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Monday, April 11, 2011

Learning from the Masters: Louis L'amour

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Aspiring horror writers can learn from both popular and mainstream writers, whether they write horror fiction, stories of other genres, or literature of unusually high quality. In other words, both Louis L’Amour and Mark Twain have much to teach any horror fiction author, which brings us to the topic of today’s post.

Louis L'Amour

L’Amour wrote 89 novels and 250 short stories, most about cowboys, lawmen, gunfighters, and other heroic figures of the American Wild West. His first, Hondo, was published in 1953; his last, The Haunted Mesa, in 1987 (although other of his works have appeared posthumously). Anyone with such a long career and such a prolific quantity of bestsellers is someone who has learned how to tell a tale that appeals to a large and loyal audience and is worth studying.

Many of his novels include hand-drawn maps that bring the territories that his stories cover to life for his readers, showing them the towns, drawn in three dimensions, or the hills and mountains or deserts, complete with sagebrush and cacti, through which his intrepid lawmen, outlaws, Indians, posses, and others ride or through which trains, covered wagons, buckboards, or stagecoaches wend their wary ways. By showing only certain towns or terrains in three dimensions, with care given to individual and unique elements and features, and leaving the rest of the maps in two dimensions that include relatively few details, L’Amour heightens readers’ interest in the towns and terrains he does show more realistically on the charts, mythologizing them, as it were, cartographically as well as through his storytelling. (A couple of horror writers who have used maps well to enhance the mystique of their own terrains of terror are Frank Peretti, author of Monster [2005] and Stephen King, author of Under the Dome [2009]. Others horror writers have also included maps of their novel’s terrain--H. P. Lovecraft springs to mind. My Chillers and Thrillers article “Mapping the Monstrous” suggests some of the ways that Peretti’s novel benefits from his decision to may its horrors.)

But let’s return to the topic at hand: L’Amour’s adept use of the opening sentences (“hookers,” as King calls them) of several of his novels and short stories. In the process, we can learn a thing or two concerning how to keep our plights tight, our monsters few, our settings apparent, our suspense high, and our identifications of our genres simple and straightforward.

Rather like an impressionistic painter, L’Amour indicates the scenes of his novels in a few, deft brushstrokes--or pen strokes--or keystrokes: “rocks,” “the Mohaves,” “sky,” and “buzzards,” in the opening sentence of his novel Callahan, paint an image of the desert: “Behind the rocks the Mohaves lay waiting and in the sky, the buzzards.” He accomplishes the same feat, setting his scene (and indicating the genre of his story) in the few choice words of his first sentence of The Burning Hills: “On a ridge above Texas Flat upon a rock shaped like a flame, a hand moved upon the lava.” His descriptions, even when actually static, reporting past deeds, seem active, recalling the past as if it is happening as his narrator speaks: “We came up the trail from Texas in the spring of ‘74, and bedded our herd on the short grass beyond the railroad” (“End of the Drive,” End of the Drive). Likewise, by including active meteorological conditions, L’Amour can, again, make otherwise static scenes seem active, even intense: “Heavy clouds hung above the iron-colored peaks, and lancets of lightning flashed and probed” (“The Skull and the Arrow,” End of the Drive).

He is just as adept at setting scenes, creating suspense, characterizing characters, and hooking his readers when he describes towns and townspeople as when he pictures solitary heroes in isolated or desolate landscapes far from civilization: “He lay sprawled upon the concrete pavement of the alley in the darkening stain of his own blood, a man I had never seen before, a man with the face of an Apache warrior, struck down from behind and stabbed repeatedly in the back as he lay there” (The Broken Gun).

L’Amour knows when to add a simile, a metaphor, a personification, an allusion, a rhetorical question, or another figure of speech to spice up writing about mundane things when the writing itself might, otherwise, be mundane: “The night brought a soft wind” (Brionne). “Dawn came like a ghost to the silent street, a gray, dusty street lined with boardwalks and several short lengths of water trough (Borden Chantry). “When it came to Griselda Popley, I was down to bedrock and showing no color” (“The Courting of Griselda,” End of the Drive). “Who can say that the desert does not live?” (“The Lonesome Gods,” End of the Drive). “The land lay empty around them, lonely and still” (Conagher).

The men in L’Amour’s fiction tend to be lean, mean fighting machines, as quick and effective with their fists as they are with their hands. They have hard-edged, flinty names like Hondo, Callahan, Brionne, Bowdrie, Borden Chantry, Malcolm Fallon, Orrin Sackett, Jim Colburn, and Conagher. Sometimes, they straddle the law, living by the code of the West or a code of their own, more antiheroes than heroes, as is the case, it seems, with regard to Malcolm Fallon, whom L’Amour introduces as “a stranger to the town of Seven Pines” who is fortunate enough to be “a stranger with fast horse,” especially since a drunken band of townsmen have invited him to a necktie party (i. e., a lynching). Out-and-out villains, however, may be violent men of action, but they are also passive products of their circumstances and environments: “They were four desperate men, made hard by life, cruel by nature, and driven to desperation by imprisonment” (“Desperate Men,” End of the Drive). It seems that, in L’Amour’s fiction, desperate men are made, not born; in other words, it is not their fault that they are desperate men; their past experiences have made them so. By contrast, L’Amour’s heroic protagonists defy their environments, take charge of themselves, and become the masters of their own fates, embodying free will.

Although no academic would ever mistake L’Amour for a literary author, he is a literate writer of popular fiction who has learned, of himself, many techniques for accomplishing narrative objectives in ways as interesting as they are succinct, and any aspiring writer, whether of horror or another genre, can learn much from the way that he uses carefully chosen words, phrases, clauses, and sentences to set his scenes, suggest action (even when there is none presently taking place), introducing his protagonists, identifying the time of the day and the season of the year, creating suspense, generating a sense of mystery, stating mundane facts in intriguing ways, describing weather, and spotlighting particular characters among other literary personae. He also shows an adept use of similes, metaphors, allusions, personifications, the rhetorical question, and the tall tale (“My Brother [sic] Orrin Sackett, was big enough to fight bears with a switch,” the narrator of The Daybreakers claims). Adapting L’Amour’s techniques and strategies to his or her own genre and work, the aspiring horror writer can do the same.

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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.

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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