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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Learning from the Masters: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


In Chapter 47 of their latest novel, Fever Dream, authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child shed light upon their technique for creating mysterious and engaging thrillers.

To NYPD’s Captain Laura Hayward, a stand-in, at this point in the story, for the reader, who may be as mystified as to the protagonist’s actions as Hayward herself, the investigation that her boyfriend, homicide detective Lieutenant Vincent (“Vinnie”) D’Agosta, and his friend, the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, are conducting concerning the murder, twelve years ago, of Pendergast’s wife, Helen, seems to be “a typical Pendergast investigation, all hunches and blind alleys and conflicting evidence, strung together by highly questionable police work” (235).

However, from the author’s perspective (and from Hayward’s as well, once Pendergast explains his and D’Agosta’s findings to date), “the bizarre story” has “an internal logic,” for Preston and Child, of course, have plotted the story in full, in advance of their writing a single word of it. However, because they withhold relevant information from the reader, supplying key material in a piecemeal fashion, the authors deny both D’Agosta, Pendergast, and the reader the very context that the writers have had from the beginning. As a result, “the bizarre story” they tell, through Pendergast, has “an internal logic” to them, but not to the reader (or, initially, to the investigators or to Hayward, before she is clued in).

Of course, eventually, Preston and Child must allow their protagonist, with the help of D’Agosta, to figure out at least something of what is going on--in other words, to causally connect the pieces of evidence and the clues that the investigators discover--and, to gain Hayward’s confidence when he needs her to take over D’Agosta’s role as his assistant, following the lieutenant’s being gravely wounded, Pendergast shares his theory concerning the significance of the evidence:

. . . Pendergast explained his late wife’s obsession with Audubon; how they had traced her interest in the Carolina Parakeet, the Black Frame, the lost parrot, and the strange fate of the Doane family. He read her passages from the Doane girl’s diary: a chilling descent into madness. He described their encounter with Blast, another seeker of the Black Frame, himself recently murdered--as had been Helen Pendergast’s former employer at Doctors With Wings, Morris Blackletter. And finally, he explained the series of deductions and discoveries that led to the unearthing of the Black Frame itself (235).
In Fever Dream, the authors also suggest an analogy (not an especially original one, but one which is, nevertheless, illuminating) concerning their narrative technique. Due to his association with Pendergast, D’Agosta has learned, “long ago. . . to never get caught without two things: a gun and a flashlight” (138). As if the investigators were in a darkened room throughout their investigation, most of the contents of the room (the facts and clues of the investigation) are unseen (unknown, overlooked, or not understood). Therefore, facts, clues, and other pertinent information are brought to light (discovered or recognized as relevant) only a little at a time, as the flashlight’s beam (perception, comprehension, analysis, and evaluation) exposes them--and, when it does expose them, these pieces of evidence are usually not in any apparent logical or systematic order. As a result, both to the investigators and the reader at the moment that the evidence is gleaned), it may well seem that the investigators are, indeed, pursuing “hunches,” following “blind alleys,” and collecting “conflicting evidence” blindly and haphazardly. It is only after they have gathered the evidence, determined its significance, and interpreted its meaning that D’Agosta and Prendergast (mostly Pendergast) can develop a theory that fully illuminates their findings so that their work (or their “bizarre story”) begins to have “an internal logic.”

In his discussion with Hayward at his estate, following D’Agosta’s grave injury, Pendergast, in fact, models his method, deducing the meaning (and thereby providing the explanation for) “the central mystery of the case, the birds,” linking Audubon’s illness (the cause of his genius as a painter) to Helen’s discovery of the same link between Audubon’s genius and his sickness:

“And all she wanted with the painting was confirmation for this theory?” [Hayward asks Pendergast].

Pendergast nodded. “That painting is the link between Audubon’s early, indifferent work and his later brilliance. It’s proof of the transition he underwent. But that doesn’t quite get to the central mystery in this case: the birds.”

Hayward frowned. “The birds?”

“The Carolina Parakeets. The Doane parrot.”

Hayward herself had been puzzling over the connection to Audubon’s illness, to no avail. “And?”

Pendergast sipped his coffee. “I believe we’re dealing with a strain of avian flu.”

“Avian flu? You mean, bird flu?”

“That, I believe, is the disease that laid Audubon low, that nearly killed him, and that was responsible for his creative flowering. His symptoms--high fever, headache, delirium, cough--are all consistent with flu. A flu he no doubt caught dissecting a Carolina Parakeet” (236).
Nor is Pendergast through with demonstrating his powers of deduction, for he next links the birds to the Doane family’s artistic brilliance and the madness to which they later succumbed, citing significant “similarities” between the family’s behavior and Audubon’s own conduct:

“But all that still doesn’t explain how those parakeets [the Carolina Parakeet specimens Helen stole from the Audubon collection] are linked to the Doane family” [Hayward declares to Pendergast].

“It’s quite simple” [Pendergast explains]. The Doanes were sickened by the same disease that struck Audubon.”

“What makes you say that?”

“There are simply too many similarities, Captain, for anything else to make sense. The sudden flowering of creative brilliance. Followed by mental dissolution. Too many similarities--and Helen knew it. That’s why she went to get the bird from them [the Doanes]” (237).
He is also certain that Helen had known the same cause-and-effect relationship between the birds and the flowering genius (and madness) of both Audubon and the Doane family, which is why she visited the museum housing specimens of birds personally preserved by Audubon and why she visited the Doane family, stealing both museum specimens and the parrot that the Doane family had found and adopted as a pet. Helen had meant, Pendergast contends, to “extract from them [the birds] a live sample” of the avian virus, both to “keep it from spreading” and “to test it. . . to confirm her suspicions” that the virus was what had caused the artist’s and family members’ artistic genius and subsequent madness. Helen’s knowledge is attested to, Pendergast says, by the precautions she had taken to avoid infecting herself with the virus:

“. . . She wore leather gloves, and she stuffed the bird and its cage into a garbage bag. Why? Initially, I assumed the bag was simply for concealment. But it was to keep herself and her car from contamination” [Pendergast tells Hayward].

“And the leather gloves?’

“Worn no doubt to conceal a pair of medical gloves beneath. Helen was trying to remove a viral vector from the human population. No doubt the bird, cage, and bag were all incinerated--after she’d taken the necessary samples, of course” (237-38).
Preston and Child do not merely have characters discuss past investigative findings. The authors also use dialogue between their characters to present rhetorical questions pertaining to as-yet-undiscovered aspects and implications of the investigation, as in this exchange between Pendergast and Hayward, wherein the reader is advised, as it were, of three other, related questions implicit in the case:

“Isn’t there another question you’re forgetting?” Hayward asked.

Pendergast looked at her.

“You say Helen stole the parrots Audubon studied--the ones that supposedly sickened him. Helen also visited the Doane family and stole their parrot--because, as you also say, she knew it was infected. By inference, Helen is the common thread that binds the two events. So aren’t you curious what role she might have had in the sequencing and inoculation?” (238)
Masters of their craft, Preston and Child show how, in skilled hands, authors can provide data without context, piece together a theory that, using deductive and inductive reasoning to analyze causes and effects and to infer implications concerning the significance and meaning of such evidence, explains criminal undertakings and their perpetrators’ motives and goals while, at the same time, keeping unresolved questions that are important to the developing case before the reader’s mind. Whether an aspiring author writes horror fiction or thrillers, he or she can learn a good deal from the example of such masterful storytellers.

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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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