Fascinating lists!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Everlasting "Buffy"

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Although this post uses Buffy the Vampire Slayer to support its thesis, virtually any novel, television series, or motion picture and, indeed, many short stories could just as easily have been used, because, theoretically, my technique applies to any and all of them. The technique is simple. Identify loose threads, as it were, in such works which threads could be developed into additional stories. Then, making key changes, develop them into additional stories.

A few examples should suffice to show how this method could be employed.
  • Amy Madison’s mother, Catherine, a powerful witch, is imprisoned inside a trophy in her daughter’s high school’s cheerleaders’ awards display case (“Witch,” season one, episode three). What might happen were Catherine to escape?
  • At the end of “Teacher‘s Pet” (season one, episode four), a sac of praying mantis eggs is shown in a science classroom closet. Sooner or later, these eggs are bound to hatch and, when they do, to paraphrase Spike, wackiness must ensue.
  • Marcie Ross, an invisible girl, is recruited by secret agents (perhaps of the Central Intelligence Agency), and schooled in assassination and infiltration techniques (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” season one, episode eleven). What becomes of her, following her graduation?
  • Cain, a werewolf bounty hunter, is sent packing by Buffy after he tries to bag Oz (“Phases,” season two, episode fifteen). What becomes of the hunter?
  • In “Go Fish” (season two, episode twenty), several fish-men, products of an experiment performed by their coach, swim out to sea after they have killed and eaten him. What becomes of the fish-men?

Many other examples could be easily cited, but these are enough to demonstrate this simple, but effective, technique for spawning additional plots from their narrative forebears.
If you were using one of these unresolved situations, you would have to change the names of the characters and the setting of the story, of course, and make other alterations in order to avoid plagiarism. Inspiration is one thing; theft, another. For example, the imprisoned witch could become an imprisoned serial killer who escapes from a maximum-security prison and resumes his career as a serial killer, targeting families of law-enforcement personnel in various cities. Likewise, the praying mantis eggs could become time capsules that contain a deadly virus that had been eradicated in the interval between the burial of the capsules and their opening. Perhaps the culprit who buried the virus was a twisted scientist who, fearing the virus’ eradication, wanted to ensure its eventual return (following his own death, of course). His motive? Madness? Vengeance? Sadism?
Note: Since I’ve used Buffy to exemplify this technique, I ought to mention that Buffy itself uses this same method to generate stories, occasionally taking up storylines that earlier episodes left unresolved to use as bases for subsequent plots about the same characters or situations as appeared in the previous stories. For example, Riley Finn leaves Sunnydale after Buffy breaks off their relationship, but he turns up some time later, married to a fellow demon hunter, and regular viewers of the series thus learn his fate.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Projecting Yourself Into Your Setting

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

To make a setting real to his or her readers, a writer must make the place come alive, as it were, make it present and believable. Most writers have learned various techniques by which to accomplish this purpose. I use the one delineated here. If it works for you, adopt it. If not, devise an approach that works for you.
  1. Using your favorite Internet image browser, view “scary” (or “horrific” or “frightening” or “terrifying”) images; pick one to consider.
  2. If you can enlarge the image, in Paint, Photoshop, or on your monitor, do so; you want to be able to see details and to project yourself into the photograph (or the illustration or painting--photos, I think, tend to be best).
  3. Jot down your initial impressions. (I am considering an image of “Spooky Steps,” which I accessed on Flickr.) Here are my initial impressions: the rails are rickety; the steps are merely short planks set into a hillside; the steps ascend a fairly steep, long slope, through a woods; the woods are monochromatic--grays accentuated with white and black--and look desolate; the steps, ascending between the rickety rails, seems to guide, or even channel, whoever would use them; and a question presents itself--why are there steps here, anyway? Not many hills are homes to steps, especially hills in woods!
  4. Project yourself into the picture. Where are you? Is anyone with you? Is anyone else here or nearby? Why are you here? Why is anyone else here? What is your purpose? Why did you come here--or were you brought here, possibly against your will? When did you arrive? How long will you stay? Feel your environment: Is it hot? Humid? Arid? Overcast? Raining? Snowing? Windy? Mild? Do you hear noises or sounds? If so, what is their source? Can you tell? If not, why not? Any rustling sounds? Squeals or snarls? Growls or howls? Moans, groans, sobs, or whimpers? Grunts? Any smells? A stench of some kind? Decay, perhaps? A burnt smell? Maybe a burnt flesh smell? The scent of something unknown and nameless, but sickening? The smell of blood, maybe? Is there a dreadful taste in your mouth? If so, why? What is its origin? How do things look? The sky behaving itself--or shifting and pulsing and turning weird colors? Maybe there are clouds and they look like bulging bubbles, about to break, or like persons, places, or things you know--or don’t know. Is there something running along a ravine or over the rugged terrain, through the dense and twisted underbrush? Get physical with your environment. Grasp the rickety handrail. Feel its roughness, maybe pick up a splinter or two. Does the rail sag or sway beneath your hand? Is it raspy against your flesh? Does it creak under your touch? Test one of the steps with your foot. Creak? Sag? Break? What is the hard-packed earth between the steps like as you step on it? When the soil between the steps is disturbed as you ascend the steps, does it crumble?  Does it produce dust? Feel the stress in your knee joints and the weight upon your feet. Feel your leg muscles flex as your legs stretch and bend. Is your heart beating fast? From exertion--or fear? Can you hear it? Are you breathing hard? Sweating? Does perspiration make you cold? Does it sting your eyes? Is your brow furrowed? What do you see along the way, as you ascend the steps? What do you see at the top of the hill? What do you hear, feel, smell, taste?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bits & Pieces: Dean Koontz--Please, Someone (Anyone)! Stop Him Before He Writes Again!

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Dean Koontz has done it again: in What the Night Knows, he's written yet another novel with a sadistic madman as the antagonist and an earnest and upright protagonist. This time around,  fourteen-year-old John Calvino, returning home to surprise a stalker, kills the outlaw, Alton Turner Blackwood.

Fast forward: Calvino has become a detective and a father, and, despite his having killed the stalker years ago, the murders occur again, committed according to the dead killer’s modus operandi. The culprit this time? The killer’s ghost.

Surely, at this stage in his long, prolific career, Koontz can create a better basis for his plot. His readers deserve much more than Koontz’s newest novel delivers. Koontz blames his latest villain on “Benadryl dreams.” Really.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Theme as the Springboard to a Story's Plot

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Dorothy Gale discovers she's not in Kansas anymore

I usually start my stories with an inciting moment, the point in the action that launches the rest of the narrative forward. (In The Wizard of Oz, the film version of L. Frank Baum’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for example, the story begins when the protagonist, Dorothy Gale, runs away from home, because, had she not done so, she’d have been with Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and the farmhands in the storm cellar and would have avoided the cyclone that carried her off to her adventures in faraway Oz.)

A story’s inciting moment can be virtually anything. I once had a list of a couple hundred potential inciting moments. A few on this list might have been:
  • The protagonist receives a strange package.
  • The protagonist makes a spontaneous (and, as it turns out, a poor) decision.
  • The protagonist is abducted by strangers.
  • The protagonist buys his girlfriend a present different than the one he’d intended to buy for her birthday.
  • The protagonist awakens in a strange place, not knowing how he or she got there.
In a previous post, I explain how Edgar Allan Poe wrote his famous narrative poem The Raven backward, by first determining the effect that he wanted to produce (horror) and then determining the details, of plot, tone, setting, and so forth, that would best help him to produce this predetermined effect. This morning, in the wee hours, as I lay half-asleep and half--awake, which is usually when the muse puts in her appearances--I hit upon another way to accomplish this same feat: One can write backward, so to speak, by first determining how the main character will change by the end of the story!

The change doesn’t have to be drastic, although it should be significant. The change may involve in alteration in the protagonist’s aspirations, attitude, beliefs, decisions, emotions, perceptions, reasoning, thoughts, understanding, or values. Whatever type of change occurs, however, it will derive from the experiences that he or she undergoes during the course of the story, and his or her change will constitute a lesson of sorts for him or her. In fact, I often think of the theme of a story as the lesson that the main character learns as a result of his or her experiences.

Looked at backward, so to speak, the story’s theme (the lesson learned, as reflected in the protagonist’s change of behavior) can be the springboard for the narrative’s entire action, a kind of inciting moment in reverse, as it were. In other words, by determining beforehand how the main character will change, a writer can then plot the story’s action in reverse, determining what will make him or her change and what lesson he or she will learn as the result of the experiences that he or she thus undergoes.

Job, in better days

Let’s take the Biblical story of Job (a horror story, if ever there was one) as an example. At the end of the story, Job’s understanding of God increases: Before the story, Job has a simple idea of God as One who rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior; by the conclusion of the narrative, Job learns that God’s will is inscrutable, or unknowable, and that He must be trusted despite human beings’ ignorance of His ultimate character, or, as Job phrases his newfound knowledge (the story’s theme), “The just shall live by faith.”

Job has not learned the lesson that bad things sometime happen to good people and not just to the bad guys. Therefore, he is puzzled when things go from good to bad for him, and his faith (trust) in God is severely tested. By knowing in advance that Job’s understanding of the nature of God is what will change as he learns his lesson (“The just shall live by faith”), the writer would be able to select the incidents of the plot, including those of the exposition (God points out Job’s faithfulness to Satan during an assembly of the heavenly host which the devil also attends); the inciting moment (Satan is allowed to test Job’s faith); the rising action (the increasingly horrific torments that Job must endure during the testing of his faith); the turning point (Job’s refusal both to curse God and to himself accept blame for the catastrophes that befall his fortune, his family, and himself); the falling action (God’s interrogation of Job out of the whirlwind); and the denouement (Job’s confession of both his ignorance of, and his faith in, God and God’s restoration of Job’s fortune, Job’s family, and Job himself).

By plotting backward, so to speak, from the story’s theme and using it as a sort of reverse inciting moment, the narrative’s sequence of action, including the elements of its plot, can be determined in such a way that this sequence of action will result in the protagonist’s change of behavior and the learning of his or her lesson. In addition, this approach allows the writer to connect plot to character much more closely, perhaps, than he or she might have been able to do had his or her story begun not with the final outcome (the theme of the story, which accompanies or leads to the protagonist’s change in behavior), but with a simple change in the routine of the protagonist’s normal, everyday life. Moreover, this approach helps the writer to ensure that everything that happens in the story is related to the character’s development and change and to his or her recognition of a new truth (the lesson that he or she learns).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

William Peter Blatty’s "Dimiter": The Creator and His Creation, or the Mind Beyond Nature

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

The flyleaf to William Peter Blatty’s novel Dimiter (2010) gives a succinct and intriguing synopsis of the narrative’s basic plot:
Dimiter opens in the world’s most oppressive and isolated totalitarian state: Albania in the 1970s. A prisoner suspected of being an enemy agent is held by state security. An unsettling presence, he maintains an eerie silence though subjected to almost unimaginable torture. He escapes--and on the way to freedom, completes a mysterious mission. The prisoner is [Paul] Dimiter, the American “agent from Hell.”

The scene shifts to Jerusalem, focusing on Hadassah Hospital and a cast of engaging, colorful characters: the brooding Christian Arab police detective, Peter Meral; Dr. Moses Mayo, a troubled but humorous neurologist; Samia, an attractive, sharp-tongued nurse; and assorted American and Israeli functionaries and hospital staff. All become enmeshed in a series of baffling, inexplicable deaths, until events explode in a surprising climax.
The flyleaf also suggests Blatty’s purpose, the novel’s theme being associated with “the sacred search for faith and the truth of the human condition.” Published by Tom Doherty Associates, a Christian house, the book is unlike others of its genre (Christian suspense thrillers) in that it not only contains some profanities, but it also examines faith itself in both a reverential and a skeptical, sometimes ironic, manner.

Blatty, of course, is also the author of The Exorcist, a novel that still excites interest among members of the clergy, philosophers, and theologians and lay readers alike, the latter of whom are perhaps more intrigued by a good, suspenseful, even horrific, story than they are by the finer points of faith and thought.

The author’s theme is reinforced by what, at first, seems but a curious habit: his inclusion of phrases that describe spiritual or psychological qualities within passages which, otherwise objective, are devoted to depicting terrain, flora, and other details of a material environment. Indeed, these subjective notations, so to speak, draw attention to themselves because of their very incongruity as subjective phrases amid objective descriptions.

One such description appears early in the novel, when Blatty is depicting a character’s hunt for a fugitive; I indicate the subjective phrases in bold font, which is not used in Blatty’s novel:
One of the dogs, a ferocious mastiff of enormous muscle and bulk, had been loosed toward a crackling sound in a wood and was later discovered lying still among gold and orange leaves on the forest floor in autumnal light as if fallen asleep and turned away from all yearning. Its neck had been broken. The leader of the force, a young smith named Rako Bey, felt a shadow pass over him at the sight, for he could not grasp the power of a human capable of killing the dog in this way. His breath a white fire on the darkening air, he scanned the wood with narrowed eyes, sifting hawthorn and hazel in search of his fate and seeing nothing but the cloud that is before men’s eyes. The sun was descending. The forest was haunted. Bare branches were icy threats, evil thoughts (14).
Many other passages of the novel also mix subjective descriptions of characters’ psychological or spiritual nature with objective depictions of material existence; the effect, which is surely intentional, is to suggest that, unseen within the materialistic world of nature, the spirit of God, as Creator, is discernable as the vital essence that infuses the world and gives it no only its material existence but also its sacred purpose and its spiritual and supernatural significance. Again, I indicate the subjective phrases in bold font, which is not used in Blatty’s novel:
Vlora’s eyes flicked up. An eerie whipping wind had arisen behind him, softly moaning and thumping at the windowpanes. Uneasy, feeling watched, the Interrogator swiveled his chair around and looked through the windows to the flickering north where thick black clouds were scudding toward the city from the mountains like the angry belief of fanatical hordes, and in a moment they would darken the Square below and its anonymous granite government buildings, the broad streets drearily leading nowhere, and the rain-slick statue of Lenin commanding the empty storefront windows crammed with the ghosts of a million longings, dust, and the dim recollection of hope (46).

The corporal. . . . looked through a window at the rough stone cobbles outside the post where a gust-driven rain spattered back and forth in hesitant, indecisive sweeps like a wispy gray soul just arrived on the empty streets of some afterworld, lost and forlorn (118).

The presence of such subjective phrases among objective descriptions suggests the presence, in nature, of spirit, a theme that the novel expresses subtly, by both this technique of including the subjective, or spiritual, with the objective and material and Blatty’s allusions, through the testimony of peasants to authorities concerning various crimes or other events and the meditations, sermons, and thoughts of religious clerics (some genuine, others counterfeit). For example, in an interview with “Rako Bey, leader of the volunteer force to Quelleza, taken 10 October,” the atheistic inquisitor is offended by his respondent’s reference to “fate” and commands Bey to maintain “propriety”:
Q. And what led you to the house in the first place?
A. Nothing, sir. Grodd was related to the blind man who lived there, but then he is related to most of the village. Nothing led us there, Colonel. It was fate.
Q. Maintain propriety.
A. Sorry sir.
Q. Our fate is in our hands (18).
Later, the interrogator is equally offended by Ligeni Shirqi, during a deposition that is taken “at Quelleza” on “12 October” and, again, orders the respondent to “maintain the proprieties”:
Q. Your door was unlocked?
A. Yes, it was. I heard the knocking and I called out, “Come in, you are welcome.”
Q. You didn’t think it dangerous?
A. Danger is irrelevant. Things are different here. It’s not like below. Had he killed my own children, I had to make him welcome. “I live in the house,” goes the saying, “but the house belongs to the guest and to God.”
Q. There is no God.
A. No, not in the city, perhaps, Colonel Vlora, but right now we are in the mountains and our general impression here is that he exists.
Q. Do maintain the proprieties, Uncle.
A. Does that help?
Q. Only facing reality helps (24).

One might argue, without too much of a stretch, perhaps, that the mountains represent heaven, or faith in God, and that the city “below” represents hell, or unbelief. However, if Shirqi’s references to God are expressions of faith, they would seem to indicate that his faith is empty and mechanical, rather than authentic and zealous, for her tells his interrogator that such references are but “formulas of grace that we observe” (25).

Throughout the novel, Blatty juxtaposes evidence for faith with listeners’ (and speakers’) reactions to such evidence; usually, the reactions are skeptical or hostile, and behavior that seems truly to be inspired by genuine faith, such as Dimiter’s stoic resistance to his torture and the miracles that take place in Jerusalem and elsewhere, terrify, rather than edify, their witnesses. If God does exist, the characters of Dimiter seem to believe, he must be a Judge to be feared, rather than a loving Father to be adored.

However, officially, it is the contention of Colonel Vlora and his fellow atheistic authorities that “there is no God” and that human conduct is autonomous. It is perhaps because of their atheistic humanism that genuine religious faith, as seen in the stoic acceptance of his suffering on Dimiter’s part, terrify Vlora, causing him to insist that others “maintain the proprieties” of unbelief.

The miracles that occur in the instantaneous healings of several of the patients at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital also mystify and unsettle the skeptical Jew, Dr. Moses Mayo. The neurologist questions Samia, a nurse, concerning her claim to have witnessed a patient, Mrs. Lakhme, “recently crippled by a fractured hip,” walking--and looking far younger than her advanced age--but he is unable, even in the face of such testimony, to believe that such a miracle implies the existence of God:

Mayo’s gaze fixed dubiously on the crimson Star of David stitched onto her oversized starched white cap. His quest for unwavering faith in her accounts had been less than heroically advanced by the fact that he knew her to be a neurotic as well as a courageously innovative tester of the outermost limits of paranoia (83).
Ironically, the novel’s theme (the presence of God, the Creator, is implied by his creation) is perhaps best expressed by a Muslim cleric who, hoping to secure intelligence from Dimiter, poses as a Christian priest who, himself a prisoner, shares Dimiter’s cell and, ostensibly, his own alleged faith in God, preaching a sermon of sorts based upon the teleological argument:

“Before the Big Bang,” he started preaching to the cell, “the entire universe was a point of zero size and infinite weight. Then the point exploded, creating space and, with it, time and its twin, disorder. And yet for our cosmos to come into existence the force of that primordial outward explosion needed to match the force of gravity with the accuracy you would need for a bullet to hit a one-inch target on the opposite side of the observable universe thirteen billion light-years away” (49).
Although it would seem that the counterfeit priest’s argument from design should be convincing enough to unbiased minds, it is, ironically enough, received with the same lack of enthusiasm as is evidenced by Colonel Vlora or, for that matter, Dr. Mayo: “A fist lashed out from the darkness, striking the priest on his cheekbone with the crunching sound of gristle and flesh. ‘I told you I wanted to sleep!’ snarled an angry, deep male voice” (49).

It is not Blatty’s mere use of personifications to indicate the presence of a Mind beyond nature and of a Creator transcendent to his creation that startles the reader, but the way that the author’s subjective descriptions appear in these passages of his novel, as if they are natural, normal, and expected parts of an otherwise objective depiction of a materialistic universe. One might expect such descriptions in the pantheistic or polytheistic writings of ancient storytellers, but they are more than surprising in the pages of a modern novelist’s novel; they are startling and astonishing, testifying of the omniscient narrator’s own apparent faith. For him, as, perhaps, for Blatty himself, there seems to be little doubt, despite all his characters’ doubts, that “the search for faith and the truths of the human condition” with which the novel is concerned will end triumphantly.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Setting and Plot

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror story settings often play upon the limits of human perception and the effects of such limitations upon human self-esteem, safety, and security.

Fog blinds, and blindness makes one helpless. A forest’s density of trees makes one feel trapped. An island or a space station is isolated, which cuts one off from others and the aid that they could provide. A cavern is dark; darkness blinds; blindness makes one helpless. A cavern’s passages are tight, which could make one feel trapped, and the passages are labyrinthine, suggesting that one may become lost and, therefore, cut off from others and the aid that they could provide. An unfamiliar place is unknown, and the unknown blinds one mentally, or cognitively, thereby making him or her vulnerable to potential injury or harm.

The antidotes, as it were, to the effects of such settings are, respectively, self-reliance; escape or rescue; being located; and knowledge (especially practical knowledge).

Therefore, some horror stories start at one of these extremes and end with the other extreme. For example, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” starts with the sentencing to death of the protagonist and his imprisonment in his intended death chamber, the “pit” of the story’s title, and ends with the main character’s rescue by his enemy’s foes.

However, a horror story (or a thriller) might also start with the positive character trait--self-reliance, for example--and end with its destruction, as James Dickey’s novel Deliverance does. In this narrative, macho, self-reliant outdoorsmen are sodomized by a group of sadistic mountain men whom they encounter during a canoeing trip. Likewise, the adversary of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist seeks to destroy Father Damien Karras’ faith when he attempts to exorcize an alleged demoniac. Another of my posts, “A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism,” discusses at length the importance of the cavern setting of the movie Descent on both the film’s plot and characters.

Few contemporary horror stories succeed in exploiting a forest setting’s dark and foreboding character as well as The Blair Witch Project. As anyone who has ever gone camping overnight in a forest knows, campers are almost certain to hear furtive sounds, breaking twigs, and perhaps even snarls or growls. Unable to see what one hears, one can quite easily let his or her imagination run wild, and his or her imagination is able to picture horrors and terrors beyond anything reality is likely to offer. The forest, in this film, is a symbol of man’s helplessness before nature--especially a forest that, cutting the band of students off from the rest of humanity, leaves them not only to their own devices but also to their own wild imaginings.

Regardless of the setting an author may select, he or she should examine it carefully for its symbolic, metaphorical, or other rhetorical significance, for by playing upon these implications, the writer can enhance the depth and richness of his or her story. In analyzing the proposed setting, the author may, in fact, find that another setting than that which he or she originally envisioned works better for his or her story in part, perhaps, because the alternative setting is more symbolically, metaphorically, or otherwise rhetorically profound than the first location that he or she considered for the narrative’s milieu. (The same is true for the story’s props: Poe, for example, originally envisioned a parrot as the foil to The Raven’s narrator, rather than the raven he subsequently selected as the poem’s avian adversary.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Cameo Characters Can Do More Than Advance Plots; They Can Be Compelling in Themselves

One of the more interesting (and creepiest) scenes I’ve read recently in a horror-suspense novel occurs in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s novel Cemetery Dance, which features a cult of zombies who live in New York City’s Inwood Hill Park.

The scene of which I write doesn’t take place on the island or even in New York City, however; it occurs in a restaurant, while the character eats his breakfast. A creature of habit, the diner has been coming to the same eatery for some time, always ordering the same breakfast, which he routinely eats while he reads the morning newspaper.

Something in one of the newspaper’s headlines or stories and other perceptions he experiences convinces him that God wants him to board the next bus to New York City, where, once he arrives, a divine plan will be made known to him. His intuition that he has been called as a servant of God is confirmed when he finds that all the money he has left to his name, which he carries in his wallet and pocket, is the exact amount of the one-way fare to his destination.

Needless to say, he serves a further narrative purpose once he arrives in the city, advancing the plot as his dubious service to the Lord edges the plot toward its climax. Otherwise, he is of no importance to the story; he is a cameo character.

Preston and Child, like other successful writers of horror and other genres, demonstrate in this scene the effectiveness of introducing not just any character but a compelling character to support or advance their plots, even when this character him- or herself is otherwise of minor importance in the greater scheme of things. Such a technique costs only a little thought and work, but it pays dividends, making one’s writing intriguing rather than merely perfunctory.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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