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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).]

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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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