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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Creating Hostile or Threatening Settings

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Writers of horror fiction have several ways by which to suggest threatening or hostile environments.

1. Writers can depict a setting that is, in itself, bizarre.

I know a homeowner, Bruce, who cut down all the trees in his yard. He'd had a swimming pool installed in his backyard, and he was frustrated when, each fall, his trees dropped their leaves, littering his lawn and the surface of his new pool. His solution was to chop down not only the trees in his backyard, but all his trees, including those in his front and side yards. At no charge, he even volunteered to cut down the trees of his neighbor, but the neighbor declined his offer. 

Most of us, I believe, would have said no thanks, because most of us love trees. They're big, beautiful symbols of life—and they provide shade. So what if they drop their leaves every autumn? Everybody poops. (Yes, dead leaves are essentially tree droppings.) 

But, when we're confronted with trees unlike any most of us have ever seen, trees that are not only unfamiliar to us but also strange-looking? Then, maybe we'd give Bruce a call.

A case in point: the dragon tree (Dracaena cinnabaril), which thrives on Yemen's remote Socotra Island an on the Canary Islands. Named for its red sap, this tree looks as though it was planted upside down, its limbs resembling roots at the end of which grow clumps of stubby leaves. In bloom, their blossoms grow among their leaves, looking pretty much like yellow versions of the former. Unfortunately, the population of these trees has been greatly reduced and now consists mostly of only mature trees. Scientists describe the tree's status as “vulnerable,” which places it between “near threatened” and “endangered.”


Another bizarre inhabitant of Socotra Island is the cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos socotrana). It has “a bulbous trunk and a small crown,” bearing 10-inch “round leaves” with “slightly toothed” bristles and inch-long yellow fruit.

The bottle tree (Pachypodium lealii Welw) is also a rather odd-looking specimen, resembling a turnip planted upside down. This tree grows is indigenous to the Namibia.
The Juniper Tree (Juniperus phoenicea), which grows on Spain's El Hierro Island, literally bends over backward. Some, such as the one shown here, resemble human figures. Coming unexpectedly upon such a tree at dusk might send a chill up one's spine.

This bizarre specimen, the Tree of Tule, a Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) makes its home in a Oaxaca, Mexico, churchyard. Did it not exist, a description of its appearance might seem unbelievable. Some see the shapes of jaguars, elephants, and other animals in the bark of the ancient tree's trunk, which gives it the nickname “The Tree of Life.”
 This West Australian boab tree (Adansonia gregorii ) allegedly doubled as a jail. Prisoners would be kept inside the tree overnight on their way from one place to another.
California's boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris) is tall, exceedingly slender, and nearly leafless. Imagine walking up on a forest of these in the middle of the desert on a moonlit night. According to Seri beliefs, “touching this plant will cause strong winds to blow (an undesirable state).”
This kapok tree's strange trunk appears to consist of three branches that have grown woody “webbing” between one another. The trunk is broad enough so that two or more thick branches, each pointing in its own direction, can grow from the same side of the trunk.
The time-space continuum warp featured toward the end of my urban fantasy novel A WholeFull of World of Hurt, which was inspired by Steve Ditko's illustrations of the enchanted realms through which Marvel Comics's Dr. Strange traveled on his astral journeys, is (like Ditko's own mystical lands) a good illustration of this approach. The execution of this technique doesn't have to involve the use of surreal imagery, though, as Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King's Rose Red and The Shining, and Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine indicate.

2. Another way to suggest threatening or hostile environments is to make the familiar seem strange. The strange appearance of the trees we described (above) may not, in itself, be frightening enough to horrify readers (but their looks are a start!). Writers need to associate the odd-looking trees with bizarre origins or give them a back story (such as a legend) that gives them a horrific provenance. Imagining answers to questions about some of the trees described above may offer some possibilities.

What, precisely, is threatening the existence of the dragon tree? Could the tree's name derive from a source other than the accepted one? Could it have grown from the spawn of actual (now extinct) dragons, which would account for its blood-red sap? Perhaps such trees are capable, under the right circumstances, or spontaneous combustion.

Are the human shapes discernible in the bent-over-backward juniper trees actual humans who've been incorporated into tree branches, perhaps through dark magic? Were they dancers in some sort of fantastic ritual?

Do the animal shapes amid the bark of the Tree of Tule actually come to life at times? Do its elephants, jaguars, and other beasts spring from its bark to do the will of those who conjure them, returning to their passive, woody state after fulfilling their summoners' deadly missions? 

Is a character among your adventurers a criminal whose past catches up with him or her when the band passes the Boab Prison Tree? Is it more than a jail? Maybe the tree practices its own brand of vigilante justice, acting as judge, jury, and executioner concerning violent offenders who've escaped justice (until they encountered the Prison Tree). 

Why would someone generate a desert vortex—and who planted the mysterious boojum tree that creates such an effect? A Seri? Someone else? Research the Seri, and if their beliefs don't seem, by modern standards, strange enough to intrigue and, more importantly, frighten readers, substitute an imaginary people and their beliefs for those of the Seri. All is possible in fantastic fiction, after all, a genre which includes horror. Don't forget to include a bizarre motivation for the horrific horticulturalists.

Of course, the context in which the trees are introduced also makes them frightening. A writer must build toward his or her character's encounter of the mysterious trees, and the author's account of the tree's nature and origin must be fantastic and dark, if it's to generate fear.

Bentley Little is a master of this approach. In particular such of his novels as The Resort and The Influence are especially good examples of this approach. Dan Simmons's Summer of Night is also evocative of hostile landscapes, as is Stephen King's It and Dean Koontz's The Taking. Other masters of this technique include Nathaniel Hawthorne ("Young Goodman Brown") and Edgar Allan Poe ("TheFall of the House of Usher")

3. Authors can focus on the disconcerting, possibly sinister, details of an everyday place. An effective technique is to search an image browser using a phrase such as “eerie photos of landscapes.” Conducting such a search, using this same phrase, resulted in these (selected) images. (As my search term suggest, I restricted my search to scenes of actual, existing exterior places—as far as I can determine.) In considering your own gallery, ask yourself what characteristics make the photographs seem eerie. Think about both the literal (physical) and the psychological aspects of the environment.

This photograph shows dense foliage. The trees, bushes, and other forms of plant life are clothed, as it were, in thick growths of leaves that make the eye wander. One's gaze is easily lost in the abundance of detail. The tufts, clusters, and clumps of vegetation among the shadowy “hollows” between the leafy trees lead the eye in many directions and, at the same time, nowhere. We are genetically hard-wired to seek patterns in everything, but this mass of flora exhibits no discernible form or structure; it is a senseless tangle, a meaningless maze, offering no clue as to its location or context. However, our minds are reluctant to accept this symbol of meaninglessness; we are apt to stare, demanding that some meaning assert itself, even if we must invent such meaning ourselves, imagining faces or forms that exist only in our own minds, seeing her a visage, there a figure. Therein lies the possibility for terror: the abundance of foliage is a mirror of the soul, as we project upon it our own tortured fantasies; committing the pathetic fallacy, we envision a menacing place, a hell, of our own design. Denied orientation, we become confused and distraught; when meaning isn't forthcoming, we become anxious and unsettled.

At first, this slight, tree-lined berm may appear pleasantly bucolic, but this sense of sylvan beauty dissipates under closer inspection. What, we may wonder, lies buried under the extended mound? A monstrous worm, a serpent worthy of Ragnarok, a dragon? The trees, especially those in the foreground, are barren, and their sharp-pointed branches are stubby, as if they've been snapped off—but by what? Even more eerily, the row of trees on either side of the berm stand like sentinels, appearing to direct our steps, to channel us, suggesting that we take this elevated pathway to a point unknown. Are we the human equivalents of cattle being directed, along an arboreal chute, to the slaughter? How might these various perceptions—a grave for a snakelike monster, snapped-off branches, sentinel-like trees, a channeling landscape—add up to? What single scenario could unify and explain them? When we believe—or even feel—we have lost our autonomy, we experience panic.
A dark and foggy wood stimulates the imagination by depriving us of the light which is necessary for vision. In fog, as in darkness, our visibility is limited. We cannot see clearly or, sometimes, at all. Effectively blind, we can no longer be confident of our surroundings or of what threat to us may lurk ahead (or, for that matter, to either side or behind us). Dense clusters of branches and foliage also impedes vision. A remote location cuts us off from the aid of others. This photograph uses darkness, fog and the obstruction of abundant tree growth to obscure our vision, a remote site to isolate us, but it also seems to mock us. In a place devoid of human contact, we see a bench among clumps of grass, a bench green with lichen, moss, or algae, an artifact of human technology being overcome by nature. Shall this be our own fate? Cut off and alone, shall we succumb to our fate, our corpses taken over by invading plants? Perhaps we know why we began our journey, before we became lost, near nightfall, but where are we now? It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say, but, certainly, we are alone. Deprivation of sight and the company of others, we feel vulnerable and helpless.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child succeed admirably in employing this approach in many of their novels, including Still Like with Crows, Crimson Shore, and White Fire. Bram Stoker's short story "The Burial of the Rats" is a tour de force.

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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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