Fascinating lists!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Full Night, No Stars: A Book Review

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Stephen King’s latest book is an anthology of four novellas: 1922, Big Driver, Fair Extension, and A Good Marriage. Dedicated to his wife, this 368-page volume dispenses with King’s customary foreword or preface, but contains an “Afterword” of three pages. It’s thinner than most of King’s books; apparently his accident has had lasting effects upon his prolificacy or his age is starting to catch up with him.

In any case, the stories start in an intriguing enough manner. 1922 asks readers to be priests or police detective or maybe judges, starting, as it does, with the protagonist-narrator’s “confession.” Written on letterhead stationary from the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, and dated April 11, 1930, the long, long missive recounts Wilfred Leland James’ planning and execution, with the aid of his fourteen-year-old son, Henry Freeman James, of the murder of his wife, “a thing,” he says, “I regret even more bitterly than the crime” (3). According to the salutation, “To Whom it May Concern,” Wilfred’s not sure who or who not may be “concerned” about his “confession.”

So far, so good; readers are apt to be hooked. King’s protagonist-narrator is confessing to a crime involving both his son, as co-conspirator, and his wife, the boy’s mother, as their victim

It’s an unusual situation made more interesting by the motive for the murder: “The issue that led to my crime and damnation was 100 acres of good land in Hemingford Home, Nebraska” (3). My own interest in the story flags fairly quickly. In fact, my interest in fiction has declined quite a bit of late. However, King manages to keep my attention for a few more pages of his opening story. I want to hear more concerning the protagonist-narrator’s seemingly absurd motive for killing his wife and the mother of his son, and I’d like to know what in the world would have prompted the boy to enlist as a co-conspirator in his own mother’s murder. In addition, Wilfred tells his wife, who wants to sell their land and open a dress shop in Omaha, “I will never live in Omaha,” despite the address of the hotel in which, according to the stationary he’s writing upon, which is “Omaha, Nebraska.”

“This is ironic,” he admits to readers, “considering where I now live,” although he also points out that “I will not live here for long” (3-4), and his next statement is curious enough to make readers continue to read for the next paragraph or two, at least: “I know this as well as I know what is making the sounds I hear in the walls” (4). Hearing sounds in walls (or floors, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or the attic, as in The Exorcist) was an old trick even in the days of the Victorian Gothic novels, but it may still manage, even if only slightly, to command a small amount of readers’ attention.

The country bumpkin dialect and outlook are also mildly interesting (but much less so since his portrayal of Jordy Verrill in Creepshow). His protagonist-narrator’s allusions to aspects of his own personality as “a Conniving Man” who himself has a “Hopeful man” inside him and his personification of wife’s lascivious tendencies as a “Vulgar Woman” are amusing at first, but soon become tedious, and by the time that King starts to set forth his hayseed characters’ theology, the story’s opening becomes--well, less than engaging. At 131 pages, King’s story is maybe 100 pages too long, and I lose interest altogether by page ten. Since King is not known for satisfying endings to his stories (It and Under the Dome have to be two of his absolute worst), I sigh and move on. . . .

Maybe the next narrative, Big Driver, will be better, the Hopeful Man inside me dares to hope.

Unfortunately, Big Driver veers toward the curb on page one (page 135 of the book), paragraph two, when his omniscient narrator compares the story’s character, Tess, an elderly public speaker and author of a dozen popular novels about the Willow Grove Knitting Society, to “a good little squirrel” who lives “well on the money her books” earn, “putting away acorns for the winter.” On the next page, my interest virtually flatlines as King, via his narrator, offers another of his tedious catalogues of contemporary annoyances and frustrations, this one concerning airline travel:

It wasn’t that she was afraid of flying, or hesitant about billing the organizations that engaged her for travel expenses just as she billed them for her motel rooms (always nice, never elegant). She just hated it: the crowding, the indignity of the full-body scans, the way the airlines now had their hands out for what used to be free, the delays. . . .and the inescapable fact that you were not in charge. That was the worst. Once you went through the interminable security checkpoints and were allowed to board, you had put your most valuable possession--your life--into the hands of strangers (136).
Time is a valuable commodity, and readers desire and deserve much more than self-indulgent lists of petty grievances in the guise of characterization. King has shown that he has the talent to do better, but he doesn’t bother; after all, Big Driver is just a novella, not a novel (and, lately, he hasn’t been bothering all that much even in his novels).

Still, I’m game for a bit more. Tess is mildly interesting as a character, despite the familiar complaints about air travel that King, via his omniscient narrator, puts in her mouth--or her mind.

But the next paragraph, which is supposed to be a transition, perhaps, between air travel and highway travel, linking title to narrative, repeats the same lame list of petty grievances, this time about ground transport:

Of course that was also true of the turnpike and interstates she almost always used when she traveled, a drunk could lose control [as King has reminded his readers seemingly countless times since a drunk driver nearly killed King himself, back in ‘99 and the author considered retirement], jump the median strip, and end your life in a head-on collision (they would live; the drunks, it seemed, always did), but at least when she was behind the wheel of her car, she had the illusion of control. And she liked to drive. It was soothing. She had some of her best ideas when she was on cruise control with the radio off (136).
We normally think of a cliché as a trite phrase, but, of course, a cliché is also a trite thought (or part of a thought, anyway), for what is the definition of a sentence, besides a group of words with a subject and a predicate, but “a complete thought”? King certainly gives his readers clichés, both of phrasing and of thinking, in abundance in his fiction, as he does in Big Driver. Enough, though, is not only enough; often, it is too much. In Full Dark, No Stars, it is too much very quickly, indeed.

Since the disappointments of King’s last several novels, Under the Dome, especially, I have opted not to buy any more of his books. If I want to read one, I wait until the university or public library acquires it or go without. This way, if and when (most likely, when) King proves his latest effort not worth my effort, I’m only out a little time instead of a little money. Times are hard, and I can’t afford to be as forgiving of King’s self-indulgences, laziness, and “Big Mac and fries” literary style as I tended to be when times were more flush.

Leaving Tess behind with her worries about airports and interstates, I travel ahead 113 pages to Fair Extension. Maybe it will be better, the Hopeful Man inside me (hardly) dares to hope.

Echoing Big Driver, the opening paragraph doesn’t make the likelihood of the story’s offering of anything more than prosaic insights seem very likely:

[Dave] Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke. He puked a lot now, and there was very little warning--sometimes a flutter of nausea, sometimes a brassy taste in the back of his mouth, and sometimes nothing at all; just urk and out it came, howdy--do. It made driving a risky proposition, yet he always drove a lot now, partly because he wouldn’t be able to by late fall and partly because he had a lot to think about. He had always done his best thinking behind the wheel (249).
No doubt, he also finds driving “soothing,” especially with the “cruise control” on and “the radio off .”

King has been praised for connecting with the average Jane and Joe among the nation’s middle class, but it’s one thing to allude to popular culture to make such a link and another thing altogether to refer to stereotypical sentiments and commonplace thoughts; the latter allusions are not only patronizing, but they are also more humdrum than the humming of tires drumming on the pavement of a King story about cars (Christine or From a Buick 8) or paragraphs such as these, from Big Driver and Fair Extension.

Less hopeful than ever the Hopeful Man inside me switches from two- to four-wheel drive and forges ahead, to the story’s “Harris Avenue Extension, a broad thoroughfare” that runs “two miles beside the Derry County Airport and the attendant businesses,” most of which are “motels and warehouses.” The buildings don’t sound all that promising, but, hey, it’s Derry, a place where It, Insomnia, Bag of Bones, and Dreamcatcher unfold; maybe there’s enough horror left in the burg to fuel a novella.

Sure enough, despite a few backfires and hesitations, the story succeeds in moving forward, although its Big Driver, King, can’t resist a few byways and alleyways, none especially scenic, and, by skipping the side excursions and detours and staying with the dialogue, I can get through the Derry landscape to the narrative’s dead end. (Tip for those who have tried but just can’t quite kick the King habit: when the story bogs down, as it almost always does, sooner or later, just start reading only the dialogue, dipping into the exposition only when--and only as long as--necessary to pick up any lost plot threads; this way, you’ll be doing what King or his editor should have done and will be able to finish the story just after sunset.)

What’s sold in Derry, at Fair Extensions, are extensions of almost anything, penis lengths included, the story’s salesman assures the protagonist, in a bit of prepubescent dialogue that one could expect to encounter only in a King story:

“If you were a man with a small penis--genetics can be so cruel--I’d offer you a dick extension.”

Streeter was amazed and amused by the baldness of it. [Readers over fourteen years old may be “amazed,” but they’re unlikely to be “amused,” no matter how bald King’s penis jokes may be.] For the first time in a month--since the diagnosis--he forgot he was suffering from an aggressive and extremely fast-moving form of cancer. “You’re kidding” [Readers can only hope he is, but, alas, he isn't.]

“Oh, I’m a great kidder, but I never joke about business. I’ve sold dozens of dick extensions in my time, and was for awhile [sic] known in Arizona as El Pene Grande. . . .” (252-3).
In Danse Macabre, King admits, “If I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” Apparently, the Big Mac and Fries of the literary world means this not only about horror but about both sex and humor as well.

In any case, once Streeter accepts a life extension of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years, for a fee, of course, his cancer is miraculously cured, and his life gets better and better. The fee? Streeter has to curse someone to receive the salesman’s life extension (shades of Needful Things; he chooses Tom Goodhugh, his friend since childhood, who has always had more and better things than Streeter, or as Streeter puts it (to himself, not Goodhugh), “you had everything and I had cancer” (277). Just as Streeter’s life gets better and better, Tom’s gets worse and worse, with his wife Norma dying of cancer, his daughter developing pyorrhea and losing her teeth and later giving birth to a dead baby, one of his sons having a heart attack at age twenty two and suffering brain damage while the other son is imprisoned for spousal abuse, Tom’s fortune becoming all but exhausted, and his own health fast deteriorating.

Given an extension of life and astonishingly good luck, Streeter seems to have it all; still, when Venus appears “above the airport, glimmering against the darkening sky,” he takes this opportunity to wish for even more (280).

A high school student could argue that this story represents a not-so-sly satire concerning the haves and the have-nots and a sharper rebuke of materialism, rivalry, one-upmanship, envy and greed, and probably get a “B+” for his or her effort, but, beyond the story’s being good fodder for secondary school lit crit, the story, although not as puerile and pedestrian as the two that come before it, certainly isn’t likely to win its author any awards or accolades and deserves none. (This story, too, by the way, includes a drunk driver--and another penis reference: “Stick your mortal penis in her and pretend she’s your best friend’s wife” [271]).

Having read one of the three and enough of the other two to know that I didn’t want to read them, I kept on trucking, entering the final leg of the journey, A Good Marriage, the Hopeful Man inside me on the brink of despair, but wanting there to be a reason for the long trip he’s been on.

I’ll leave the last story for you to review yourselves, Constant Reader, saying only that the ending is poignant, in a perverse way, and shows that King can write a neat narrative when he wants to do so, yes, he can.

The “Afterword” is King’s last word on the tales he tells in Full Dark. The first half or so is much like the first half of his anthology: it treads familiar territory, recalling his early writing and mentioning a couple of his favorite authors (George Orwell and Frank Norris) and taking the time to poke a political enemy--this time, in very ungentlemanly fashion--Sarah Palin. (At least, he left Willow alone.) He also recites the ancient litany of his being, if nothing else, a truth teller who represents human behavior as it really is, warts and all. It’s what he tries to do, once again, he confesses, in Full Dark. He concludes the anthology by identifying his inspirations for the stories: a nonfiction book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael lesy (1922); a woman with a flat tire talking to a trucker at a rest stop (Big Driver); a golf balls vendor who does business in Bangor, Maine, alongside the Hammond Street Extension (Fair Extension); and Dennis Rader and his wife (A Good Marriage).  For King, all truly is grist for the mill, although his "Constant Reader" may disagree.

The list price for Full Dark, No Stars is $27.99. I borrowed a hardback copy from the library for nothing. Had I paid for the privilege of reading it, I’d have felt ripped off at a twenty-seventh of the price I’d paid, but I figure the library charged me about what the book is worth. I say this with disappointment, for I have enjoyed King’s fiction in the past, just not for a long time now. Nevertheless, I contend that King is still a talented writer, inside whom, unfortunately there is a Hack Writer who, of late, has called the shots quite a few times too many. Maybe, if King can’t or won’t do better than Full Dark, No Stars, he should retire, and the sooner, the better. After all, one of his sons, Joe Hill, seems ready to carry the torch, and Stephen has killed enough trees already--unless, the Hopeful Man inside me hopes, unless he can and will write a worthy book, for he can, oh, yes, he can!


King, Stephen. Full dark, no stars. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monstrous Variations

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

There’s a limit, perhaps, to the number of horror villains that the genre’s writers can imagine. Fortunately, there are also variations on most, if not all, of them. Mr. Hyde, of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, seems to be a variation on the werewolf. He’s hirsute and ferocious and more than a bit bestial, but he’s not a werewolf per se. The disembodied, winged phalli of ancient Greece and the Middle East, as I suggested earlier, appear to have put in a more modern appearance, albeit disguised and minus the wings, as it were, as the phallic parasites in the movie Shivers. Instead of flying, they slither, and they seem to have been skinned alive; nevertheless, their viscous meatiness suggest that they are members virile, as do their ability to spread sexually transmitted diseases and to render both sexes horny.

John Kenneth Muir believes that the computer that impregnates Susan Harris in Demon Seed is a stand-in, as it were, for Victor von Frankenstein; so, one might argue, is H. G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, who is busy vivisecting animals in the hope4 of creating a race of hybrid “beast-men,” and what is the entity in The Entity if not a ghost-turned-incubus? Although I myself don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion, some believe that aliens, or extraterrestrial beings, are really demons in disguise. In fact, this seems to be Dean Koontz’s stand on this issue, at least as far as his novel The Taking is concerned. Stephen King’s novel It gives a new shape--and identity--to the ancient god Proteus, with the monster of his novel able to change shape at will or to assume the identity of anyone It’s met. Modern devotees of Wicca have supplanted traditional witches. Ghosts are, often enough, embodiments, so to speak, of guilt associated with past deeds--or misdeeds.


I’m not talking pastiche here, not merely open imitation, for satirical purposes or otherwise, but a creative retooling of earlier horror monster along the lines of Renee Magritte’s retooling of the mermaid icon in his painting Collective Invention. I see examples in a lot of places, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Medusa-like Ovu Mobani demon in Marti Noxon’s “Dead Man’s Party” episode. A flash from its eyes paralyzes humans, just as the Medusa’s gaze turned her victims to stone.


Likewise, the half human, half-serpent demon Machida in David Greenwalt’s “Reptile Boy” is and is not a male version of the ancient Greek snake-woman known as the lamia. For one thing, he’s a he, not a she, and he doesn’t eat babies (as far as we know), apparently preferring nubile teens like Cordelia Chase, Buffy Summers, and the high school girl who is chained in the basement of the fraternity house in which his devotees, male college students who belong to the fraternity that worships him, reside. Buffy’s Machida demon is at least as original a departure from the ancient Greek lamia as Magritte’s fish-woman is on the ancient Greek siren, or mermaid, and it is such innovation that keeps horror fiction’s stable of fiends and monsters fresh. Variety is the spice of monsters, as it is of life.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Learning from the Masters: Louis L'amour

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Aspiring horror writers can learn from both popular and mainstream writers, whether they write horror fiction, stories of other genres, or literature of unusually high quality. In other words, both Louis L’Amour and Mark Twain have much to teach any horror fiction author, which brings us to the topic of today’s post.

Louis L'Amour

L’Amour wrote 89 novels and 250 short stories, most about cowboys, lawmen, gunfighters, and other heroic figures of the American Wild West. His first, Hondo, was published in 1953; his last, The Haunted Mesa, in 1987 (although other of his works have appeared posthumously). Anyone with such a long career and such a prolific quantity of bestsellers is someone who has learned how to tell a tale that appeals to a large and loyal audience and is worth studying.

Many of his novels include hand-drawn maps that bring the territories that his stories cover to life for his readers, showing them the towns, drawn in three dimensions, or the hills and mountains or deserts, complete with sagebrush and cacti, through which his intrepid lawmen, outlaws, Indians, posses, and others ride or through which trains, covered wagons, buckboards, or stagecoaches wend their wary ways. By showing only certain towns or terrains in three dimensions, with care given to individual and unique elements and features, and leaving the rest of the maps in two dimensions that include relatively few details, L’Amour heightens readers’ interest in the towns and terrains he does show more realistically on the charts, mythologizing them, as it were, cartographically as well as through his storytelling. (A couple of horror writers who have used maps well to enhance the mystique of their own terrains of terror are Frank Peretti, author of Monster [2005] and Stephen King, author of Under the Dome [2009]. Others horror writers have also included maps of their novel’s terrain--H. P. Lovecraft springs to mind. My Chillers and Thrillers article “Mapping the Monstrous” suggests some of the ways that Peretti’s novel benefits from his decision to may its horrors.)

But let’s return to the topic at hand: L’Amour’s adept use of the opening sentences (“hookers,” as King calls them) of several of his novels and short stories. In the process, we can learn a thing or two concerning how to keep our plights tight, our monsters few, our settings apparent, our suspense high, and our identifications of our genres simple and straightforward.

Rather like an impressionistic painter, L’Amour indicates the scenes of his novels in a few, deft brushstrokes--or pen strokes--or keystrokes: “rocks,” “the Mohaves,” “sky,” and “buzzards,” in the opening sentence of his novel Callahan, paint an image of the desert: “Behind the rocks the Mohaves lay waiting and in the sky, the buzzards.” He accomplishes the same feat, setting his scene (and indicating the genre of his story) in the few choice words of his first sentence of The Burning Hills: “On a ridge above Texas Flat upon a rock shaped like a flame, a hand moved upon the lava.” His descriptions, even when actually static, reporting past deeds, seem active, recalling the past as if it is happening as his narrator speaks: “We came up the trail from Texas in the spring of ‘74, and bedded our herd on the short grass beyond the railroad” (“End of the Drive,” End of the Drive). Likewise, by including active meteorological conditions, L’Amour can, again, make otherwise static scenes seem active, even intense: “Heavy clouds hung above the iron-colored peaks, and lancets of lightning flashed and probed” (“The Skull and the Arrow,” End of the Drive).

He is just as adept at setting scenes, creating suspense, characterizing characters, and hooking his readers when he describes towns and townspeople as when he pictures solitary heroes in isolated or desolate landscapes far from civilization: “He lay sprawled upon the concrete pavement of the alley in the darkening stain of his own blood, a man I had never seen before, a man with the face of an Apache warrior, struck down from behind and stabbed repeatedly in the back as he lay there” (The Broken Gun).

L’Amour knows when to add a simile, a metaphor, a personification, an allusion, a rhetorical question, or another figure of speech to spice up writing about mundane things when the writing itself might, otherwise, be mundane: “The night brought a soft wind” (Brionne). “Dawn came like a ghost to the silent street, a gray, dusty street lined with boardwalks and several short lengths of water trough (Borden Chantry). “When it came to Griselda Popley, I was down to bedrock and showing no color” (“The Courting of Griselda,” End of the Drive). “Who can say that the desert does not live?” (“The Lonesome Gods,” End of the Drive). “The land lay empty around them, lonely and still” (Conagher).

The men in L’Amour’s fiction tend to be lean, mean fighting machines, as quick and effective with their fists as they are with their hands. They have hard-edged, flinty names like Hondo, Callahan, Brionne, Bowdrie, Borden Chantry, Malcolm Fallon, Orrin Sackett, Jim Colburn, and Conagher. Sometimes, they straddle the law, living by the code of the West or a code of their own, more antiheroes than heroes, as is the case, it seems, with regard to Malcolm Fallon, whom L’Amour introduces as “a stranger to the town of Seven Pines” who is fortunate enough to be “a stranger with fast horse,” especially since a drunken band of townsmen have invited him to a necktie party (i. e., a lynching). Out-and-out villains, however, may be violent men of action, but they are also passive products of their circumstances and environments: “They were four desperate men, made hard by life, cruel by nature, and driven to desperation by imprisonment” (“Desperate Men,” End of the Drive). It seems that, in L’Amour’s fiction, desperate men are made, not born; in other words, it is not their fault that they are desperate men; their past experiences have made them so. By contrast, L’Amour’s heroic protagonists defy their environments, take charge of themselves, and become the masters of their own fates, embodying free will.

Although no academic would ever mistake L’Amour for a literary author, he is a literate writer of popular fiction who has learned, of himself, many techniques for accomplishing narrative objectives in ways as interesting as they are succinct, and any aspiring writer, whether of horror or another genre, can learn much from the way that he uses carefully chosen words, phrases, clauses, and sentences to set his scenes, suggest action (even when there is none presently taking place), introducing his protagonists, identifying the time of the day and the season of the year, creating suspense, generating a sense of mystery, stating mundane facts in intriguing ways, describing weather, and spotlighting particular characters among other literary personae. He also shows an adept use of similes, metaphors, allusions, personifications, the rhetorical question, and the tall tale (“My Brother [sic] Orrin Sackett, was big enough to fight bears with a switch,” the narrator of The Daybreakers claims). Adapting L’Amour’s techniques and strategies to his or her own genre and work, the aspiring horror writer can do the same.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Monsters of the New Depression


Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

If critics are right about the times in which we live spawning the monsters who inhabit our waking nightmares, the horror stories which appear both in print and on film, then, considering the economic downturn in which we (and the rest of the world) find ourselves, which is of a near-Depression magnitude and promises to get even worse (the CEO of Wal-Mart predicts runaway inflation in June, 2011), we can look to the 1930s for an idea as to what form the monsters of the near future may assume.

The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted about ten years. The current one began about 2008 and has lasted, to date, about two years. Although politicians promise us that things will get better, largely because of the measures that the administrations of George W. Bush, in its final hours, and Barack Obama have taken, economists and other pundits are not so sure. Many experts advise us to fasten our seatbelts and hold on tightly, for we’re in for a long and extremely bumpy ride.

Many of the movie monsters of the 1930s are those which, today, we call “classic”: Dracula, Frankenstein’s “creature,” the mummy, freaks, King Kong,

Many of these movies were filmed in exotic lands (Transylvania, Egypt, Skull Island) that took moviegoers away, for an hour and a half or so, from their real-life, real-world troubles and immersed them in faraway fantasy worlds in which the struggle was not with the woeful economy but with celluloid menaces that, in the end, were almost always routed or destroyed.

The monsters, however, were also symbolic, almost subliminal, manifestations of the existential crises that audiences faced.


Dracula sucked blood, as the Depression drained one’s economic lifeblood.


Frankenstein, a mad scientist, was a stand-in of sorts, perhaps, for the economists, or financial wizards, who manipulated the nation, trying to revive the dying people as Frankenstein tried to bring to life an assortment of dead body parts. The economist had had about as much success, in the public’s eyes, as the fictional scientist, creating, instead of a revived and healthy financial people, a deformed and hideous parody of a prosperous citizenry.


The Tutankhamen Exhibition toured the world during the years of the Great Depression. According to the lore of the mummy, the Egyptologists who desecrated the tomb and stole the remains of the adolescent pharaoh brought down upon themselves an ancient curse. Brought back to life by the accidental recitation of a spell, the mummy seeks the reincarnation of his true love, but is, instead, reduced to ashes, the way that filmgoers’ hopes for a reunion with their once-economically secure lives were reduced to ashes by the failed economy.


Compared to the pre-Depression days of the Roaring Twenties, when life was (or, in retrospect, at least, seemed to have been) easy, with money in plentiful supply and booze flowing through speakeasies, the grim, poverty-ridden environment of the Depression seemed unreal or surreal, and men and women saw themselves as “freaks,” deformed in body and soul, in heart and mind, by the severely depressed economy. Chaos seemed to reign, within and without, as if they were human oddities who lived lives as bleak and shadowy and pathetic as those of the unfortunate “freaks” exhibited by carnival sideshows.


King Kong embodied a long-lost--indeed, a prehistoric--past never known to human beings other than the natives of Skull Island, where the great ape lived among dinosaurs in a land that time had forgotten. Spawned as much, perhaps, by Darwinian evolutionary theory as by hard times, the beast, nevertheless, was hunted down by filmmaker Carl Denham during the Depression, a point made more clear, perhaps in the 2005 remake directed by Peter Jackson. The hard times in which the characters live motivate them to take risks that, in better days, they might have passed on. Denham hopes the documentary he plans to film concerning the mysterious Skull Island will avert bankruptcy (as the 1933 film did for RKO Radio Pictures), and his ingénue Ann Darrow accompanies him on his quest because, an out-of-work aspiring actress, she has been forced to seek her sustenance among street vendors, stealing apples from their carts. Unfortunately, Denham’s scheme fails, as so many business ventures during the decade of the Great Depression failed, and his, Darrow’s, and his other associates’ financial welfare is left in doubt at the film’s end, as King Kong, shot full of holes by the nation’s fledgling Air Force, lies dead in the streets of new York City, having fallen from his precarious perch atop the Empire State Building, a symbol of the towering success of capitalism and democracy.

Other movie monsters of the 1930s include Mr. Hyde, of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), the ghoul, the invisible man, the werewolf, the daughters of both Dracula and the devil, and the bride of Frankenstein’s creature.

The specific faces and forms of the horrors beings spawned by the contemporary economic depression are unlikely to be identical to those spawned by the Great Depression of the 1930s, but, if the Great Depression’s celluloid creatures exemplify the types of monsters we may expect to meet--parasitic bloodsuckers, cadaverous creatures, the walking dead, grotesquely deformed “freaks,” and primordial beasts--we are in for a rough time of it, to be sure!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Haunting of a House

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

More a fan of the idea of the haunted house, perhaps, than one who aspires to actually visit such places, even in fiction, I have, nevertheless, visited a few, written a couple of novels in which haunted houses are prominently featured (Mystic Mansion, the sequel to my first novel, Saturday’s Child, and The Madhouse, a stand-alone work, all of which are available on amazon.com and can be reached--hint, hint--by clicking the blue links associated with their titles), and a several-article series, available right here on Chillers and Thrillers, concerning “How to Haunt a House.”  The haunted houses I’ve visited are a dilapidated and apparently (but not, as it turned out, really) abandoned house in a field of tall grass, the Winchester Mystery House in Los Gatos, California (which was partly the inspiration for the haunted house in Stephen King’s Rose Red televisions series), and the Disneyland Haunted Mansion.

As a fan of the idea of the haunted house, I was particularly interested in reading King’s insights and observations concerning the haunted house stories he’s both written (The Shining and, in a way, ‘Salem’s Lot) and read, two of which, the one in Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door, are standouts in the genbre, King argues.  The first, he believes, presents readers “with a history--a sort of supernatural provenance,” and the other “gives” readers “the provenance itself.”

After quoting the opening paragraph of Jackson’s novel, King dissects it to show just “how many things this single paragraph does.”

Jackson’s paragraph reads:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
King’s comments take up a paragraph about as long:

All I really want to do is point out is how many this single paragraph does. It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a living organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because. . . it does not dream, it is not sane. The paragraph tells us how long its history has been, immediately establishing that historical context that is so important to the haunted-house story, and it concludes by telling us that something walks in the rooms and halls of Hill House. All this in two [sic] sentences (“Horror Fiction,” Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 91).
Siddons’ novel, which “could have been subtitled ‘The Making of a Haunted House,’” goes Jackson’s one better, King thinks. No human characters set foot inside Siddons’ haunted house until the novel’s last fifty pages, but its next-door neighbors, Walter and Colquitt Kennedy, are affected by the residence: “We see their lives and their way of thinking change as a result of their proximity to the house,” King observes (92).

At the outset of the novel, the house has yet to be built, but, as soon as the domicile is completed, “Dionysian change,” it is apparent, King says, “is coming to the Apollonian suburb where hitherto there has been a place for everything and everything [has been] in its place” (93). The house is introduced through its impression upon Colquitt:

I drew my breath in at it. It was magnificent. I do not as a rule care for contemporary architecture, [but] . . . this house was different. It commanded you, somehow, yet soothed you. It grew out of the penciled earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless deeps of time, waiting to be released. . . . I could hardly imagine the hands and machinery that would form it. I thought of something that had started with a seed, put down deep roots, grown in the sun and rains of many years into the upper air. In the sketches, at least, the woods pressed untouched around it like companions. The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots. It looked--inevitable.
The book is divided into three sections, each one telling the story of a different family of the house’s residents, the Harralsons, Buddy and Pie; the Sheehans, Buck and Anita; and the Greenes, Norman and Susan. It would be unfair to share any more of the story’s plot, but it should go without saying, perhaps, that any haunted-house novel that captures the attention and earns the respect of a horror maestro of King’s reputation deserves a read.

What I’m more interested in, at the moment, is the introductions that the writers give their haunted houses. As I argue elsewhere, a grand entrance is important to establish new characters (and protagonists, especially); the same is true for places that, in effect, themselves become like characters--and a specific type of character, at that: the antagonist. Haunted houses are typically evil places, and, as such, they will pit themselves against those who are foolish enough to take up residence beneath their roofs and within their walls. King does a fine job of dissecting Jackson’s opening paragraph, but he doesn’t have much to say about the haunted house in Siddons’ novel. In its own way, the introduction of “the house next door” is  effective in seizing the reader’s attention as it also simultaneously spotlights the new house on the block.

The house, Colquitt implies, is breathtaking, not so much for its architectural style, but for its effect upon the viewer; the house makes Colquitt feel a certain way: “commanded,” yet also “soothed,” as if the house exercises, by its mere presence, a hypnotic or spellbinding effect upon anyone who would look upon it. It is “like an elemental spirit,” but, at the same time, it is also like a plant that, seeded by “hands and machinery”--that is by human design and technology, rather than by nature--establishes “deep roots” and seems one with the “woods” that surround it, even as it is “nourished” by a “creek.” The “elemental spirit” is, perhaps a dryad, and an evil one at that, which takes up residence in the strange vegetative abode. The dryad is the perfect entity to bring to “the Apollonian suburb” as King calls the haunted house’s setting “Dionysian change.”

Another example, justly famous, of a writer’s introduction of his story’s haunted house to his readers is the opening chapter of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium--the bitter lapse into everyday life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble ; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
So many critics have dissected and analyzed this paragraph that it need not be done again. Suffice it to say that Poe’s description of the place embodies it, for Poe, in writing of the dwelling’s “vacant eye-like windows,” and, indeed, what Walter Evans sees as the “‘bleak’ cheeks, huge eyes. . . ‘rank’ and slightly bushy mustache, and perhaps even ‘white trunks of decayed’ teeth” of the story’s protagonist, Roderick Usher himself (“‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Poe’s Theory of the Tale,” reprinted in Short Story Criticism). The house not only looks like its owner, who will fall mentally, into madness, as the house has already begin to fall into physical ruin, but, like Siddons’ haunted house, it has an almost palpable effect upon those who encounter it: “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit,” the narrator admits, adding, “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?”

Like Jackson and Siddons, in introducing his haunted house, Poe both hooks his readers while, at the same time, making his haunted house forever--well, haunting!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

From Story Idea to Story

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

A common question that aspiring writers ask the pros is "Where do you get your ideas?" Stephen King claims he gets his in a little shop in Utica, but the true answer to the question is that he gets his ideas from the same sources as every other writer, aspiring or pro: from dreams, mental images, newspaper headlines, reading, anecdotes told by others, personal observations, song lyrics, classroom lectures, history--the list is all but limitless.

But what one more than likely means, perhaps, to ask by this question is "How do you develop your ideas into stories?" The answer is simple, really: bring together person, place, and thing.

The person is the story's main character, or protagonist.
The story's place is its setting.
The story's thing is its theme.

What brings the three of them together is the story's conflict and the main character's attempts to resolve this conflict, which includes both his reason, or motive for doing.

Another way of= saying the same thing is to say that a writer develops a story idea into a story by answering six questions: who? (protagonist), what? (conflict), when? and where? (setting), how? (resolution), and why? (motivation and theme). Here's an example:

Idea: A girl is possessed by the devil.

Who? Father Damien Karras, a priest who doubts his faith (protagonist)
What? fights the devil (conflict)
When? and where? in a Georgetown townhouse (setting)
How? using exorcism (resolution)
Why? to save a possessed girl's soul and retain his own teetering faith in God (motivation and theme).

That's how it's done and why.

(There's a fill-in-the-blank way of developing the scenes of a story, too, which I explain in "The Fill-in-the-Blank Guide to Writing Fiction").

Friday, April 1, 2011

Warrants for Cardinal Traits

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


In rhetoric, a warrant is an assumption or principle, often implicit, that connects evidence to a claim. For example, one might claim that women should be given the right to vote. Implicit in this claim is the principle that women, like men, deserve equal treatment under the law.

In fiction, there is an analogous relationship between one’s dominant, or cardinal, trait and the emotion that inspires this trait. One might say that the emotion is the cause of the trait and that the trait is expressed in the character’s behavior, even when a conflicting, but lesser, desire is present.

By implicitly (or explicitly) identifying the trait and the emotion that inspires it, a writer creates a character who is believable and realistic.

A few examples from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Buffy Summers feels compassion for others; therefore, she is driven, despite her desire to live a normal life, to accept her duty as a vampire slayer.

Rupert Giles feels guilt about his errant youth; therefore, he is driven to be responsible as an adult.

Angel feels remorse for his past misdeeds; therefore, he is driven to repent for them.

Xander Harris feels inconsequential; therefore, he is loyal to his friends.

Willow Rosenberg feels rejected by men; therefore she loves other women.

Cordelia Chase feels confident; therefore, she is honest--sometimes, brutally so.

By giving your own characters emotional warrants, as it were, that inspire their cardinal traits and expressing these traits in their behaviors, you, too, can make your own characters believable and realistic, adding, by their presence, greater verisimilitude to your story.

Note: Characters are very likely to have several or many other traits besides their cardinal trait. For example, Buffy is not only dutiful, but she is also immature, rebellious, independent, impulsive, protective, loyal, and courageous. However, her dominant trait is her dutifulness, and it is her dutifulness that is inspired by her compassion for others, causing her to sacrifice her own desire to live a normal life to protect and defend others, friends and strangers alike.

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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