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Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Bram Stoker Award: Some Concluding Thoughts

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

As I mentioned in the first installment of this four- (now five-) part series, it's unclear how prestigious the Bram Stoker Award is beyond the Horror Writers Association (HWA), whose members bestow the prize to writers (often 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.

It's surprisingly easy to become a member of the HWA. As the organization's website indicates, “You needn’t be an established professional writer to join HWA. Your demonstrated intention to become a professional writer is all that’s required to join HWA at the Affiliate level.” “Demonstrated intention” is indicated by “one minimally paid publication in any of several categories.” There are opportunities, at various other “levels,” for several other types of membership; one need not have written anything at all for the “Associate level” of membership, which is open to “non-writing professionals with an interest in the field (such as illustrators, librarians, booksellers, producers, agents, editors, and teachers).” The question doesn't seem so much who is eligible to join the HWA as who is not allowed.

Nomination for the HWA's annual Bram Stoker Award, “an eight-inch replica of a fanciful haunted house, designed specifically for HWA by sculptor Steven Kirk,” is also an easy process, open to many: “any work of Horror first published in the English language may be considered for an award during the year of its publication.” Currently, “the eleven Bram Stoker Award categories are: Novel, First Novel, Short Fiction, Long Fiction, Young Adult, Fiction Collection, Poetry Collection, Anthology, Screenplay, Graphic Novel and Non-Fiction”—something, it seems, for everyone. To add yet another opportunity to win an award, the HWA recently added a twelfth category: “Short Non-Fiction.”

Any member of the HWA can nominate an author for placement on the preliminary ballot, and a panel of judges prepares a second preliminary “ballot” of potential winners. Then, “two rounds of voting by our Active members . . . determine first the Final Ballot (all those appearing on the Final Ballot are “Bram Stoker Nominees”), and then the Bram Stoker Award Winners.”

One should be skeptical of the value of a prize for “superior achievement” that is often awarded to the members of the organization who vote for the winner, especially when the contest is open to a wide segment of the population of published authors and any member can place a name on the ballot. Outside the HWA, how seriously is the Bram Stoker Award for Novel taken? Is the prize considered prestigious by anyone outside the HWA?

Obviously, the answers to these questions depend on the person (or organization) asked. Authors who've won one—or more—of the awards often boast of their “superior achievement” on their websites or in interviews and plaster their book covers with HWA badges. After all, one of the expressed purposes of the HWA is to promote its authors' works. Many successful horror authors are, after all, HWA members, and members pay dues. Therefore, the HWA itself and its author-members are likely to agree that the Bram Stoker Award is prestigious. Publishers, whose goal is to sell books, are apt to concur, as are other organizations, such as universities, with which a horror author may be affiliated.

On the other hand, fans (as opposed to groupies) are often a lot less impressed with the award; many a Bram Stoker Award winner's prize-winning novel has received low ratings on Amazon and other book-selling websites, and, as we've seen in previous posts, book reviewers and literary critics are often unswayed in their opinions of books and authors by the fact that a writer is a Bram Stoker Award winner. What matter to readers, reviewers, and critics is the reading experience and the quality of the book, not an award by a professional organization to which many of the award winners belong. If readers consider a book to be a stinker, its having won an award won't matter. For a literary critic, such as Harold Bloom, whose disdain for Stephen King is widely known, no number of such awards is going to change his or her mind about the quality and value of the award-winner's work or of horror fiction in general.

Die-hard fans and groupies, for whom a favorite author can do no wrong, are going to love a writer no matter what; whether he or she happens to have been awarded a prize isn't going to have much of an effect on such followers, so, for them, the Bram Stoker Award also isn't likely to matter much one way or the other.

The unavailability of the criteria by which the Bram Stoker Award is awarded also leaves the matter of its prestige open to question. The HWA doesn't publish the criteria its judges use to determine what constitutes “superior achievement,” so there's no meaningful basis for agreeing or disagreeing with their awarding of the prize to any particular author. The awarding of the award is merely a consensus of opinion based on who-knows-what?

Why has Stephen King, one of the most prolific and profitable authors of horror (or any other genre), with 350 million book sales, won no fewer than six Bram Stoker Awards, while his colleague and fellow HWA member, Dean Koontz, also a prolific and highly successful author of horror and dark fantasy, with 450 million book sales to his credit, has never won a single such award? Popularity cannot be equated with quality, of course, but is it really realistic to suppose that Koontz, who's been nominated three times for the award, has never once, in a career spanning half a century, demonstrated “superior achievement” in the writing of a horror novel, while, according to the HWA, King frequently does? It seems absurd that Koontz has been slighted in this way, while other, far lesser-known writers have received an award. What's going on behind the doors and curtain of the HWA? Politics? Nepotism? Cronyism?

King has been declared, by a few promoters, as having eclipsed even Edgar Allan Poe as the best horror writer of all time. While it is undeniably true that King has written far more than Poe wrote, quantity is not the same as quality.

Popular with ordinary readers and with literary critics alike, Poe not only wrote superb horror stories, but he also popularized and greatly improved the horror story, at the same time introducing psychological horror, and he invented the detective story. Both accomplishments are nothing if not “superior achievements.” The invention of an entire genre alone is a peerless feat. In addition, while serving as de facto editors of important literary magazines, he wrote both book reviews and essays in literary criticism and established specific criteria for writing both poetry and short stories that are still influential to this day.

Had the HWA existed in Poe's day, he might have been a member—indeed, he might have been a founder—and he probably would have won Bram Stoker Awards for Short Fiction, Anthology, Poetry Collection, and Lifetime Achievement—and deservedly so.

If the HWA wants its award to become prestigious beyond its own membership, winners, and publishers, the association should adopt a few reforms. Specific criteria should be developed and published, and these standards should lean heavily toward literary excellence. William Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw, The Jolly Corner), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Twice-Told Tales), Edgar AllanPoe, Charles Dickens ("The Signal-man"), and other top-flight writers have, after all, written horror stories.

The awards should be occasional, rather than annual (“superior achievement” of any kind doesn't generally occur in a narrow field such as horror fiction, on a dependable, yearly basis).

The judges should be drawn from among scholars, literary critics, and professional book reviewers as well as HWA members. There's probably room for improving the processes for ballot inclusion and nomination, too.

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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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