Fascinating lists!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Plotting From Blurbs

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Although they may not be novelists, publishing company employees who pen blurbs for books and motion pictures released on DVDs are themselves accomplished writers. They know not only how to summarize a plot (or enough of the plot, at any rate, to excite the reader’s or the viewer’s interest in reading or watching the novel or the movie), but they understand, also, such narrative elements as conflict, high stakes, suspense, and pace. Blurb writers know what readers and moviegoers want to read or see and why. Aspiring storytellers, whether of the horror genre or any other, can learn a thing or two of value from the blurbs that such writers produce and use these techniques themselves in plotting their own narratives.
Let’s take a look at a few blurbs concerning horror movies, taken directly from the backs of the DVD packages upon which the blurbs appear.

While awaiting her husband’s return from war, Grace [the main character is introduced and the basic situation is established] and her two children live an unusually isolated existence [an isolated setting enhances character’s vulnerability, especially when the characters are a woman and two children, living alone] behind the locked doors and drawn curtains of a secluded island mansion [the reiteration of the setting’s isolated, or secluded, nature and the mention of its location on an island emphasize the house’s remoteness and inaccessibility and the character’s helplessness; the “locked doors and drawn curtains” suggest secrets or the fear of threats or both]. Then, after three mysterious servants arrive [the same number as the house’s occupants, each of whom is characterized as being in some way “mysterious”] and it becomes chillingly clear [expect to be frightened!] that there is far more to this house than can be seen [such as ghosts?], Grace finds herself in a terrifying fight to save her children and keep her sanity [the stakes are high, indeed!, as is the threat with which Grace and her children are menaced]. -- The Others
. . . A skeptical writer [is] investigating paranormal events [the main character is introduced and the basic situation is established]. When he insists in staying in the reportedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel [the adjective “reportedly” makes the reader wonder whether the room will prove, in fact, to be “haunted,” as it is alleged to be; a hotel is large enough, too, to offer some real chills] against the grave warnings of the hotel manager [if “dire warnings” are deemed necessary by the man who manages the place, it may well be haunted, the reader may suppose--or is the manager trying to pull some sort of bizarre practical joke or effect some strange fraud, perhaps by destroying the “skeptical writer’s” reputation as a debunker of the paranormal?], he discovers the room’s deadly secret--an evil so powerful, no one has ever survived an hour within its walls [apparently, the moviegoer is in for an equally harrowing hour in the “reportedly haunted room 1408]. -- 1408 
 . . An American nurse. . . has come to work in Tokyo [the main character is introduced and the basic situation is established; the setting, far-away Tokyo, a city in a foreign land influenced by an alien culture is also introduced]. Following a series of horrifying and mysterious deaths, she encounters the vengeful supernatural spirit that possesses its victims, claims their souls, then passes its curse to another person in a spreading chain of horror [will the nurse become the spirit’s latest victim?] Now, she must find a way to break this supernatural spell [her purpose, or goal, is identified] or become the next victim [the stakes are presented] of an ancient evil that never dies, but forever lives to kill [she is up against a formidable foe--something that is not only supernatural but immortal--and, of course, evil] -- The Grudge 
Although each of these blurbs is written somewhat differently, they all include these elements:
  1. Introduce the main character.
  2. Establish the basic situation.
  3. Identify the setting (which is usually isolated).
  4. Hint at mysterious secrets, spells, or incidents.
  5. Identify high stake (such as protecting innocent children or saving one’s own life, sanity, or reputation).
  6. Give the protagonist a goal (often related to the story’s stakes).
  7. Suggest that the antagonist is formidable, powerful, ancient, and possibly supernatural.
By including such elements in his or her own stories’ plots, the aspiring (or, for that matter, the professional) writer of horror stories, novels, or screenplays is likely to capture, hold, and heighten his or her intended audience’s emotions, making the reader or moviegoer want to read or watch the novel or film from beginning to end--maybe several times over!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dear Reader, Meet Gideon Crew; Gideon, Dear Reader

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

There are 80 chapters (405 pages) to Douglas Lincoln and Preston Child’s latest novel, Fever Dream, which will set you back $26.99 (retail hardback), if you decide to buy it. (I checked out a copy from my local library.) I have read only 15 chapters 83) pages so far, but find it, as I do most of this duo’s fiction, a page-turner. The synopsis of the plot provided by the book’s flyleaf does a good job of uniting the action in a succinct fashion, linking past to present and present to future:

Yesterday, Special Agent Pendergast still mourned the loss of his beloved wife, Helen, who died in a tragic accident in Africa twelve years ago.

Today, he discovers she was murdered.

Tomorrow, he will learn her most guarded secrets, leaving him to wonder: Who was the woman I married? And, above all. . . Who murdered her?
In earlier novels, the authors have provided dibs and dabs of their novels’ protagonist back story, building up the eccentric agent’s character so that he becomes both understandable and sympathetic. Other recurring characters are, perhaps, more loveable, but Pendergast, certainly, is most memorable. In this novel, he is humanized still further as he seeks to discover the truth behind his late wife’s murder.

At the end of the story, when Fever Dream is over, Preston and Child surprise their readers with the announcement of their creation of a new detective of sorts, who will appear, they say, “in an exciting new series.” The “investigator,” Gideon Crew, the authors assure their readers, debuts in Gideon’s Sword, which is due to hit the bookstores (and, hopefully, the library shelves) “in the winter of 2011.” However, he will not replace Pendergast: The authors make it clear that they “will continue to write novels featuring the world’s most enigmatic FBI agent with the same frequency as before.”

Preston and Child claim that they “can’t give. . . any information about this novel except its title,” but mean, of course, that they won’t divulge any further information. Chillers and Thrillers will, however, courtesy of this synopsis of the novel’s plot by David Pitt of Book List:

Gideon Crew, the hero of Preston and Child’s new novel, has a complicated backstory. As a boy, he watched as his father, who had taken a man hostage, was shot down by a sniper. Less than a decade later, he learned from his mother that his father had been used by the U.S. government as a scapegoat for a failed intelligence project. After dispatching the man responsible for his father’s murder, Gideon is offered a job with a private contractor that does hush-hush work for the government. Gideon’s mission: to intercept a Chinese scientist and relieve him of the plans for a top-secret weapon. The mission doesn’t go as drawn, however, and Gideon is left with a mysterious string of numbers. Now, working mostly alone, he must determine what the numbers mean. This novel (which is apparently the first installment in a new series) isn’t as elegantly written or constructed as the authors’ popular Special Agent Pendergast novels, but it does—once you get past the backstory—hold the reader’s interest, and Gideon is undeniably a big-shouldered character, capable of supporting a series.
I, for one, look forward to meeting Mr. Crew--and to continuing my acquaintance with Special Agent Pendergast. Now that you've been properly introduced to Gideon, maybe you'll look forward to meeting him, too.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 9

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Having provided both Freudian and Christian definitions and examples of erotic horror, I would now, in the final installment of my “Sex and Horror” series, like to offer my own thoughts concerning this subgenre of horror fiction (or, depending upon one’s point of view, this subgenre of erotic fiction). Although I fervently disbelieve in psychoanalysis, I also believe that Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality does provide some insights that may be, in some sense and to some extent, valid and applicable to the horror genre in general and to the erotic horror subgenre in particular. I likewise believe that the Christian criticism of such fiction, both Catholic and Protestant, offers valid insights concerning sex and horror.

Freud’s emphasis upon unconscious drives and impulses as wellsprings of human behavior is certainly valid, as is the Christian insistence that non-reproductive sex necessarily involves one in human relationships and possibly human-divine relationships as well and may constitute “sinful” conduct. Unless masturbatory, sex must involve at least two individuals, after all, and even masturbatory sex doesn’t occur in a vacuum--a whole web of social and cultural values, taboos, and inducements, including religious ones, apply--even in the commission of solitary sexual activities.

For me, however, sex and horror merge mostly in the duality of human beings as, on the one hand, material-animal beings and, on the other hand, as spiritual-human beings. As ghosts inhabiting machines, men and women are both part and parcel of the natural world and, at the same time, transcend the natural world. As minds, or spirits, people are able to freeze experience in thought and to react or respond to it emotionally and imaginatively; they can project themselves forward in time and imagine a variety of sexual pathways, alternatives, and futures, both for themselves as individuals, for others as individuals, and for society.

In addition, one may find that he or she does not measure up to the expectations of others, whether the “other” involved is one’s partner or one’s society. Perhaps a man may discover that he is impotent, that he cannot perform, or please his lover; a woman may find that she is more highly sexually charged than society deems correct or that she prefers one of her own, to the opposite, sex. Men and women may have trouble relating to anyone else, male or female, on intimate emotional, physical, and sexual levels. They may fear not sex itself but what it will reveal concerning innermost secrets of the self which they would conceal at all costs.

Moreover, social mores shift from time to time, and what is permissible in one era may be impermissible in another; what was once “right” may now be “wrong”--or what was impermissible or wrong in an earlier time may be acceptable or right today. The recognition of the relative and ethnocentric nature of morality is usually disturbing, whether it occurs through reflection upon one’s sexual behavior (or sexuality) or upon human experience in general, and erotic horror is often a product of a character’s discovery of such limitations.

Sex is a physical act in which the heart rate increases as muscles flex and contract, blood flows more copiously, the lungs pant, and body fluids, ultimately, are exchanged. In short, sex reveals human beings’ animality, an aspect of themselves that, in polite society men and women generally take pains to obscure, preferring to think of themselves as “a little lower than the angels” rather than as “higher animals.” Paradoxically, sex, which can generate life, is also a reminder of death. People are animals. They are meat. They will die. Sex brings men and women close to the physical--and, indeed, the visceral--components of themselves and, in doing so, with their own imminent mortality.

But sex is also about power, too. It is about conquest. It is about seduction. Men sometimes regard themselves as conquerors, sex as a means of conquest, and women as the conquered. Sex is, such men suggest, a "war" in which, sooner or later, women are likely to become "casualties." Sex is a series of ongoing "battles" in which the strongest will survive, and men are stronger than women.

Some women, on the other hand, consider sex a means of seduction. In nature, the male animal is bright, beautiful, and alluring, but, among human beings, women adorn themselves, attract and lure, seduce, and claim as their own the suitors who fight among themselves for the exclusive claim to women’s charms. In either vision, the male or the female, sex itself is about power, especially the taking of it from one person--and from one sex--and the conferring of the taken power upon oneself--and one’s own sex.

Many of the icons of horror fiction are used to suggest the multivalent nature of erotic horror: the demon, its amoral quality; the ghost, the repressive social and cultural limitations associated with it and the personal and psychological responses to such restrictions and taboos; the vampire, its predatory aspects; the werewolf, its animality; and the witch, its seductive character. Often, scenes of so-called bondage and discipline highlight the sexual, the social, and the sadomasochistic qualities of sex, suggesting that it is emotionally, physically, and sexually painful and that there is a dynamic of power and powerlessness, of dominance and submission, involved in every expression, of whatever variety, of the sex drive.

Sex is primal and instinctive; sex is personal and secret; sex is social and cultural; sex is revelatory and fearsome--it is a complex set of behaviors, including thoughts and emotions, because humans are themselves complex dualities which are neither exclusively physical or material nor completely incorporeal or spiritual. Men and women live in a number of twofold worlds, but they are defined by none of them: the material and the spiritual, the animal and the human, the temporal and the eternal, the private and the public, the barbaric and the civilized, the natural and the cultural (and, indeed, it may be, the natural and the supernatural). These crossroads of being come together, as it were, as many intersections, the centers of which are often sexual.

Sex unifies us, both as individual persons and as societies and cultures, just as, at the same time, it separates us, both from ourselves and one another. At the heart of erotic horror is our duality as material-spiritual beings who have a foot in both the world of nature and the world of the supernatural, ghosts in machines for whom neither oneness with God or the universe nor oneness with our own fleshly existence is completely comfortable or sufficient. Therefore, sex will always be both a delight and a horror, the center and the fulcrum of erotic horror.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 8: A Gallery of Sex and Horror

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

While it is not the intent of Chillers and Thrillers to titillate its readers, no series concerning sex and horror truly conveys the subgenre without a display of some of the images that have come to represent it, which is the reason that I conclude this series with some examples of such images.

Abducted by the Daleks

Cemetery Man

Friday the 13th 2: Jason Goes to Hell

Outer Limits (episode with Alyssa Milano)


The Entity

Perhaps the most blatant example in this gallery for the inclusion of gratuitous nudity in a horror film is Zombie Strippers.  The misogynistic attitude toward women that is displayed by many of these images is also striking, suggesting that Hollywood moviemakers seem to have low regard for the female of the species, considering them to be fallen angels, "breeders" (a term that homosexual men sometimes use to describe heterosexual women), living dolls, victims of abduction and rape, playthings, transsexuals, alien monsters, food, and (even when they are dead) strippers.  However, to be fair, some directors do not find fault with women as such; rather, they find sex itself repugnant and grotesque, as the fiilms of David Cronenberg, for example, often show.

However, sex in horror is not always as gratuitious as it is in Zombie Strippers. As we have seen, it sometimes has a satirical, a philosophical, or even a religious theme.

No pun intended, but, in literature, horror fiction included, nudity is often more complex than it may appear. Frequently, it takes on symbolic significance, representing such states and conditions as human beings’ animality, vulnerability, and mortality. Sex itself, as we have seen, is often linked, in horror fiction, to perversions of, and deviations form, normal, heterosexual, genital (and generative) sex. In horror fiction, sex often involves adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, incest, transsexuality, and even necrophilia. It also sometimes features extraterrestrials, demons, witches, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and other paranormal or supernatural participants. Such behavior flaunts the will of God, as it is established by the Ten Commandments and other divine laws that are transmitted through Judeo-Christian religious traditions. In other words, such behaviors are sinful acts of disobedience to the divine will.

Indeed, sex with aliens challenges the Judeo-Christian doctrine of a great chain of being in which various creatures occupy greater or lesser levels of significance and value, with God at the apex, followed by angels, human beings, animals, and plants, in this order, for it inserts another creature, extraterrestrial beings, into his chain. Such entities may not be the equal of God, but they seem to transcend human beings. Are aliens superior or interior to angels and their fallen peers, demons? Some consider aliens to be demons in disguise, intent upon deceiving humans, as, indeed, Hamlet suspected the alleged ghost of his father might be. Whether aliens are demons or extraterrestrials, they disturb the great chain of being, because such creatures were never part of it before the skies became home to flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects.

Sex in horror fiction is also a means of introducing twists on traditional understandings and folkways. Demonic possession which also involves sexual acts, perverted or otherwise, may signify sexual conquest. As femme fatales, women, who are traditionally regarded as weak or powerless, become strong and powerful in demon or alien guise, and men, traditionally the strong and powerful ones become the weak and impotent ones. Sex can be described in mechanical, going-through-the-motions terms, especially when one or more of the participants is a robot or a cyborg. In horror fiction, sex is also often misogynistic, expressing or suggesting a fear, and, sometimes, a hatred, of women. The vagina may be described as having, or be shown to have, teeth with which it mutilates (dismembers, in both a literal and a Freudian sense) males, castrating them as they penetrate or have intercourse with them. Alternatively, the penis can be a serpent-like monster with teeth of its own, used to devour women from within.

The movies we have listed in this post depict all of these impulses, themes, and ideas and more. Sex in horror is multivalent, multidimensional, and multifaceted.

In Horror Films of the 1980s, published in 2002 by McFarland & Company, Inc., of Jefferson City, NC, John Kenneth Muir points out some of the additional concerns of sex in horror. The movie Demon Seed (1977), based upon an early Dean Koontz novel, addresses “women’s rights,” Muir says, as well as “technology run amok,” and the story, which involves “rape by [a] computer” that is “programmed by men,” denies the protagonist, Susan Harris, “control” over both “her own body” and, since it causes her to experience an orgasm, against her will, even the very “biochemical” processes of her body (467-470).

Likewise, Muir sees David Cronenberg’s Shivers as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of so-called casual sex. It is about the consequences, Muir says, of “infidelity, STDs, pedophilia,” and other perverted, deviant, criminal or otherwise incautious sexual behaviors. In the film, a parasite that resembles a phallus (or “fecal matter,” in Muir’s view), and may or may not have been inspired by the disembodied, living, often winged phalli of ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, infect hosts with an aphrodisiac-like chemical that turns men and women into promiscuous sex maniacs who further spread the parasites and their disease. Equal opportunity parasites, the phallic pests enter their hosts orally, anally, or vaginally, through both hetero- and homosexual sex acts. AIDS and other STDs, Muir believes, are the subtext to this film, which, he argues, in some ways anticipates the movie Alien.

The sex in Wes Craven’s film The Last House on the Left serves a theological, or at least a metaphysical theme. In this film, sex takes the form of the rape of a teenage girl and represents, Muir contends, an atheistic world view in which there is no God and, therefore, no purpose in life and “terrible things” can and do “happen to good people” for no reason. The movie’s “theme song,” “The Road Leads to Nowhere” suggests, Muir says, as does the futility of the religious characters’ prayers, to the movie’s theme, that there is neither an “afterlife” nor a God, and that the journey of life “ends only in death.”

Sex in horror can transcend just sex for sex’s sake, or gratuitous sex, and can symbolize social, political, economic, and even metaphysical or theological issues. Often, for Judeo-Christian readers and moviegoers, sex in horror is related to, and often critical of, human beings relationships with themselves, each other, nature, and God. Even when sex in horror is limited to psychoanalytical interpretations, it can sometimes elucidate the causes and consequences of sublimation, repression, and other alleged psychosexual mechanisms.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 7

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Although he employs psychoanalysis himself on rare occasions in his analyses of and commentaries upon horror fiction, Stephen King doesn’t seem to be a fan of Freudian thought. Critics who approach criticism from this point of view, he says, tend to conceive of “the writer’s books” as “Rorschach inkblots that will eventually reveal the author’s anal, oral, or genital fixation” rather than illuminate the literature they allegedly interpret (“Horror Fiction” from Danse Macabre in Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 190).

This is not to suggest, however, that horror fiction is devoid of sex; as I have demonstrated in previous posts, the genre is replete with examples of erotic behavior, especially of the perverted and deviant sort. It’s just that the sex is not sex for sex’s sake; it is not gratuitous, nor is it an expression of unconscious impulses. Often, when it occurs, it is presented within a context of social, or even sociological, significance.

According to Anne Rivers Siddons herself, the author of The House Next Door, she was careful to create a menace with which her sophisticated, upwardly mobile, middle-class suburbanite characters (and readers) could identify as relevant to their lives:
A traditional ghoulie would be laughed out of the neighborhood. So what would break and crumble defenses and penetrate suburban armors? It would have to be different in each case. Each person has his own built-in horror button. Let’s have a house that can isolate and push it, and then you’ve really got a case of the suburban willies (quoted in “Horror Fiction,” 98).
“The whole point of the book, of course, is not so much the house and its peculiar, terrible power,” she continues, “but what effect it has on the neighborhood, and on the relationships between neighbors and friends, and between families, when they are forced to confront and believe the unbelievable”:
This has always been the power of the supernatural to me. . . That it blasts and breaks relationships between people and other people and between people and their world, and, in a way, between people and the very essences of themselves. . . . For belief is everything; belief is all. Without belief, there is no terror” (quoted in “Horror Fiction,” 898-99).
King offers an example of Siddons’ implementation of her theory. During a party hosted by the haunted house’s first residents, Walter and Pie Harralson, guests come running to the bedroom in which the hosts have left their coats when they hear Pie screaming. King describes the scene, before offering his commentary concerning it:
Near the end of their housewarming party, Pie begins to scream. The guests rush to see what has happened to her. They find [her husband] Buddy Harralson and [his mentor at their law firm] Lucas Abbott embracing, naked, in the bedroom. . . . Pie’s Daddy has found them first, and he is in the process of expiring of a stroke on the floor while his Punkin Pie screams on. . . and on.. . . and on” (102).
King sees this scene as exemplifying Siddons’ use of the conventions of “the new American gothic to examine. . . . social codes and social pressures” (“Horror Fiction,” 168):
The essence of the horror in this scene. . . lies in the fact that social codes have not merely been breached; they have been exploded in our shocked faces. . . . It is a case of everything going just about as totally wrong as things can go; lives and careers are ruined irrevocably in the passage of seconds (“Horror Fiction,” 102).
King’s insights concerning horror are, as usual, spot-on, as is his further contention that this genre of literature has the dual purposes of exploring “taboo lands” before confirming readers’ “own good feelings about the status quo” (“Horror Fiction, 107).

At times, horror fiction crosses paths with erotic fiction; indeed, sometimes, the two merge, producing hybrid monsters that are half-sex and lust, half fear and revulsion. Even when they remain more or less distinct, however, the two genres have a lot in common--at times, at least. King suggests as much when he differentiates classic Gothic from new American Gothic horror fiction. “Once upon a time,” he observes, “the Bad Place was seen by critics as symbolic of the womb--a primarily sexual symbol which perhaps allowed the gothic to become a safe way of talking about sexual fears,” but, with the advent of “the new American gothic,” which depends more upon the use of a microcosmic setting and a narcissistic protagonist, “the Bad Place” now more often represents “interest in the self and fear of the self” (“Horror Fiction,” 106-107).

Although erotic fiction differs from horror fiction in that the former plays upon readers’ ideas, emotions, fantasies, and experiences concerning lust and sex and the latter relies upon readers’ ideas, emotions, fantasies, and experiences concerning fear and revulsion, they share the same purposes, at times, at least, as the dual purposes identified by King. After exploring social taboos concerning lust and sex, erotic fiction may or may not then confirm its readers’ “own good feelings about the status quo,” for after observing or participating for the first time in a sexual act of a usually deviant or perverted nature, a protagonist can either reject the sexual experience into which he or she has been initiated (a decision which reinforces the status quo concerning what is normal, permissible, right, or appropriate sexually); accept the sexual experience (a decision which rejects the status quo’s censure of such sexual behavior); or remain, for the time being, at least, undecided and confused concerning whether to accept or reject the sexual experience (a decision which suspends acceptance or rejection of the status quo’s censure of such sexual behavior). Unlike horror fiction, erotic fiction can, but need not, confirm readers’ “own good feelings about the status quo” and its censure of unusual sexual behavior.

Examples in which protagonists reject unusual sexual experiences after trying them or having them forced upon them, accepting the status quo’s censure of this behavior, are the Marquis de Sade’s satirical novel Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and James Dickey’s novel Deliverance (1970) and the movie version of it (1972), directed by John Boorman.

Examples of stories in which protagonists accept unusual sexual experiences after trying them; rejecting the status quo‘s censure of this behavior; include the Marquis de Sade’s novel, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), and Ang Lee’s film, Brokeback Mountain (2005).

An example in which the main character seems to remain undecided as to whether to accept or reject unusual sexual experience, neither accepting nor rejecting the status quo’s censure of this behavior is Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992).

Another similarity between horror fiction and erotic fiction is the concern of each of these genres with power. For King, horror is a subdivision of fantastic literature, and fantasy, in turn, is comprised of “tales of magic,” which are, in turn, “stories of power”: “One word nearly defines the other. Power is magic; power is potency. The opposite of potency is impotence” (“Horror Fiction,” 184). Often, the concern with, and for, power takes a sexual form, especially for men: “I think that most men, even today, tend to identify the magic most strongly with sexual potency. A woman may not want to but she can; a man may want to and find that he cannot” (“Horror Fiction,” 186).

Drugs such as Cialis and Viagra, penile implants, and other products of technology may be enlisted as “magical” means by which to empower sexually impotent men and to level the playing field, as it were, between women who “may not want to but. . . can” and men who “may want to and. . . cannot.” In extreme examples of erotic--or pornographic--films, mechanical devices, or sex machines are shown as leveling the playing field, as it were, between women’s innately greater sexual capacity and men’s more limited sexual stamina, replacing flesh-and-blood male organs (and men themselves) with tireless contraptions of steel, rubber, and plastic that operate, fluidly and forever--or, at least, until the gasoline that powers them runs out. Never has even the most virile alien, beast-thing, or monster in horror fiction had such tireless staying power as these mechanical contrivances!

Another way in which horror fiction and erotic fiction parallel one another is that both invite audiences, whether readers or moviegoers, to become voyeurs. Audiences are invited to observe, or even to participate, vicariously, through identifying themselves with the stories’ protagonists, in all manner of sexual behaviors, many of them deviant or perverted.

It is important to understand that the reader or the viewer is invited, not forced, to observe and to participate in these sexual acts, for he or she (more commonly, he) is free to refuse the invitation altogether by not reading or watching the story at all; is free to stop reading or watching at any moment that he no longer wishes to accept the invitation; and is free to read or watch the story all the way through--several times over, if he likes. In any case, the reader or the moviegoer, if he does accept the invitation, does so on his own volition; therefore, he is complicit in the seduction, perversion, deviance, abuse, violation, and any other sexual behavior, even that which is immoral or even criminal, that is described on the page or depicted on the film that he, voluntarily, reads or watches.

For readers, viewers, and critics who accept the Freudian view of fiction, horror fiction is more or less an extravaganza of unconscious sexual drives centered upon anal, oral, and genital fixations, Oedipal conflicts, castration complexes, penis envy, and so forth, whereas readers, moviegoers, and critics who interpret horror fiction from a theological Judeo-Christian worldview understand such literature to assess and address human beings’ relationships to and interrelationships with one another, with nature, and with the Creator of both humanity and the universe.

This distinction between these two approaches to literary analysis and criticism points to yet another parallel between horror fiction and erotic fiction. There is a reason that, in horror fiction, as in erotic fiction, the sex that is described or depicted tends to be deviant and perverted.

King asserts that the fiction of fear--and, it might be added, of lust--is a disbelief in, or a rejection of, God--the same God, it should be remembered, who bade Adam and Eve “to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” and not to experiment with their sexual organs and orifices just to have sex for sex’s sake:
All of these [horrible and absurd] things are mentally acceptable if we accept the idea that God abdicated for a long vacation, or has perchance really expired. They are mentally acceptable, but our emotions, our spirits, and most of all our passion for order--these powerful elements of our human makeup--all rebel. If we suggest that there was no reason for the deaths of six million Jews in the camps during World War II, no reason for poets bludgeoned, old women raped, children turned into soap, that it just happened and nobody was really responsible--things just got a little out of control here, ha-ha, so sorry--then the mind begins to totter (“Horror Fiction,” 144-145).
Perhaps King is right, but, as far as lust and sex are concerned, it appears that many men and women are happy to accept horrible and absurd behavior. Almost anything between two consenting adults is considered permissible by many and desirable by some. In erotic fiction, it is rare that an initiate rejects unusual sex in favor of accepting the status quo’s censure of it.

Much more often, it seems, the protagonist is apt to follow the example of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist of Brokeback Mountain or of EugĂ©nie of The Philosophy in the Bedroom, who accept their perverted sexual experiences, rejecting the status quo’s censure of the deviant sex into which they have been initiated, or the example of the indecisive Jimmy Fergus of The Crying Game, who is reluctant to accept or reject either the deviant sexual experience into which he’s been initiated or the status quo’s censure of it.

Much less often, it appears, a protagonist rejects the perverted sex into which he or she is initiated, in favor of adhering to the status quo’s censure of the deviance, as do the lampooned Justine of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue and the pathetic, ravished adventurers Bobby Trippe and Ed Gentry of Deliverance.

If this is true, and most erotic fiction shows acceptance--or, indeed, approval--of the perversions that are part and parcel of the genre, erotic fiction’s rakes and reprobates are atheists or apostates for whom, in the absence of God, nothing is too sordid or depraved and everything sexual is sexy. Whether, if there is a God, despite their unbelief or faithlessness, they are damned is another question; however, since the monsters in horror fiction are often prompt in slaying those who act in a lewd and lascivious manner, the welfare of the promiscuous sinners of erotic fiction appears none too certain!

Note: "Sex and Horror, Part 8" will present a gallery of images from a number of movies depicting sex and horror and some final thoughts concerning this topic.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Property Value" Published By UNLV Literary Review

My short story, "Property Value," has been published in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Spring 2011 issue of its quarterly Word River Literary Review.

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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