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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.


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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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