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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Techniques of Terror

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


Judging by the quality, rather than by the quantity, of one's work, Edgar Allan Poe is probably the greatest writer of horror fiction ever to live. (I make the distinction because some Internet polls give first place to Stephen King, who, in his early novels, did sometimes tell amazingly good—and chilling—stories, but who has since declined sharply, his fiction often offering little more than personal invective and political pontification. These polls' first-place awards to King seem to be based on the volume of his output, which is admittedly vast, rather than on its quantity, which is mediocre at best. King himself admits that his style is the “literary equivalent of a Bic Mac and fries.”)


As the foremost writer of horror fiction, Poe exhibits several techniques of terror from which we can learn. In The Annotated Poe, editor Kevin J. Hayes points out several.


In an earlier post, “Writing Dramatic Scenes,” we saw how Poe's descriptions anticipated filmmaking techniques, well in advance of Hollywood studios' use of them. Hayes cites a paragraph in “Metzengerstein” as an example:

The career of the horseman was, indisputably, on his own part, uncontrollable. The agony of his countenance, the convulsive struggling of his frame gave no evidence of superhuman exertion; nut no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped from his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror (The Annotated Poe, 34).

As Hayes notes:

The cinema has much to offer when it comes to understanding Poe, partly because his work has contributed so much to its development. The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein found that Poe's writing anticipated visual techniques that would not be fully utilized until the invention of motion pictures. This paragraph provides a good example. Poe depicts Metzengerstein in close-up (the “agony of his convulsions”), pulls back to show him from a distance (“the convulsive struggling of his frame”), and then supplies an extreme close-up (“his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through”). The rapid shifting of images quickens the narrative pace, which the ensuing cacophony of sound—the shriek of Metzengerstein, the clatter of hoofs, the roar of the flames, and the shriek of the wind—further intensifies, thus providing a narrative running start for the horse's final bound up the staircase (The Annotated Poe, 34).


In Introduction a la litterature fantastique (1970), Tzvetan Todorov distinguishes between the “uncanny” and the “marvelous.” That which is presented in certain types of literature, including the horror genre, as fantastic, Todorov says, is usually resolved as being either uncanny (susceptible to explanation via scientific knowledge or natural law) or marvelous (inexplicable via scientific knowledge or natural law). Only that which remains ambiguous at the conclusion of such stories retains its fantastic character. In “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” Poe sets up a similar “dynamic between the narrator's love of scientific explanation and the supernatural events of the story” by the way Poe describes the story's narrator; as Hayes points out, the narrator, is “a man who has 'a strong relish for physical philosophy'” (37). The narrator's description of the particulars of material objects, such as the ship upon which he embarks as a passenger (“a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak”) also shows the narrator's character as “a man who has 'a strong relish for physical philosophy'” (37). According to Hayes, “Poe has learned well the need, in a fantastic adventure tale, of a credible witness” (38).

Poe's use of blanks in dates, “18—“ in “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” for example, was not new with Poe. It was an established convention, Hayes says. Used to enhance “mystery” by implying that the story being told is based on “a true story whose details have been deliberately withheld to protect those involved” (37). The device is similar to the notification, at the beginning of a movie—and often a seemingly fantastic film, at that—that the picture is “based on a true story.”


Such a statement may make the dubious incidents seem more believable, despite the fact that movies “based on a true story” often depart substantially from the facts of the “true story” itself. (For example, Backcountry is “based on a true story,” but the roles of female victim and the male survivor are changed, among other alterations of the facts, with the male being killed and the female escaping in the movie version. Likewise, in The Exorcist, the possessed person is a girl, whereas, in the “true story” upon which the film is based, this individual is a boy. Examples of such changes could be multiplied extensively.)

Poe employs the juxtaposition of contrasts to heighten horror, as when he alternates between “static and dynamic imagery” in describing, in “Metzengerstein,” the appearance of “a gigantic ship” at sea (42):

At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship . . . . What mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of [an unfurled] sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea, and of that ungovernable hurricane. When we first discovered her, her bows alone were to be seen, as she rose slowly from the dim and horrible gulf beyond her. For a moment of intense terror she paused upon that giddy pinnacle, as if in contemplation of her own sublimity, then trembled and tottered and—came down.

Poe's shift of tense in the same story indicates a compression of “space, time, and information,” that, anticipating “the technique of a cinematic montage,” increases the story's pace, “propelling readers toward its climax” (Hayes, 43).

Through description, Poe suggests similarities, both superficial and significant, between his characters. As Hayes notes, “Making narrator and captain the same height (5'8”), Poe draws the reader's attention to a deeper resemblance between the two men. Both are men of science,” or, rather scientism, “relying too heavily on science to explain everything.” (46).

Even cliches are used for effect in Poe's story, characterizing his characters: “The 'eagerness of hope' and 'the apathy of despair' are cliched proverbial phrases. The narrator's growing reliance on stock phrases suggests he is lost for words as he approaches the unknown” (Hayes, 48).

Poe uses the dialogue that a particular character uses, including his or her choice of words, as a way to suggest subtle motivations for their behavior. In “Ligeia,” the narrator's “mellifluous word pairs—a”thrilling and enthralling,” “steadily and stealthily,” “unnoticed and unknown”—reveal a narrator deliberately shaping personal experience into ornate literary prose,” Dorothea E. von Mucke contends (Hayes, 66).

Poe also enriches the possible implications and meanings of his tales with frequent allusions, mostly to the Bible, to classical mythology, to history, and to literature, but he also refers to folklore, legends, and occult systems of belief. These allusions make his stories seem predicated upon ancient knowledge or traditions, associate them with existing worldviews or metaphysical themes, and suggest his own work is, at times, commentaries or innovative adaptations or extensions of these previous materials.

In summary, Poe uses a number of techniques, the chief among which is description, to accomplish a variety of narrative effects. These techniques include those which anticipate cinematic techniques yet to be developed, dates deliberately left incomplete, descriptive characterization (i. e., characterization via description), juxtapositions of contrasts, deliberate shifts of tense, descriptive motivation (i. e., implication of motive via description), the deliberate use of cliches to characterize characters, and various allusions.

Note: Poe's use of additional techniques of terror may be considered in a future post or two.







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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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