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Monday, April 25, 2011

Full Night, No Stars: A Book Review

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Stephen King’s latest book is an anthology of four novellas: 1922, Big Driver, Fair Extension, and A Good Marriage. Dedicated to his wife, this 368-page volume dispenses with King’s customary foreword or preface, but contains an “Afterword” of three pages. It’s thinner than most of King’s books; apparently his accident has had lasting effects upon his prolificacy or his age is starting to catch up with him.

In any case, the stories start in an intriguing enough manner. 1922 asks readers to be priests or police detective or maybe judges, starting, as it does, with the protagonist-narrator’s “confession.” Written on letterhead stationary from the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, and dated April 11, 1930, the long, long missive recounts Wilfred Leland James’ planning and execution, with the aid of his fourteen-year-old son, Henry Freeman James, of the murder of his wife, “a thing,” he says, “I regret even more bitterly than the crime” (3). According to the salutation, “To Whom it May Concern,” Wilfred’s not sure who or who not may be “concerned” about his “confession.”

So far, so good; readers are apt to be hooked. King’s protagonist-narrator is confessing to a crime involving both his son, as co-conspirator, and his wife, the boy’s mother, as their victim

It’s an unusual situation made more interesting by the motive for the murder: “The issue that led to my crime and damnation was 100 acres of good land in Hemingford Home, Nebraska” (3). My own interest in the story flags fairly quickly. In fact, my interest in fiction has declined quite a bit of late. However, King manages to keep my attention for a few more pages of his opening story. I want to hear more concerning the protagonist-narrator’s seemingly absurd motive for killing his wife and the mother of his son, and I’d like to know what in the world would have prompted the boy to enlist as a co-conspirator in his own mother’s murder. In addition, Wilfred tells his wife, who wants to sell their land and open a dress shop in Omaha, “I will never live in Omaha,” despite the address of the hotel in which, according to the stationary he’s writing upon, which is “Omaha, Nebraska.”

“This is ironic,” he admits to readers, “considering where I now live,” although he also points out that “I will not live here for long” (3-4), and his next statement is curious enough to make readers continue to read for the next paragraph or two, at least: “I know this as well as I know what is making the sounds I hear in the walls” (4). Hearing sounds in walls (or floors, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or the attic, as in The Exorcist) was an old trick even in the days of the Victorian Gothic novels, but it may still manage, even if only slightly, to command a small amount of readers’ attention.

The country bumpkin dialect and outlook are also mildly interesting (but much less so since his portrayal of Jordy Verrill in Creepshow). His protagonist-narrator’s allusions to aspects of his own personality as “a Conniving Man” who himself has a “Hopeful man” inside him and his personification of wife’s lascivious tendencies as a “Vulgar Woman” are amusing at first, but soon become tedious, and by the time that King starts to set forth his hayseed characters’ theology, the story’s opening becomes--well, less than engaging. At 131 pages, King’s story is maybe 100 pages too long, and I lose interest altogether by page ten. Since King is not known for satisfying endings to his stories (It and Under the Dome have to be two of his absolute worst), I sigh and move on. . . .

Maybe the next narrative, Big Driver, will be better, the Hopeful Man inside me dares to hope.

Unfortunately, Big Driver veers toward the curb on page one (page 135 of the book), paragraph two, when his omniscient narrator compares the story’s character, Tess, an elderly public speaker and author of a dozen popular novels about the Willow Grove Knitting Society, to “a good little squirrel” who lives “well on the money her books” earn, “putting away acorns for the winter.” On the next page, my interest virtually flatlines as King, via his narrator, offers another of his tedious catalogues of contemporary annoyances and frustrations, this one concerning airline travel:

It wasn’t that she was afraid of flying, or hesitant about billing the organizations that engaged her for travel expenses just as she billed them for her motel rooms (always nice, never elegant). She just hated it: the crowding, the indignity of the full-body scans, the way the airlines now had their hands out for what used to be free, the delays. . . .and the inescapable fact that you were not in charge. That was the worst. Once you went through the interminable security checkpoints and were allowed to board, you had put your most valuable possession--your life--into the hands of strangers (136).
Time is a valuable commodity, and readers desire and deserve much more than self-indulgent lists of petty grievances in the guise of characterization. King has shown that he has the talent to do better, but he doesn’t bother; after all, Big Driver is just a novella, not a novel (and, lately, he hasn’t been bothering all that much even in his novels).

Still, I’m game for a bit more. Tess is mildly interesting as a character, despite the familiar complaints about air travel that King, via his omniscient narrator, puts in her mouth--or her mind.

But the next paragraph, which is supposed to be a transition, perhaps, between air travel and highway travel, linking title to narrative, repeats the same lame list of petty grievances, this time about ground transport:

Of course that was also true of the turnpike and interstates she almost always used when she traveled, a drunk could lose control [as King has reminded his readers seemingly countless times since a drunk driver nearly killed King himself, back in ‘99 and the author considered retirement], jump the median strip, and end your life in a head-on collision (they would live; the drunks, it seemed, always did), but at least when she was behind the wheel of her car, she had the illusion of control. And she liked to drive. It was soothing. She had some of her best ideas when she was on cruise control with the radio off (136).
We normally think of a cliché as a trite phrase, but, of course, a cliché is also a trite thought (or part of a thought, anyway), for what is the definition of a sentence, besides a group of words with a subject and a predicate, but “a complete thought”? King certainly gives his readers clichés, both of phrasing and of thinking, in abundance in his fiction, as he does in Big Driver. Enough, though, is not only enough; often, it is too much. In Full Dark, No Stars, it is too much very quickly, indeed.

Since the disappointments of King’s last several novels, Under the Dome, especially, I have opted not to buy any more of his books. If I want to read one, I wait until the university or public library acquires it or go without. This way, if and when (most likely, when) King proves his latest effort not worth my effort, I’m only out a little time instead of a little money. Times are hard, and I can’t afford to be as forgiving of King’s self-indulgences, laziness, and “Big Mac and fries” literary style as I tended to be when times were more flush.

Leaving Tess behind with her worries about airports and interstates, I travel ahead 113 pages to Fair Extension. Maybe it will be better, the Hopeful Man inside me (hardly) dares to hope.

Echoing Big Driver, the opening paragraph doesn’t make the likelihood of the story’s offering of anything more than prosaic insights seem very likely:

[Dave] Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke. He puked a lot now, and there was very little warning--sometimes a flutter of nausea, sometimes a brassy taste in the back of his mouth, and sometimes nothing at all; just urk and out it came, howdy--do. It made driving a risky proposition, yet he always drove a lot now, partly because he wouldn’t be able to by late fall and partly because he had a lot to think about. He had always done his best thinking behind the wheel (249).
No doubt, he also finds driving “soothing,” especially with the “cruise control” on and “the radio off .”

King has been praised for connecting with the average Jane and Joe among the nation’s middle class, but it’s one thing to allude to popular culture to make such a link and another thing altogether to refer to stereotypical sentiments and commonplace thoughts; the latter allusions are not only patronizing, but they are also more humdrum than the humming of tires drumming on the pavement of a King story about cars (Christine or From a Buick 8) or paragraphs such as these, from Big Driver and Fair Extension.

Less hopeful than ever the Hopeful Man inside me switches from two- to four-wheel drive and forges ahead, to the story’s “Harris Avenue Extension, a broad thoroughfare” that runs “two miles beside the Derry County Airport and the attendant businesses,” most of which are “motels and warehouses.” The buildings don’t sound all that promising, but, hey, it’s Derry, a place where It, Insomnia, Bag of Bones, and Dreamcatcher unfold; maybe there’s enough horror left in the burg to fuel a novella.

Sure enough, despite a few backfires and hesitations, the story succeeds in moving forward, although its Big Driver, King, can’t resist a few byways and alleyways, none especially scenic, and, by skipping the side excursions and detours and staying with the dialogue, I can get through the Derry landscape to the narrative’s dead end. (Tip for those who have tried but just can’t quite kick the King habit: when the story bogs down, as it almost always does, sooner or later, just start reading only the dialogue, dipping into the exposition only when--and only as long as--necessary to pick up any lost plot threads; this way, you’ll be doing what King or his editor should have done and will be able to finish the story just after sunset.)

What’s sold in Derry, at Fair Extensions, are extensions of almost anything, penis lengths included, the story’s salesman assures the protagonist, in a bit of prepubescent dialogue that one could expect to encounter only in a King story:

“If you were a man with a small penis--genetics can be so cruel--I’d offer you a dick extension.”

Streeter was amazed and amused by the baldness of it. [Readers over fourteen years old may be “amazed,” but they’re unlikely to be “amused,” no matter how bald King’s penis jokes may be.] For the first time in a month--since the diagnosis--he forgot he was suffering from an aggressive and extremely fast-moving form of cancer. “You’re kidding” [Readers can only hope he is, but, alas, he isn't.]

“Oh, I’m a great kidder, but I never joke about business. I’ve sold dozens of dick extensions in my time, and was for awhile [sic] known in Arizona as El Pene Grande. . . .” (252-3).
In Danse Macabre, King admits, “If I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” Apparently, the Big Mac and Fries of the literary world means this not only about horror but about both sex and humor as well.

In any case, once Streeter accepts a life extension of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years, for a fee, of course, his cancer is miraculously cured, and his life gets better and better. The fee? Streeter has to curse someone to receive the salesman’s life extension (shades of Needful Things; he chooses Tom Goodhugh, his friend since childhood, who has always had more and better things than Streeter, or as Streeter puts it (to himself, not Goodhugh), “you had everything and I had cancer” (277). Just as Streeter’s life gets better and better, Tom’s gets worse and worse, with his wife Norma dying of cancer, his daughter developing pyorrhea and losing her teeth and later giving birth to a dead baby, one of his sons having a heart attack at age twenty two and suffering brain damage while the other son is imprisoned for spousal abuse, Tom’s fortune becoming all but exhausted, and his own health fast deteriorating.

Given an extension of life and astonishingly good luck, Streeter seems to have it all; still, when Venus appears “above the airport, glimmering against the darkening sky,” he takes this opportunity to wish for even more (280).

A high school student could argue that this story represents a not-so-sly satire concerning the haves and the have-nots and a sharper rebuke of materialism, rivalry, one-upmanship, envy and greed, and probably get a “B+” for his or her effort, but, beyond the story’s being good fodder for secondary school lit crit, the story, although not as puerile and pedestrian as the two that come before it, certainly isn’t likely to win its author any awards or accolades and deserves none. (This story, too, by the way, includes a drunk driver--and another penis reference: “Stick your mortal penis in her and pretend she’s your best friend’s wife” [271]).

Having read one of the three and enough of the other two to know that I didn’t want to read them, I kept on trucking, entering the final leg of the journey, A Good Marriage, the Hopeful Man inside me on the brink of despair, but wanting there to be a reason for the long trip he’s been on.

I’ll leave the last story for you to review yourselves, Constant Reader, saying only that the ending is poignant, in a perverse way, and shows that King can write a neat narrative when he wants to do so, yes, he can.

The “Afterword” is King’s last word on the tales he tells in Full Dark. The first half or so is much like the first half of his anthology: it treads familiar territory, recalling his early writing and mentioning a couple of his favorite authors (George Orwell and Frank Norris) and taking the time to poke a political enemy--this time, in very ungentlemanly fashion--Sarah Palin. (At least, he left Willow alone.) He also recites the ancient litany of his being, if nothing else, a truth teller who represents human behavior as it really is, warts and all. It’s what he tries to do, once again, he confesses, in Full Dark. He concludes the anthology by identifying his inspirations for the stories: a nonfiction book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy (1922); a woman with a flat tire talking to a trucker at a rest stop (Big Driver); a golf balls vendor who does business in Bangor, Maine, alongside the Hammond Street Extension (Fair Extension); and Dennis Rader and his wife (A Good Marriage).  For King, all truly is grist for the mill, although his "Constant Reader" may disagree.

The list price for Full Dark, No Stars is $27.99. I borrowed a hardback copy from the library for nothing. Had I paid for the privilege of reading it, I’d have felt ripped off at a twenty-seventh of the price I’d paid, but I figure the library charged me about what the book is worth. I say this with disappointment, for I have enjoyed King’s fiction in the past, just not for a long time now. Nevertheless, I contend that King is still a talented writer, inside whom, unfortunately there is a Hack Writer who, of late, has called the shots quite a few times too many. Maybe, if King can’t or won’t do better than Full Dark, No Stars, he should retire, and the sooner, the better. After all, one of his sons, Joe Hill, seems ready to carry the torch, and Stephen has killed enough trees already--unless, the Hopeful Man inside me hopes, unless he can and will write a worthy book, for he can, oh, yes, he can!

King, Stephen. Full Dark, No Stars. New York: Scribner, 2010.

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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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