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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.

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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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