Fascinating lists!

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Ingredients of the Thriller

Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman

In Thriller 2, Clive Cussler introduces readers to the thriller, not as a novel but in its short story form. In fact the anthology contains twenty-three thrillers. By authors as diverse as Jeffrey Deaver, R. L. Stine, Lisa Jackson, and Ridley Pearson. One of the editor's intentions, he tells readers, is to introduce those who are “new to the world of thrillers” to the genre or to allow “the rabid fan” the “chance to discover another side” of his or her “favorite author.”

Another of the editor's purposes is to define the genre. However, Cussler doesn't so so in so many words. Instead, he offers clues. The stories in this genre are not easily pigeonholed, Cussler declares. They include “novels of suspense, adventure tales, paranormal investigations, or even police procedurals.” Thrillers “push their readers just a little closer to the edge of their seats,” he says; “they cost their readers sleep, get carried to the grocery store to be read while standing in line [presumably, the readers and not the thriller are “standing in line”] and are held tightly until the last page.” Thrillers stay with readers after the last page has been read. These stories, Cussler contends, may “shock” or “cause” the “heart to skip a beat” or “make” one “laugh and flinch at the same time,”and, many times, they will be “read again in disbelief,” as readers seek “the clues” they “missed the first time around.”

Cussler also provides additional clues in the headnotes that he provides for each of the stories. They have “high stakes”; the time that is allowed the protagonist to sort things out and set things right is apt to be “short.” Situations, invariably, are intense. The storylines may be suggested or influenced by the stories' settings. A thriller might be based upon the “short step from respectable citizen to flat-out criminal,” wherein “the lead characters bear a shocking resemblance to people we might know—even to ourselves—pillars of society crumbling in an avalanche of bad decisions that seemed perfectly rational at the time.” Other thrillers are tales of revenge. Often, the action of such stories is based upon “current events.” A thriller may include “an intricate puzzle.” Some such stories spring from seedy, real-life counterparts of the characters they depict. Natural catastrophes are sometimes the culprits: “Mother Nature is as much of a threat as the killers” some characters encounter; they “must confront not only the harsh realities of their situation, but also the brutal conditions of their environment.” Occasionally, thrillers spring from the actual experiences of the writers who write them. The protagonists of thrillers may be amoral by society's standards, but they, nevertheless, usually live by “their own code of honor.” Other thrillers investigate their characters' “personal histories,” focusing upon what makes their characters tick or what motivates them to perform the dangerous feats they do. Humor is the wellspring of some thrillers. Sometimes, thrillers mix “history and science.” The action is often global in scope, and even in a world wherein science reigns, mysticism can coexist with empirical methods. Philosophical issues are not off limits to thrillers; some discuss such questions as to whether we are the masters of our fates or the fates' playthings. Politics, betrayal, dystopian futures, and patriotism can become the elements of a thriller that involves government intrigues and conspiracies. Thrillers also take their readers into the criminal underworld, showing them how hired killers view the world. Spies come in from the cold in many a thriller, and good guys protect the innocent. Romance—especially unrequited love—can set a thriller's plot in motion, and a woman scorned—well. . . . Villains include hit men, sociopaths, enemy agents, serial killers, rapists, and sadists.

Any story should start with a hook, and thrillers are no exception. These are a few from Thriller 2:

“A new weapon.”

The slim man in a conservative suit eased forward and lowered his voice. “Something terrible. And our sources are certain it will be used this coming Saturday morning. They're certain of that.”

“Four days,” said retired Colonel James J. Peterson, his voice grave. It was now 5:00 p. m. on Monday. (Deaver, Jeffrey. “The Weapon,” 16).

Bijoux Watson's body slipped underneath the muddy waters of the Brazos River without a sound, a mangled pile of flesh that had once been the biggest purveyor of black tar heroin in all east Texas (Hunsicker, Harry. “Iced,” 55).

Every time I think back on that night, I can see myself poised at that exact moment in time. I watch the story unfold—it's like watching a movie, you know?--and I wish to God I could relive that instant when I did the unthinkable (Stewart,. Mariah. “Justice Served,” 73).

What happened to Leon is a dirty shame (Stine, R. L., “Roomful of Witnesses,” 111).

“This is where they died?” (Neggers, Carla, “On the Run,” 169).

When the man he'd killed a year ago walked into the bar, Joe Dogan was surprised, So surprised that he fell off his stool (Light, Lawrence. “The Lamented,” 217).

“Give us the manuscript or we'll kill your wife” (Maleeny, Tim. “Suspension of Disbelief,” 271).

It's time to kill my husband. Izaan Bekkar. The forty-eighth president of the United States (Antrim, Kathleen. “Through a Veil Darkly,” 351).

Cussler identifies the key ingredients of the thriller. He provides twenty-three examples. There is no single formula for this type of story, but there are suggestions. Place a protagonist in an intense situation, perhaps in an isolated setting, with what little time remains before a catastrophic event fast running out, and see whether he or she can escape, avert the catastrophe, or otherwise save him- or herself and the day (and maybe the whole planet!) In the process, suggest something about human nature or, at least, a specific specimen of humanity and why life is important, especially when it is lived on the edge.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How "Buffy" Was Written

Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman

In The Watcher’s Guide, Volume 2, the television series’ writer Jane Espenson explains the procedure that she and the other Buffy the Vampire Slayer writers used to develop the show’s scripts.

Before the writers plot the episode, they determine its “emotional arc.” On Buffy, the monsters typically symbolize the emotional states of the show’s characters. In “A New Man,” the episode in which Giles is transformed into a demon by Ethan Rayne, a sorcerer with whom Giles practiced black magic as a youth, the “emotional arc” is alienation: “We talked a lot about alienation,” Espenson says, and, as examples of times when a person may feel alienated, they discussed “what it’s like when your father has a breakdown, what it feels like to be old.”

They also identified Giles’ “concerns” and the source of those concerns, whether the source was “his career” or whether Buffy, who is older and more independent now that she has graduated from high school and attends college, living on campus, loves “him anymore.” In addition, they considered the idea that his girlfriend, Olivia, who had been visiting him from England but had returned there, might decide to break off their relationship and thus might not be “coming back.”

The outcome of their discussion concerning the causes of Giles’ alienation was to decide that “the redemption for Giles comes when Buffy sees him [in his demon form] and recognizes him [as Giles]. And that sort of brings him back. It doesn’t solve all his problems. He’s still not as central to Buffy’s life as he used to be.” Nevertheless, “he knows that she knows him; she saw him; she values him. She was ready to kill the demon, not just in her normal demon-killing way, but with specific revenge in her heart. ‘You killed Giles.’ So we had to have all that before we could even start thinking about what happens in each scene.”

Once the writers have decided upon the episode’s “emotional arc” (alienation”), its cause (Giles’ life seems to be falling apart, especially since Buffy has become more independent), and the resolution of this crisis (he realizes that Buffy does value him), they determine “what happens in each scene.” In doing so, they follow a definite procedure, Espenson points out.

Each episode, she says, is divided into a teaser and four acts. The writing of the script begins by nailing down the “emotional high point” with which each act is to end. The “emotional high point” becomes more climactic at the end of each act. The first “act break” (the end of the act and the beginning of the advertisers’ promotional messages) may be end on a relatively weak “emotional high point,” one that appeals to viewers’ curiosity more than to their emotions per se. The “emotional high point” with which the second act ends, or breaks, is the episode’s climax, or turning point, where things begin to improve or to sour for the protagonist. The third act break identifies the protagonist’s decision with regard to how she plans to resolve the conflict that the earlier acts have set in motion and sets the protagonist or another character in the direction of “ultimate danger.” The fourth act resolves the conflict. Here is the example, complete with explanations, that Espenson offers:

The act breaks is where you start. At the end of each act, which is going to be its emotional high point. You want to make sure the audience comes back after the commercial. . . . At some point [in the discussion of ideas among the writers] Joss [Whedon] will say, “Oh, I’m beginning to see a story here. If this [episode] is about Giles feeling alienated, and we’re going to have Giles turn into a demon, then he should turn into the demon at the end of [act] Two.”

We knew Episode Twelve would have Buffy’s birthday, because it always does, so we knew that was a good way to get Giles feeling alienated early.

At some point Joss just said, “Okay, end of One. Ethan steps out.” He pitched the moment exactly as it appears in the script. He had that whole thing completely in his mind. That was our first-act break.

Second-act break, okay, he’s a demon. Third -act break, Buffy says, “He killed Giles. I’m going to kill him.” So that we have Giles heading for the ultimate danger moment as we head into Act Four.

So it’s the moment in which Joss lays those three moments down, the ends of Acts One, Two, and Three--at that point you’re very close to writing things up on the dry erase board. But not until then. We never start writing anything up there until Joss has decreed the act breaks.
This is The Watcher’s Guide’s summary of the episode; now that Espenson has explained how its “act breaks” are determined in advance, based upon each of the episode’s “emotional arcs,” one can see how the writers gets from point A to point B, and so on, filling in the action between the incident that ends each act. (The book’s authors summarize the action differently than according to its divisions into teaser and acts; here, its sequence has been modified to fit the structure that Espenson indicates is typical of the episode’s construction.)


It’s Episode Twelve, and time for Buffy’s birthday party. This time, it’s a surprise party, and Giles is there as the only guest over twenty-five years of age.

Act I

He’s startled to discover that Buffy has a new boyfriend, and stunned when Willow and Xander casually mention that Riley’s in the Initiative, both of them assuming that he already knew. . . since they, Anya, and Spike know. [His being out of the loop concerning what is going on in Buffy’s personal life suggests that Giles is and feels alienated from her.] Add that to Maggie Walsh’s dismissive attitude toward him, and her opinion that Buffy has lacked a strong male role model, and it’s time for a midlife depression for Giles [in which he feels both expendable and emasculated]. Ethan Rayne, a sorcerer who practices Black Majik and worships chaos, is back in town.

Not seen in Sunnydale since [the episode] “Band Candy,” he commiserates with Giles in the Lucky Pint, a Sunnydale watering hole, about feeling old and useless [this part of the scene reinforces Giles’ feeling of alienation]. He also tells Giles that rumors are flying fast and furious about something called “314,” which has demons quaking in their boots [this is an allusion to a situation that will be revealed in a future episode of the show]. [“Okay, end of One: Ethan steps out.”]

Act II

The two become quite drunk together, and in the morning Giles suffers from more than a hangover. Ethan [has] slipped him something that has turned him into a Fyari demon. He’s hideous, with huge, curved horns, and his speech consists of Fyari grunts and growls. When he goes to Xander’s house and tries to tell him what happened, Xander reacts violently and defends himself with pots and pans. Giles escapes, running through Xander’s neighborhood, prompting a 911 call. [“Second-act break, okay, he’s a demon.’]


While on the run, Giles runs into Spike. It turns out that Spike speaks Fyari, and can, therefore, communicate with him. Spike agrees to help him. . . if Giles will pay. Meanwhile, Buffy, Riley, and the rest of the gang assume that the demon has either kidnapped Giles or killed him--in which case Buffy promises vengeance. She takes from Giles’ desk what she believes to be a silver letter opener; silver is what can kill the Fyari demon. With great glee Giles chases Maggie Walsh down the street--payback to the “fishwife” for her insults. Buffy and Riley go to the magic shop to look for clues. Buffy finds a receipt signed by Ethan Rayne, and with Riley’s help traces Ethan to his crummy motel. Riley tries to tell Buffy that the Initiative will take it from here, but Buffy insists that this is her battle. [“Third -act break, Buffy says, “He killed Giles. I’m going to kill him.”]

Act IV

Together, they go to the motel and discover that Giles (still a demon) is already there, in full demon rage, about to kill the duplicitous sorcerer. Buffy attacks Giles. [”We have Giles heading for the ultimate danger moment as we head into Act Four.”]

Only after she has dealt him a. . . blow [with the silver letter opener, which should kill him] does she recognize him. . . by his eyes. It turns out that the letter opener is made of pewter, not silver. Giles’ life is spared.

After changing Giles back into his human form, Ethan is taken into custody by the military police. When Giles and Buffy talk about what’s happened, he realizes that she loves him like a father and always will. Riley tells Buffy that he likes her strength and her take-charge attitude. Much mutual admiration takes place.

For practice in seeing how the Buffy writers use this approach to write other episodes, one can find both summaries and scripts of each of the show’s episodes at the Internet web site Buffyworld.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nature and Nurture: Character and Setting as Destiny

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

Why did you throw the jack of hearts away?
It was the only card in the deck I had left to play. -- The Doors

During the O. J. Simpson trial, observers claimed that, on his defendant’s behalf, attorney Johnny Cochran played the “race card.” Dancing with the Stars critics said that, in an effort to endear herself to the show’s audience and judges, contestant Marie Osmond played the “sympathy card.” Historians claim that the cards that Wild Bill Hickock was playing, which contained aces and eights, comprise the “dead man’s hand,” because he was shot to death while gambling with them.

These allusions are based upon the old analogy that compares one’s personal attributes and assets to the hand that one is dealt at birth. Life, according to this view, is not just any game; it's a card game. It’s a gamble. The stakes may vary, but the goal is always the same: to play the cards one has been dealt to one’s best advantage in the hope of winning the pot.

Even before poker, the life = game equation was popular. The Tarot deck is based upon this notion, and, as a result, its devotees claim, the Tarot hand that one is dealt can foretell his or her future, or fortune.

Beowulf, a poem that is interesting for many reasons, shows us the same thing that a study of Greek mythology discloses: humans, like the gods themselves, were subject to the whims of fate. To paraphrase Alexander Pope, Zeus (or Beowulf) might propose, but it was the Fates (or fate) who disposed of the issues, or determined the outcome of the events, of the day. In the days of ancient Greece, the Fates, envisioned as three sisters, were the ones who decided how events would play out. In Beowulf, the Fates have become fate, an impersonal force, much as the Norse goddess Hel became the impersonal place, hell, in Christian belief. Nevertheless, in both the worlds of the ancient Greeks and of the medieval Norsemen, Geats included, it was not the gods or humans who had the final say as to how incidents or actions, including their own, would turn out. There was a power higher than theirs, to which their own wills were subject.

Beowulf was told and retold for centuries before it was finally committed to paper. The person who wrote it down for posterity was a Christian, and, upon the pagan folkways and beliefs evident in the poem, the scribe overlaid references to Christian faith and doctrine. As a result, there is an uneasy alliance between the pagan and the Christian world views that is incompatible and conflicting. Some may suppose that this duality of vision weakens the poem, but it may be argued that the juxtaposition of these two Weltanschauung, in fact, enriches the narrative. The poem shows what the Norse philosophy of life and social values were before their Christian conversion and what they were becoming during, and would be after, this conversion. For example, before, Beowulf attributed his victories over his foes to fate; afterward, he credits them to God’s will. This twofold attribution of success indicates that, gradually, the idea that it is an impersonal fate that determines the affairs of humans was being replaced by the belief that God’s will is the determinant of such outcomes. In other words, fate becomes God's will. The doctrine of predestination develops this idea with rigorous logic, making humans little more than automatons whose behavior consists of little more than actions that are programmed from the beginning--that is, from eternity--by the will of God.

In the pagan world, the cards one is dealt would have been said to have been dealt by the Fates or by fate. In the Christian world, it is God who deals the cards.

A person might be dealt any of the 22 Major Arcana cards or the 14 Minor Arcana cards of the Tarot deck. All of these cards signified and brought about particular things. Today, people don’t usually think of a person as having any particular set of cards of such a predetermined nature in the hands that fate or God deals to him or her. Instead, whatever personal attributes and assets a person has or accumulates are usually considered the cards that he or she has been dealt. Over time, the cards in a person’s hand may change as one is lost or another is acquired. Were we to apply this concept to Beowulf, we might say that his cards included courage, unusually great strength and stamina, martial prowess, longevity, wisdom, loyalty, compassion, great wealth, popularity, and kingship. When circumstances warranted his doing so, he might play one or more of these cards. In his fights with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, he played his courage, strength and stamina, and martial prowess cards; as king, he played his loyalty, compassion, and wisdom cards.

Human destiny is complex and impossible to know in advance. Life seems to be a gamble. We also sometimes do not know the full extent of our personal attributes and assets until we are, as it were, called upon by circumstances to use them. We are not always privy to every card in our hands; sometimes, some must be played from a face-down position. Luck (in pagan terms) or divine will (in Christian terms) has a role to play as well. By using such metaphors and analogies as life = gamble, life = game, and one’s personal attributes and assets = a hand of cards, we reduce these complex sets of incidents, circumstances, and actions to simpler, more understandable ideas. Whether any of these ideas is objectively true is perhaps unknowable, but they are, at least, true to one’s sense of how things are and of how things work. They seem to explain. They make sense to us emotionally, if not rationally.

What does all this have to do with character and setting? Writers play God (or fate) when they write stories. The writer is the one who deals the cards that the characters must play, giving or withholding this personal attribute or that individual asset. It was the writer--and the group of storytellers before him--who gave Beowulf his courage, unusually great strength and stamina, martial prowess, longevity, wisdom, loyalty, compassion, great wealth, popularity, and kingship, just as it was Charles Dickens, for example, who gave Ebenezer Scrooge his greed and stinginess, his callous disregard for others, and his capacities--at first unrealized--for compassion, sympathy, and love.

The cards that writers deal to their characters represent the genetic inheritance of these imaginary persons. But genetics is only one influence, as scientists remind us, that affects--and determines--behavior. We’re products of our environments as much as we are the products of our genes. Both nature and nurture make us who and what we are and who and what we become.

If the personal attributes and assets of the individual character represent his or her genetic inheritance, as it were, what represents the character’s environment? In fiction, the setting is the time, the place, and the cultural milieu into which the character is born. The setting may be past, present, or future. It may involve a tyranny, a theocracy, a monarchy, an oligarchy, or a democracy. It may be secular or religious. It may be amoral, moral, or immoral. It may be a universe or the microcosm of a total institution, such as a boarding school or a prison. It may be a metropolis or an island. It may be urban, suburban, or rural. It may be a rain forest or a desert, a castle or a shanty, this world or another planet in a galaxy far, far away; it may even be heaven or hell. Obviously, if a character were born into or lives in any one of these settings, his or her development would differ--in many cases, radically--from his or her development in another setting. Beowulf, both because of the cards he’s dealt and the time and place in which he lives, is a very different character than Ebenezer Scrooge!

By giving characters specific attributes and assets and by setting their lives in particular times, places, and cultural milieus, writers mimic the genetic and environmental aspects of human existence, providing their imaginary people with the gifts of nature and nurture that actual humans receive from evolution, geography, and culture. Whereas, for people, these gifts are likely to be seen as the effects of accident, luck, or grace, there’s no doubt as to who provides them to fictional characters, and they are given deliberately so that each character can fulfill his or her role in the drama the author has determined to create. The writer, depending upon one’s perspective, is, for his or her characters, fate or god.

The Horror of the Incongruous

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

When something is deemed incongruous, it is (if not amusing) often horrifying. We are not shocked or appalled by the sight of a centaur, a mermaid, a minotaur, or a satyr, largely because, although grotesque, they have become familiar to us. However, the dog with the human head that appears briefly in the remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a truly horrifying image. We’ve never been confronted with such a sight; consequently, we are shocked and repulsed by the sight of the canine body with the human head--and face. At one time, of course, the centaur, the mermaid, the minotaur, and the satyr were, likewise, horrifying creatures.

That which we deem to be unseemly, indecorous, unsuitable, inappropriate, or incongruous, we consider unfitting--but unfit for what? For our neat existential categories, in which all things must be either mineral, plant, or animal. In a world in which a plant must be a plant and an animal must be an animal, there’s no room for a Swamp-Thing. In a world in which an animal must be an animal and a human being must be a human being, there’s no place for a dog with a human head. We want our categories neat and tight. When they’re not, we react with shock and revulsion, with fear and trembling, preparing to fight or to take flight. Often, when we are in the presence of the incongruous, we are in the presence of the horrible, the terrible, the disgusting, and the fearsome.

There are many such intersections. Adolescents intersect childhood and adulthood. If they are female, they intersect girlhood and womanhood; if male, boyhood and manhood. As anyone who’s survived this period knows, adolescence--the teenage years--is fraught with horror. Many horror films capitalize on teen angst, setting their stories in high schools. Another intersection (point of incongruity) is that of the animal-human, as we have seen, which gives rise not only to the fantastic half-animal, half-human creatures of ancient mythology, Greek, Egyptian, and otherwise, but also to such horror staples as werewolves. Once-beautiful, disfigured women intersect beauty and ugliness. Cripples, especially amputees, intersect wholeness and injury, just as victims of plagues intersect health and sickness. Ghosts and other revenants, including vampires and zombies, intersect the worlds of the living and the dead. Seemingly normal men, such as Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, or John Wayne Gacy, like Norman Bates, intersect sanity and madness.

Like Bifrost, the rainbow Bridge of Norse mythology, such points of incongruity unite two worlds, or polar opposites. One is normal or acceptable; the other is abnormal or improper. Unlike Bifrost, however, these points of intersection are themselves considered undesirable, repelling rather than attracting travelers. Why? They upset the applecart. They blur the categories we’ve established that divide and subdivide our world and our experience, thereby calling into question our understanding of both our environment and ourselves--in short, nature itself. If we don’t know as much as we thought we knew about the universe, maybe we don’t really comprehend it at all. If there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in our “philosophy,” as Hamlet tells Horatio, perhaps the cosmos is an alien place. It may indifferent to human beings and their fate, as H. P. Lovecraft suggests, or it may even be hostile to us, as H. G. Wells and others have implied.

If we understand the universe, we are at home in it. If we don’t understand it, we are less at home in it. Maybe we are not at all at home in it. It’s hard to feel at ease and comfortable when one is always looking over one’s shoulder for a lamia or an alien life form that might not be recognizable to us as intelligent, or even as alive--until it’s too late. That’s the horror of the incongruous, of that which doesn’t quite fit our view of things, our understanding of how things are and are ‘sposed to be.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What’s So Scary About Horror Movies?

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

What makes a horror movie scary? Why do some films frighten us while others don’t send similar chills up and down our spines? Why is Stephen King a master of this genre, both in its printed and motion picture forms? What’s the difference between a truly frightening horror movie and a merely horrible one? By analyzing those moments of fright and horror, perhaps some clues may be pieced together, allowing us to discern just what is so scary about horror movies. As a result, we can both better appreciate the techniques of the horror maestros and, if we are ourselves writers of horror fiction, improve our own work.

One way to analyze what scares people is to ask them. Fans of the genre maintain web sites, respond to interviews, rate movies, and keep blogs concerning what they like and don’t like about horror films. Since these individuals represent the market for which you are writing or intend to write, their comments, observations, points of view, praise, complaints, and questions are a goldmine waiting to be excavated.

Another way to discover what’s scary about horror fiction is to read interviews on the subject by the masters of the genre. Many of these interviews are available online or in the back issues of magazines available at your local library. You can also type in a phrase such as “what’s so scary about horror movies?” or “scary horror movies” into an Internet search engine’s window and see what results occur. Of course, another way to find out what scares the hell out of moviegoers (and readers) is to watch horror movies (or read horror stories)--and take notes!

As you visit these sites and read horror stories or watch horror movies, make a list of your insights and thoughts about the question, What’s so scary about horror movies? Before long, you’ll have a huge list. Remember, though, you’re not interested in summarizing the plot per se. Instead, you’re interested in identifying frightening moments in the film or story and understanding why these incidents scared you.

Your list might contain some of these elements:

Unexpected shock: something springs out of a closet, falls from the ceiling, bursts through the floorboards, or springs upon a character from behind, seemingly having come out of nowhere. Another example is the sudden and immediate disfigurement or dismemberment of a character. Reflections, especially strange and incongruous images, in a mirror or other glass surface can also frighten.

Red Herring: one incident occurs, such as an unexpected shock, that distracts us from the big scary moment that is just about to occur. For example, a cat springs at the character, screeching, and scares the hell out of us just before the axe murderer buries his weapon in the character’s abdomen or back.

Scary Music and Other Tone Setters: the soundtrack plays jarring, or frantic, music that sets up the expectation that something nasty is about to happen; what follows is something nasty--or a red herring. A thunderstorm is an old stand-in for such discordant music. The interplay of light with shadows, like weather and musical effects, sets the tone (horror) in many horror movies; printed horror fiction uses descriptions and juxtapositions to accomplish the same purpose.

Lights Out: a character is knocked unconscious, by the villain or by an accidental fall, only to awaken in deep, hot water, metaphorically speaking, a laThe Pit and the Pendulum.”

Gross Out!: Stephen King says he will scare his readers if he can and disgust them if he must. Blood, guts, and gore usually do the trick.

Dead Meat: showing or describing skeletons or corpses, especially partially decomposed bodies, horrifies and disgusts.

Stalking: the monster stalks the protagonist, sneaking up on him or her, or ambushes him or her; the stalking or the ambush is “previewed” for the reader or the moviegoer, however, rather than occurring as an unexpected shock: we see the villain sneaking up on or lying in wait for the main character, so we anticipate the bad guy’s next move (but the protagonist doesn’t).

Being Watched: showing the main character being watched by someone gives moviegoers and readers the willies.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Expressions of Horror: Emotional Storylines

Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King admits, “If I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” These two emotions--horror and disgust--are viewed by many as the two main emotions--some might argue the only emotions--that horror fiction evokes.

However, King doesn’t believe that himself, nor, it seems likely, does any other writer or editor of horror stories, any writer or director of horror films. Like any other genre of literature, horror fiction makes use of a range and variety of emotions--and mental states or conditions--among which are the following:

Desperation (Mrs. Cornelia Hilyard embodies desperation when she begs stranger to assist her in Lady in a Cage.)

Humiliation (In Dahmer, Jeffrey Dahmer is humiliated when his father discovers that the mannequin that his son stole and dresses is a male, rather than a female, mannequin.)

Grief (Both Dr. David Callaway and his daughter Emily express grief following the death of David's wife [Emily's mother]).

Curiosity (Caroline Ellis’ curiosity as to what lies behind the locked attic room gets her killed in The Skeleton Key.)

Anxiety (Marion Crane exemplifies this emotion at the start of Psycho, both before and after she absconds with her boss’ money and particularly when she is followed by the state police officer after she has left town with the stolen loot.)

Madness (Norman Bates’ close ups at the end of Psycho, when he has, for all intents and purposes become his dead mother, illustrate this emotion.).

Vulnerability (Jane Hudson personifies this condition in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.)

Sadistic delight (Tuesday Wells reflects sadistic delight as a murderess in Pretty Poison.)

Wonder (Marte in Day of Wrath emotes wonder.)

Innocence (Regan MacNeil is the very picture of innocence--before and after she is possessed in The Exorcist.)

Hysteria (Heather Donahue, in tears in The Blair Witch Project, expresses hysteria as she videotapes herself.)

Ecstasy (Catherine Ballard, in Crash, experiences ecstasy.)

Shock (Juno is shocked when she accidentally kills her friend Beth in The Descent.)

Revulsion (Andre Delambre is repulsed at his personal appearance after he becomes a human fly in The Fly; the human body, especially its sexual parts and aspects, is a source of repulsion for characters in body horror films, such as many of David Cronenberg's movies.)

A series of such emotions can, in fact, create what might be called an emotional storyline. The looks of anxiety, indecision, anxiety, relief, disturbance, repentance, shock, fear, and horror on Marion Crane’s face in Psycho, for example, both complement the film’s action and are complemented, in return, by the film’s action as these expressions tell--or show--the story, in their own way, as much as the overt action and dialogue do. The same is true of other horror films--or for movies in general, for that matter. Often, in fact, such emotional storylines follow formulas such as the one suggested by the expression “curiosity killed the cat” (The Skeleton Key is an example: Caroline Ellis’ curiosity as to what lies behind the locked attic room gets her killed.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Plausible Motivations

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

In life, people sometimes do things for no reason, just for the hell of it. In fiction, however, characters, like litigants in a courtroom, always have a reason--although not always a good reason--for doing what they do. When they undertake large-scale endeavors that require cooperative participation among many individuals, there's generally a correspondingly colossal motive to inspire such massive, purposeful interaction.

We've divided motives for characters' conduct into two broad categories and listed some motives that are plausible for actions among many people (or characters) operating in support of a common cause.

I. International, National, and Regional Scale
  • Colonization
  • Commission of genocide
  • Conducting commerce and trade
  • Conducting crime fighting and law enforcement activities
  • Conducting diplomatic missions
  • Conducting homesteading activities
  • Conducting missionary activities
  • Conducting scientific research
  • Conducting search and rescue missions
  • Exploration of new worlds or uncharted territory
  • Freeing of an enslaved people
  • Maintenance of prisons
  • Mining
  • Piracy
  • Pursuit of the freedom to worship
  • Showcasing of art and culture
  • Waging of war
II. Community and Personal Scale
  • Attending weddings and funerals
  • Camping outdoors
  • Conducting crime fighting and law enforcement activities
  • Conducting home-improvement projects
  • Conducting landscaping or community beautification projects
  • Conducting political campaigns
  • Courting; dating (Species)
  • Educating oneself or one’s family; educating the local citizenry
  • Engaging in sports
  • Engaging in social protests
  • Enjoying family vacations; traveling
  • Entertaining or being entertained
  • Fishing, hunting, or shopping
  • Participating in children’s and family activities
  • Partying
  • Production of art and cultural artifacts
  • Protecting one’s family
  • Working to provide for one’s family
  • Worshiping at a local church
In addition to such general motivations, some spurs to action are more apt to be found in stories that involve the fantastic and the bizarre, including horror fiction:
  • Biological or viral contamination (Earthly or otherworldly); disease or plague
  • Cryptozoology
  • Demonic possession or other supernatural or paranormal intervention (including magic)
  • Extraterrestrial intervention
  • Genetic mutations
  • Inter-dimensional travel
  • Nuclear holocaust
  • Paranormal influences
  • Parasitism
  • Psychosis
  • Radiation poisoning
  • Scientific experiments gone awry; unintended use of technology
Many more conventional (historical) reasons and causes are adapted to fantasy, horror, and science fiction as well, as when an extraterrestrial army attacks Earth, Earth’s scientists colonize another planet, mining operations are conducted on alien planets, other planets are converted into prisons, and so forth.

Horror Film Structure: Some Thoughts, None Definitive

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
“Analyses of film structure are never theory-neutral . . . . Once the analyst determines which of the many events in a film are the most salient in the light of his theory, he builds a structure that supports his theory” (George Ochoa, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, 38)

Plot Structure of Jaws, seen as a three-act story (Syd Field):

Act 1: Ends with arrival of shark scientist Hooper on Amity Island.
Act 2: Ends with shark hunter Quint’s story about surviving a shark’s attack in World War II.
Act 3: Ends with the destruction of the shark.

Plot Structure of Jaws, seen as a four-act story (Noel Carroll):

Act 1: Onset: The shark makes its initial attack.
Act 2: Discovery: Police Chief Brody discovers evidence of a shark attack.
Act 3: Confirmation: Brody convinces the mayor to hire Quint to fight the shark.
Act 4: The shark is hunted and destroyed.

Plot Structure of Jaws, seen as a two-act story (Ochoa and Carl Gottlieb, co-screenwriter of Jaws):*

Act 1: The shark attacks.
Act 2: The shark is destroyed.

*”Appropriately generalized, these two acts can be considered the basic structure of all horror movies:

“1. Attack of the DDB: The DDB attacks one or more normals, often repeatedly.“2. Final battle: A climactic confrontation occurs that involves both DDB and one or more normals. It is usually a head-on DDB-normal clash, though it may involve a clash of two or more DDBs“ (38).

“Since knowing the DDB is the primary purpose of the horror film, these two acts are the basic components of horror film structure” (39); the “details” that “are. . . overlooked” by this generalized description of horror film structure, when identified, indicate “common alternatives for how to present the DDB through its conflict with normals--the central narrative idea of the horror film” (40).

“One common elaboration is to add another act at the outset, the entrance of the DDB” so that it becomes ‘;apparent at least to the audience, and sometimes to the normals. He begins to display his deformity, which may be further revealed in later acts. An example of this three-act structure is The Abominable Dr. Phibes:

“1. Entrance of the DDB: A hooded Dr. Phibes plays his organ and dances with his assistant Vulnavia, then puts his face together in preparation for going out to a murder.
“2. Attack of the DDB: Phibes kills his first offscreen victims, then kills more.
“3. Final battle: Dr. Vesalius saves his son from Phibes’s wrath, although Phibes eludes capture” (40).
Note: This is how I see the plot of the typical horror film: Act 1: A bizarre incidents occur. Act 2: Additional, seemingly unconnected, bizarre incidents occur. Act 3. The protagonist, aided or unaided, discovers the cause of the bizarre incidents, all of which are, in fact, related to one another. Act 4: Using his or her newfound knowledge as to the cause of the bizarre incidents (often the presence of a monster), the protagonist, aided or unaided, puts an end to the incidents, thereby restoring order.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Metaphorical Monsters

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

In high school, we learned that a metaphor is a figure of speech that explicitly states a comparison between two different things. Metaphors help us to unify experience, showing us how A and B, although mostly quite different, are also alike in some way.

I prefer a different definition for the term. I like to think of a metaphor as a verbal, or linguistic, equation. In this view, the metaphor isn’t simply stating that there’s a likeness, or similarity, between two different persons, places, or things. Instead, the metaphor is asserting that the two mean the same thing. If the metaphor is “fog blinds,” we’re saying fog = blindness, as, for instance, in math, 2 + 2 = 4.

One reason that I prefer the equation to the figure of speech concept is that the terms in an equation can be swapped with one another. If 2 + 2 = 4, then 4 = 2 + 2. Likewise, if a metaphor is considered an equation, fog = blindness can be recast as blindness = fog. This way of thinking helps a writer to remember clearly the significance of his or metaphors. When monsters are involved, remembering what one is about is important!

In horror fiction, monsters = metaphors; therefore, metaphors = monsters. This chart shows some of the metaphors that writers have employed to suggest comparisons between one thing and another:

There are many others as well, of course. Perhaps we will explore some of the others in future installments.

Some metaphors operate at several levels at the same time, creating a sort of chain of associations. These associations may be literal, symbolic, existential, and spiritual. Here’s an example, using fog:
The symbolic, or metaphorical, term in the first equation links fog with blindness. Fog, if it is thick and pervasive enough, can rob us of our ability to see clearly. It can blind us, as it were. Therefore, fog can be equated with blindness, as it is in the implied metaphor, fog = blindness. Notice, however, that these associations can be extended so that the literal-metaphorical becomes existential as well: blindness = fear of the unknown. What do children fear when the lights go out at night? We say that they are afraid of the dark, but what they actually fear is what may be there, unseen, with them in their bedrooms, invisible in the darkness. They fear the unknown. Therefore, blindness (a form of darkness, in a sense) = fear of the unknown. The chain of associations can be carried further, as the chart demonstrates. Why do we fear the unknown? We fear it because it may threaten us with harm or even death: fear of the unknown = death. Depending upon one’s religious convictions or lack thereof, death, in turn, equals either annihilation or, possibly, damnation--an eternity of torment in hell, cut off from both man and God: death = annihilation or death = damnation. (Of course, it could also equal an eternity of bliss in heaven [death= heaven], surrounded by fellow souls in the presence of God, but we are talking horror here, and, therefore, loss, not gain.)

The same way that some metaphorical equations can be extended so that they form a chain of associations, literal, metaphorical, existential, and spiritual, others can as well. The vampire is an especially rich and evocative possibility. Usually, those equations that can be so extended are the most effective ones for literature, whether of the horror genre or otherwise, because they furnish a broad plain upon which to explore the literal, the symbolic, the existential, and the spiritual aspects of the themes they involve.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Basic Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror Plots

Copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

My analysis of a number of horror novels, short stories, and movies has turned up no fewer than two dozen plots that are routinely used in horror, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and other genres of popular fiction. Don’t be surprised if they pop up in a few classic literary texts, too.

Invasion: An outside threat attacks a community. The community may be idealized, as a near-perfect place to live. Many residents are likely to be introduced. The reader is apt to like or sympathize with many of them. A few may be unlikable because they are arrogant, condescending, cruel, obscene, racist, or unfaithful. Some of these may become victims of the entity or force that attacks the community. Although the community may be a total institution, such as a hospice, a hotel, a nursing home, a private school, or a prison, it is often an entire town. A community, to some extent, may be regarded as an extension of one's home, as the term "hometown" suggests; therefore, one's neighbors may be regarded as one's extended family. In attacking a community, the invader is attacking one's home and family, both immediate and extended. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Invasion plot are Invaders From Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Relic, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, Desperation, The Regulators, Summer of Night, The Taking, and Stinger. A non-fantasy/horror/science fiction story that is based on the Invasion plot is Taps, in which the students at a military academy repel an attempt by the police to shut down the school (to allow its conversion into a condominium complex) and, ultimately, take on the National Guard. Prototype: Satan’s invasion of the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

Fools Rush In: Characters enter the monster’s lair: To conduct a rescue, to neutralize a threat, to capture an unusual animal, to gather plants that may be the source for a new miracle drug, to conduct scientific research, or for a number of other (sometimes foolish) reasons, a character or, more often, a team of characters, enters the place in which a dangerous entity or force resides or is located, and the entity or force protects its territory with disastrous results for the character or team that has entered its lair. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Fools Rush In plot include Alien, Predator, King Kong, Anaconda, Subterranean, and Descent.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Characters seek to capture, kill, or otherwise abuse or exploit a monster: This plot is a subtype of the fools rush in plot in which a character or team of characters enters the territory of an unusual organism specifically to capture it or to kill it. The reason for wanting to capture it varies. The capture may be for the purpose of displaying the organism, studying it, or neutralizing it. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Let Sleeping Dogs Lie plot are King Kong, Anaconda, and Predator.

Serendipity: A chance discovery leads to mayhem. The Thing, Alien, and Rendezvous With Rama are based on the Serendipity plot. Prototype: Pandora’s Box।

Hubris: Pride goes before a fall: (Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, The Island of Dr. Moreau). Prototype: Satan’s rebellion against God in Paradise Lost, which is suggested, but not dramatized, in the Bible.

Deliverance: A hero or a company of heroes seeks to slay or otherwise get rid of a monster: Often, this plot, although it can stand alone, is an extension of the Invasion plot. Once the invader has invaded, one or more characters seek to deliver the community by evicting the invader. Occasionally, the character or characters may travel from one location to another in pursuit of the invader, driving him, her, or it from one invaded community after another. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Deliverance plot are Beowulf, The Exorcist, It, Summer of Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Taking. Examples of non-fantasy/horror/science fiction stories that are based on the Deliverance plot are Have Gun, Will Travel, The A Team, and Pale Rider. In Have Gun, Will Travel, a gunfighter offers his services for hire, sometimes in the deliverance of a town that is being run by corrupt officials and their hired guns. The A Team is a group of four Vietnam veterans, framed for a crime they didn't commit, who help the innocent while on the run from the military; often, their help consists of ridding a town or a group of people of a bully. In Pale Rider, a gunfighter poses as a preacher for a group of gold prospectors, delivering them from local gunmen when he seeks revenge for having been shot and whipped by the gunmen and their leader. Prototype: Moses’ deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in Exodus.

Call To Duty: A prophecy must be fulfilled, a quest must be undertaken, or a mission must be accomplished: Often the call to duty has worldwide, or even cosmic, implications and long-lasting, or even eternal, consequences and may involve supernatural entities and forces, including God and his angels or Satan and his demons. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Call to Duty plot are Excalibur!, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, It, and Summer of Night. Prototype: Abraham’s call to become the “father of many nations,” which was preceded, on a smaller scale, by God’s call to Noah to build the ark that saves a remnant of humanity (Noah and his family) from the universal flood of God’s wrath against sin.

Need To Feed: A monster is hungry; people are its food: To survive, characters must figure out a way to outsmart or circumvent the monster. The Need To Feed plot may be regarded as the Freudian oral stage of psychosexual development out of control. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Need To Feed plot are Tremors, Jaws, and Dracula.

Need To Breed: A monster needs to reproduce, but, to do so, it requires a human mate: A search, with a series of fatalities, may be needed before the monster can find the right mate with which to breed, and the breeding itself may have fatal consequences to the human partner. Sometimes, the Need To Breed takes a technological rather than a biological form, as in Rejuvenator and Demon Seed. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Need To Feed plot are Species, Rosemary‘s Baby, and Demon Seed.

Something To Prove: The main character has something to prove--courage, innocence, judgment: Jurassic Park is, in part, based on the Something To Prove plot.

Too Good To Be True: Beware a bargain! The main character makes a deal, usually with the devil, only to find that the price that he or she must pay far outweighs the benefits, power, or gift that he or she receives in exchange: (“What profits a man who gains the world and loses his own soul?”) Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Too Good To Be True plot are Faust, The Amityville Horror, Needful Things, and The Devil’s Apprentice.

Redemption or Assuaged Guilt: A character attempts to redeem him- or herself or someone else (a family member or a friend) for a past misdeed: Usually, the past misdeeds will be monstrous--far greater wrongs than are done by most other people (matricide, patricide, the killing of a sibling, rape, perjury that results in another person’s imprisonment or execution)-- and, consequently, the redemption, if it comes at all, will be a laborious and protracted process. Often, the character will doubt that he or she can ever be pardoned or forgiven and that, for him or her, the whole process is futile; nevertheless, out of a guilt and a sense, perhaps, of moral responsibility, if not hope for ultimate redemption, the tortured character will persist in performing his or her penance. Example of stories that are based on the Assuaged Guilt plot are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Angel. Prototype: The redemption of humanity in Christ, as told in the Gospels.

Avengers, Assemble!: A wronged person seeks revenge (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The X-Men). Non-fantasy/horror/science fiction movies that are based on the Avengers, Assemble! plot are Sudden Impact, in which the sister of a woman whose gang rape caused her to become catatonic becomes a vigilante, avenging her sister by tracking down and killing her assailants; Rolling Thunder, in which a war hero seeks revenge against the thugs who, in stealing silver dollars from him, kill his wife and son and destroy his hand; and the Death Wish series, in which A New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad against those who have killed his wife, his daughter, and other innocent people.

The Devil Made Me Do It: A character does evil because he or she is possessed by the devil or a demon or is the literal or figurative child of Satan: Examples of novels and movies that are based on The Devil Made Me Do It plot are The Exorcist, The Omen, Faust, The Regulators, Desperation, and The Devil‘s Advocate). Prototype: Satan’s tempting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis.

Greed: Greed outweighs common sense and decency; as a result, someone is usually maimed or killed: In part, King Kong, Jaws, and Poltergeist are based on the Greed plot.

People Are Such Animals!: Men and women turn into beasts: Such transformation stories tap into the sometimes-fine line between the human and the bestial, suggesting that, despite art, culture, and civilization, human beings are closer to the so-called lower animals than they’d care to admit and may act on the same instincts as those upon which animals act, especially on the need to feed and the need to breed. Usually, the only way to end the nightmare is to kill the beast. Examples of novels and films that are based on the People Are Such Animals! Plot are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Wolfman, The Howling, and Silver Bullet.

Experiment Goes Awry: A mad scientist’s research runs amuck: This is often a subtype of the Hubris plot, the scientist’s arrogance leading to his or her manipulation of nature with disastrous, unforeseen effects. Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Invasion plot are Frankenstein, The Fly, The Island of Dr, Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The Food of the Gods.

Cannibals: Human monsters enjoy gourmet food--people: Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Cannibals plot are Soylent Green, The Silence of the Lambs, The Hills Have Eyes, and Ravenous.

Wrong Turn: A simple mistake or a purposeful cover up has fatal consequences: Wrong Turn and I Know What You Did Last Summer are based on the Wrong Turn plot.

Ragnarok: Something or someone is trying to end the world, often as a prelude to establishing a world of its own: This plot differs from the Invasion plot because the antagonist’s threat is not merely occupation but the annihilation of the invaded community, and the community is not merely a total institution or a town, but the entire world (although the annihilation may begin on a local scale). Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Ragnarok plot are War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars, and The Taking. Prototypes: Revelation in the Bible, Ragnarok (in Norse mythology).

Starting Over: Having survived an apocalyptic catastrophe, natural or man-made, such as a universal flood, a nuclear holocaust, or a plague, a remnant of humanity overcomes extreme hardship and dangers as they rebuild their lost civilization. This plot requires a vast setting and many characters. Often, several small groups will compete against one another for dominance or to become the sole survival, Examples of novels and movies that are based on the Post-apocalyptic Starting Over plot are Damnation Alley, The Stand, Swan’s Song, A Boy and His Dog, The Omega Man, and Road Warrior (a. k. a. Mad Max II).

Dystopia: The world has gone to hell, without the hand basket: The dystopian world is the opposite of a utopia, or heaven on earth, in which, frequently, human beings have been reduced to slavery and are ruled by a ruthless, often barbaric, elite. George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are non-horror examples, as is Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Do or Die: A heroic character must complete a series of tasks or he or someone he loves will be killed; sometimes, a clock is ticking: An examples of a story that is based on the Do or Die plot is Dean Koontz's Velocity. Prototype: The 12 Labors of Hercules.

Copycat Killers: Crimes (usually murder) are based on urban legends or are copied from other, previous crimes. Often, in committing these crimes, the perpetrator seeks to share the notoriety of the original criminal (Urban Legends).

Building Up the Plot

The 24 basic plots identified above may be too simple, by themselves, to keep readers or moviegoers interested in the story. However, they provide the foundation for building a more complex plot that will keep readers or audience members’ interest. These are some ways that writers build from the 24 simple plots to more complex plots:

Outer and Inner: Relate the basic plot’s outer (natural or social) conflict to the protagonist’s inner (psychological) conflict: For example, in The Exorcist, the battle is between the priest and the devil, but it is also a struggle between the priest and himself, as he tries to hold on to the tattered remnants of his faith, which was shattered by his mother’s protracted suffering and death (a concrete example of the philosophical concern for the so-called problem of evil).

Bigger Is Better: Relate the basic plot’s outer conflict to an area of human concern (religion, politics, art, science) that is bigger than the protagonist and his or her immediate concerns: In Pale Rider, the protagonist avenges himself against sadistic men who shot and beat him; in the process, he prevents similar men from expelling gold prospectors from their goldfield and the denial of the better life that they hope to create for their families with the gold that they find. The individual, while serving his own needs, serves those of the community (or the world).

Fantastic Reality: The basic plot’s outer plot, especially if it is fantastic, can be related to a realistic psychological, social, or other outer struggle: In King Kong, the film producer who captures the giant ape hopes that, by displaying it for admission, he can avert the financial ruin that threatens him during the Great Depression.

Metaphorical Monsters: Make the monster a metaphor for a real-life problem that the protagonist faces (neglect, ostracism, drug addiction, spousal abuse); by vanquishing the monster (if vanquish it he or she does), the main character finds acceptance, self-acceptance, or freedom: In “Dead Man’s Party,” Buffy Summers attacks zombies which, as her friend Xander Harris informs her (and the viewer), are symbolic of thoughts, attitudes, and emotions that she has sought to repress: “You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get you.”

Social Commentary: Like Huckleberry Finn, fantasy/science fiction/and horror novels and movies can provide social commentary about current events or eternal questions, examining such topics as dehumanization, euthanasia, interracial marriage, poverty, racism, religious intolerance, or repression of free speech, or war: The Regulators examines the negative effect of children’s television, particularly its violent content, on children’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Children of the Corn shows the murderous and suicidal results of an unquestioned devotion to religious doctrine. ‘Salem’s Lot and Needful Things shows the conformity, hypocrisy, corruption, and greed that often underlies the ideal image of the American small town.

Questioning Politically Correct Assumptions: Some fantasy/science fiction/and horror novels and movies question politically correct assumptions, one of which is that xenophobia is unnecessary and bigoted: Since it is directed at anyone who is a stranger, xenophobia is the most general form of bigotry, indiscriminate in its prejudice. One should welcome, not fear, strangers, critics of xenophobia contend. Such novels and movies as Childhood’s End challenge the truth of the politically correct assumptions behind xenophobia’s critics’ contentions. Offering friendship to strangers, these stories suggest, could get a person--or an entire people--or the whole human race--destroyed.

This Is That: This treatment of the basic plot is similar to that of the Bigger Is Better and the Metaphorical Monster treatment: In fact, it is a combination, of sorts, of these two treatments in which one state of affairs is a metaphor or an analogy for another, greater state of affairs that is similar to it. An example is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which some critics contend, is, paradoxically, simultaneously both “an allegory for the loss of personal autonomy under Communism and as a satire of McCarthyist paranoia about Communism” (Wikipedia article on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 film)”). A non-fantasy/science fiction/horror story that uses a This Is That plot treatment is Animal Farm, in which the farm represents a Communist society (Soviet Russia) ruled by an elite (the Communist Party, headed by Vladimir Lenin.)

Strength In Numbers: This treatment suggests the importance of community or at least cooperation among individuals, for it demonstrates that by such means, a group may vanquish a threat that individuals alone could not hope to conquer: Examples of this treatment abound and include It, Summer of Night, ‘Salem’s Lot, Desperation, The Regulators, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, Excalibur!, The X-Men, Tremors, and many others.

New World Exploration: Another way to build a simple plot into a more complex one is to set the action in an undiscovered or new world. This treatment is especially appropriate for fantasy and science fiction novels. Even in novels set in the everyday world, a fresh perspective on a familiar environment can make the familiar seem unusual or bizarre. (Situation comedies often use this technique, making the main character or characters new kids on the block or fish out of water, as it were.) By displacing them from a familiar to a strange environment, writers broaden these characters’ experience; at the same time, writers can depict the new environment as it is seen by the displaced person. James Rollins frequently employs this technique in his novels, as do the writers of The Beverly Hillbillies television series.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How To Create Monstrous Monsters

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

How to create monstrous monsters is a question that pretty much all horror writers will face, usually sooner than later. It’s one of the many challenges that sets us apart from writers of say, romance fiction (unless the leading man is really, really undesirable).

So how do we create monstrous monsters?

One effective way is to follow the lead of our ancient predecessors, the makers of myth who lived, as Edgar Allan Poe might say, “many and many a year ago,” although not necessarily “in a kingdom by the sea.”

In an early attempt to demythologize mythical beasts, the basilisk was once thought to have resulted from a misshapen egg laid by a cock--that’s right, the rooster, not the hen (the beast was also known as a cockatrice). Mistaking the odd egg for one of its own, a maternal cobra hatched it, it was said. Even at the time, however, a detractor found this explanation more incredible than the mythical beast itself.

Since then, explanations have become more believable.

Scientists think that some mythical creatures (many of which are monsters) are based upon real-life counterparts.

Some, they say, are based on misinterpretations of fossilized dinosaur bones.

According to their view, the ancients, believing the skeletons were the remains of animals that had died later rather than sooner (and having no idea that the earth was millions of years old), mistook these giant skeletons for creatures who’d gasped their last gasp relatively recently. If there was one such creature, the early mythmakers believed, there were likely to have been--and might still be--others lurking nearby.

As the American Museum of Natural History’s “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns, & Mermaids” points out, the notion of the one-eyed Cyclops could have derived from the discovery of a wooly mammoth’s skull, its more-or-less centralized nasal cavity mistaken for the socket of the creature’s single eye.

Likewise, the museum’s article observes, the griffin might have been based upon the skeletal remains of a Protoceratops, and the roc might have been inspired by the discovery of the fossilized bones of the gigantic, prehistoric Aepyornis, native to Madagascar, which attained a height of 10 feet and tipped the scales at about half a ton--and from the Mongol emperor Kubla Khan’s mistaking a palm frond for a feather of the fabled bird.

Other mythological monsters are thought to have derived from similar real-life lineages. Centaurs are believed to have been fanciful descriptions of nomad horsemen, the likes of whom ancient Greeks had never seen before. The many-headed hydra that Hercules, with a little--all right, a lot--of help from his nephew Iolaus, killed could have been a personification of an unruly river delta that the Greeks were able, finally, to bring under their control. The Gorgons, Ms. Medusa included, are thought to be based upon images of a snake-headed woman’s stone face. A likeness of this mask was carved into warriors’ shields.

Live Science’s “The Surprising Realities of Mythical Beasts” offers similar origins for several of the monsters of myth. Mermaids may have been born of sailors’ loneliness and longing for the womenfolk they’d left at home and a little wishful thinking that allowed them to mistake sea creatures for facsimiles of their lady loves. No less an adventurer than Christopher Columbus mistook a trio of scantily clad manatees for mermaids, albeit a rather unattractive and manly sort of maids. From a distance, they might have looked inviting enough--to a sailor far from shore--but, closer, they were “not as pretty,” the mariner complained, and “somehow in the face," the bewhiskered sea beasts resembled men.

In a related article, “Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth,” the same website explains the origin of the dragon. This mythical monster is based upon actual reptiles such as alligators, lizards (frilled dragons, bearded dragons, flying dragons, Komodo dragons, megalania prisca, pterosaurs, seahorse-like sea dragons), and a snake (the python). Additionally, comets, with their long tails, flashing across the nighttime skies, may have been interpreted as dragons in flight.

So, how does one create monstrous monsters? The same way the ancients did. Look at something that seems as if it could be frightening if it were to be misunderstood as being something else, far more threatening. See it anew. Misinterpret it, and, in the process, envision it as wild, antisocial, powerful, threatening, and, most likely, as having bad breath. Ask yourself, for example, what kind of monster California freeways might make or imagine a not-so-innocent dust mite a thousand times its normally microscopic size. Viola! You’ve created a monster!

Sources Cited:

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns, & Mermaids.” American Museum of Natural History.
The Surprising Realities of Mythical Beasts.” Live Science.

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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