table or chair, or mustard-pot, but as an artifact designed for service or aesthetic enrichment and as a work into which a man or a woman has poured not only his or her art and craft, knowledge and skill, experience and passion, as if he or she were fashioning a gift to others as well as an expression of his or her own heart, such seemingly commonplace objects would be regarded with the respect--indeed, the reverence--that the “kind angel” or “;wise demon” suggests that they should be accorded, rather than being taken for granted and ignored.

Were the things that people make for themselves and others rightly regarded, Chesterton suggests, in “A Piece of Chalk,” it would be possible to write a book of poetry, of epic length and grandeur, about the things that one finds in his pocket or her purse. This story, absurd on its face, uses the absurdity that it generates to skew everyday reality, as represented by the street and by the restaurant and the things that each contains, so that these ordinary, everyday places and objects take on strange appearances and become, as it were, visible to readers who, in the course of their own everyday lives, are apt to dismiss their surroundings and to take things for granted much as the pedestrian in “The Angry Street” does.

By making the ordinary appear, for a moment, extraordinary, Chesterton helps his readers to see the extraordinary quality and value of the ordinary and the remarkable nature of the commonplace. Such is no mean feat, and Chesterton’s accomplishment of it in “The Mean Street” makes this story remarkable, indeed.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Exorcist: A Marriage of Spirit and Matter in the Style of William Peter Blatty

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, has an eccentric style that is marked by his tendency to create similes and metaphors that unite concrete and abstract terms. This practice is so commonplace in his novel as to indicate that it is more than merely a technique; it is essential to his narrative voice and, therefore, part of both his novel’s point of view and its theme.

In just the prologue to his novel, he includes the following tropes, each of which combines the physical and the spiritual, the literal and the figurative, the concrete and the abstract: a “premonition clung to his [Father Merrin’s] back like chill wet leaves” (3); “tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped” (3); “he dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but could not tag it” 4); “slippers, [the] groaning backs [of which] pressed under his heels” (4); “shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living” (4); “The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt” (4); “a splintered table the color of sadness” (5); “he waited, feeling at the stillness” (5); “the fractured rooftops of Erbil hovered far in the distance, poised in the clouds like a rubbled, mud-stained benediction” (5); “it [“safety” and “a sense of protection and deep well-being”] dwindled in the distance with the fast-moving jeep” (5); “some dry, tagged whisper of the past” (5-6); “its dominion was sickness and disease” (6); “the bloody dust of its predestination” (7-8); “icy conviction” (8).

What, one may ask, does Blatty gain, as an artist, by mixing the sensual and the ideal, the real and the intangible, the concrete and the abstract? The author himself offers a clue, in his novel’s prologue:
The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted snows caked thick with debris of the pain of living. The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter; yet somehow finally spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other (4).
This paragraph suggests that Father Merrin does not view reality in dualistic terms, as consisting of matter and of spirit, both of which are real. Rather, he is a monist, someone who believes that reality consists of only one essential element, although this element can appear to have two distinct expressions, that of matter and that of spirit. Truly understood, however, each is a mere shadow, as it were, of the one, true “stuff,” which is “more fundamental” and “totally other,” which is, in religious terms God. According to his faith as a Catholic, God is omnipresent, or everywhere present at once; therefore, the Spirit of God penetrates, if it does not actually embody, all things, shoes and “spirit” alike. If matter and spirit, like matter and energy, are interchangeable with one another, the body which housed a human soul in the distant past may now be mere bones, an artifact among other artifacts, as Blatty’s inclusion of human bones in his catalogue of other relics at the outset of the novel’s prologue indicates:
The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics and phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots. Nothing exceptional. An Assyrian ivory toilet box. And man. The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that had once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God. And yet now he knew better. . . (3-4).
The “he” in the final sentence of this paragraph might seem ambiguous: does it refer to Father Merrin or to humanity? Is it an individual or a universal perspective, the understanding that human skeletal remains do not signify a Lucerfarian “upward-groping back to. . . God?” The ambiguity is resolved almost as soon as it arises, if it does, in fact, arise at all, by the context of the paragraph in which the personal pronoun appears, for the paragraph speaks not of the priest, but of humanity: “he,” therefore, refers to “man,” not to Father Merrin, whose own point of view is very different, as one may already have discerned, than the worldview implied by metaphysical dualism, which sees both matter and spirit as opposite, if not opposing, realities, whereas Father Merrin sees them as both but “aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other,” or as expressions or, perhaps, indications of a transcendent divinity.

Blatty’s mixing of the concrete and the abstract also has the effect of making the latter seem more substantial, even more sensual, that it might be if it were linked, in simile or metaphor, with other abstract, rather than with concrete, terms. A “premonition” that clings to one’s “back like chill wet leaves” can be felt: it is thick and wet, clammy and cold; a “tell” that has “entrails” is a living thing--or, perhaps, a once-living thing, murdered by the archaeologists as much as by time, in order that it might be dissected, and its ancient artifacts, including the “bones” of “man” examined and catalogued; “stillness” that can be felt at is tangible, indeed.

By mixing the concrete and the abstract, Blatty breathes life, as it were, into dry and withered concepts and sensations, giving them flesh of sensual qualities that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched; at the same time, his marriage of matter and spirit suggests the monistic metaphysics that Father Merrin believes expresses the reality of a wholly “other” God who transcends both and yet, paradoxically, somehow also brings the two “aspects” of reality and, indeed, of divinity, together in himself, just as, in the same cosmic sense, Jesus Christ brings matter--the flesh--and spirit together as the incarnation of God.

It is the notion that God is not physical or spiritual, but other, that Father Karras has not yet understood. Therefore, for him, the physical and the fleshly aspects of human existence are grotesque and offensive, as is seen in Father Karras’ reaction to a homeless man, whom he sees as vile. Karras has come, of late, to doubt his faith, partly because of the concrete embodiment of sin in human flesh and partly because of the reality of evil, which is also often associated with the physical and corporeal aspects of existence, or reality. The priest sees the decadence of sin in the person of a homeless man who pleads with him for alms:
. . . He could not bear to search for Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be. . . (51).
Father Karras seems to equate human existence, or its fleshly aspect, at least, with evil:
A harried man with many appointments, the Provincial had not pressed him for the reasons for his doubt. For which Karras was grateful. He knew that his answers would have sounded insane: The need to rend food with the teeth and then defecate. . . . Stinking socks. Thalidomide babies. An item in a paper about a young altar boy waiting at a bus stop: set on by strangers; sprayed with kerosene; ignited. . . (54).
He has not yet attained the epiphany that Father Merrin has experienced. Once, like Father Karras, the older, in some ways worldlier Father Merrin found it difficult to love his neighbor as himself and to see in the human face and form the image and likeness of God; he has since overcome this stumbling block to faith, just as he has come to understand that evil is an offense to the goodness of God, not a quality inherent in mere matter or fleshly existence:
. . . The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma. Once he could not have loved this man (3).
Indeed, it might be argued that Father Merrin has come to love the downtrodden and the oppressed because of their suffering, because of the evil in the world. Unlike Father Karras, who believes that demons are merely personifications of various evils, Father Merrin knows that the “Legion” of demons that claim to haunt Regan MacNeil are lying, that “there is only one,” the enemy of God, for Father Merrin has encountered--indeed, has fought--him before, in the guise of the demon Pazuzu and knows that the true identity of the demon represented by the idol with the “ragged wings; taloned feet; bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin” is none other than Satan himself, the source and living embodiment of evil.

Father Karras is a materialist--or is in danger of becoming one. As such, he is obsessed with the physical, the fleshly, disease, and death; he is close to believing that only matter is real; and he has come to believe that evil is explainable in natural terms, as the effects of organic malformations of the brain or other physiological abnormalities.

Father Merrin, as a monist, accepts both the material, including the fleshly, and the spiritual as real, believing them to be but two aspects of a higher, unknowable “stuff” that is “totally other” than either of them and that evil is essentially nothing more than an offense to God. He is able to love Regan, despite the horrific onslaught of the demon--or the devil--who assaults her from within, often by the vilest and most corporeal means available to him--Regan’s own body.

Father Karras, on the other hand, is reluctant to seek “Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement.” It is only after he understands that God is beyond good and evil but is himself the essence of love that Father Karras can love Regan, in all her humanity, the way that Father Merrin has come to love human beings, whether a Kurd or the daughter of an actress who is temporarily residing in Georgetown. It is then that Father Karras can be the exorcist he has been called upon to be and can deliver the child whose body has been both a source of demonic violation of a temple of the Holy Spirit and a stumbling block to his own faith.

By mixing the concrete with the abstract in the peculiar similes and metaphors that appear frequently throughout his novel, Blatty brings together the material and the spiritual, making the former seem as tangible as the latter and suggesting one of his novel’s themes, which is that both aspects of reality find resolution, if not synthesis, in a higher, “totally other” form of being.

Source of quotations: Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

William Peter Blatty: Opening and Closing Sentences

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

The Exorcist is destined to become a classic of horror fiction. Its theme--the love of God surpasses both the problem of evil and human knowledge, depending upon trust in God, or faith--and the execution of this theme in and through William Peter Blatty’s narrative make the novel a book not for its day only but for all time. Like most other books whose importance transcends its own time, The Exorcist also happens to be adroitly written, as just the opening and closing lines of each of its major divisions indicate; Blatty knows how to create, maintain, and heighten suspense, both by the use of situations, foreshadowing, and cliffhangers.

The structure of Blatty’s novel also suggests how he saw the configuration or makeup of the corrodible event--itself comprised of other horrible incidents--of which his book is ostensibly a record or account. As such, it is instructive for those who want to ensure that the structures of their own novels enhance the effect of the horrors their books narrate.

Prologue: Northern Iraq

The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them.

He hastened toward Mosul and his train, his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would face an ancient enemy.

I: The Beginning


Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.

What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.


He stood at the edge of the lonely subway platform, listening for the rumble of a train that would still the ache that was always with him.

He rushed for the seven-ten train back to Washington, carrying pain in a black valise.


Early on the morning of April 11, Chris made a telephone call to her doctor in Los Angeles and asked him for a referral to a local psychiatrist for Regan.

There were no disturbances. That night.


She greeted her guests in a lime-green hostess costume with long, belled sleeves and pants.

The mattress of the bed was quivering violently back and forth.

II: The Edge


They brought her to an ending in a crowded cemetery where the gravestones cried for breath.

His orders were to “rest.”


Regan lay on her back on Klein’s examination table, arms and legs bowed outwards.

No one noticed.


The consulting neurologist pinned up the X-rays again and searched for indentations which would look as if the skull had been pounded like copper with a tiny hammer.

Wherever Sharon moved, Regan would follow.


Friday, April 29. While Chris waited in the hall outside the bedroom, Dr. Klein and a noted neuropsychiatrist were examining Regan.

Burke Denning’s head was turned completely around, facing backward.


Cupped in the warm, green hollow of the campus, Damien Karras jogged alone around an oval, loamy track in khaki shorts and a cotton T-shirt drenched with the cling of healing sweat.

She screamed until she fainted.

III: The Abyss


She was standing on the Key Bridge walkway, arms on the parapet, fidgeting, waiting, while homeward traffic stuttered thickly behind her, while drivers with everyday cares honked horns and bumpers nudged bumpers with scraping indifference.

“Perhaps we could now have a talk. . . .”


Karras threaded tape to an empty reel in the office of the rotund, silver-haired director of the Institute of Languages and Linguistics.

He continued his farewells.

IV. “And Let My Cry Come Unto Thee. . . ”


In the breathing dark of his quiet office, Kindemann brooded above his desk.

The river flowed quiet again, reaching for a gentler shore.


Late June sunlight streamed through the window of Chris’s bedroom.

In forgetting, they were trying to remember.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”: Shirley Jackson on The Problem of Evil

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

One way to gain insight concerning horror writers’ fiction and the techniques that the writers of such literature employ is to study actual specimens of the genre. Chillers and Thrillers has already examined such stories in some detail, including H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” and Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-man.” In addition, Chillers and Thrillers has considered the film The Descent and Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome in thorough detail. As a result of these studies (and others that are note quite as detailed), much concerning the art of writing horror fiction has been learned and shared. Perhaps these studies have also suggested the critical tools, techniques, theories, and approaches that one can take, on his or her own, to better understand the tricks of the trade. Chillers and Thrillers will continue to “murder” these stories in order “to dissect” them, so that this blog’s faithful followers and occasional readers can gain and share whatever insights Chillers and Thrillers may offer, beginning with Shirley Jackson’s masterful tale, “An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.”

Her story opens as the omniscient narrator introduces the unlikely protagonist, Mr. John Philip Johnson, sharing with the story’s readers Johnson’s view of the world. It is unduly optimistic--naively optimistic, one might suggest--like that of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, whose view of the universe as representing, despite its moral and ontological limitations, “the best of all possible worlds,” an optimism that is attacked, quite effectively, each in his own way, by writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Young Goodman Brown”), Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (Candide), and the Marquis de Sade.(Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue). Leibnitz’s view of the world is assailed, again, in part, by Jackson, in “An Ordinary Day.”

Mr. Johnson’s view of the world is (or, at least seems to be) much like that of Voltaire. Johnson, like the philosopher who wrote “Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil,” apparently believes that this is “the best of all possible worlds” (although, as readers will soon learn, appearances of belief, as of appearances otherwise, can be deceiving). Jackson, through her narrator, supplies hints that her protagonist’s ostensible optimism may not be supported by the actual state of the world. For example, he has had to have his shoes resoled, and this “resoling” suggests that the universe is not the perfect place that it may, at times, appear to be, for the fact that Mr. Johnson’s soles have worn out, needing to be replaced, suggests that good things even as trivial as the soles of shoes--and, perhaps, as significant as the souls of men and women--can degrade. This intimation of entropy, of erosion, of gradual degradation, if not of evil, is reinforced by the narrator’s reference to the sidewalk upon which Mr. Johnson steps as he leaves home as being “dirty” and by the narrator’s observation that only “some” of the people at whom Mr. Johnson smiles bother to return his smile.

Although his kindness wins them over, at first, other characters are not nearly as trusting of Mr. Johnson as he seems to be of them. When he offers a child the carnation he has bought for his lapel, the baby’s mother studies him “for a minute” before smiling at him, as her innocent child has done, upon the receipt of the flower, suggesting that she, having experience of the world, does not, unlike her child, automatically trust strangers bearing gifts. This mother’s initial distrust of Mr. Johnson is mirrored, a few moments later, by another mother’s suspicion of him when he offers to watch her child for her while she tends to the men who are moving her furniture. (The rest of the small crowd gathered at the scene are more interested in inspecting her worn furniture than they are in lending her a hand.) Her suspicion--she “turned and glared at him distrustfully”--prompts him to add, “We'll sit right here on the steps.” The child, a boy, is allowed to go to Mr. Johnson, who offers the lad a “handful of peanuts” from his pocket. The boy initially refuses the offered peanuts because “his mother did not allow him to accept food from strangers.” While the mother supervises the movers, Mr. Johnson reassures the boy that he will like his new home in Vermont. As he goes about town, having chosen a random route (“he did not follow the same route every morning, but preferred to pursue his eventful way in wide detours, more like a puppy than a man intent upon business”), Mr. Johnson does one good turn after another to all whom he encounters, including animals: he feeds a peanut to “a stray dog” he encounters on his way.

Jackson’s narrator frequently advises readers of how good Mr. Johnson himself feels, possibly as a result of his optimism and possibly as a result of the good deeds that he does. For example, as he sets out from home, at the beginning of the story, “Mr. John Philip Johnson shut his front door behind him and went down his front steps into the bright morning with a feeling that all was well with the world on this best of all days, and wasn't the sun warm and good,” and, after he watches the woman’s son, he steps “happily. . . Feeling the warm sun on his back and on the top of his head.”

He matches two young people who are too much in a hurry and too concerned with work to live their lives, paying them for the day they will miss by going on a date, the expenses of which Mr. Johnson pays in advance. He continues to offer peanuts to those whom he meets--a gull, a panhandler, a bus driver--and advises a couple who are seeking an apartment to rent of the vacancy left by the mother and son who have moved to Vermont. (This act is especially helpful in such big cities as New York, in which finding any apartment is difficult.) His good deeds continue until it is time for him to return home:
After his lunch he rested; he walked into the nearest park and fed peanuts to the pigeons. It was late afternoon by the time he was ready to start back downtown, and he had refereed two checker games, and watched a small boy and girl whose mother had fallen asleep and awakened with surprise and fear that turned to amusement when she saw Mr. Johnson. He had given away almost all of his candy, and had fed all the rest of his peanuts to the pigeons; and it was time to go home. Although the late afternoon sun was pleasant, and his shoes were still entirely comfortable, he decided to take a taxi downtown.
On his way home, he saves a taxi driver from losing money on a horserace. After the driver agrees to take the money home to his wife that a fare had given him to bet on a horse, Mr. Johnson gives the driver another ten dollars to bet on a different horse on another day, convincing the driver that astrological signs are against the horse winning the race that the driver has been tipped about the horse’s winning.

Finally, arriving back at his apartment, Mr. Johnson is greeted by his wife. They enquire as to one another’s day. He tells her that his has not been difficult; hers, she says, has been only “so-so.” She then recites the incidents of her day: she “accused” a woman at a department store “of shoplifting,” “sent three dogs to the pound,” “quarreled” with a bus driver and complained about his conduct to his supervisors. Based upon Mr. Johnson’s kind and considerate behavior throughout the day, readers are apt to think that Mr. Johnson would be horrified by his wife’s conduct. Therefore, his reaction comes as something of a shock. “Fine,” he says, and then, observing that she looks “tired,” suggests that they “change over tomorrow”--in other words, she will play the angel to his devil.

The story ends upon the same sort of commonplace note with which it began, as Mr. Johnson, enquiring as to what is for dinner and told “veal cutlet,” replies, “Had it for lunch.” The ordinariness of the lives of this couple, each of whom does good or evil in the course of their daily lives and is able, by a mere act of the will, to alternate between these modes of conduct enhances the story’s horrific quality, for it suggests that anyone and everyone--people as seemingly normal and ordinary as Mr. Johnson and his wife--can be either good or evil, or, indeed, both, and the duality of all human beings as agents, simultaneously, of both good and evil is the message of Jackson’s story. Men and women, Jackson suggests, are capable of choosing to be good or evil--or, at least, to act in good or evil ways. They have free will.

Her story suggests how much good or evil can be done by seemingly insignificant acts of kindness or malice. Mr. Johnson’s matching of the young couple might result in a happy, lifelong marriage between a young woman and a young man who, before, were in much too great a rush to earn a living to appreciate life or, indeed, themselves or other people, just as Mrs. Johnson’s accusation (perhaps unfounded) of a shopper’s theft could become a lifelong impediment to the individual, should a conviction result, in seeking employment or retaining a position. Obviously, most people would agree that it is better to do good than to do evil, but, Jackson’s story also suggests that, given the choice of behaving one way or the other, most people choose to behave both ways, either simultaneously or alternately, and that those who are suspicious of other people’s seemingly good intentions may, therefore, have good reason, indeed, to be suspicious. To choose to do good only at times is to choose to do evil, for to truly choose to do good would mean to renounce evil entirely--something that people do not seem to want to do or, perhaps, to be capable of doing.

Readers may be reminded of the lesson that Goodman Brown learns in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” that all men and women are both good and evil; that sin is innate and inescapable; and that all human deeds, therefore, are, even when good, tainted with evil. It is this theme, the idea of original sin, that Leibnitz’s optimistic philosophy ignores and that Jackson’s story, like “Young Goodman Brown,” Candide, and Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue ultimately underscores.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Guest Speaker: Tzvetan Todorov

The following are excerpt from Todorov's "The Uncanny and the Marvelous":

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from “reality” as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre [than that of 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 (Tzvetan Todorov, “The Uncanny and the Marvelous” in Literature of the Occult: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Peter B. Messent. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981. 17. Print).

Indeed, we generally distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the “uncanny”). . . and that of the supernatural accepted (the “marvelous”) (Todorov, 17). [By definition, Todorov views “the novels of Clara Reeves and Ann Radcliffe” as uncanny, but sees “the works of Horace Walpole, M. G. Lewis, and Maturin” as marvelous.]

. . . The marvelous corresponds to an unknown phenomenon, never seen as yet, still to come--hence to a future; in the uncanny, on the other hand, we refer the inexplicable to known facts, to a previous experience, and thereby to the past. As for the fantastic itself, the hesitation which characterizes it cannot be situated, by and large, except in the present (Todorov, 18).

Yet it would be wrong to claim that the fantastic can exist only in part of a work, for here are certain texts which sustain their ambiguity to the very end, i. e., even beyond the narrative itself. The book closed, the ambiguity persists. A remarkable example is supplied by Henry James’ tale “The Turn of the Screw,” which does not permit us to determine finally whether ghosts haunt the old estate, or whether we are confronted by hallucinations or a hysterical governess victimized by the disturbing atmosphere which surrounds her. In French literature, Merimee’s tale “La Venus d’Ille” affords a perfect example of this ambiguity. A statue seems to come alive and to kill the bridegroom; but we remain at the point of “seems,” and never reach certainty (Todorov, 19).

We find that. . . a transitory sub-genre appears: between the fantastic and the uncanny on the one hand, between the fantastic and the marvelous on the other[:]

. . . In. . . [the]. . . sub-genre [of the fantastic-uncanny] events that seem supernatural throughout a story receive a rational explanation at its end. . . . Criticism has described, and often condemned, this type under the label of “the supernatural explained” (Todorov, 20). [An example of the fantastic-uncanny sub-genre is The Saragossa Manuscript, in which the possibility of the supernatural as a cause of the events is slowly and continuously “eroded” in various ways, to wit:] first, accident or coincidence. . . ; next, dreams. . . ; then the influence of drugs. . . ; tricks and prearranged apparitions. . . ; illusion of the senses. . . ; and lastly madness (Todorov, 20-21).

. . . Indeed, the realistic solutions given in The Saragossa Manuscript or “Ines de las Sierras” are altogether improbable; supernatural solutions would have been, on the contrary, quite probable. . . . The probable is therefore not necessarily opposed to the fantastic: the former is a category that deals with internal coherence, with submission to the genre; the fantastic refers to an ambiguous perception shared by the reader and one of the characters. Within the genre of the fantastic, it is probable that “fantastic” reactions will occur (Todorov, 21).

. . . There also exists the uncanny in the pure state. In works that belong to this genre, events are related which may be readily accounted for by the laws of reason, but which are, in one way or another, incredible, extraordinary or unexpected, and which thereby provoke in the character and in the reader a reaction similar to that which works of the fantastic have made familiar. . . . The literature of horror in its pure state belongs to the uncanny--many examples from the stories of Ambrose Bierce could serve as examples here (Todorov, 22-23).

The uncanny realizes. . . only one of the conditions of the fantastic: the description of certain reactions, especially of fear. It is uniquely linked to the sentiments of the characters and not to a material event defying reason. (The marvelous, by way of contrast, may be characterized by the mere presence of supernatural events, without implicating the reaction they provoke in the characters) (Todorov, 22).

Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an instance of the uncanny bordering on the fantastic (Todorov, 22).

Here [in “The Fall of the House of Usher”] the uncanny has two sources. The first is constituted by two coincidences (there are as many of these as in a work of the supernatural explained). Although the resurrection of Usher’s sister and the fall of the house after the death of the inhabitants may appear supernatural, Poe has not failed to supply quite rational explanations for both events [a fissure in the edifice and catalepsy, respectively] (Todorov, 23).

The other series of elements that provoke the sense of the uncanny is not linked to the fantastic but to what we might call “an experience of limits,” which characterizes the whole of Poe’s oeuvre. . . . In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it is the extremely morbid condition of the brother and sister which disturbs the reader. In other tales, scenes of cruelty, delight in evil, and murder will provoke the same effect. The sentiment of the uncanny originates, then, in certain themes linked to more or less ancient taboos. If we grant that primeval experience is constituted by transgression, we can accept Freud’s theory as to the origin of the uncanny [as representing a resurfacing, or return, of the suppressed] (Todorov, 23).

Thus the fantastic is ultimately excluded from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As a rule we do not find the fantastic in Poe’s works, in the strict sense, with the exception perhaps of “The Black Cat.” His tales almost all derive their effects from the uncanny, and several from the marvelous. Yet Poe remains very close to the authors of the fantastic both in his themes and in the techniques that he applies (Todorov, 29).

. . . It has often been remarked. . . that for the reading public, detective stories have in our time replaced ghost stories. Let us consider the nature of the relationship. The murder mystery, in which we try to discover the identity of the criminal, is constructed in the following manner: on the one hand there are several easy solutions, initially tempting but turning out, one after another, to be false; on the other, there is an entirely improbable solution disclosed only at the end and turning out to be the only right one. Here we see what brings the detective story close to the fantastic tale. . . . The fantastic narrative, too, involves two solutions, one probable and supernatural, the other improbable and rational.

It suffices, therefore, that in the detective story this second solution be so inaccessible as to “defy reason” for us to accept the existence of the supernatural rather than to rest with the absence of any explanation at all. A classic example of this situation is Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. [However, the detective story is an example of the uncanny, for] the detective story, once it is over, leaves no doubt as to the absence of supernatural events. The relationship, moreover, is valid only for a certain type of detective story (the “sealed room”) and a certain type of uncanny narrative (the ‘supernatural explained”). Further, the emphasis differs in the two genres: in the detective story, the emphasis is placed on the solution to the mystery; in the texts linked to the uncanny (as in the fantastic narrative), the emphasis is on the reactions which this mystery provokes (Todorov, 24).

. . . As a result of [the epilogue to John Dickson Carr’s detective novel] . . . The Burning Court [the novel] emerges from the class of detective stories that simply evoke the supernatural, to join the ranks of the fantastic. We see Marie once again, in her house, thinking over the case; and the fantastic re-emerges. Marie asserts once again (to the reader) that she is indeed the poisoner, that the detective was her in fact her friend (which is not untrue), and that he has provided the entire rational explanation in order to save her. . . (Todorov, 25-26).

[In The Burning Court] the world of the non-dead reclaims its rights, and the fantastic with it: we are thrown back on our hesitation as to which solution to choose. . . (Todorov, 26).

If we move to the other side of that median line we have called the fantastic, we find ourselves in the fantastic-marvelous, the class of narrative that are separated as fantastic and that end with an acceptance of the supernatural (Todorov, 26).

Gautier’ “La Morte Amoureuse” can serve as an example [of the fantastic-marvelous] (Todorov, 26).

A similar example is to be found in Villiers de I’Isle-Adam’s “Vera.” Here again, throughout the tale, we may hesitate between believing in life-after-death or thinking that the count who so believes is mad. But at the end, the count discovers the key to Vera’s tomb, though he himself had flung it into the tomb; it must therefore be Vera, his dead wife, who has brought it to him (Todorov, 27).

There exists, finally, a form of the marvelous in the pure state. . . . It is not an attitude [on the part of either reader or character] toward the events described which characterizes the marvelous, but the nature of these events (28).

We generally link the genre of the marvelous to that of the fairy tale. But as a matter of fact, the fairy tale is only one of the varieties of the marvelous, and the supernatural events in fairy tales provoke no surprise. . . . What distinguishes the fairy tale is a certain kind of writing, not the status of the supernatural. Hoffman’s tales illustrate this difference perfectly: “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King,” “The Strange Child,” and “The King’s Bride” belong, by stylistic properties, to the fairy tale. “The Choice of the Bride,” while preserving the same status with respect to the supernatural, is not a fairy tale at all. One would also have to characterize the Arabian Nights as marvelous tales rather than fairy tales. . . (Todorov, 28).

In order to delimit the marvelous in the pure state, it is convenient to isolate it from several types of narrative in which the supernatural is somewhat justified (Todorov, 28).

1. We may speak first of all of hyperbolic marvelous. In it, phenomena are supernatural only by virtue of their dimensions, which are superior to those that are familiar to us. Thus in the Arabian Nights Sinbad the Sailor declares he has seen “fish one hundred and even two hundred ells long” or “serpents so great and so long that there is not one which could not have swallowed an elephant” (Todorov, 28).

2. Quite close to this first type of the marvelous is the exotic marvelous. In this type, supernatural events are reported without being presented as such. The implicit reader is supposed to be ignorant of the regions where the events take place, and consequently he has no reason for calling them into question. Sinbad’s second voyage furnishes some excellent examples, such as the roc, a bird so tremendous that it concealed the sun and “one of whose legs. . . was as great as a great tree-trunk” (Todorov, 29).

3. A third type of the marvelous might be called the instrumental marvelous. Here we find the gadgets, technological developments unrealized in the period described but, after all, quite possible. In the “The Tale of Prince Ahmed” in the Arabian Nights, for instance, the marvelous instruments are, at the beginning: a flying carpet, an apple that cures diseases, and a “pipe” for seeing great distances; today, the helicopter, antibiotics, and binoculars, endowed with the same qualities, do not belong in any way to the marvelous (Todorov, 29).

4. The “instrumental marvelous” brings us very close to what in nineteenth-century France was called the scientific marvelous, which today we call science fiction. Here the supernatural is explained in a rational manner, but according to laws [of nature or science] that contemporary science does not acknowledge. In the high period of fantastic narratives, stories involving magnetism are characteristic of the scientific marvelous: magnetism “scientifically” explains supernatural events, yet magnetism itself belongs to the supernatural. Examples are Hoffman’s “Spectre Bridegroom” or “The Magnetizer,” and Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” or Maupassant’s “Un Fou?” Contemporary science fiction. When it does not slip into allegory, obeys the same mechanism: these narratives, starting from irrational premises, link the “facts” they contain in a perfectly logical manner (Todorov, 30).

[Todorov’s essay does not “consider” the marvelous itself, finding the marvelous to be “an anthropological phenomenon” that “:exceeds the context of a study limited to literary aspects” (30).]

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Dirty Little Secret About Horror Movies: They Hurt So Good!

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

We say that we fear death, disability, insensibility, insanity, incarceration, apathy or hatred, poverty, indignity, pain, disfigurement or ugliness, unbelief, and humiliation, but we do not. We fear what these conditions signify: we fear loss. Respectively, we fear the loss of life, of limb, of our senses, of our minds, of freedom, of love, of wealth, of dignity, of pleasure, of beauty (our own or beauty itself), of faith, and of pride.

Horror is about loss.

The threats to loss are the enemies, the monsters, that appear in horror stories to threaten and to seize, to destroy and to eliminate, to ruin and to pervert. The monsters are the creatures, conditions, situations, duties, fates, and other foes that attack us from within or from without--or, in some cases, from both within and from without.

Alternatively, loss can transform us into the monsters we fear. The loss of love or beauty can turn a heartsick woman or a grieving husband into a beast bent upon revenge, as in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Horror films that play upon--or prey upon--these fears of loss include Silver Bullet (1985) (paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Marty Coslaw is pursued by a werewolf); Jeepers Creepers (2001) (victims are blinded by the villain); Psycho (1960) (Norman Bates is psychotic); Prison (1988) (innocent, convicted murderer Charlie Forsythe is electrocuted, but returns to avenge himself by frying others); Carrie (1976) (Carrie White is bullied before, unleashing her telekinetic powers, she kills her hateful tormentors); Soylent Green (1973) (Soylent Green is people--the have-nots feed the haves--literally); Victim (2010) (first, the victim is stripped of his dignity; then, the pain begins); most of the Saw movies qualify as “torture porn,” in which pain is celebrated for what it is--pain--for no other reason than that pain makes an audience squirm; Darkman (1990) (burn victim--and scientist--Peyton Westlake is just one of the many disfigured characters who appear in a multitude of horror films); The Exorcist (1973) (Father Damien Karras battles his own unbelief as well as the demon who’s possessed preadolescent Regan MacNeil); Last House on the Left (1972) (two teenage girls are not only raped and tortured but humiliated); and, of course, countless horror movies delight in detailing graphic and gory death scenes. Many other such movies also present themes and images of the loss of life, of limb, of our senses, of our minds, of freedom, of love, of wealth, of dignity, of pleasure, of beauty (our own or beauty itself), of faith, and of pride.

We want wholeness. We want soundness. We want happiness. Instead, horror movies give us crippling, fragmenting, and grievous physical and psychological harm. We keep coming back for more, though. We are, on some level, both sadists and masochists. We are, in fact, sadomasochists: we want to inflict pain upon ourselves or others and want, at the same time, to experience the infliction of misery. That is one of the dirty little secrets of horror movies. Like the twisted love that John Mellencamp sings about, horror movies “hurt so good.”

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Tunnel of Trees and Me

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Imagining that one is a location scout or a cameraman while taking a stroll may not put money in the bank, but it does enliven one’s promenade. Things take on a sinister and ominous look as one imagines camera angles, the types of shots to be shot, the characters and objects to be emphasized or deemphasized, the lighting to be used, and the music that would accompany the images upon the film.

One can, quite easily, scare the hell out of oneself.

Perhaps, as a result of such a stroll--a walk that takes place in the imagination as much as it does through any particular landscape--one may even conceive of a story that will set other people’s nerves on edge.

Some landscapes or landscape features are natural symbols of emotional states. Once, while searching for my brother’s place--he and his lovely wife live in a remote canyon in the southern part of California--I somehow entered what was, in effect, a tunnel of trees. They stood thick along either side of the narrow, unpaved, rutted road, their branches interweaved, both side by side, throughout their impenetrable stand, and overhead. It was night, but, by shutting out even the ambient illumination of the stars and the moon, the tunnel of trees made the night darker than it would have been otherwise. My headlights were the only source of light, and all this relatively faint illumination disclosed was the dirt road ahead and the thick green foliage on either side of me and overhead. The emotion that this seemingly unnatural growth of trees and foliage created--or seemed to create, for, obviously, the sentiment was my own, and not the earth’s--was anxiety akin to panic at the sense of being trapped. Claustrophobia produces, I must say, an alarm like no other type of fear, one that is as pervasive as it is evasive and as overwhelming as it is engulfing.

Fortunately, in a mile or so, I exited this tunnel of greenery as abruptly as, having made another in a series of wrong turns, I had entered it. I was even fortunate enough to find my brother’s house. I related the strange experience, and his and his wife’s insistence that neither of them knew of such a road anywhere near their domicile further enhanced the eeriness of the experience. Wouldn’t a story--or a film--that included a scene of a protagonist or a lesser character entering such a corridor as the one I had chanced to enter be a scary tale?

Probably. Certainly, handled with adroitness, it could be.

But this is only one of the many such possibilities that a walk in the park--or, better yet, a walk in the dark--viewed from the perspective of the monster, the serial killer, the madman, or their victim, could inspire.


Friday, November 11, 2011

11/22/63: A Book That Shall Live in Infamy

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Stephen King can’t seem to help himself. For the past twenty years or so, he’s been writing when he really has little or nothing more to say (worth saying, at least). Instead, it bashes Republicans, conservatives, or whatever he sees as the monster of the moment.

His self-indulgent attacks upon all-things-not-Kingly are tiresome, not entertaining.

Apparently, he’s now given up even pretending to write about horror. Instead, he’s taking up alternative history--or alternative history and science fiction--as his new “literary” genre--or genres. In his latest tome, which is quite the doorstop at over 800 pages, King stretches his readers’ ability to suspend their disbelief to the breaking point and beyond by introducing a time machine (in the form of a “wormhole.”) A local butcher has been using the device to slip back a few decades and buy some cuts of meat at way more than bargain basement prices for resale in the here and now. King’s protagonist has a better idea: he uses the time machine to throw himself (and horror fiction) back more than half a century so he can prevent the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or “JFK,” as King prefers to refer to the former president.

The whole idea sounds rather more tiresome than entertaining.

But that’s understandable. After all, 11/22/63 is King’s fiftieth book. Apparently, he’s too tired himself, at this point in his career, to trouble himself to write words when numbers will do--or, perhaps, in his pastiche-prone way, he’s simply trying to associate his book with 9/11, another date which, like 12/7/41, lives in eternal “infamy.”

Apparently out of gas (or maybe full of gas), King trots out the trite and the familiar: time travel, JFK’s assassination, chaos theory, high school, teacher-writer protagonist (the novel’s hero, Jack Epping, is a high school English teacher, as King himself once was, before he became the Big Mac and fries of the literati), domestic violence, and a classic car (shades of Christine and From a Buick 8). He even tosses a little Groundhog Day into the mix. (Something’s gotta stick, right?) About the only thing missing is a St. Bernard.

Recommendation: Don’t buy it; if you must read it, wait until your local library pays for a copy out of your tax dollar.

The Machinery of Horror

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Every horror story needs something to generate its action. Sometimes, this element is mentioned in the story’s title (especially, it seems, in horror movies, as opposed to novels). Some of the tried-and-true (and trite) include the activities of particular types of characters, the application of supernatural or paranormal powers, the methods of madness, twisted retellings of traditional tales, and the murder and mayhem of traditional monsters:
Alien visitation
Demonic possession
Full moon (causing werewolf activity)
Haunting of a house (or some other location), usually by ghosts but also, occasionally, by demons
Incestuous relationships and their consequences
Madmen (and women)
Motherly love gone awry
Natural catastrophes
Psychic abilities
Psychotic roommates
Religious cults and their rites and rituals
Retold fairy tales
Serial killers
Vampires’ need to feed

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Explaining Vampires

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

In The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases, E. J. Wagner includes a series of facts that writers of horror stories, seeking to balance claims concerning the supernatural origin and existence of vampires with natural explanations for the belief in such creatures can use in their own stories:

In real life, exhumations of reputed vampires provided helpful information to medical science. In the eighteenth century, during a vampire panic in central Europe, a number of graves were opened by physicians of the occupying Austrian army. Their reports gave a detailed picture of the unexpected effects that burial can have on cadavers--effects that in less educated minds gave credence to the vampire legends. Bodies of males, for instance, were sometimes discovered showing “wild signs,” or penile erections, no doubt caused by bloating from gases. The same gases caused corpses to split open, often with sufficient noise to be heard aboveground. Some burials were in earth so rich in tannin that the bodies were extraordinarily preserved, even after centuries underground. All of this served to immortalize the belief in the “undead.”

. . . In many nineteenth-century country villages the disease [consumption, or tuberculosis] meant that infected descendents of diseased victims often showed the first signs of illness after their progenitors were buried. It was not recognized that the disease was the result of contagion within the household. The symptoms of weakness and anemia caused by poor lung function and bloody coughs suggested to the credulous that the dead had returned to feed on their young.

Opening the graves of suspected vampires sometimes disclosed that the corpses had changed position, a result of effects of decomposition and ensuing gas formation. Insect activity affected the visage of the dead, contraction of the skin made it appear that the hair and nails continued to grow, and what was thought to be fresh liquid blood could be found in the mouths or chest cavities. It was not generally realized that blood, which coagulates after death, can subsequently return to a liquid state, so when a stake was driven into the chest of an exhumed corpse and a plume of blood erupted, it satisfied the observers that a vampire had been quelled (202-203)

. . . The belief that hair and nails could grow after death was taken as evidence of vampirism in some primitive rural communities (207).
Occasionally, unconscious or catatonic men and women were buried alive by accident, and, when they regained consciousness, experiencing claustrophobia and seeking to escape the confines of their buried coffins, they flailed at the lids, tore the linings, and writhed and rolled about. If their bodies were later exhumed for some reason, the damages to the interiors of the caskets and the repositioned corpses might also be taken as signs that the supposedly dead were really the “undead.”

Note: George Washington, who suffered from taphephobia, ordered that he not be buried until twelve days after his death, and others who feared being buried alive ensured that their coffins and graves were equipped with means of escape and egress. Vestal virgins who violated their oaths of chastity were buried alive as a form of torture and execution. The antagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” was likewise immured, and the protagonist of “The Premature Burial” was buried alive. In reality, before modern medical knowledge provided safeguards against live burial, people were accidentally buried alive more often than one might suppose; as Christine Quigley points out, in The Corpse: A History, “William Tebb records 149 such cases, as well as several 219 near misses, ten live dissections, and two awakenings during embalming. “10 Horrifying Premature Burials,“ an Internet article, also describes additional live burials.  Maybe being a vampire wasn’t all that bad, compared to the virgins’ fate!

Friday, October 28, 2011

How Much Does It Cost to be a Ghostbuster? (A LOT!)

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

You’ve probably seen these ghost hunter shows on television. (Supposedly, they’re “reality shows.”) The hosts and hostesses enter houses, abandoned or occupied (if the latter, always with the permission of the residents, many of whom hire the ghost hunters as not only hunters of ghosts but as Ghostbusters as well) to seek out and sometimes evict ghosts and ghostesses. Perhaps, after viewing one of these shows, you’ve decided that busting ghosts and ghostesses might be a fun way--or a relatively fun way--to make a living (notice, I didn’t say “earn” a living). And you could be right: different strokes for different folks, and all that, but you should know this first: If you want to be a first-rate Ghostbuster, you’d better be willing to fork over the Big Buck$--$11,830.42, to be exact!

I know, I know, that sounds a bit on the steep side, especially considering the state of the economy, but there’s no room for compromise: people are depending on you; lives could be at stake. Besides, you do get quite a big bang for the buck:
  • EMF/Temperature Gauge ($239.00) (“EMF” stands for “electromagnetic field”; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster.)
  • IR Thermal Imagining Camera ($62.95) (“IR” stands for infrared”; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster.)
  • Thermal Camera with Video ($3,995.95) (and a steal at that!)
  • Four-Pack Camera DVR Package ($399.95) (“DVR” stands for “digital video recorder; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster.)
  • Beginner Ghost-Hunting Kit ($149.99)
  • Deluxe EMF Meter with On/Off Switch Sound Alert ($65.00) (You might be wondering why you need this device when you already have an EMF/Temperature Gauge, but these devices are not the same; this one doesn’t have a temperature gauge and the one with the temperature gauge doesn’t have a sound alert. Besides, you ever heard of backup? Ghostbusters need to make sure their equipment is redundant.)
  • EMF/Temperature Gauge with RED Backlight and Flashlight ($93.00) (Again, it is not the same: this one has a flashlight)
  • Learner Ghost-Hunting Kit ($89.99) (This kit is not the same as the Beginner Ghost-Hunting Kit; it’s cheaper--and, yes, you need both--see the comment about equipment redundancy--and the one about not wanting to compromise.)
  • Compact Night-Vision Camera ($59.95)
  • IR Light for Video and Cameras ($59.95) (Maybe the video recorders and the cameras should come with these lights, but they don’t; get over it!)
  • Spirit Box RT-EVP2, EVP-RT-EVP ($289) (“EVP” stands for electronic voice phenomena; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster. I don‘t know what a Spirit Box is or does,* but the name of the device itself, “Spirit Box,” tells you that you have to have it; besides, it’s a measly $289 bucks!)
  • Ghost Meter ($27.95) (How can you be a self-respecting Ghostbuster without a Ghost Meter?)
  • Full-Spectrum Digital camera ($299.95) (It sounds expensive, but, hey, it’s “Full-Spectrum.”)
  • Spirit Box B-PSB7 ($89.95) (If you don’t buy this one, you’ll regret it if your other model malfunctions.)
  • EVP Recorder with USB and LIVE Listening ($79.95) (“USB” stands for “universal serial bus”; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster.)
  • Deluxe EMF Meter with On/Off Switch ($59.90) (Sure, you already have two other of these devices, but this one is the Deluxe model. Geesh!)
  • Full-Spectrum HD Camcorder ($299.95) (“HD” stands for “high-definition”; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster.)
  • FLIR i7 Compact IR Thermal Imagery Camera ($1,595.00) (“FLIR” stands for “Forward-Looking Infrared”; make sure that you know your acronyms if you want to succeed as a Ghostbuster.)
  • Laser Grid Scope ($28.00)
  • Laser Grid GS1 ($89.95)
  • Full Spectrum HD Camcorder ($193.00)
*If you want more information about any of this equipment, including its physical appearance--there are plenty of pictures--here’s one source: http//www.ghoststop.com, where, for example (I took pity on you), “Spirit Box” is defined as:
compact tool for attempting communication with paranormal entities. It uses radio frequency sweeps to generate white noise which theories suggest give some entities the energy they need to be heard. When this occurs you will sometimes here voices or sounds coming through the static in an attempt to communicate.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There’s a Full Moon Out Tonight

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman 

In the interests of public safety, Chillers and Thrillers offers this full-moon advisory. On nights of the full moon, as, no doubt, many of Chillers and Thrillers’ astute readers know, werewolf activity is pretty much a certainty. It’s not a night upon which any safety-minded man, woman, or child should be caught dead.

What even Chillers and Thrillers’ readers may have neglected to do is to note, upon their calendars and in their personal planners, however, are the dates upon which full moons are predicted to occur. Not to worry, though; as always, Chillers and Thrillers has your back:

Remaining Months of 2011 During Which a Full Moon Will Appear, Together With Probable Werewolf Activity

  • Wednesday, Oct 12
  • Thursday, Nov. 10
  • Saturday, Dec. 10

Months of 2012 During Which a Full Moon Will Appear, Together With Probable Werewolf Activity

  • Monday, Jan. 9
  • Tuesday, Feb. 7
  • Thursday, Mar. 8
  • Friday, Apr. 6
  • Sunday, May 6
  • Monday, Jun 4
  • Tuesday, Jul. 3
  • Thursday, Aug. 2
  • Friday, Aug 31
  • Sunday, Sept. 30
  • Monday, Oct. 29
  • Wednesday, Nov. 28
  • Friday, Dec. 28

If you MUST go out on any of these nights, be sure that you are carrying a pistol or rifle loaded with silver bullets. (No other kind will do,) However, it is strongly recommended that you not schedule any business or personal activities on any of the nights of a full moon for any reason.

You have been WARNED!

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Horror Fiction: In Search of a Transfusion of New Blood

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

It would seem that horror fiction, based as it is upon the appearance and elimination or neutralization--or the attempted elimination or neutralization--of various threats, would be a permanent fixture of literature, that its place among narrative and dramatic works would be secure, that its life, as it were, would be as eternal as some of its paranormal or supernatural antagonists’ existences. Oddly, such may not be the case. Fans of horror fiction may, someday, have to find their chills and thrills elsewhere than in pages or on film footage that is devoted to the horror genre.

It’s not that the world itself is any less dangerous a place today than it was in times past; if anything, the world is, in some ways, more dangerous than it has ever been before. (In other ways, of course, it is far safer.) Plenty of various threats remain. The problem seems to be that the authors of short stories, novels, and screenplays continue to write about the same old monsters: beasts, demons and devils, ghosts, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, and the like, or, when they do, rarely, experiment with something new, as M. Night Shyamalan did in The Happening, the experiment is frequently less than chilling and thrilling and is likely, in fact, to be a dud, as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening certainly is.

For a while, Stephen King, almost single-handedly, revitalized the horror genre by bringing ancient (and sometimes contemporary) horrors to modern, small-town America. Indeed, the townspeople of castle Rock, Derry, Jerusalem’s Lot, and Chester’s Mill are themselves shown to be, in their own ways, as monstrous and threatening as any of the paranormal and supernatural threats that appear in King’s fiction. However, even innovation, vigorously applied, soon breeds clichés (and, in King’s particular case, tends to produce quite a bit of smug, condescending, and self-indulgent diatribes against Republicans, conservatives, and fundamentalists, to name a few of the author’s favorite targets, among the corpses that typically litter his literature).

Out with the old threats and in with the new seems to offer a solution to the tried and trite, but this solution poses a problem of its own: from whence are horror fiction’s new nightmares to come? There are but two general sources for threats: internal and external. Internal, or psychological, threats are apt to be derived from either reason gone wrong, which is to say madness, or from emotion gone awry, or hysteria. The wellsprings of external threats seem, at first glance, to be both more plentiful and more diverse, but, in fact, they are limited as well, being either social or natural (unless one includes the supernatural realm as a dimension of reality). With only two types of threat, the internal and the external, at their disposal, horror writers seem limited, indeed, as to the sources for things that go bump in the night. Monsters, after all, cannot (yet) be ordered from mail-order catalogues or bought from fiendish supply warehouses.

What horror writers can (and should) do is what writers of other genres of fiction do: expand their concerns to beyond that of simply the introduction of monsters or monstrous threats and include areas of concern to human beings as human beings, which is to say, to matters that pertain to ethics, aesthetics, ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, theology, history, science, politics, art, athletics, economics, and so forth. Instead of the monster’s being the story’s be-all and end-all, he, she, or it should be subordinate to the story’s human characters, who, too often, exist (but seldom live) as only the antagonists’ targets and victims. Although horror fiction authors treat of such matters in a superficial way at times, few of them make human concerns the primary consideration of their short stories, novels, and screenplays. Writers who do treat such concerns with the depth and complexity that these matters deserve may well find themselves among the celebrated few whose works are among the best narratives and dramas of any genre, horror or otherwise, including William Shakespeare s’ Hamlet or Macbeth, Dante’s Inferno, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-man,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and The Jolly Corner, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds. Moreover, and more importantly, horror fiction will be a much better genre and one that is well worth reading (or watching).

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Clayton (“Blaze”) Blaisdell, Jr.: A Study in Characterization

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

According to the flyleaf to Richard Bachman’s* novel Blaze (2007), the protagonist is “one of the most sympathetic criminals in all . . . literature.” This estimation may be equal parts hyperbole and objective assessment, but few would argue, it seems, that Blaze is, in fact, a compelling character. What makes him so? The novel is a study in characterization. Much of the effect is achieved by Bachman’s demonstration of Blaze’s perceptions of other characters and of situations. Mildly retarded and altogether psychotic (he hears voices that no one else hears), Blaze frequently accepts everyone and everything at face value, seldom analyzing, evaluating, or passing judgment on anyone or anything. His matter-of-factness, which is surely as much an effect of his retardation as it is of his pureness of heart, nevertheless creates an image of him as being, despite his criminality, one who is--or seems to be--unaffected, if not always altogether guileless. Nevertheless, he is a criminal. As such, Blaze is, on one hand, a sympathetic soul, while, on the other hand, despite his pathetic thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams, he is also revolting. To have created such a character is an accomplishment suggestive more of a Stephen King than of a Richard Bachman.

The first chapter opens with “George was somewhere in the dark. Blaze couldn’t see him, but the voice came in loud and clear, rough and a little hoarse. George always sounded as if he had a cold. He’d had an accident when he was a kid. He never said what, but there was a dilly of a scar on his adam’s apple.”  Although George is unseen, we are led to believe that he exists as more than a voice: “George was somewhere in the dark,” we are told. Moreover, the use of such adjectives as “loud” and “clear,” “rough” and “hoarse,” to modify the sound of George’s voice helps to establish the thought that the character is as real as the young man, Blaze, who hears him speaking. Finally, the reference to George’s past accident provides a speck of back story that helps to present George as a real person, like Blaze.

George also reacts to Blaze’s actions. When Blaze seeks the wrong automobile--to steal, as it turns out--George corrects him: “Not that one, dummy, its got bumper stickers all over it. Get a Chevy or a Ford. Dark blue or green. Two years old, No ore, no less. Nobody remembers them. And no stickers.” Again, the details also help to sustain the notion that George is more than merely a memory and that his voice is more than simply a hallucination. The voice advises George about specific details concerning the automobile: it should not have bumper stickers on it, it should be either “a Chevy or a Ford,” it should be no older than two years, .and it should be “dark blue or green.” George even calls Blaze a name, “dummy,” which is, although insulting, characteristic of Blaze’s condition and not one that he is likely to have applied to himself, for retarded people seldom know of their own accord, without being told so by others, that they are retarded. These techniques make George seem as real a character as Blaze. As George continues to direct, counsel, and insult Blaze, the illusion that he is real continues: “That’s your left. . . . Your right, dummy. The hand you pick your nose with.” George keeps Blaze on track when Glaze’s thought begin to stray and even tells Blaze how to hotwire the car.

It comes as something of a shock, then, when the cat is let out of the bag, and we learn that “George is dead.”

Blaze remembers, for a time, that his former partner in crime is deceased, but, “the next morning,” George is back--in Blaze’s head, at least--reminding Blaze to tuck in both of his shirttails and telling him to wipe out the tire tracks in the snow outside the shed in which Blaze has hidden the stolen car. One minute, Blaze remembers that George is dead (“George had been dead since that crap game in the warehouse”), but the next minute he seems to forget, thinking that George is alive (“George was inside drinking coffee by the stove”). By his alternating between these conflicting ideas, Blaze indicates his own confusion, indicating to us his madness, and this strange disoriented state of mind is compelling: we are intrigued at what it is like to perceive as Blaze perceives, to think as Blaze thinks, and to experience the world as Blaze experiences it, partly real and partly illusory at the same time or in quick, alternating sequences. Although Blaze has committed a crime, stealing the automobile--and, we suspect, will almost certainly commit far worse ones, if he has not already done so, before we met him, as it were--we are both repelled by his behavior and sympathetic toward his plight. In short, Blaze is a fascinating character.

Bachman presents his world as it seems to be to Blaze, and, in doing so, allows us, from the safety of our homes, sane and sound of mind ourselves, to see--or, at least imagine--what it would be like to be out of our minds. Who could resist such a character as Blaze? Bachman is counting on our not being able to do so. (The movie Ed Gein [2000], starring Steve Railsback, offers a good motion picture example of the same technique.)

*Yes, I know that Stephen King is Richard Bachman (unless Bachman is King). The question is whether King (or Bachman) knows this. Maybe King’s own schizophrenia, in supposing himself to be two people (even if he knew and knows he really is only one) helped him to create the psychotic and somewhat schizophrenic Clayton (“Blaze”) Blaisdell, Jr. Ever think of that?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Roald Dahl's "Somone Like You" and "The Landlady": A Pair of Edgar Award Winners

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl won two Edgar Awards, one in 1954 for “Someone Like You” and the other in 1960 for “The Landlady.”

In the first story, two war veterans, both of whom flew fighters, bombing enemy cities, discuss how they killed more people than would die were the bartender of the public house in which they buy one another drinks were to poison his customers’ drinks. They decide to leave the establishment and go somewhere else, where there is either but the two of them and a bartender or to “a place with a hundred thousand people in it.” Apparently, the former warriors can be comfortable in only these two locales, among killers of their own kind, who have shared combat experience and the horrors of killing other human beings on a massive scale, or in a place that is large and populous enough for them to lose themselves in the anonymity of the crowds. However, neither man, it appears, is likely to be comfortable for long in either set of circumstances, for each is haunted by his past deeds.

In the second story, a seventeen-year-old man takes a room in a rooming house in which two other young men, before him, had lived for a time. The landlady seems a bit scatterbrained. She has trouble remembering the names of her former tenants and asks her current renter to sign her guestbook, so she can look up his name if she should happen to forget it. Then, despite his having declined her offer to serve him a snack, she insists that he have a cup of tea and “a ginger biscuit” before he retires for the night. Her mention of the previous tenants arouses the young man’s curiosity, for he seems to remember having seen their names, linked in a newspaper account of the disappearance of two young men in the vicinity of his landlady’s rooming house. A few clues alert the reader to the possibility that the landlady is not as innocent and harmless as she seems and is, in fact, likely to be extremely dangerous and, rather than merely scatterbrained, insane: she stuffs parrots and other animals; the last names to have been entered in her guestbook are three years old, and it was three years ago that the young men who’d been traveling through the area were reported missing; and, even though she is confused about her former tenants’ names and speaks of them in the past tense, she tells her latest renter that neither of the young men have left her house. On the contrary, she insists, “They’re on the third floor, both of them together”--together, the reader is led to believe, and dead. Moreover, like the parrot, they have probably been stuffed. The current tenant himself seems likely to meet the same fate.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Visual Metaphors?

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Of the five senses, the primary one has always been sight, but until the advent of audio-visual technology, humanity has been able to use sight (and sound) as a communication tool only in rudimentary ways, one of which has been to agree with others that certain letters should represent particular sounds and that these sounds, voiced or unvoiced (that is, written), should signify the things that the sounds were intended to represent. Such communication is not only imperfect, but also indirect and abstract, rather than immediate and concrete.

However, with the advent of audio-visual technology, especially motion pictures, some of these limitations have faded and, today, audio-visual media, especially motion pictures, have become the main way by which humans communicate ideas. Progress marches apace, leaving the poor storyteller who is dependent upon the mere use of words behind. The best he or she can hope to do is to create word-pictures, or images, through descriptions.

However, if one cannot “beat them,” he or she may “join them,” and authors of fiction can learn, from their brothers and sisters in the film business, how to use images more effectively than, perhaps, they have done in the past, when readers were not as inundated by filmmakers’ sophisticated and subtle dramatization, rather than narration, of stories.

Trevor Whittock’s Metaphor and Film is a study in this and other aspects of the use of language, both linguistically and cinematographically. His book opens with three examples that indicate the nature of his text’s concern, one from “a director,” Alfred Hitchcock, another from “a scriptwriter,” Paul Schrader, and a third from “a film critic,” James F. Scott, before inviting his own readers to consider whether it makes sense to speak of “visual metaphors” at all and, if so, in what way and to what extent. The examples, like Whittock’s book in its entirety, are both interesting and enlightening.

Hitchcock declares:

“At the beginning of the film [The Birds] we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop. He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says to Tippi Hedren, “I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterisation as a wealthy, shallow playgirl. And later on, when the gulls attack the village, Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage. This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery . . . . It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds. Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside. . . (1).
Schrader points out:

In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for the theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness . . . (1).
James F. Scott observes:

White-light fog is used in the underwater sequence of The Graduate in which Benjamin, donning flippers and goggles, flees to the bottom of the family swimming pool, presumably to escape the overbearing camaraderie of his parents and their circle of friends. As the camera assumes his point of view, the world becomes a gloomy blur, shimmering but indistinct, agitated by the motion of the water and toned in a bilious, washed-out green. While the metaphor of diving reflects Benjamin’s introversion and retreat, the color quality of the image indicates the psychic cost of his escapism. He has ducked away from the plastic gewgaws of suburbia but only to set himself adrift in a turbid world of ghastly color and uncertain shapes (1).
Are the examples of visual metaphors or are these devices more akin, as W. B. Stanford believes, to “symbolism, parallelism, analogy, anything but metaphor”? (2). It is precisely this question, and others associated with it, that Whittock takes up in his fine study of Metaphor and Film, to which I will return in future posts.

Whittock, Trevor. Metaphor and film. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Terminal Freeze," Blow By Blow

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

I just finished reading Lincoln Child's novl, Terminal Freeze.  It's 320 pages long.  I read it in five hours.  That's 64 pages an hour, or a little more than a page a minute.  I'm not bragging, just making a point.  By using the same method that I use, you can read novels quickly, too.  Why would you want to do so?  You can read more of them, gaining a better perspective on either an individual's entire collection of work, a better understanding of the entire genre itself in which he or she works, or a better appreciation of both an individual author's work and the genre to which the work belongs, all with a minimum investment of time.  In addition to reading the novel, I also wrote one-sentence summaries of each of its chapters as I went, so that, by the time I'd read the entire novel, I had a summary of the entire story, which enhances my memory of what I've read and provides a handy dandy means of evaluating and critiquing the novel, should I ever wish to do so.
If you'd like to follow the method of my madness (or the madness of my method), here's what I do when I want to speed up the reading process:

  1. First, read the blurb. A blurb is the text on the inside of a hardback book’s flyleaf (the paper cover in which hardback books are usually wrapped) or on the back cover of a paperback. by reading them, you’re saving yourself from having to read maybe fifty, or even 100, PAGES of the novel itself, and you will know the main character’s name, the setting, the basic storyline, and the names of lesser, supporting characters.
  2. Realize that a chapter can be summarized in one sentence. Then, read the chapter only until you can summarize it in one sentence.
  3. After each chapter, write a sentence that summarizes what it presented
  4. Keep a list of characters’ names, brief phrases that identify them, and the names of the places in which the action takes place.
  5. Skip most of the description and exposition. Read just the dialogue. By reading just the dialogue, you will be able to keep track of the story well enough to summarize it. Only dip into the descriptive or expository blocks of text when you need to do so to reestablish a sense of continuity and context--maybe twice or so every four or five chapters. You will find that you are skipping entire pages of the text and still know what’s going on.
  6. After reading and summarizing each chapter and updating your list of characters and settings, stop! You are done with the book. 

Here is the result of my application of this process to Terminal Freeze:

Chapter 1: The face of a melting glacier near Alaska’s Mount Fear falls away, revealing the mouth of an ice cave.

Chapter 2: Scientists exploring the cave find a monstrous beast (a gigantic cat) frozen in the ice.

Chapter 3: Although Usuguk, who travels south with his people, warns the scientists to leave the region, declaring that they have trespassed upon holy land, defiling it with their presence, the scientists refuse to leave.

Chapter 4: Kari Ekberg, a Hollywood location scout, arriving at the scientists’ research station to prepare for a docudrama about the discovery of the frozen beast, is given a tour of the facility--except for the northern section, which is off limits to her and everyone else, including the squad of soldiers who maintain and guard the post.

Chapter 5: As they escort Ekberg to the ice cave to see the beast, two scientists, paleoecologist Evan Marshall and evolutionary biologist Wright Faraday, explain their expertise to her.

Chapter 6: In an underground bunker below Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, Jeremy Logan, allegedly a professor of medieval history, reads a secret memorandum concerning the deaths of a team of scientists who had been encamped at Mount Fear.

Chapter 7: Emilio Conti, the executive producer, begins filming on location, explaining that the host of the docudrama will arrive before the crew ascends Mount Fear to cut the beast from the ice--live, on camera, before millions of viewers.

Chapter 8: The Hollywood team’s legal representative, Wolff, shows the scientists a contract that their leader, Gerard Scully, signed, authorizing them to extract and thaw the beast’s carcass, on live television, despite the scientists’ objections.

Chapter 9: Using a laser and a diamond-tipped drill, the television crew extracts a block of ice in which the beast is entombed from the ice cave’s wall and transports it to a climate-controlled vault to thaw before the eyes of their television audience.

Chapter 10: Conti interviews Marshall, dramatizing the setting and dialogue, but angering the scientist when he asks him about his “dishonorable discharge” from the army, despite his having been awarded the Silver Star, and his refusal to carry a weapon, and Marshall refuses to cooperate further.

Chapter 11: Faraday reports to his colleagues that tests he’s conducted indicate that the beast is not the saber-toothed tiger they’d supposed it to be; it is at least twice the size of such an animal.

Chapter 12: An examination of the carcass--or what can be seen of it inside the block of ice--proves inconclusive as to the animal’s identity.

Chapter 13: The docudrama’s host, Ashleigh Davis, arrives, by helicopter, along with her trailer, which has been trucked in aboard an eighteen-wheeler driven by Carradine, an ice road trucker.

Chapter 14: Logan, identifying himself as a hitchhiker, who was picked up by Carradine on his way to deliver Davis’ trailer, introduces himself as the scientists gather to watch the docudrama host film a sequence of her show outside the climate-controlled vault.

Chapter 15: Marshal awakens to discover that a hole has been cut through the floor of the climate-controlled vault.

Chapter 16: Wolff locks down the compound so he can investigate and recover the carcass stolen from the vault, but the new arrival, Logan, is nowhere to be found.

Chapter 17: Faraday, having taken pictures of the hole in the vault’s floor, determined that the hole was made from above, not from below, as Wolff had supposed, which indicates that whoever sawed the hole through the floor knew the combination to the vault’s lock.

Chapter 18: Conti believes that the carcass was stolen through an act of sabotage to be disposed of and vows to make a documentary of the crime, asking Marshall to star in the film.

Chapter 19: Logan tells Marshall about the recently declassified memorandum concerning the deaths of the scientists at Fear Base.

Chapter 20: Josh Peters relieves McCoy Tyner, searching the compound for the carcass of the beast, and is attacked from behind and knocked unconscious.

Chapter 21: Faraday and the team’s graduate assistant, Ang Chen, tell Marshall of test results they’ve obtained on ice from the cave in which the creature was encased: it seems to contain ice--and a microscopic view of the photograph Faraday took of the hole in the floor suggests that the hole was made from teeth, not a saw, as if it had been chewed through.

Chapter 22: Logan reconnoiters E Level of the research facility, where he encounters the military leader, Sergeant Gonzalez, who tells him that the facility’s off-limits section had “extra berths” in it “that no military ever used” and is rumored to have involved the mauling by a polar bear of scientists who were involved in top secret work.

Chapter 23: After Marshall and his team’s computer scientist, Penny Barbour, put Conti, Wolff, and Ekberg on notice that the filmmakers will be sued if they libel or slander the scientists in their docudrama about the climate-controlled vault’s having been sabotaged, they inform the Hollywood executives that one of their men, Josh Peters, has been “torn apart” beyond the compound’s “security fence.”

Chapter 24: At Wolff’s request, Marshall examines the body, concluding that a polar bear could have killed Peters, but Wolff still insists that the creature’s carcass was stolen in an act of sabotage and suggests that Peters was killed to frighten the rest of them from continuing the Hollywood team’s search for the missing creature.

Chapter 25: Intent upon making a revised docudrama of the creature‘s theft and Peter‘s supposed murder as part of the sabotage of their original film, Conti sends one film crew to photograph the fearful reaction of the rest of the crew to the news of Peter’s horrific death and a second crew to film Peters’ corpse before it is put into cold storage.

Chapter 26: Logan discovers a notebook--perhaps a journal--that one of the scientists on the earlier, catastrophic, aborted mission kept while at Fear Base.

Chapter 27: A he prepares to leave the room in which Peters’ corpse is temporarily stored., having photographed the body, cameraman Ken Toussaint encounters “the face of nightmare.”

Chapter 28: Faraday reports to Marshall his suspicion that the ice that encased the creature was unusual and melted below the freezing mark, allowing the animal trapped inside, which may have been alive rather than dead, to escape after its ice prison had melted.

Chapter 29: Trying to pitch a screenplay to Davis, Carradine escorts her to her trailer, where they hear a loud knocking, which turns out to b Toussaint, hanging from one of the trailer’s window awning support arms, who, although he first appears dead, screams, “It plays with you! And then when it’s finished playing--it kills.”

Chapter 30: Toussaint, who has survived the attack upon him, describes his attacker as huge and equipped with many teeth; Peters’ corpse is missing; Wolff refuses to allow Carradine to drive the crew to safety in Davis’ trailer, which he offers to tow behind his eighteen-wheeler.

Chapter 31: Logan tells Marshall that the dead scientist’s journal hints at horrific events at Fear Base, and Marshall decides to take a snowmobile to visit the Tunits to see whether they can shed any light on the incidents, past and present, that have occurred at the research facility.

Chapter 32: When Allan Fortnum returns from shooting images of the Hollywood crew’s horrified reactions to Peters’ death, Conti gives the cinematographer his next assignment: stand by to film the monster as it tears its next victim apart--but Fortnum refuses to be party to this outrageous task.

Chapter 33: Both Davis and PFC Donovan Fluke, who escorts to her new accommodations, which are closer to those of the military troop attached to Fear Base to afford her better protection, are attacked by the monster.

Chapter 34: Visiting the Tunits’ settlement, Marshall finds it deserted except for Usuguk, who has remained behind to speak to the scientist, certain that Marshall would come.

Chapter 35: Sergeant Gonzalez orders the camp evacuated; everyone will ride in Davis’ trailer, which Carradine will tow with his eighteen-wheeler; meanwhile, Gonzalez plans to hunt for the beast; when Marshall returns, his colleagues plan to meet with him; only Conti and Ekberg refuse to leave, staying to film yet another revised docudrama.

Chapter 36: After Marshall tells Usuguk how he had accidentally killed his friend during the war in Somalia and had refused to cover up his mistake, thereby earning a dishonorable discharge, Usuguk agrees to accompany him on his hunt for the creature, but only as an unarmed advisor--and the shaman won’t share what he knows about the slaughter of the earlier scientific expedition party.

Chapter 37: Sergeant Gonzalez and his two men, Marcelin and Phillips, remain at Fear Base to hunt the beast after everyone else but Creel, Faraday, Scully, Marshall, Logan, Conti, Ekberg, and Wolff leaves in Davis trailer, which is towed by Carradine’s big rig.

Chapter 38: Conti and Ekberg plan to follow the soldiers, filming their hunt of the creature.

Chapter 39: Marshall returns to the nearly deserted research facility with Usuguk and learns of the monster’s killing of Davis and Fluke; Usuguk tells the others that he was the sole survivor among the earlier research party, “the one who got away.”

Chapter 40: The military troop, commanded by Sergeant Gonzalez and accompanied by Creel, the roustabouts’ foreman, follow the beast’s bloody tracks through the base‘s power station, and it attacks the group, killing Creel, after which Gonzalez retreats.

Chapter 41: Usuguk, a former soldier who had been stationed at Fear Base, tells the others how another, smaller spirit-beast killed the scientists of the earlier expedition and declares that the larger one awakened by the present expedition is an invincible and immortal guardian of the mountain in which Fear Base is installed--it cannot be killed, but it will kill them all.

Chapter 42: After crossing a frozen lake, the tractor-trailer is caught in a gust of wind that slams it into a rock and breaks one of the fuel tanks; the other tank is only one third full, and there is not enough fuel to take them the rest of the way to their destination, Arctic Village.

Chapter 43: Inside the base’s power station, the soldiers try to electrocute the creature, but to no avail.

Chapter 44: Following the soldiers, Conti, Wolff, and Ekberg find the bloody trail and Conti films Ekberg’s reaction to seeing the head that the monster had ripped from Creel’s body.

Chapter 45: Faraday finds that the monster’s white blood cell-rich blood makes it impervious to bullets but is hypersensitive to--and may be killed by--sound, so maybe they can convert the secret wing of the base into an echo chamber; meanwhile, Sergeant Gonzalez’s attempt to raise Conti and Ekberg on the radio is unsuccessful.

Chapter 46: Conti, having forbidden Ekberg to respond to Gonzalez’s radio call, orders Wolff and Ekberg to investigate a stairwell with him, and they feel pressure inside their skulls as the monster approaches them through the darkness.

Chapter 47: As Usuguk tells the party his people’s legends concerning the monster, Gonzalez, Sully, Marshall, Faraday, Phillips, and the shaman find an already-built echo chamber in the secret section of the facility.

Chapter 48: The creature kills Conti, but Ekberg escapes.

Chapter 49: Ekberg radios Marshall, advising him of Conti’s death and of her own risk, and, while Scully seeks batteries to operate the echo chamber’s sound equipment, Marshall rendezvous with Ekberg to protect her from the monster and lead her back to a site outside the echo chamber, where the monster can be ambushed.

Chapter 50: As the monster pursues them, Marshall and Ekberg retreat toward the ambush site, only to learn that no batteries are available and that the scientists have had to connect the sound equipment to a power source inside the echo chamber itself, which is farther than Marshall had anticipated.

Chapter 51: The sound equipment fails to stop the creature (as does a barrage of bullets), which attacks Scully, who is operating the sonar weapon, and tears him limb from limb.

Chapter 52: Marshall retreats with the sonar weapon into the echo chamber, where the sound is magnified, and, using a different set of “harmonics,” kills the monster with the sound waves, which cause its head to explode.

Chapter 53: Against all odds, Carradine’s big rig manages to haul the trailer to Arctic Village.

Epilogue: Logan suggests that the first beast was the second creature’s pet and that the latter had been searching for the former when it became encased in the wall of the ice cave.

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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