Fascinating lists!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

News You Can Use

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Newspapers may or may not be dying, but, until they do (if they do), one of them, USA Today, as I have indicated in previous posts, provides, in its “Across the USA” column, bite-size morsels of news that horror writers can use: these tidbits provide the imaginative horror writer plenty of food for thought. Of course, you have to be a bit twisted to add the right imaginative (and imaginary) twist to these items, transforming them from prosaic fillers into storylines with potential to frighten and repulse.

Here, as in other, similar, earlier posts, are my own takes on these tidbits. (First, the tidbit; from the September 12, 2011 issue, page 8A; then, the imaginary take on it.)

Item 1: Texas: Longview -- As children, their parents dressed them in identical outfits and for 18 years they shared a bedroom. The Kent quadruplets have turned into young women who are students at East Texas Baptist University. “I’m looking forward to just growing while I’m in college,” Kinsey Kent said. “Since we aren’t together as much, we have the opportunity to grow as individuals.”
Twist: This is an interesting idea. The main question, for me, is how will the four sisters change, now that they can become themselves? Will some change for the better and some for the worse? What type of horrible transformations are in the (Tarot?) cards for these young women? Witches? (That would be an ironic possibility, given their attendance at a mainstream Christian college!) Vampires? Werewolves? This tidbit is one a horror writer can--or should be able to--really sink his or her teeth into!

Item 2: Utah: Salt Lake City -- A West Valley City man has been sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the beating death of his girlfriend. Third District Judge Judith Atherton handed down the sentence to Thomas Valdez, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in July. Police found Maralee Andreason dead on march 9, 2010, from blunt force trauma to the head.
Twist: So, he clubs her in the head, killing her, and he’s charged with murder in the first degree--and he gets off with 15 years to life--and the judge who hands down the sentence is herself a woman? Why did Thomas receive such a relatively puny sentence? What was his girlfriend like that would justify such treatment of her killer? I mean, there must have been some hellacious extenuating circumstances! Was she a witch? A vampire? A werewolf? (Probably neither of the latter two, because a club’s not going to kill a vampire or a werewolf all that easily, so the most likely scenario, of these three possibilities, is that she was a witch, but what did she do, put a curse on her boyfriend? If so, why?) There’s a story here, somewhere, and it could be a humdinger!

Item 3: Vermont: Stratton -- New York City area residents are gathering Tuesday for a fundraiser to benefit the Stratton Foundation’s Flood relief Fund. New York City escaped serious problems when Tropical Storm Irene came through, while Vermont was hit hard.
Twist: A politician should “never let a crisis go to waste,” the Democrats recently observed. What was Irene if not a crisis, if not for the Big Apple, for Vermont, at least? The fundraiser sounds noble, but when’s the last time a New Yorker was noble? Never! That suggests that New York City area residents may be raising money, but it’s probably to fund something dark and sinister. Maybe they are planning to build underground concentration camps in which to incarcerate--uh, I mean, house--pesky homeless people and are using Irene as an excuse to raise big bucks. They’ll give a smidgen of the money they raise to Vermont and keep the rest to improve the subway (by building subterranean homeless “shelters”).

Item 4: Washington: Spokane -- A 25-year-old man accused of murder was found dead in his jail cell. County Sherriff’s Sgt. David Reagan said deputies discovered Tristan Jordan on Saturday morning when they went to his cell to serve him breakfast. Cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner.
Twist: He’s locked in a cell. Let’s assume that he didn’t kill himself. What did? What could get into his locked jail cell, and how did it manage the feat? A demon? A monster that can take the form of solids, liquids, or gases, one that came through the ventilation system or the pipes, as a gas or as water, and then turned into a solid--solid steel, maybe?--and delivered a little brunt trauma to the prisoner’s head, maybe? There are other possibilities, too. Maybe he was poisoned by his jailers for some reason. Hey! I’m just saying. . . . I mean, weren’t they on their way “to his cell to serve him breakfast” when he was “found” dead?

Item 5: West Virginia: South Charleston -- State Police unveiled a 45-foot-long mobile command center that will help them manage special events and respond to disasters. It has satellite phone technology, weather radar systems, and a planning room. Its official rollout will be Oct. 15 at Bridge Day events at New River Gorge.
Twist: Are you freakin’ kidding me? A “45-foot-long mobile command center,” fully loaded with satellite technology, “weather radar systems, and a planning room”? This sucker has a mission other than the “official” one of supposedly lending a helping hand at “special events” and aiding “disaster” victims. It has “UFO Chaser” written all over it, that’s what I think. But nice try with the references to “special events” and “disasters.” The cops are hunting for spaceships and aliens--they just don’t want the state’s taxpayers to know what they’re really funding!

Item 6: Wyoming: Powell -- Weeks after Glenn French’s death, farmers gathered to harvest the fields he planted in the spring. “It’s a community effort of people who saw a need and filled it. And it’s a tribute to my brother,” Larry French said. “He was one of the kindest people I ever knew.”
Twist: What did Glenn plant, and how many acres of it is there? Is the crop marijuana, perhaps, or something more exotic, like seeds that fell out of the sky, on a meteorite that landed in the south forty a couple of years back? Maybe it’s a whole passel of man-eating plants like the one in the Little Shop of Horrors or flowers similar to H. G. Wells’ “strange orchid.” Whatever it is, it must be one hell of a crop to have managed to get the whole community to turn out, hoes in hand.

Item 7: U. S. territory: Guam -- Police arrested four men and two minors as part of an investigation into the stabbing death of three men. The adults are Benny Sam Robert, Osupwang Jery Muritok, Jeff Pedro, and Vimson Menisio.
Twist: What linked these four men (and two minors), and why did they stab three other men to death? What was in it for the killers? A common reward of some kind, or something different for each of them? Was it just money? Or maybe some deep, dark secret, maybe about the tire identities of the killers, that was best taken to the grave. Something about voodoo, maybe, or Satanism, or human sacrifice? The apocalypse is always a possibility, too, if all other ideas fail. Find the link between the killers or between the killers and their victims, and you find the story.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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