Fascinating lists!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Plotting From Blurbs

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Although they may not be novelists, publishing company employees who pen blurbs for books and motion pictures released on DVDs are themselves accomplished writers. They know not only how to summarize a plot (or enough of the plot, at any rate, to excite the reader’s or the viewer’s interest in reading or watching the novel or the movie), but they understand, also, such narrative elements as conflict, high stakes, suspense, and pace. Blurb writers know what readers and moviegoers want to read or see and why. Aspiring storytellers, whether of the horror genre or any other, can learn a thing or two of value from the blurbs that such writers produce and use these techniques themselves in plotting their own narratives.
Let’s take a look at a few blurbs concerning horror movies, taken directly from the backs of the DVD packages upon which the blurbs appear.
While awaiting her husband’s return from war, Grace [the main character is introduced and the basic situation is established] and her two children live an unusually isolated existence [an isolated setting enhances character’s vulnerability, especially when the characters are a woman and two children, living alone] behind the locked doors and drawn curtains of a secluded island mansion [the reiteration of the setting’s isolated, or secluded, nature and the mention of its location on an island emphasize the house’s remoteness and inaccessibility and the character’s helplessness; the “locked doors and drawn curtains” suggest secrets or the fear of threats or both]. Then, after three mysterious servants arrive [the same number as the house’s occupants, each of whom is characterized as being in some way “mysterious”] and it becomes chillingly clear [expect to be frightened!] that there is far more to this house than can be seen [such as ghosts?], Grace finds herself in a terrifying fight to save her children and keep her sanity [the stakes are high, indeed!, as is the threat with which Grace and her children are menaced]. -- The Others
. . . A skeptical writer [is] investigating paranormal events [the main character is introduced and the basic situation is established]. When he insists in staying in the reportedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel [the adjective “reportedly” makes the reader wonder whether the room will prove, in fact, to be “haunted,” as it is alleged to be; a hotel is large enough, too, to offer some real chills] against the grave warnings of the hotel manager [if “dire warnings” are deemed necessary by the man who manages the place, it may well be haunted, the reader may suppose--or is the manager trying to pull some sort of bizarre practical joke or effect some strange fraud, perhaps by destroying the “skeptical writer’s” reputation as a debunker of the paranormal?], he discovers the room’s deadly secret--an evil so powerful, no one has ever survived an hour within its walls [apparently, the moviegoer is in for an equally harrowing hour in the “reportedly haunted room 1408]. -- 1408 
 . . An American nurse. . . has come to work in Tokyo [the main character is introduced and the basic situation is established; the setting, far-away Tokyo, a city in a foreign land influenced by an alien culture is also introduced]. Following a series of horrifying and mysterious deaths, she encounters the vengeful supernatural spirit that possesses its victims, claims their souls, then passes its curse to another person in a spreading chain of horror [will the nurse become the spirit’s latest victim?] Now, she must find a way to break this supernatural spell [her purpose, or goal, is identified] or become the next victim [the stakes are presented] of an ancient evil that never dies, but forever lives to kill [she is up against a formidable foe--something that is not only supernatural but immortal--and, of course, evil] -- The Grudge 
Although each of these blurbs is written somewhat differently, they all include these elements:
  1. Introduce the main character.
  2. Establish the basic situation.
  3. Identify the setting (which is usually isolated).
  4. Hint at mysterious secrets, spells, or incidents.
  5. Identify high stake (such as protecting innocent children or saving one’s own life, sanity, or reputation).
  6. Give the protagonist a goal (often related to the story’s stakes).
  7. Suggest that the antagonist is formidable, powerful, ancient, and possibly supernatural.
By including such elements in his or her own stories’ plots, the aspiring (or, for that matter, the professional) writer of horror stories, novels, or screenplays is likely to capture, hold, and heighten his or her intended audience’s emotions, making the reader or moviegoer want to read or watch the novel or film from beginning to end--maybe several times over!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dear Reader, Meet Gideon Crew; Gideon, Dear Reader

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

There are 80 chapters (405 pages) to Douglas Lincoln and Preston Child’s latest novel, Fever Dream, which will set you back $26.99 (retail hardback), if you decide to buy it. (I checked out a copy from my local library.) I have read only 15 chapters 83) pages so far, but find it, as I do most of this duo’s fiction, a page-turner. The synopsis of the plot provided by the book’s flyleaf does a good job of uniting the action in a succinct fashion, linking past to present and present to future:

Yesterday, Special Agent Pendergast still mourned the loss of his beloved wife, Helen, who died in a tragic accident in Africa twelve years ago.

Today, he discovers she was murdered.

Tomorrow, he will learn her most guarded secrets, leaving him to wonder: Who was the woman I married? And, above all. . . Who murdered her?
In earlier novels, the authors have provided dibs and dabs of their novels’ protagonist back story, building up the eccentric agent’s character so that he becomes both understandable and sympathetic. Other recurring characters are, perhaps, more loveable, but Pendergast, certainly, is most memorable. In this novel, he is humanized still further as he seeks to discover the truth behind his late wife’s murder.

At the end of the story, when Fever Dream is over, Preston and Child surprise their readers with the announcement of their creation of a new detective of sorts, who will appear, they say, “in an exciting new series.” The “investigator,” Gideon Crew, the authors assure their readers, debuts in Gideon’s Sword, which is due to hit the bookstores (and, hopefully, the library shelves) “in the winter of 2011.” However, he will not replace Pendergast: The authors make it clear that they “will continue to write novels featuring the world’s most enigmatic FBI agent with the same frequency as before.”

Preston and Child claim that they “can’t give. . . any information about this novel except its title,” but mean, of course, that they won’t divulge any further information. Chillers and Thrillers will, however, courtesy of this synopsis of the novel’s plot by David Pitt of Book List:

Gideon Crew, the hero of Preston and Child’s new novel, has a complicated backstory. As a boy, he watched as his father, who had taken a man hostage, was shot down by a sniper. Less than a decade later, he learned from his mother that his father had been used by the U.S. government as a scapegoat for a failed intelligence project. After dispatching the man responsible for his father’s murder, Gideon is offered a job with a private contractor that does hush-hush work for the government. Gideon’s mission: to intercept a Chinese scientist and relieve him of the plans for a top-secret weapon. The mission doesn’t go as drawn, however, and Gideon is left with a mysterious string of numbers. Now, working mostly alone, he must determine what the numbers mean. This novel (which is apparently the first installment in a new series) isn’t as elegantly written or constructed as the authors’ popular Special Agent Pendergast novels, but it does—once you get past the backstory—hold the reader’s interest, and Gideon is undeniably a big-shouldered character, capable of supporting a series.
I, for one, look forward to meeting Mr. Crew--and to continuing my acquaintance with Special Agent Pendergast. Now that you've been properly introduced to Gideon, maybe you'll look forward to meeting him, too.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Property Value" Published By UNLV Literary Review

My short story, "Property Value," has been published in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Spring 2011 issue of its quarterly Word River Literary Review.

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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