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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.

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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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