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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fever Dream’s Opening Paragraphs (Chapters 17 through 20)

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


The opening paragraph of Chapter 17 of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Fever Dream locates the current action in New Orleans’ Tulane University, as the protagonist arrives at the school’s Health Sciences Center, downtown, on Tulane Street, to visit Miriam Kendall. The link between the building and “New York’s financial district” links the action of the novel that occurs in Louisiana with the action that occurs in New York:

The downtown campus of Tulane University Health Sciences Center, on Tulane Street, was housed with a nondescript gray skyscraper that would not have looked out o place in new York’s financial district. Pendergast exited the elevator at the thirty-first floor, made his way to the Women’s Health Division, and--after a few enquiries--found himself before the door of Miriam Kendall (90).
Chapter 18 opens upon a tempestuous note. It also allows readers another glimpse of Pendergast’s palatial plantation house, as he makes his way to his vast collection of books. The authors’ use of such words as “moaned” and “worrying,” even though they are used to describe weather conditions, keep readers in mind of the mental anguish and worry that Pendergast is undergoing concerning his late wife’s murder and his attempt to find her killer. Likewise, a sense of the novel’s ongoing conflict is discernable in Preston and Child’s use of such verbs (again relating to the weather--at least ostensibly--and not to Pendergast per se) as “thrashing” and “beat,” and the mystery surrounding Helen’s death is underscored by the authors’ reference to the “heavy, swollen clouds” that “obscured the full moon,” just as the “the remains of a bottle”--an odd adjectival phrase, certainly--is a reminder of Helen’s remains:

Pendergast said good night to Maurice and, taking the remains of a bottle of Romanee-Conti 1964 he had opened at dinner, walked down the echoing central hall of Penumbra Plantation to the library. A storm had swept north from the Gulf of Mexico and the wind moaned about the house, worrying the shutters and thrashing the bare limbs of the surrounding trees. Rain beat on the windows, and heavy, swollen clouds obscured the full moon (95).
One forgets, almost, as he or she reads the opening paragraph to Chapter 19, that the protagonist is investigating his wife’s brutal murder in Zambia nine years ago. In “Bayou Goula, Louisiana,“ as the chapter’s tagline indicates, surrounded by the trappings of a luxury hotel’s “palm-lined courtyard,” the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast sits as still as a sculpture, his pale complexion reinforcing the illusion that he is one of the “alabaster statues that framed the gracious space.” Far away are the African wilds--and the concrete jungle of New York, where his investigation occasionally takes him or his assistant, first NYPD’s Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta :

Pendergast sat in the palm-lined courtyard in front of the elegant hotel, one black-clad leg draped over the other, arms crossed, motionless as the alabaster statues that framed the gracious space. The previous night’s storm had passed, ushering in a warm and sunny day full of the false promise of spring. Before him lay a wide driveway of white gravel. A small army of valets and caddies were busy ferrying expensive cars and gleaming golf carts here and there. Beyond the driveway was a swimming pool, sparkling azure in the late-morning light, empty of swimmers but surrounded by sunbathers drinking bloody Marys. Beyond the pool lay an expensive golf course, immaculate fairways and raked bunkers, over which strolled men in the broad brown swath of the Mississippi River (99).
The “elegance” of the hotel is emphasized by the paragraph’s allusions to “a small army of valets and caddies,” “expensive cars,” “gleaming golf carts” (and a golf course), and “a swimming pool, sparkling azure in the late-morning.” Perhaps, the reader may think, Pendergast is at a resort. If so, why, though? Isn’t he determined to find who murdered his wife and to bring the killer to justice? Perhaps Pendergast is taking a break, although such conduct would be out of character for him, as the reader has come, by way of other novels in which he appears, to know him. In any case, his sudden appearance at a luxury hotel makes readers curious and, curious, they read on, confident of finding answers to these rhetorical questions which they themselves have raised, in response to the protagonist’s unusual situation. Moreover, the authors keep the tension simmering by suggesting that, although “the previous night’s storm,” which had seemed so ominous, “had passed, ushering in a warm and sunny day,” it is a day which is, nevertheless, deceptive, a “day full of the false promise of spring.”

The opening paragraph of Chapter 20, the tagline of which locates the novel’s action in “St. Francesville, Louisiana,” shows D’Agosta as a man who is out of his element. As a homicide detective, the New York City investigator, is a member of the middle-class, moral, courageous, intelligent, and loyal, but far from wealthy or sophisticated. Nevertheless, he finds himself “in front of the white-washed mansion” known (readers learn in the next paragraph) as Oakley Plantation, having arrived not in a Porsche or a Rolls-Royce, as the wealthy Pendergast might arrive, but in a “rental car.” However, more significantly, the detective is out of his element when it comes to the assignment that Pendergast has given him. On one hand, it seems “hardly more than an errand,” although, on the other hand, it involves a subject matter that is beyond his experience, relating, as it does, to “dead birds”:

D’Agosta pulled up in front of the white-washed mansion, rising in airy formality from dead flower beds and bare-branched trees. The winter sky spat rain, puddles collecting on the blacktop. He sat up in the rental car for a moment, listening to the last lousy lines of “Just You and I” on the radio, trying to overcome his annoyance a having been sent on what was hardly more than an errand. What the hell did he know about dead birds? (106)
It is obvious that D’Agosta does not relish his present assignment. He thinks it both beneath him and beyond him. The weather seems to agree, for “the winter sky,” readers observe spit “rain,” as if to indicate its derision for the detective’s present mission. This paragraph accomplishes what Preston and Child often do, involving a character in a situation for which he or she seems ill-equipped, almost invariably going on to show, during the remainder of the chapter, just how well, as a matter of fact, the character is equipped (although neither he or she nor the reader would have likely believed this to be the case at the outset of the chapter) to resolve the situation’s dilemma or problem--and, of course, D’Agosta will prove more than a match for the situation involving the ‘dead birds.” (If he were not, Pendergast would not have dispatched him to attend to it.)

Having analyzed the opening chapters of twenty of Preston and Child’s Fever Dream, or twenty-five percent of the eighty chapters of which the novel, as a whole, is comprised, I believe that I have provided a representative sample of their opening-chapter techniques, and I plan to move on to other matters. However, one additional post concerning these authors’ use of opening chapters will follow, recapitulating the authors’ accomplishments in the use of the techniques I have identified and discussed.

Until then, sweet dreams. . . .

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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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