Fascinating lists!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Heightened Horrors--and Heroes: Ourselves, Writ Large

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Watching children watching cartoons that contain moments which, to their audience, are frightening reveal that youngsters are often frightened by much the same things as oldsters: sudden attacks, distorted faces and figures, eerie sounds, and the like. One cannot plan to defend oneself against sudden attacks. A distorted face or figure suggests that something terrible may have happened to another person and that something just as terrible could therefore happen to oneself. Eerie sounds suggest the unfamiliar, and that which is unknown may be fraught with menace. In “Killed By Death,” vampire slayer Buffy Summers assures the children in a hospital in which youngsters are dying (and are possibly being killed) at an alarming rate that she knows, as they do, that monsters, but, she declares, there are those who fight monsters, too, and that she is one.

Children are not reassured by promises that the monsters they fear--the monsters in the closet or under the bed--are not real, but imaginary, because kids don’t yet have enough of a handle on the world to tightly compartmentalize “real” and “unreal,” or “imaginary”; the wall between these realms in thin, and, sometimes, the fantastic bleeds through, into the real world. Therefore, Buffy gains credibility by admitting to the kids to whom she speaks that the monsters they fear are real. Because she is believable about this concern, her declaration that she, a hero who fights monsters, is also real is also believable to the children.

In the real world, adults know that monsters are real, too: there are serial killers, rapists, and thieves. There are backbiters and toadies--and even politicians. But there are heroes, too, who fight these monsters: cops and firefighters and emergency medical technicians and soldiers and everyday men and women who are willing to risk their own lives to save others who are in trouble and need help. The everyday hero, however, is too mundane to celebrate for more than a day or two. Horror fiction (like other literary genres) create villains who are larger than life--Pennywise the Clown, Dracula, Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, Der Kinderstod--so that there can be larger-than -life heroes, both extraordinary and ordinary--the Losers, Count Van Helsing, Sam Loomis, Clarice Starling, Buffy Summers.

The phrase “head and shoulders above the crowd” derives from the custom of ancient Greek and Roman sculptors of indicating heroism by creating statues of heroic individuals that were a head length taller than the statues of ordinary mortals. The ordinary figure, ancient artists determined, is equal to seven and a half head lengths; therefore, the statue of a heroic individual would be eight and a half head lengths in stature. In a similar way, writers make both villains and heroes larger than life, so that they embody, in a heightened manner, the villainous and the heroic in ordinary men; the villains and heroes of horror (and other genres) are ourselves, writ large.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Horror Settings

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 The 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.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ironic Settings

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

In my series concerning “How To Haunt a House” and my critical review of the movie The Descent, “A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism,”  I discuss the symbolic significance of setting as a means of conveying themes. A house can represent its resident’s soul or personality, with various rooms corresponding to aspects of the person: the attic, his or her mind; the kitchen, his or her instincts and appetites; the living room, his or her persona; the basement, his or her unconscious; and so forth. In the movie The Descent, the underground cavern in which the female spelunkers are attacked by subterranean monsters, the cave, I argue, represents the womb, and the monsters represent the fetuses that liberated women have aborted in favor of childless independence from their traditional and, indeed, biological, roles as mothers and wives.

As Nicholas Ruddick points out in Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction, a symbol can involve a long history of philosophical development. The idea of the island as a symbol of insular individual identity followed, he says, the loss first of the geocentric worldview and then of anthropomorphic notions which left each man and woman an isolated subjectivity, or island, as it were, cut off from the mainland, which is representative of the rest of humanity:

The idea of an individual island has become associated with that of the individual psyche, though the metaphor of the insular Self. The decline first of geocentrism and then [of] anthropomorphism as a result of scientific discovery has led to the rise of individualism, the philosophical privileging of existence over essence. . . and [the idea of] a universe in which the human domain seems an insignificant speck--at best an island--in the oceanic immensity of the spatiotemporal macrocosm (56-57).
Symbolism can be far richer than one imagines!

According to the teleological argument, which is also known as the argument from design, the existence of the universe, as a created artifact, implies the existence of a Creator. Natural theology suggests that we can learn of the nature of God, the Creator, from His creation, nature. This theology, unlike that which is based upon divine revelation that includes the doctrine of humanity’s (and the cosmos’) fall from grace, doesn’t explain (or, some might argue, explain away) the existence of evil, but accepts it as part and parcel of God’s creation and as, therefore, in some way, indicative of God’s own nature as well. As Herman Melville’s Queequeg declares, in Moby Dick, “de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.”

Whether one accepts the portrait (or, possibly, the caricature) of God that natural theology paints, one may apply its insight to the artifacts of human technology: whether microscopes or atomic bombs, the things that we create suggest something about us, their creators. Writers, especially of horror, do well to remember this lesson--and to apply it in their work by consciously and deliberately suggesting the symbolic nature of their central properties, or props, and settings by using them as thematic motifs.

As usual, contemporary writers can take a lesson in doing so from Edgar Allan Poe. The house of Usher (in “The Fall of the House of Usher”) is identifiable with its resident, protagonist Roderick Usher; the fall of the former is also the fall of the latter. Indeed, even physically, the house resembles its resident. According to Walter Evans, the windows of the house are Usher’s eyes, the sedges his mustache, and the white tree trunks his teeth (“‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Poe’s Theory of the Tale” in Studies in Short Fiction, 14.2).

Poe also uses the wine cellar in “The Cask of Amontillado” to great symbolic effect. Wine is the drink of camaraderie and friendship; indeed, in Christianity, wine is an element of communion, representing the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ. In Poe’s story, the significance of wine, as represented by the titular cask of Amontillado, is subverted through irony. The libation of friendship becomes the means by which a mad and vengeful Montresor lures his victim Fortunato to his doom.

Appealing to Fortunate’s friendship as much as to his expertise in wine, Montresor succeeds in getting him to follow him through catacombs, where, after expressing concern for Fortunato’s health while plying him with wine (the catacombs are damp, Montresor says, and Fortunato is coughing), the villain walls up his victim alive, leaving him to die. Half a century later, Montresor, in recounting his tale, brags that he has never been caught.

Wine, which normally cements relationships, here helps to destroy a man who was once at least ostensibly a friend. In the story, the Amontillado, it may be argued, thus represents friendship itself, albeit, in this story, friendship more feigned, on the part of the protagonist, anyway, than real.

Poe’s masterful use of irony to undercut symbolic images and motifs enriches his narratives and, indeed, adds a subtle subtext to the story's overt horror. In learning from the masters, contemporary writers of horror can accomplish similar wonders in their own works of fiction.

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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