Fascinating lists!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

G. K. Chesterton‘s “The Angry Street”: An Analysis

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
What is an altar but a table made sacred by convention and design?
The first-person narrator begins his story with a surprising statement: he is unable, he says, to recall “whether this tale is true or not”; he follows it with an even more remarkable declaration, stating that he believes that the incidents that he is about to commit to paper “happened to me before I was born.”

Having captured his readers’ attention with these statements, he next begins to relate the narrative proper, hinting at the fact that it involves “atmosphere.” A number of men, all of whom are in a hurry, are seated at lunch, each with one eye upon the clock. The narrator is among them, and, into their company enters another who is dressed as they are, in gentleman’s attire, but who, unlike the others, shows a reverence for the things about him, including his “long frock coat,” his top hat, the peg upon which he hangs his hat, “the wooden chair” in which he sits and the table at which he sits. As soon as he is seated across from the narrator, he begins a “monologue.” At first, the narrator considers him “ordinary,” but is soon disturbed by the other’s gaze, which he describes as that “of a maniac.”

The odd man’s odd manner and the odd thing that he next says continue to intrigue readers. “I thought,” he says, “that another of them had gone wrong,” by which, he clarifies, he means another street. For over forty years, he explains, he has traveled the same street, walking it in the same manner. It is not a long street, he observes; walking it takes him no more than “four and a half minutes.” However, he recently took his usual stroll and found it to be not only tiring but also to have taken him longer. The street also climbed a hill, which it had never done before. The curious gentleman guessed that he had perhaps “turned down the wrong” street, despite the many years during which he has made the same journey “like clockwork.” However, as he continued his walk, it became clear to him, by the landmarks he passed, that the street was, in fact, the one that he customarily traveled. As he continued his walk, the street, instead of turning, as it had always done before, veered steeply, “straight in front of” his “face,” ascending a sharp, long upward slope that caused him to nearly fall “on the pavement.” The street, he found, had “lifted itself like a single wave, and yet every speck and detail of it was the same.” At the very summit of the street, he was able to see the “name over” his “paper shop,” as if the sign were atop “an Alpine pass.”

Quite perplexed and more than a little frightened, the pedestrian was even more astonished when, peering through “the iron trap of a coal-hole” in the street, which had now assumed the aspect of “a long iron bridge into empty space,” he “saw empty space and the stars.” When he looked up again, he saw another man, who was “leaning over the railings,” staring at the hiker, to whom the man seemed to be “not of this world,” despite his “dark and ordinary” attire and the pedestrian’s sense that he had just come out of one of the “grey row of private houses” along the “nightmare road.” The sense of the stranger’s otherworldliness is intensified by the “stars behind his head,” which appear “larger and fiercer than ought to be endured by the eyes of men.”

Calling upon the stranger, whom the traveler supposes may be either an “kind angel” of a “wise devil,” to tell him what has become of the street, which, he identifies as “Bumpton Street, which “goes to Oldgate Station.” The stranger’s reply is bizarre (and, therefore, intriguing to the story’s readers): “It goes there sometimes, Just now, however, it is going to heaven” to seek justice for the traveler’s mistreatment of it. The neglect, the stranger informs the pedestrian, lies in the traveler’s ignoring of the street that he has used (and taken for granted) for over forty years: the street, he says, “has grown tired” of the traveler’s “insolence, and it is bucking and rearing its head toward heaven.”

The pedestrian expresses his opinion that the stranger’s talk is mad; it is “nonsense,” he argues, to imagine that a street should be offended or that it should go anywhere other than where it has always led before. To the stranger’s question as to whether the traveler has ever wondered whether the street has taken him for granted, supposing him to be a non-living thing among things, the traveler has no answer. However, he confides to the story’s narrator that he has “since. . . respected the things called inanimate!” and he bows “slightly to the mustard-pot” as he takes his leave of the restaurant.

This is a short-short story. It is an odd one, certainly, as well. Among younger readers, it is apt to seem not only strange but also absurd. Some older readers, however, will comprehend the story’s theme. Because they are created by men and women, objects of art and craft are, as artifacts of design and manufacture, each with an aesthetic or a utilitarian purpose, are invested with a significance beyond their importance as mere products of technology; they are imbued with the spirit of their manufacturers. They are humanized by virtue of the fact that they are made by men and women. In that sense, they have “souls,” a point that Chesterton makes in his essay “A Piece of Chalk” as well as in this story.

If one considers a coat, a hat, a chair, a table, a mustard-pot, or a street not as a simple coat or hat, table or chair, or mustard-pot, but as an artifact designed for service or aesthetic enrichment and as a work into which a man or a woman has poured not only his or her art and craft, knowledge and skill, experience and passion, as if he or she were fashioning a gift to others as well as an expression of his or her own heart, such seemingly commonplace objects would be regarded with the respect--indeed, the reverence--that the “kind angel” or “;wise demon” suggests that they should be accorded, rather than being taken for granted and ignored.

Were the things that people make for themselves and others rightly regarded, Chesterton suggests, in “A Piece of Chalk,” it would be possible to write a book of poetry, of epic length and grandeur, about the things that one finds in his pocket or her purse. This story, absurd on its face, uses the absurdity that it generates to skew everyday reality, as represented by the street and by the restaurant and the things that each contains, so that these ordinary, everyday places and objects take on strange appearances and become, as it were, visible to readers who, in the course of their own everyday lives, are apt to dismiss their surroundings and to take things for granted much as the pedestrian in “The Angry Street” does.

By making the ordinary appear, for a moment, extraordinary, Chesterton helps his readers to see the extraordinary quality and value of the ordinary and the remarkable nature of the commonplace. Such is no mean feat, and Chesterton’s accomplishment of it in “The Mean Street” makes this story remarkable, indeed.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Exorcist: A Marriage of Spirit and Matter in the Style of William Peter Blatty

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, has an eccentric style that is marked by his tendency to create similes and metaphors that unite concrete and abstract terms. This practice is so commonplace in his novel as to indicate that it is more than merely a technique; it is essential to his narrative voice and, therefore, part of both his novel’s point of view and its theme.

In just the prologue to his novel, he includes the following tropes, each of which combines the physical and the spiritual, the literal and the figurative, the concrete and the abstract: a “premonition clung to his [Father Merrin’s] back like chill wet leaves” (3); “tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped” (3); “he dusted the thought like a clay-fresh find but could not tag it” 4); “slippers, [the] groaning backs [of which] pressed under his heels” (4); “shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living” (4); “The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt” (4); “a splintered table the color of sadness” (5); “he waited, feeling at the stillness” (5); “the fractured rooftops of Erbil hovered far in the distance, poised in the clouds like a rubbled, mud-stained benediction” (5); “it [“safety” and “a sense of protection and deep well-being”] dwindled in the distance with the fast-moving jeep” (5); “some dry, tagged whisper of the past” (5-6); “its dominion was sickness and disease” (6); “the bloody dust of its predestination” (7-8); “icy conviction” (8).

What, one may ask, does Blatty gain, as an artist, by mixing the sensual and the ideal, the real and the intangible, the concrete and the abstract? The author himself offers a clue, in his novel’s prologue:
The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted snows caked thick with debris of the pain of living. The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter; yet somehow finally spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other (4).
This paragraph suggests that Father Merrin does not view reality in dualistic terms, as consisting of matter and of spirit, both of which are real. Rather, he is a monist, someone who believes that reality consists of only one essential element, although this element can appear to have two distinct expressions, that of matter and that of spirit. Truly understood, however, each is a mere shadow, as it were, of the one, true “stuff,” which is “more fundamental” and “totally other,” which is, in religious terms God. According to his faith as a Catholic, God is omnipresent, or everywhere present at once; therefore, the Spirit of God penetrates, if it does not actually embody, all things, shoes and “spirit” alike. If matter and spirit, like matter and energy, are interchangeable with one another, the body which housed a human soul in the distant past may now be mere bones, an artifact among other artifacts, as Blatty’s inclusion of human bones in his catalogue of other relics at the outset of the novel’s prologue indicates:
The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics and phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots. Nothing exceptional. An Assyrian ivory toilet box. And man. The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that had once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God. And yet now he knew better. . . (3-4).
The “he” in the final sentence of this paragraph might seem ambiguous: does it refer to Father Merrin or to humanity? Is it an individual or a universal perspective, the understanding that human skeletal remains do not signify a Lucerfarian “upward-groping back to. . . God?” The ambiguity is resolved almost as soon as it arises, if it does, in fact, arise at all, by the context of the paragraph in which the personal pronoun appears, for the paragraph speaks not of the priest, but of humanity: “he,” therefore, refers to “man,” not to Father Merrin, whose own point of view is very different, as one may already have discerned, than the worldview implied by metaphysical dualism, which sees both matter and spirit as opposite, if not opposing, realities, whereas Father Merrin sees them as both but “aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other,” or as expressions or, perhaps, indications of a transcendent divinity.

Blatty’s mixing of the concrete and the abstract also has the effect of making the latter seem more substantial, even more sensual, that it might be if it were linked, in simile or metaphor, with other abstract, rather than with concrete, terms. A “premonition” that clings to one’s “back like chill wet leaves” can be felt: it is thick and wet, clammy and cold; a “tell” that has “entrails” is a living thing--or, perhaps, a once-living thing, murdered by the archaeologists as much as by time, in order that it might be dissected, and its ancient artifacts, including the “bones” of “man” examined and catalogued; “stillness” that can be felt at is tangible, indeed.

By mixing the concrete and the abstract, Blatty breathes life, as it were, into dry and withered concepts and sensations, giving them flesh of sensual qualities that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched; at the same time, his marriage of matter and spirit suggests the monistic metaphysics that Father Merrin believes expresses the reality of a wholly “other” God who transcends both and yet, paradoxically, somehow also brings the two “aspects” of reality and, indeed, of divinity, together in himself, just as, in the same cosmic sense, Jesus Christ brings matter--the flesh--and spirit together as the incarnation of God.

It is the notion that God is not physical or spiritual, but other, that Father Karras has not yet understood. Therefore, for him, the physical and the fleshly aspects of human existence are grotesque and offensive, as is seen in Father Karras’ reaction to a homeless man, whom he sees as vile. Karras has come, of late, to doubt his faith, partly because of the concrete embodiment of sin in human flesh and partly because of the reality of evil, which is also often associated with the physical and corporeal aspects of existence, or reality. The priest sees the decadence of sin in the person of a homeless man who pleads with him for alms:
. . . He could not bear to search for Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be. . . (51).
Father Karras seems to equate human existence, or its fleshly aspect, at least, with evil:
A harried man with many appointments, the Provincial had not pressed him for the reasons for his doubt. For which Karras was grateful. He knew that his answers would have sounded insane: The need to rend food with the teeth and then defecate. . . . Stinking socks. Thalidomide babies. An item in a paper about a young altar boy waiting at a bus stop: set on by strangers; sprayed with kerosene; ignited. . . (54).
He has not yet attained the epiphany that Father Merrin has experienced. Once, like Father Karras, the older, in some ways worldlier Father Merrin found it difficult to love his neighbor as himself and to see in the human face and form the image and likeness of God; he has since overcome this stumbling block to faith, just as he has come to understand that evil is an offense to the goodness of God, not a quality inherent in mere matter or fleshly existence:
. . . The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma. Once he could not have loved this man (3).
Indeed, it might be argued that Father Merrin has come to love the downtrodden and the oppressed because of their suffering, because of the evil in the world. Unlike Father Karras, who believes that demons are merely personifications of various evils, Father Merrin knows that the “Legion” of demons that claim to haunt Regan MacNeil are lying, that “there is only one,” the enemy of God, for Father Merrin has encountered--indeed, has fought--him before, in the guise of the demon Pazuzu and knows that the true identity of the demon represented by the idol with the “ragged wings; taloned feet; bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin” is none other than Satan himself, the source and living embodiment of evil.

Father Karras is a materialist--or is in danger of becoming one. As such, he is obsessed with the physical, the fleshly, disease, and death; he is close to believing that only matter is real; and he has come to believe that evil is explainable in natural terms, as the effects of organic malformations of the brain or other physiological abnormalities.

Father Merrin, as a monist, accepts both the material, including the fleshly, and the spiritual as real, believing them to be but two aspects of a higher, unknowable “stuff” that is “totally other” than either of them and that evil is essentially nothing more than an offense to God. He is able to love Regan, despite the horrific onslaught of the demon--or the devil--who assaults her from within, often by the vilest and most corporeal means available to him--Regan’s own body.

Father Karras, on the other hand, is reluctant to seek “Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement.” It is only after he understands that God is beyond good and evil but is himself the essence of love that Father Karras can love Regan, in all her humanity, the way that Father Merrin has come to love human beings, whether a Kurd or the daughter of an actress who is temporarily residing in Georgetown. It is then that Father Karras can be the exorcist he has been called upon to be and can deliver the child whose body has been both a source of demonic violation of a temple of the Holy Spirit and a stumbling block to his own faith.

By mixing the concrete with the abstract in the peculiar similes and metaphors that appear frequently throughout his novel, Blatty brings together the material and the spiritual, making the former seem as tangible as the latter and suggesting one of his novel’s themes, which is that both aspects of reality find resolution, if not synthesis, in a higher, “totally other” form of being.

Source of quotations: Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

William Peter Blatty: Opening and Closing Sentences

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

The Exorcist is destined to become a classic of horror fiction. Its theme--the love of God surpasses both the problem of evil and human knowledge, depending upon trust in God, or faith--and the execution of this theme in and through William Peter Blatty’s narrative make the novel a book not for its day only but for all time. Like most other books whose importance transcends its own time, The Exorcist also happens to be adroitly written, as just the opening and closing lines of each of its major divisions indicate; Blatty knows how to create, maintain, and heighten suspense, both by the use of situations, foreshadowing, and cliffhangers.

The structure of Blatty’s novel also suggests how he saw the configuration or makeup of the corrodible event--itself comprised of other horrible incidents--of which his book is ostensibly a record or account. As such, it is instructive for those who want to ensure that the structures of their own novels enhance the effect of the horrors their books narrate.

Prologue: Northern Iraq

The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them.

He hastened toward Mosul and his train, his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would face an ancient enemy.

I: The Beginning


Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.

What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.


He stood at the edge of the lonely subway platform, listening for the rumble of a train that would still the ache that was always with him.

He rushed for the seven-ten train back to Washington, carrying pain in a black valise.


Early on the morning of April 11, Chris made a telephone call to her doctor in Los Angeles and asked him for a referral to a local psychiatrist for Regan.

There were no disturbances. That night.


She greeted her guests in a lime-green hostess costume with long, belled sleeves and pants.

The mattress of the bed was quivering violently back and forth.

II: The Edge


They brought her to an ending in a crowded cemetery where the gravestones cried for breath.

His orders were to “rest.”


Regan lay on her back on Klein’s examination table, arms and legs bowed outwards.

No one noticed.


The consulting neurologist pinned up the X-rays again and searched for indentations which would look as if the skull had been pounded like copper with a tiny hammer.

Wherever Sharon moved, Regan would follow.


Friday, April 29. While Chris waited in the hall outside the bedroom, Dr. Klein and a noted neuropsychiatrist were examining Regan.

Burke Denning’s head was turned completely around, facing backward.


Cupped in the warm, green hollow of the campus, Damien Karras jogged alone around an oval, loamy track in khaki shorts and a cotton T-shirt drenched with the cling of healing sweat.

She screamed until she fainted.

III: The Abyss


She was standing on the Key Bridge walkway, arms on the parapet, fidgeting, waiting, while homeward traffic stuttered thickly behind her, while drivers with everyday cares honked horns and bumpers nudged bumpers with scraping indifference.

“Perhaps we could now have a talk. . . .”


Karras threaded tape to an empty reel in the office of the rotund, silver-haired director of the Institute of Languages and Linguistics.

He continued his farewells.

IV. “And Let My Cry Come Unto Thee. . . ”


In the breathing dark of his quiet office, Kindemann brooded above his desk.

The river flowed quiet again, reaching for a gentler shore.


Late June sunlight streamed through the window of Chris’s bedroom.

In forgetting, they were trying to remember.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”: Shirley Jackson on The Problem of Evil

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

One way to gain insight concerning horror writers’ fiction and the techniques that the writers of such literature employ is to study actual specimens of the genre. Chillers and Thrillers has already examined such stories in some detail, including H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” and Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-man.” In addition, Chillers and Thrillers has considered the film The Descent and Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome in thorough detail. As a result of these studies (and others that are note quite as detailed), much concerning the art of writing horror fiction has been learned and shared. Perhaps these studies have also suggested the critical tools, techniques, theories, and approaches that one can take, on his or her own, to better understand the tricks of the trade. Chillers and Thrillers will continue to “murder” these stories in order “to dissect” them, so that this blog’s faithful followers and occasional readers can gain and share whatever insights Chillers and Thrillers may offer, beginning with Shirley Jackson’s masterful tale, “An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.”

Her story opens as the omniscient narrator introduces the unlikely protagonist, Mr. John Philip Johnson, sharing with the story’s readers Johnson’s view of the world. It is unduly optimistic--naively optimistic, one might suggest--like that of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, whose view of the universe as representing, despite its moral and ontological limitations, “the best of all possible worlds,” an optimism that is attacked, quite effectively, each in his own way, by writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne (“Young Goodman Brown”), Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (Candide), and the Marquis de Sade.(Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue). Leibnitz’s view of the world is assailed, again, in part, by Jackson, in “An Ordinary Day.”

Mr. Johnson’s view of the world is (or, at least seems to be) much like that of Voltaire. Johnson, like the philosopher who wrote “Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil,” apparently believes that this is “the best of all possible worlds” (although, as readers will soon learn, appearances of belief, as of appearances otherwise, can be deceiving). Jackson, through her narrator, supplies hints that her protagonist’s ostensible optimism may not be supported by the actual state of the world. For example, he has had to have his shoes resoled, and this “resoling” suggests that the universe is not the perfect place that it may, at times, appear to be, for the fact that Mr. Johnson’s soles have worn out, needing to be replaced, suggests that good things even as trivial as the soles of shoes--and, perhaps, as significant as the souls of men and women--can degrade. This intimation of entropy, of erosion, of gradual degradation, if not of evil, is reinforced by the narrator’s reference to the sidewalk upon which Mr. Johnson steps as he leaves home as being “dirty” and by the narrator’s observation that only “some” of the people at whom Mr. Johnson smiles bother to return his smile.

Although his kindness wins them over, at first, other characters are not nearly as trusting of Mr. Johnson as he seems to be of them. When he offers a child the carnation he has bought for his lapel, the baby’s mother studies him “for a minute” before smiling at him, as her innocent child has done, upon the receipt of the flower, suggesting that she, having experience of the world, does not, unlike her child, automatically trust strangers bearing gifts. This mother’s initial distrust of Mr. Johnson is mirrored, a few moments later, by another mother’s suspicion of him when he offers to watch her child for her while she tends to the men who are moving her furniture. (The rest of the small crowd gathered at the scene are more interested in inspecting her worn furniture than they are in lending her a hand.) Her suspicion--she “turned and glared at him distrustfully”--prompts him to add, “We'll sit right here on the steps.” The child, a boy, is allowed to go to Mr. Johnson, who offers the lad a “handful of peanuts” from his pocket. The boy initially refuses the offered peanuts because “his mother did not allow him to accept food from strangers.” While the mother supervises the movers, Mr. Johnson reassures the boy that he will like his new home in Vermont. As he goes about town, having chosen a random route (“he did not follow the same route every morning, but preferred to pursue his eventful way in wide detours, more like a puppy than a man intent upon business”), Mr. Johnson does one good turn after another to all whom he encounters, including animals: he feeds a peanut to “a stray dog” he encounters on his way.

Jackson’s narrator frequently advises readers of how good Mr. Johnson himself feels, possibly as a result of his optimism and possibly as a result of the good deeds that he does. For example, as he sets out from home, at the beginning of the story, “Mr. John Philip Johnson shut his front door behind him and went down his front steps into the bright morning with a feeling that all was well with the world on this best of all days, and wasn't the sun warm and good,” and, after he watches the woman’s son, he steps “happily. . . Feeling the warm sun on his back and on the top of his head.”

He matches two young people who are too much in a hurry and too concerned with work to live their lives, paying them for the day they will miss by going on a date, the expenses of which Mr. Johnson pays in advance. He continues to offer peanuts to those whom he meets--a gull, a panhandler, a bus driver--and advises a couple who are seeking an apartment to rent of the vacancy left by the mother and son who have moved to Vermont. (This act is especially helpful in such big cities as New York, in which finding any apartment is difficult.) His good deeds continue until it is time for him to return home:
After his lunch he rested; he walked into the nearest park and fed peanuts to the pigeons. It was late afternoon by the time he was ready to start back downtown, and he had refereed two checker games, and watched a small boy and girl whose mother had fallen asleep and awakened with surprise and fear that turned to amusement when she saw Mr. Johnson. He had given away almost all of his candy, and had fed all the rest of his peanuts to the pigeons; and it was time to go home. Although the late afternoon sun was pleasant, and his shoes were still entirely comfortable, he decided to take a taxi downtown.
On his way home, he saves a taxi driver from losing money on a horserace. After the driver agrees to take the money home to his wife that a fare had given him to bet on a horse, Mr. Johnson gives the driver another ten dollars to bet on a different horse on another day, convincing the driver that astrological signs are against the horse winning the race that the driver has been tipped about the horse’s winning.

Finally, arriving back at his apartment, Mr. Johnson is greeted by his wife. They enquire as to one another’s day. He tells her that his has not been difficult; hers, she says, has been only “so-so.” She then recites the incidents of her day: she “accused” a woman at a department store “of shoplifting,” “sent three dogs to the pound,” “quarreled” with a bus driver and complained about his conduct to his supervisors. Based upon Mr. Johnson’s kind and considerate behavior throughout the day, readers are apt to think that Mr. Johnson would be horrified by his wife’s conduct. Therefore, his reaction comes as something of a shock. “Fine,” he says, and then, observing that she looks “tired,” suggests that they “change over tomorrow”--in other words, she will play the angel to his devil.

The story ends upon the same sort of commonplace note with which it began, as Mr. Johnson, enquiring as to what is for dinner and told “veal cutlet,” replies, “Had it for lunch.” The ordinariness of the lives of this couple, each of whom does good or evil in the course of their daily lives and is able, by a mere act of the will, to alternate between these modes of conduct enhances the story’s horrific quality, for it suggests that anyone and everyone--people as seemingly normal and ordinary as Mr. Johnson and his wife--can be either good or evil, or, indeed, both, and the duality of all human beings as agents, simultaneously, of both good and evil is the message of Jackson’s story. Men and women, Jackson suggests, are capable of choosing to be good or evil--or, at least, to act in good or evil ways. They have free will.

Her story suggests how much good or evil can be done by seemingly insignificant acts of kindness or malice. Mr. Johnson’s matching of the young couple might result in a happy, lifelong marriage between a young woman and a young man who, before, were in much too great a rush to earn a living to appreciate life or, indeed, themselves or other people, just as Mrs. Johnson’s accusation (perhaps unfounded) of a shopper’s theft could become a lifelong impediment to the individual, should a conviction result, in seeking employment or retaining a position. Obviously, most people would agree that it is better to do good than to do evil, but, Jackson’s story also suggests that, given the choice of behaving one way or the other, most people choose to behave both ways, either simultaneously or alternately, and that those who are suspicious of other people’s seemingly good intentions may, therefore, have good reason, indeed, to be suspicious. To choose to do good only at times is to choose to do evil, for to truly choose to do good would mean to renounce evil entirely--something that people do not seem to want to do or, perhaps, to be capable of doing.

Readers may be reminded of the lesson that Goodman Brown learns in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown,” that all men and women are both good and evil; that sin is innate and inescapable; and that all human deeds, therefore, are, even when good, tainted with evil. It is this theme, the idea of original sin, that Leibnitz’s optimistic philosophy ignores and that Jackson’s story, like “Young Goodman Brown,” Candide, and Justine; or, The Misfortunes of Virtue ultimately underscores.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Guest Speaker: Tzvetan Todorov

The following are excerpt from Todorov's "The Uncanny and the Marvelous":

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from “reality” as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre [than that of 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 (Tzvetan Todorov, “The Uncanny and the Marvelous” in Literature of the Occult: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Peter B. Messent. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981. 17. Print).

Indeed, we generally distinguish, within the literary Gothic, two tendencies: that of the supernatural explained (the “uncanny”). . . and that of the supernatural accepted (the “marvelous”) (Todorov, 17). [By definition, Todorov views “the novels of Clara Reeves and Ann Radcliffe” as uncanny, but sees “the works of Horace Walpole, M. G. Lewis, and Maturin” as marvelous.]

. . . The marvelous corresponds to an unknown phenomenon, never seen as yet, still to come--hence to a future; in the uncanny, on the other hand, we refer the inexplicable to known facts, to a previous experience, and thereby to the past. As for the fantastic itself, the hesitation which characterizes it cannot be situated, by and large, except in the present (Todorov, 18).

Yet it would be wrong to claim that the fantastic can exist only in part of a work, for here are certain texts which sustain their ambiguity to the very end, i. e., even beyond the narrative itself. The book closed, the ambiguity persists. A remarkable example is supplied by Henry James’ tale “The Turn of the Screw,” which does not permit us to determine finally whether ghosts haunt the old estate, or whether we are confronted by hallucinations or a hysterical governess victimized by the disturbing atmosphere which surrounds her. In French literature, Merimee’s tale “La Venus d’Ille” affords a perfect example of this ambiguity. A statue seems to come alive and to kill the bridegroom; but we remain at the point of “seems,” and never reach certainty (Todorov, 19).

We find that. . . a transitory sub-genre appears: between the fantastic and the uncanny on the one hand, between the fantastic and the marvelous on the other[:]

. . . In. . . [the]. . . sub-genre [of the fantastic-uncanny] events that seem supernatural throughout a story receive a rational explanation at its end. . . . Criticism has described, and often condemned, this type under the label of “the supernatural explained” (Todorov, 20). [An example of the fantastic-uncanny sub-genre is The Saragossa Manuscript, in which the possibility of the supernatural as a cause of the events is slowly and continuously “eroded” in various ways, to wit:] first, accident or coincidence. . . ; next, dreams. . . ; then the influence of drugs. . . ; tricks and prearranged apparitions. . . ; illusion of the senses. . . ; and lastly madness (Todorov, 20-21).

. . . Indeed, the realistic solutions given in The Saragossa Manuscript or “Ines de las Sierras” are altogether improbable; supernatural solutions would have been, on the contrary, quite probable. . . . The probable is therefore not necessarily opposed to the fantastic: the former is a category that deals with internal coherence, with submission to the genre; the fantastic refers to an ambiguous perception shared by the reader and one of the characters. Within the genre of the fantastic, it is probable that “fantastic” reactions will occur (Todorov, 21).

. . . There also exists the uncanny in the pure state. In works that belong to this genre, events are related which may be readily accounted for by the laws of reason, but which are, in one way or another, incredible, extraordinary or unexpected, and which thereby provoke in the character and in the reader a reaction similar to that which works of the fantastic have made familiar. . . . The literature of horror in its pure state belongs to the uncanny--many examples from the stories of Ambrose Bierce could serve as examples here (Todorov, 22-23).

The uncanny realizes. . . only one of the conditions of the fantastic: the description of certain reactions, especially of fear. It is uniquely linked to the sentiments of the characters and not to a material event defying reason. (The marvelous, by way of contrast, may be characterized by the mere presence of supernatural events, without implicating the reaction they provoke in the characters) (Todorov, 22).

Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an instance of the uncanny bordering on the fantastic (Todorov, 22).

Here [in “The Fall of the House of Usher”] the uncanny has two sources. The first is constituted by two coincidences (there are as many of these as in a work of the supernatural explained). Although the resurrection of Usher’s sister and the fall of the house after the death of the inhabitants may appear supernatural, Poe has not failed to supply quite rational explanations for both events [a fissure in the edifice and catalepsy, respectively] (Todorov, 23).

The other series of elements that provoke the sense of the uncanny is not linked to the fantastic but to what we might call “an experience of limits,” which characterizes the whole of Poe’s oeuvre. . . . In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it is the extremely morbid condition of the brother and sister which disturbs the reader. In other tales, scenes of cruelty, delight in evil, and murder will provoke the same effect. The sentiment of the uncanny originates, then, in certain themes linked to more or less ancient taboos. If we grant that primeval experience is constituted by transgression, we can accept Freud’s theory as to the origin of the uncanny [as representing a resurfacing, or return, of the suppressed] (Todorov, 23).

Thus the fantastic is ultimately excluded from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As a rule we do not find the fantastic in Poe’s works, in the strict sense, with the exception perhaps of “The Black Cat.” His tales almost all derive their effects from the uncanny, and several from the marvelous. Yet Poe remains very close to the authors of the fantastic both in his themes and in the techniques that he applies (Todorov, 29).

. . . It has often been remarked. . . that for the reading public, detective stories have in our time replaced ghost stories. Let us consider the nature of the relationship. The murder mystery, in which we try to discover the identity of the criminal, is constructed in the following manner: on the one hand there are several easy solutions, initially tempting but turning out, one after another, to be false; on the other, there is an entirely improbable solution disclosed only at the end and turning out to be the only right one. Here we see what brings the detective story close to the fantastic tale. . . . The fantastic narrative, too, involves two solutions, one probable and supernatural, the other improbable and rational.

It suffices, therefore, that in the detective story this second solution be so inaccessible as to “defy reason” for us to accept the existence of the supernatural rather than to rest with the absence of any explanation at all. A classic example of this situation is Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. [However, the detective story is an example of the uncanny, for] the detective story, once it is over, leaves no doubt as to the absence of supernatural events. The relationship, moreover, is valid only for a certain type of detective story (the “sealed room”) and a certain type of uncanny narrative (the ‘supernatural explained”). Further, the emphasis differs in the two genres: in the detective story, the emphasis is placed on the solution to the mystery; in the texts linked to the uncanny (as in the fantastic narrative), the emphasis is on the reactions which this mystery provokes (Todorov, 24).

. . . As a result of [the epilogue to John Dickson Carr’s detective novel] . . . The Burning Court [the novel] emerges from the class of detective stories that simply evoke the supernatural, to join the ranks of the fantastic. We see Marie once again, in her house, thinking over the case; and the fantastic re-emerges. Marie asserts once again (to the reader) that she is indeed the poisoner, that the detective was her in fact her friend (which is not untrue), and that he has provided the entire rational explanation in order to save her. . . (Todorov, 25-26).

[In The Burning Court] the world of the non-dead reclaims its rights, and the fantastic with it: we are thrown back on our hesitation as to which solution to choose. . . (Todorov, 26).

If we move to the other side of that median line we have called the fantastic, we find ourselves in the fantastic-marvelous, the class of narrative that are separated as fantastic and that end with an acceptance of the supernatural (Todorov, 26).

Gautier’ “La Morte Amoureuse” can serve as an example [of the fantastic-marvelous] (Todorov, 26).

A similar example is to be found in Villiers de I’Isle-Adam’s “Vera.” Here again, throughout the tale, we may hesitate between believing in life-after-death or thinking that the count who so believes is mad. But at the end, the count discovers the key to Vera’s tomb, though he himself had flung it into the tomb; it must therefore be Vera, his dead wife, who has brought it to him (Todorov, 27).

There exists, finally, a form of the marvelous in the pure state. . . . It is not an attitude [on the part of either reader or character] toward the events described which characterizes the marvelous, but the nature of these events (28).

We generally link the genre of the marvelous to that of the fairy tale. But as a matter of fact, the fairy tale is only one of the varieties of the marvelous, and the supernatural events in fairy tales provoke no surprise. . . . What distinguishes the fairy tale is a certain kind of writing, not the status of the supernatural. Hoffman’s tales illustrate this difference perfectly: “The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King,” “The Strange Child,” and “The King’s Bride” belong, by stylistic properties, to the fairy tale. “The Choice of the Bride,” while preserving the same status with respect to the supernatural, is not a fairy tale at all. One would also have to characterize the Arabian Nights as marvelous tales rather than fairy tales. . . (Todorov, 28).

In order to delimit the marvelous in the pure state, it is convenient to isolate it from several types of narrative in which the supernatural is somewhat justified (Todorov, 28).

1. We may speak first of all of hyperbolic marvelous. In it, phenomena are supernatural only by virtue of their dimensions, which are superior to those that are familiar to us. Thus in the Arabian Nights Sinbad the Sailor declares he has seen “fish one hundred and even two hundred ells long” or “serpents so great and so long that there is not one which could not have swallowed an elephant” (Todorov, 28).

2. Quite close to this first type of the marvelous is the exotic marvelous. In this type, supernatural events are reported without being presented as such. The implicit reader is supposed to be ignorant of the regions where the events take place, and consequently he has no reason for calling them into question. Sinbad’s second voyage furnishes some excellent examples, such as the roc, a bird so tremendous that it concealed the sun and “one of whose legs. . . was as great as a great tree-trunk” (Todorov, 29).

3. A third type of the marvelous might be called the instrumental marvelous. Here we find the gadgets, technological developments unrealized in the period described but, after all, quite possible. In the “The Tale of Prince Ahmed” in the Arabian Nights, for instance, the marvelous instruments are, at the beginning: a flying carpet, an apple that cures diseases, and a “pipe” for seeing great distances; today, the helicopter, antibiotics, and binoculars, endowed with the same qualities, do not belong in any way to the marvelous (Todorov, 29).

4. The “instrumental marvelous” brings us very close to what in nineteenth-century France was called the scientific marvelous, which today we call science fiction. Here the supernatural is explained in a rational manner, but according to laws [of nature or science] that contemporary science does not acknowledge. In the high period of fantastic narratives, stories involving magnetism are characteristic of the scientific marvelous: magnetism “scientifically” explains supernatural events, yet magnetism itself belongs to the supernatural. Examples are Hoffman’s “Spectre Bridegroom” or “The Magnetizer,” and Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” or Maupassant’s “Un Fou?” Contemporary science fiction. When it does not slip into allegory, obeys the same mechanism: these narratives, starting from irrational premises, link the “facts” they contain in a perfectly logical manner (Todorov, 30).

[Todorov’s essay does not “consider” the marvelous itself, finding the marvelous to be “an anthropological phenomenon” that “:exceeds the context of a study limited to literary aspects” (30).]

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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