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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.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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