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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Peter Straub's Bram Stoker Awards

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

It's unclear how prestigious the Bram Stoker Award is beyond the Horror Writers Association (HWA), whose members bestow the prize to writers (mostly among their own ranks) for “superior achievement” in the genre. The prizes were first awarded, in a variety of categories, in 1987. Winners receive a statuette made by Society Awards, the same firm that makes the Emmy Award, the Golden Globe Award, and the GLAAD Media Award.

Four HWA members have won multiple Bram Stoker Awards for the novel.

The award was conferred on Peter Straub for The Throat (1993); Mr. X (1999); Lost Boy, Lost Girl (2003); In the Night Room (2004); and A Dark Matter (2010).

In the absence of HWA criteria for determining who should and should not receive a Bram Stoker Award for his or her novel, we'll take a look, backward in time, in this post, to see how the critics of the day assessed Straub's prize-winning novels. In a future post, we'll consider the "superior accomplishment" of Sarah Langan, the remaining multiple Bram Stoker Award winner.

According to the 1993 book review “Peter Straub —The Throat” which appears on the Dead End Follies website, The Throat concludes the Blue Rose Trilogy, which started with the 1988 novel Koko and was continued in the 1990 sequel, Mystery. The anonymous reviewer writes, “What makes it different than other mystery novels is that Peter Straub juxtaposes Tim Underhill's personal trauma suffered during Vietnam war to Millhaven's deep-rooted, collective haunting,” not much of which will make sense unless readers have already read “at least Koko.” 

The Throat is also unusual, the reviewer says, because “it subverts the . . . war/soldiers relationship common to most novels and makes it come off as an aberration of human nature which only makes victims.” Meanwhile, each novel, considered separately, is “intricate” and “engaging,” albeit “thematically unambitious,” in its presentation of a mystery.

Although Straub calls the three books a trilogy, the reviewer can't help wondering whether Koko and Mystery actually derive from The Throat. If so, Straub's apparent attempt to create “a mythical character” out of Tom Pasmore “kind of works.” Whether or not The Throat and the rest of the trilogy (if it is a trilogy) should be considered a “superior achievement,” the reviewer isn't sure, finding “these books a little mainstream-sih,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

The reviewer seems to suggest that Straub has a better-than-average idea, but his execution of it doesn't quite come off, in which case we must wonder whether one of the competitors for the 1993 Bram Stoker Award—Kim Newman (Anno Dracula, Bradley Denton (Blackburn), Poppy Z. Brite (Drawing Blood), or Bentley Little (The Summoning)should have won the honors.

Bob Pastorella is more enthusiastic in singing Straub's praises in “Tattered Tomes: The Throat by Peter Straub.” It's an epic look inside a labyrinth. Rather than being the “bloated, overwritten, thriller that needs a good edit” other reviewers have claimed it to be, the trilogy is a masterpiece in which “every single word matters.”

The books present an “incredible” cast of characters, all of whom are essential to the story; “lengthy yet pertinent flashbacks” that affect the story being told in the present, and ghosts that are, as The Throat's Walter Dragonette explains, “dead people . . . just like you and me,” (except that you and I aren't dead). They're motivated by desires, “miss being alive,” and are extremely sensitive and perceptive, their lack of sensory organs notwithstanding. Ghosts who are more human than the living? The concept, which is central to The Throat and the rest of the trilogy, seems not so much innovative as asinine, especially for an “epic” read.

How did Mr. X fare with the critics of its day? The Kirkus Review seems to see it as a pastiche constructed of other writers' earlier works, with bits of H. P. Lovecraft, pieces of Stephen King, and scraps of Shirley Jackson scattered throughout his lengthy tale. There's also an assortment of familiar tropes:

Twins separated at birth, antiquarians and poltergeists, a plucky love interest whose own family harbors dark secrets, a fiery climax straight out of the early Frankenstein movies, and a denouement offering no fewer than three turns of the screw: Straub doesn’t miss a trick, or omit a cliché peculiar to the genre. Overlong and sometimes embarrassingly lurid, though more often than not quite entertaining. Not by any means Straub’s most accomplished work . . . .

Which leaves us with the question (perhaps we misunderstood): Isn't the Bram Stoker Award for Novel supposed to go to an author whose work represents an “superior achievement” in the horror genre?

Kirkus Review also sees Lost Boy, Lost Girl as flawed, rather than suggestive of “superior achievement.” The novel's mystery, Straub's forte—or his signature, at any rate—in the horror genre, involves such “ingredients,” the reviewer says, as “a suburban mom’s suicide, a spooky abandoned house, and a teenager’s unwitting pursuit of the truth” concerning a serial killer, all of which are well and good enough in their own way; the problem with the book is its execution. The plot is “circuitous,” breaking “apart into alternations of present action with flashbacks, experienced and relayed through various characters’ viewpoints, Tim’s “journal,” and an omniscient narrative voice only intermittently firmly distinguished from Tim’s own.”

The result of this fragmented and disjointed narrative technique is to destroy the story's unity and what Edgar Allan Poe describes as “totality of effect.” There are also a few incidents and circumstances that strain readers' suspension of disbelief and a creepy insistence upon teenage Mark's “stunning good looks.” The resolution, which implies that fictional characters “have assumed lethal form,” is yet another borrowing, it appears, this time from Straub's sometimes-collaborator, Stephen King's 1993 novel, The Dark Half.

When writing epics, trilogies, and 368-page stand-alone novels, one can use all the help he can get. Is Lost Boy, Lost Girl a “superior achievement” or is Straub just getting by with a little help from his friends? Did it deserve to win over Darker than Night by Owl Goingback, Hannibal by Thomas Harris, Low Men in Yellow Coats by Stephen King, and Hexes by Tom Piccirilli?

A Kirkus Review 2004 book review of Peter Straub's In the Night Room (2004) was kinder to the author than the Lost Boy, Lost Girl reviewer, finding the former book, a sequel to the latter novel, a better read. For readers who enjoy recurring heroes and multi-volume tales, In the Night Roommight be entertaining. There's even a ghost and an angel in the mix.Those who find recurring characters and protracted plots tedious might agree with the reviewer: “Straub can still tease the imagination and chill the blood with the best of them. But it’s probably time to bury Tim Underhill, and move on.”

Although this review is kinder and gentler than other, concerning Straub's other works, have been, it doesn't seem to suggest that In the Night Room is in any way a “superior achievement.” Even so, it is presumably better than the other novels nominated for the 2004 prize. After all, In the Night Room was the winner; the rest (P. D. Cacek [The Wild Caller], Stephen King [The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower], and Michael Laimo [Deep in the Darkness] were losers.

Straub's fifth Bram Stoker Award was presented to him for his novel A Dark Matter (2010). Lacking the specific standards, if any, the Horror Writers Association (HWA) uses to judge the merits of the novels for which they award authors the Bram Stoker Award, we must turn, once again, to a professional book reviewer's judgment of the merits of the novel. This time, Maureen Corrigan does the honors in her review, “'Dark Matter' by Peter Straub,” which was published in The Washington Post on Monday, February 8, 2010. 

Like reviewers of Straub's other works, Corrigan likes Straub's idea—a cult of hippies perform an occult rite, opening the gates of hell—but has a problem with the author's execution of it:

Motivated in part by a desperate desire to overcome writer's block and, perhaps, publish a book based on the event, he [are we talking about Straub or one of his characters here?] decides to investigate by reconnecting with the far-flung survivors of Mallon's mysterious ritual. He wants to hear each of their separate accounts of that night. And so that event is repeated, reinterpreted and revisited throughout the novel.

And that's the big problem: The central story seems too fright-fest-boilerplate to be worthy of such extended rumination. Doesn't the mystic-on-the-make always lose control of the black magic he's unleashed? Isn't it always a bad idea to sign up for one of these Outward Bound Adventures into Another Dimension? Doesn't someone always lose her mind or soul or life? In offering each of the aging student survivors a separate turn at recalling that night's horror, Straub seems to be trying to one-up his own rather mundane story line.

Along the way, Corrigan suggests, Straub's narrative falls apart to the point that, “by the end of 'A Dark Matter,' it hardly matters anymore whether the wan mystery of What Happened in the Meadow That Night has been solved.” Doesn't sound much like “superior achievement.

On the other hand, maybe Straub's competitors' novels really were worse and those of Stephen King's son, Joe Hill (Horns) Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin, Linda Watanabe McFerrin's Dead Love, Joe McKinney's Apocalypse of the Dead, and Jeff Strand's Dweller. Even so, the award isn't supposed to be for the best novel, but for superior achievement. 

Is A Dark Matter in any way a "superior achievement"? Without specific standards and a few comments of explanation from the judges of the contest, it's hard to say. What we can be sure of, though, is that, had the professional reviewers we tapped for this exercise been on the panel of judges evaluating Straub's novels, it's likely that none of them would have voted in favor of his receiving a Bram Stoker Award. Rather than finding his novels to reflect “superior achievement,” most of our reviewers have considered them to be mediocre at best.

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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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