Fascinating lists!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Want a Revolution? Try Being a Reactionary

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Written horror fiction is a dying breed. There are plenty of reasons for this state of affairs. Anyone and everyone can write and deliver-on-demand a printed or electronic version of as many horror novels as he or she wants, selling them through Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble online, or some other website.

Talent doesn't much matter, nor does familiarity with the history of the genre, nor does respect for the genre or its readers. Just put it out there, and nobody will buy it. (Sales are spectacularly dismal for any but established writers, and sales are dismal enough for 99 percent of them). However, the sheer volume of “novels” now available in cyberspace clogs publishing arteries, offering so many choices that readers are apt to make none at all, unless its a novel by somebody like Stephen King, whose best work seems to be far behind him.

We prefer movies to books, because we're more visually than cognitively oriented, preferring images to words. Besides, we don't have to use our imaginations or think much when we watch a movie: the writer, director, actors, special effects team, and others have done most of the work for us. Watching a movie, as opposed to reading a book, is almost pure entertainment and unadulterated pleasure. Reading, by comparison, seems a laborious, often unrewarding, burden.

Novelists have tried to emulate screenwriters, writing tighter scenes, eschewing exposition and long-winded dialogue, foregoing interior monologues and stream-of-consciousness, restricting themselves, more and more, to the limited third-person point of view, avoiding “head-hopping,” and making something happen every other page or so. They strive to show, avoid telling, and still—readership declines and declines. Some statistics have suggested even moviegoing isn't as popular as it once was, although it's way more popular than reading. Times change, and written horror, the horror of the pages, as opposed to the soundstages, is a casualty of these changing times.

I'm not blaming technology. Times, as I said, change. Those who don't change with them—well, we know what happens to organisms that fail to evolve. Emulating the techniques of the screen isn't enough. Novels—and novelists—are on their way out. (That's why Borders went bankrupt and Barnes & Noble may be next.) No, they won't be gone overnight. (The dodo was last seen alive in 1662.). But novels and novelists, it seems, are doomed. Their day has come and is just about gone.

Like most people, I'm a movie fan, although I find I watch fewer and fewer each year, and I watch the few I do watch on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. I prefer to see them streaming into my living room, on my big-screen TV, than to go to all the trouble and bother of leaving home, driving to a theater, waiting in line (or buying online so I don't have to wait in line), finding a seat (usually, an uncomfortable one with limited space for my arms and legs), being interrupted by late arrivals and talkative neighbors, and being blasted by sound that's much louder than necessary, even for me (and I'm hearing impaired). If I want to buy snacks or visit the restroom, my moviegoing experience is much worse. Then, at the end of the movie, I have to file out of the theater, find my car, and drive home, through the fairly heavy traffic of Las Vegas. (And, oh, yes, pay about $10 for the ticket, not to mention the round-trip cost of gasoline and the snacks, if any, I buy.) No, thanks, I'd sooner stay at home and watch a movie from the comfort and convenience of my living room couch.

I'm suggesting that movie theaters may be on their way out. The future of fiction (i. e., movies), it seems, is streaming—but it isn't.

What is the future of fiction? Who knows? Nobody has a crystal ball, including the few who have crystal balls. Maybe movies will happen inside the theaters of our skulls, as sounds and images are uploaded to our brains, either by wire or through wireless technology (I prefer the latter—I think).

Instead of dreaming at night, we'll watch the streaming movies of our choice. For those who enjoy nightmares, horror movies will likely be available. During the day, we might be immersed in 3-D holographs. (Princess Leia was ahead of her time.) Instead of a movie's coming soon to a theater near you, it will be coming at once, all around, or inside, you.

Maybe on our way to or from work, if we're still working outside our homes—or working at allwe'll be able to upload a movie trailer or two. A few forward thinkers also suggest our fiction may be written by robotic devices using linguistic-mathematical logarithms, virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI). (The “fake news” of our own day suggests that non-fiction may be produced and delivered in much the same way.)

Once the few remaining, die-hard horror novelists, the Stephen Kings, the Peter Straubs, the Bentley Littles, and the Whoever-Elses, expire, the horror genre, as far as the novel is concerned, at least, is likely to become extinct. Movies will probably continue to be made, promoted, released, watched, and critiqued until something more evolved comes along. Then, they, too, will go the way of all celluloid.

The process is already in progress. This trailer from 20th Century Fox (courtesy of IBM's AI program, Watson) is about a superhuman AI. To create the trailer, Watson analyzed “100 horror movie trailers, studying each scene and looking for common ground,” before selecting 10 of them from the 90-minute movie Morgan that Fox had produced. The whole process took Watson a mere 24 hours. Humans take as long as a month to make a trailer. Watson cheated, though: a film editor had to piece “together the scenes,” because the AI program lacks the ability to “understand and calibrate . . . emotions,” Morgan's director, Luke Scott said.

Jim Smith, a fellow with Machine Vision—IBM Research, said a lot must happen before Watson or any other AI program could develop an entire movie, if such a program is ever able to accomplish such a feat at all. It's unlikely AI will “be able to create art,” Smith believes, because it is incapable of the “original thought . . . essential in creativity.”

Yes, all this may (or may not) happen, but, in the meantime, as comic book writers are fond of writing, what, if anything, can be done about the current, stagnant state of horror novels?

We need a revolution of sorts, and that's the problem. Historically, revolutions in art start as reactions against the art of the status quo. In painting, impressionism started as a reaction against traditional artistic conventions. Other times, innovations occur within a revolutionary cycle itself, as when Vincent van Gogh “carried Impressionism to its limits by using expressive colors [and] Fauvism went one step further in using simplified designs in combination with an 'orgy of pure colors.'” Likewise, Expressionism can be considered “a German modern art version of Fauvism.”

New forms of painting also originated as reactions against commercial transitions, such as that which occurred when an industrial economy began to replace the earlier agrarian economy: “Art historians tend to interpret this new movement [art nouveau] as a natural reaction to the Industrial Revolution.” In turn, the Industrial Revolution might also have affected art nouveau, as Art Deco, which followed art nouveau, represented a “simplified” movement that was “closer to mass production.” 

Surrealism turned inward, seeking to emphasize the importance of the unconscious mind. It wasn't restricted only to painting, however; it also influenced literature and film.

A reaction against abstract art, popular art, or pop art, sought “to bring art back into the daily life of people” and took, as its subject matter, “objects from everyday life.”

Literature has long allied itself with painting, as it has with the other arts. It has also long been allied with theology, philosophy, history, geography, psychology, sociology, and, more recently, with the sciences. In fact, one of the great strengths of literature—perhaps its greatest—is that it unites human experience, bringing together a wide variety of interests that, although seemingly unrelated, have a common source in humanity itself, in individuals, society, and culture. In fiction, human beings truly are “the measure of all things.”

Too often, writers are caught up in the moment, not only representatives, but also prisoners, of their own times. It is by venturing out of one's habitat, by setting forth to explore new lands, that creativity is excited and originality is awakened. By writing the same thing over and over that has proved to have a market, writers (and publishers)and, yes, readers as well—sell and buy the same sort of fiction over and over again. Why take a chance on writing something new, on publishing something different, of buying an unknown quantity, when we already know another Stephen King novel, no matter how familiar the characters, setting, plot, and theme, will be a New York Times bestseller. We get the type of horror fiction we want and, some might suggest, deserve.

Until AI can write movie scripts for us to play inside our heads or surround us on every side, if we want something different, readers are going to have to demand it, writers write it, and publishers publish it. Maybe the history of recent art movements among painters can suggest some ways writers can write some new forms of fiction, horror and otherwise. Our world suggests, more than ever, perhaps, many things to which horror novelists (and moviemakers, for that matter) could react, if they've a mind to do so.

Otherwise, look for yet another "blockbuster" by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Bentley Little, or Whoever-Else; it's probably being written, published, or distributed this very moment.

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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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