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Monday, June 18, 2018

Unsafe

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

For most, home is a sanctuary, where it's safe to be oneself, to relax among loved ones, and to share one's innermost thoughts and feelings. In such a place, we let down our guard; we lower our defenses; we unbend. It is a safe place, free from the “slings and arrows” of everyday life, if not of “fortune.”

Other safe places, other retreats, include resorts; city, country, state, or federal parks; churches, temples, or mosques; friends' or neighbors' houses; the lodges of fraternal organizations; schools; and workplaces.

That is, they are usually safe.

Which is why they're all the more horrific and terrifying when they turn out to be anything but safe. 

Part of the horror and terror we feel when safe places are no longer safe stems from the overturning of our expectations. We expect to be safe, to be secure, to be protected. Experience has taught us that we need not fear danger in our homes, resorts, parks, houses of worship, lodges, schools, or workplaces. We have come to believe they are protected havens. When these expectations are upset, the horror and fear we experience are intensified.

In horror fiction, our safety is violated by various means. A sanctuary may be invaded. Certain parties may defy laws or moral strictures. Poor judgments on our part or another person with whom we're associated may lead to unpleasant, injurious, or even fatal consequences. We may be subjected to the cat-and-mouse maneuvers of an obsessed stalker or the machinations of a serial killer. A house guest may become our worst nightmare. Someone we trust may prove untrustworthy. 

Horror movies and novels play on our fear that, even in a retreat, we may not be safe, that there may, in fact, be no safety, no matter where we are, where we go, or with whom we spend our time, whether with family, friends, neighbors, vacationers, worshipers, lodge brothers or sisters, faculty or classmates, or workplace colleagues. When a safe place proves to be dangerous, there is no safety anywhere.

Such truly is the case, of course: none of us is safe, not entirely, not really. At every moment, our lives hang in the balance. We could die of disease, of injury, of poisoning, of automobile or airplane crashes, of workplace accidents, of falls, of animal attacks, of drowning, of choking on food or drink, by fire, by insect bites or stings, by drug overdoses, through starvation, from complications of surgery or medical care, by explosives, to name but a few common causes of death. Life is fragile. 

Our susceptibility to harm and our dependency on nature for the fulfillment of our needs puts us at the mercy of disease, pestilence, famine, flood, wild animals, each other, and a host of other dangers. We are not as in control as we might have supposed; we are not as able to defend or provide for ourselves and others as we might have thought.

In horror fiction, our dependency, our fragility, our vulnerability are highlighted by extreme dangers. We face monsters, not germs; aliens, not insects; paranormal and supernatural figures and forces, not natural disasters. Such adversaries personify these actual threats, giving them, if not exactly a human face, a personality. Anthropomorphism makes the monstrous relatively human. In the monsters of horror fiction, we encounter that which both is and is not ourselves.

It is we ourselves who make our safe havens unsafe, just as it is we ourselves who are endangered by these threats. We are both hunter and hunted, victimizer and victim, killer and killed. We are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the man and the wolf as well as the wolfman.

Movies and novels in which such threats occur, as reminders of our own finitude, vulnerability, dependency, fragility, and relative helplessness, include:


When a Stranger Calls (1979): A baby sitter is terrorized by a stranger who calls her repeatedly, asking whether the children she has checked on the children she is watching. Later, the babysitter, now a married woman and mother, is enjoying dinner at a restaurant when she receives a telephone call. The caller, the same man who'd called her years ago while she was babysitting the children he killed, asks, “Have you checked the children?”


The Resort (2004): Bentley Little's 2004 novel is summarized by the publisher, Signet:

. . . Welcome to The Reata, an exclusive spa isolated in the Arizona desert. Please ignore the strange employees and that unspeakable thing in the pool. And when guests start disappearing, pretend it isn't happening. Enjoy your stay, and relax. Oh...and lock yourself in after dark.


. . . Opulent doesn't begin to describe the Arizona getaway where Lowell Thurman, his wife, Rachel, and their three young sons have come for one glorious week. Everything at The Reata is perfect-although Rachel is a bit unnerved by the openly lustful gaze of one of the gardeners, something she doesn't mention to Lowell. Nor does he tell her about the frightening sensation he has in the pool of hands clutching at him, trying to pull him under. . . . . To the Thurmans' horror, guests begin to disappear.

For those who'd like to test the waters, here's a dip into The Resort:

He was halfway across the pool when someone grabbed his foot.

Lowell kicked out, flailing wildly, shocked more than anything else, but the grip on his foot tightened, bony fingers digging into the thin flesh, holding him firm. For a brief moment he was swimming in place like a cartoon character, then the hand let go and he floundered [sic] in the water as he fought against a force that was no longer there. 

Twisting, spluttering, trying to keep himself afloat and determine who had grabbed him at the same time, Lowell looked down into the choppy bubbly water beneath him, then scanned the surface of the pool. It was empty. There was still no one in the room but himself (48).



Summer of Night: A Barnes & Noble overview of Dan Simmons's 1991 novel, which has been favorably compared to Stephen King's It, states:

It's the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys' days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic middle-childhood. But amid the sun-drenched cornfields their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, an invisible evil is rising. Strange and horrifying events begin to overtake everyday life, spreading terror through the once idyllic town. Determined to exorcize this ancient plague, Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a war of blood—against an arcane abomination who owns the night One of the most frightening scenes of this novel occurs in the town's park, during the showing of a free movie. It is impossible to do more than to merely suggest the eerie, frightening quality of the scene's setting, but this excerpt will, hopefully, provide a slight indication:

“What's that?” whispered Lawrence, stopping and clutching his bag of popcorn.

“Nothing. What?” said Dale, stopping with his brother.

There was a rustling, sliding, screeching from the darkness in and above the elms.

“It's nothing,” said dale, tugging at Lawrence to get moving. “Birds.” Lawrence still wouldn't move and Dale paused to listen again. “Bats.” 

Dale could see them now, dark shapes flitting across the pale gaps between the leaves, winged shadows visible against the white of First Prez as they darted to and fro. “Just bats.” He tugged at Lawrence's hand. 

His brother refused to move. “Listen,” he whispered. . . .

Trees rustling. The manic scales of a cartoon soundtrack dulled by distance and humid air. The leathery flap of wings. Voices.

Instead of the near ultra-sonic chirp of bats scanning the way ahead, the sound in the motion-filled darkness around them was the screech of small, sharp voices. Cries. Shrieks. Curses. Obscenities. Most of the sounds teetered on the brink of actually being words, the maddeningly audible but bot-quite-distinct syllables of a shouted conversation in an adjoining room, But two of the sounds were quite clear.

Dale and Lawrence stood frozen on the sidewalk, clutching their popcorn and staring upward, as bats shrieked their names in consonants that sounded like teeth scraping across blackboards. Far, far away, the amplified voice of Porky Pig said, “Th-th-th-that's all, folks!”

“Run!” whispered Dale (52).
Summer of Night also presents harrowing scenes set in its characters' homes (especially Dale's basement!), the children's school, and a local church.




Another novel by Bentley Little, The Revelation (2014), recounts the evil deeds that ensue the arrival of a revivalist following the mysterious disappearance of a small-town preacher. According to Library Journal

In Randall, Arizona, portents signal a looming disaster of apocalyptic proportions: there are stillbirths, animal sacrifices, church desecrations, and mysterious disappearances. An ancient-eyed and omniscient preacher arrives and claims that Satan is collecting the souls of the stillborn infants and murdered townspeople, causing them to commit further grotesque crimes. He recruits the sheriff, the Episcopal priest, and expectant father Gordon Lewis, whose unborn daughter is, apparently, Satan's goal, but how this will cause the apocalypse is never explained. However, Little's story, is as typical of his novels in general, ends poorly, with no logical or believable explanation of the central conflict, and Library Journal contends, ill-defined and unmotivated characters, the lack of “revelations,” and a “flimsy plot” make “a forgettable book.”

Most of Little's books end the same way, unraveling toward their conclusions, which is more than frustrating. His faithful readers know this will happen and forgive him, because, until the end, he takes them on one hell of a scary, eerie ride and almost always includes some form of unconventional sex which is, although disturbing, titillating enough.



Stephen King also offers a novel set, among other locations, in a church, but Revival (2015), like The Revelation, has an unconvincing, theologically shallow—indeed, absurd— ending, suggesting that the author was writing from the hip, as it were, with no clear idea of the story he was telling. Would Little and King to take the advice Edgar Allan Poe offers in “The Philosophy of Composition,” and write their stories backward, with a solid, believable (within the context of the story itself) conclusion firmly in mind, their fiction would improve immensely.

A blurb summarizes the story, such as it is:

The new minister came to Harlow, Maine, when Jamie Morton was a boy doing battle with his toy army men on the front lawn. The young Reverend Charles Jacobs and his beautiful wife brought new life to the local church and captivated their congregation. But with Jamie, he shares a secret obsession—a draw so powerful, it would have profound consequences five decades after the shattering tragedy that turned the preacher against God, and long after his final, scathing sermon. Now Jamie, a nomadic rock guitarist hooked on heroin, meets Charles Jacobs again. And when their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, Jamie discovers that the word revival has many meanings.

Sorry, I don't have a sample excerpt on hand, having tossed my copy a while back, which is just as well.




IMDb offers a succinct synopsis of director Robert Angelo Masciantonio's Neighbor (2009), a horror film in which “a mysterious new girl arrives in posh suburban neighborhood and quickly sets out to terrorize the town. As she starts breaking into homes and torturing the occupants, they begin to realize that she isn't just another girl next door.”




An oldie but goodie, The Stepford Wives (2004), directed by Frank Oz, involves a fraternal organization of wealthy men who have perfected a way to give their wives a complete makeover worthy of a modern-day Pygmalion who uses high tech rather than a hammer and a chisel to create his version of the perfect woman.




High schools and universities are frequent settings for both horror novels and horror movies. The Roommate (2011), directed by Christian Christainsen, is one of the latest to locate its eerie incidents in a university: “a college freshman who realizes that her new best friend is obsessive, unbalanced . . . and maybe even a killer” (IMDb). Disturbing Behavior (1998), director David Nutter's part-sci fi and part-horror movie, set in a high school, is a junior version of The Stepford Wives, in which “The new kid in town stumbles across something sinister about the town's method of transforming its unruly teens into upstanding citizens.”




These films and others of these types reflect many individuals' fears as well as societal insecurities. If one's home is not inviolate, what place is? If we are not safe in our homes, are we safe anywhere? Dangers often come without, in the form of stalkers, serial killers, or murderous burglars, but they can also come from within, in the form of abusive parents, deviant children, or, as in Stephen King's novel Cujo, and the film adaptation of the same title, the family pet. 

Resorts are supposed to be places at which we can get away from all the petty concerns of everyday life and enjoy ourselves as we pursue pleasures we don't usually have the time to indulge, but, when things go awry, these retreats can become anything but a place of refuge; they can be transformed into places from our worst nightmares or from hell itself.



We often visit city, county, state, or national parks to picnic with family or friends. Companies may treat their employees to picnics in the park. We go there to walk our dogs, to ride horses, to visit nature (but on our own terms, in comfort, maintaining communications with the outside world at all times), or to witness wonders we can't imagine in our backyards back home. When earthquakes, flood, fires, landslides, or wildlife threaten us, we realize just how alone we are. If we're not well versed in the techniques of survival, we're not apt to live to tell of our adventures. 

Horror novels and movies, such as Stephen King's 1999 novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, director Adam MacDonald's Backcountry (2015), and Maurice L'Heureux's Into the Back Country (1982), director Keith Kurlander's Cold, Creepy Feeling (2010), and a slew of others show that human beings, no matter how much they might like to believe they've tamed nature and domesticated animals, are definitely not in control of their destinies.




Millions of people around the world believe in God, although their concepts of the divine sometimes differ widely. What is common to the majority of the world's great religions, however, is faith in Providence. God, the members of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe, not only created the universe but also takes a direct, personal interest in its operations, including the affairs of the men, women, and children He created. God loves and protects humanity, adherents of these religions believe, although He is also a God of justice and righteousness. That doesn't mean sinners and God's own greatest adversary, the devil, won't resist, defy, and disobey their Creator. Many exorcism films, such as William Friedkin's The Exorcist (based on William Peter Blatty's 1973 novel of the same title), director Scott Derrickson's film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and director Mikael Håfström The Rite (2011) explore the conflict between the divine and the diabolical, with humans as their battlegrounds.



It's not a neighbor, but a landlord, who represents danger for the young married couple in director Victor Zarkoff's voyeuristic thriller 13 Cameras. The problems with neighbors today is that they're not very neighborly. We don't really know them, and they don't really know us. Occasionally, when we chance to meet, we exchange pleasantries with them, smile, and wave, but they are essentially strangers to us, and strangers are unknown quantities. What we don't know could get us killed, horror novels and movies insist, so it's best to avoid them, as much as possible. Such movies as director Craig Gillespie's Fright Night (2011), director Mac Carter's Haunt (2013), director Rodney Gibbons's The Neighbor (1993) remind us of some of the dangers neighbors can represent, including vampirism, murder victims' ghosts, and adultery.




Bentley Little's novel The Association (2017), Peter Straub's novel Ghost Story (1979) and the 1981 film adaptation by John Irvin, suggest, respectively, that homeowner's associations and men's clubs are evil or possess evil secret that can destroy or end lives.




Are our children safe at school? (The spate of school shootings since 1999 suggest, quite clearly, the answer is no.) Are they being taught what they need to learn, or, worse yet, are they learning lessons no child should be taught? Are the teachers helping or hurting my child? A lot of parents are uneasy about school staff and educational curriculum. More than a few teachers, at every level of public education, except, perhaps, preschool and kindergarten, have had illicit sex with students, some of whom have, indeed, been raped. Not every parent wants young children to learn about every sexual practice imaginable. Novels like Little's The Association play on this fear, while King's novella Apt Pupil, examines the threats that students sometimes pose toward faculty members. Other novels and movies explore themes associated with colleges and universities: Little's University ( 2017) and such films as director Mark Rosman's The House of Sorority Row (1983), The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), directed by Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, Black Christmas (1973), director Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps (1983), and a host of others depict college and university days as something much less nostalgic than most graduates are likely to remember them.




Many horror novels and movies are also set in workplaces: director Tobe Hooper's The Mangler (1995) (one of the silliest premises for a horror movie ever!), Psycho (1960) (a classic Alfred Hitchcock set largely in the roadside Bates Motel), The Funhouse (a carnival setting, courtesy of director Toby Hooper) are only a few of the myriad. Novelists, too, favor such settings, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child do in Relic (2003) and as Bentley Little does in The Consultant (2015) and The Store (1998), and as Dean Koontz does, in part, in Watchers (2003) and several of his other novels, including his Odd Thomas series (2007-2015), to mention but a few. We all have to work, but few of us truly enjoy our jobs, some of which are dangerous in themselves. On top of that, we may have a diabolical manager, monstrous colleagues, and crazed clients. These books and movies tap into these daily frustrations and annoyances, exaggerating them to the point that our jobs don't look all that bad, after all. At least, no one's trying to kill us (as far as we know).




Of course, urban fantasy novels in the horror mold, including my own A Whole World Full of Hurt (2016) have cities as their settings, but that's the topic for a different post.


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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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