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Friday, June 1, 2018

Writing Monsters: A Review: Part 2

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

In Writing Monsters, Philip Athans offers a number of definitions, his own and those of others, to suggest that the concept is fluid and open, at least to some extent, to individual writers' interpretation:

A monster is something alive and uniquely strange that we instinctively fear.—Alan Dean Foster

[A monster is] inhuman, it's animate, and it wants to destroy you. Many monsters are supernatural or [act] outside the norms of nature in some way, but that's not always necessary.—Richard Baker

A monster is something that is frightening because it is inhuman . . . . It may be incomprehensible.—Martin J. Dougherty

A monster is a species that is neither a part of the civilization of sentient people [n]or among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna,” and a monster is “scary.”—Philip Athans

Later, Athans, who often exemplifies the concept by reference to such animals as slugs, sharks, and lobsters describes them as as-yet-undiscovered animals.

He also suggests that the effect of monsters can be heightened by relating them to fears or phobias common, if not universal, to human beings, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders), social phobia (fear of a hostile audience), pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying), agoraphobia (fear of the inability to escape), claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (the fear of heights), emetophobia (the fear of vomit or of vomiting), carcinophobia (the fear of cancer), astraphobia (the fear of thunder and lightning), and taphophobia (the fear of being burned alive).

Athans points out that readers know only as much about a story's monster or monsters as the author allows, and , as long as the writer is consistent with how the monster's characteristics, abilities, and behavior, readers will accept its existence within the story. It is best not to divulge too much information about the monster, he suggests, as readers will tend to “fill in the blanks” with their own ideas about the monster.

Typically, monsters, have a number of qualities, Athans says, among which are that they are frightening, mysterious, violent, predatory, amoral or immoral, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and terrifying in their appearance. Monsters usually isolate their prey, often defy humans' attempts to use technology against them, undergo some type of physical transformation, do not think like people (if they think at all), may be more intelligent than the average person, and are purposeful (they perform a task). Most monsters have otherworldly origins; they may come from outer space or hell. Others result from scientific experiments gone awry or from such natural processes as mutations of diseased states. They may come from underground, underwater, or other remote places.

Monsters may also be metaphorical. They can represent “ideas, feelings, dangers,” states of existence, the effects of bullying or greed, or any number of other real behaviors, conditions, or situations. Although Athans doesn't discuss Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this context, fans of the show are likely to know that its creator frequently made the series' monsters the metaphorical reflections of real-world problems. In the episode “Beer Bad,” for example Buffy Summers adopts the crude, almost animal-level behavior of a woman after she drinks enchanted beer. Her state of drunkenness is a metaphor for her uncivilized conduct. Likewise, in “Out of Sight,Out of Mind,” a high school student who is ignored by her peers actually becomes invisible, her invisibility a metaphor for her being neglected and unheeded. In the same way, Athans says, Godzilla is a metaphor for the atomic bomb. He is born of a test involving an underwater nuclear detonation, and he terrifies Japanese cities with his devastating radioactive breath.

Monsters introduce and sustain conflict throughout the story, but they also help characterize the human characters, showing them as tenacious, loyal, trustworthy, and as having the capacities to forgive and to join forces against a common threat. At the same time, they may exhibit self-centeredness, a capacity for exploitation, and vindictiveness.

It is important, Athans says, to provide monsters with an offense, a defense, and a “utility.” By “utility,” he means a signature behavior, such as the Blair Witch's “marking her territory [with bizarre] “stick figures” or vampires' needing to be invited into one's home.

With monsters, size is not important, as long as the monsters are frightening and have monstrous qualities and abilities.

Monsters must have a weakness or two so the human characters can kill or otherwise neutralize it. For example, vampires suck blood, can “live” for centuries, are extraordinarily strong, can turn into bats and fly, have hypnotic power, and can even levitate, but they can't abide crucifixes, sunlight, mirrors, or holy water; they have to be invited into one's home; and they can killed by being drowned or decapitated or by having a wooden stake driven through their hearts. When a monster is familiar to readers, writers must “tweak the trope,” Athans observes. An example he doesn't offer makes the point: Stephen King makes a crucifix's effect on his vampires depend on the faith of the character who wields it.

Athans suggests horror writers use the first-person or the limited third-person point of view.

Descriptions of the monster should involve as many of the five sense as possible. Readers respond best to horror stories that have visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory appeal. Only near the end of the story should the monster be fully revealed; until then, writers should rely on the other senses, providing only snapshots, instead of more detailed, glimpses of the monster so that it remains mysterious and terrifying. What a monster looks like, smells like, and feels like are often interrelated, Athans points out: “a slimy monster” is apt to “be shiny, to be heard slithering along, and to leave a trail of slime,” signs that warn people “not to touch the slimy thing.”

Use short sentences to increase pace and to suggest terror and hyperventilation, he suggests, and long sentences to reflect a character's breathlessness.

Athans also has a tip concerning the omnipresent cell phone. Isolate characters, and then banish their phones. They could have dead batteries, succumb to poor reception, get broken, or be left behind on purpose.

On Amazon, Writing Monsters has generated eighteen review. The lowest, two stars, found it a good basic guide for beginning writers, but not the manual the reviewer was seeking; he wanted a book that would guide him through the process of creating bigger (and badder?) monsters, rather than one that walks him through the process for creating them to :”exist at all.” The review is more about the reviewer's interests, unfortunately, than it is about the book that Athans actually wrote.

A middle-of the road, three-star, review found the book to generic, “a victim of its own wide-spectrum approach” that ended up being more about “how to write speculative fiction” than a “specialized work” concerned with monster-making. Perhaps this reviewer wanted less context and more hands-on material.

A five-star review reads:

Enjoyed this immensely. Great insights into the subject of monsters in fiction, their roles, suggestions on monster design, how to handle strengths vs. weaknesses, etc. I dislike zombies as monster du jure [sic] but I benefitted [sic] from the observations offered by the author who visualizes zombies as a force-of-nature, like Godzilla, with the real conflict of a zombie story between the people involved. Monsters, of course, figure into horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Notwithstanding frequent references to science fiction monsters, I believe science fiction requires some more in-depth examination of creature creation than this book can provide, [sic] however useful it may be, especially when aliens are involved. That's just a whole separate topic.. [sic] But an excellent book, [sic] I can't recommend it enough.

How would I rate Writing Monsters? It's an interesting, well-written book that offers food for thought in the creation and deployment of monsters. Perhaps a few writing exercises, at the end of each chapter, would have improved the work, but, overall, the author provides much for monster-makers to consider, the approach is easy to understand, and the book supplies solid tips. The final chapter reprints a short story, “The Unnamed,” by H. P. Lovecraft, whom Athans admires. Athans annotates the story, but his annotations do not zero in on the techniques of horror that Lovecraft uses in any detailed or comprehensive manner. This is an example of the overall criticism I have of the book: it offers a lot, but it lacks focus and detail, so it is more a survey than an analysis of monster-making. It deserves a place on one's bookshelf, as a basic guide or a series of reminders, which, unless we're Stephen King, we can all use from time to time.

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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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