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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

All's Well That Ends Well

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror writers with longstanding records as bestselling authors are not exempt from writing novels with unsatisfying endings. When the novelist is Stephen King, whose novels typically run as many as eight hundred pages (sometimes more), an unsatisfying ending is more than annoying; it's horrible.

Many of King's novels do end poorly, as It, Under the Dome, Revival, and many others attest. After reading hundreds of pages in which reality seems fairly real (other than the presence of the centuries-old, shape-shifting “It”), only to discover that the universe isn't a product of the Big Bang, as astronomers apparently mistakenly believe, but that it resulted from a gigantic turtle's need to vomit—well, readers are apt to think the effect is anything but agreeable. In fact, readers might think they'll be sick enough themselves to vomit a universe of their own. Likewise, the ending of Under the Dome is beyond frustrating. After plodding through hundreds of pages (many of which are devoted to King's Democratic progressivism and his obsessive hatred of Republicans and of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney in particular), readers discover that the invisible and impenetrable dome that cuts off Chester's Mill, Maine, is the result of a gigantic, mischievous female adolescent alien who placed an inverted dome over the town, much as a mischievous Earthling might invert a bowl over an anthill. Consequently, readers are likely to work out until they've acquired sufficient strength to rip this ridiculous novel page from page. While writing Desperation, King seemed to find nothing amiss with the views of Christian fundamentalists. He even sought out one of them, a pastor, as his adviser. But, as The Regulators, the companion novel to Desperation, indicates, King likes to turn the tables on himself. He does just this in Revival. He'd had no problem with the beliefs and teachings of Christian fundamentalists when he wrote Desperation, but, while writing Revival, he said he couldn't stomach the Christian fundamentalists' idea of hell, as it's described in the Bible. He doesn't cite chapter and verse, but here are a few passages, from the King James Version of the Bible, concerning hell, that most Christian fundamentalists would probably accept:

For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains (Deuteronomy 32:22).

The sorrows of hell compassed me about . . . (Samuel 22:6).

Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit (Isaiah 14:15).

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Mathew 5:29).

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33).

And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched (Mark 9:23).

And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments . . . (Luke 16:23).

For . . . God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment . . . (2 Peter 2:4).

According to these verses, hell, an expression of divine wrath, is a locked pit below the earth. Made of several layers, it's a place of eternal darkness and everlasting fire, in which the damned, who are cast therein bodily, are beset by sorrows and live in constant torment (although both body and soul can be destroyed in hell). It's occupied by both fallen angels and by human sinners, and it's set against the kingdom of heaven, which shall overcome it.

This is the conception of hell that King finds ridiculous. In its place, he offers something so extremely absurd that it's laughable, and it is with this, his own conception of hell, which he believes is superior to the Biblical depiction of hell, that he concludes Revival, describing hell as a gigantic anthill full of gigantic, ravenous ants. Huh?

Somehow, King sees a huge anthill in which huge ants crush sinners with their huge jaws as superior to the depiction of hell provided in the Bible, the King James Version of which is, without argument, one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the English language. With judgment this poor, it is truly a wonder that King ever managed to write his much better, earlier work.

The endings of the stories by Bentley Little, another prolific horror novelist, are as bad as those of King's worst books. They're tacked-on, rather than being integral to the plot, and, typically, they explain nothing concerning what has transpired in the hundreds of pages preceding them. They seem to hint at an explanation, but, as there is no actual explanation at which to hint, the intimation itself is nothing more than a half-hearted, meaningless gesture. Read virtually any of Little's novels, including the one for which he won the dubious Bram Stoker Award, and you'll see what I mean—but be prepared for a major disappointment. For example, The Resort suggests the bizarre incidents which occur at the present resort are somehow linked to those which occurred at an earlier, nearby resort, which now lies in ruins. How and why the two resorts might have shared some common causal link is unclear because unexplained. Therefore, readers are within reason to assume that there never was such a link. Likely, they will feel cheated of the time, effort, and money they spent in reading the novel.

Horror master Edgar Allan Poe offered a solution to the dilemma of the sloppy ending 172 years ago. In “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), he explains how he wrote his narrative poem “The Raven.” First, he decided how the story would end. Then, he selected everything—every word, every image, every figure of speech, every point of the plot, every character, every line of dialogue, every nuance of the setting—so that the final result, the story's effect, would be inevitable, given what came before and led up to it. It seems clear that neither King nor Little (nor many other writers, of the horror genre and of other genres, have any idea where their stories are going or why, but write only in the moment, making up the plot as they go.

Poe applied his technique not only to “The Raven,” but to most of his stories and other narrative poems. One story for which the ending isn't as clear and fitting as the conclusions of his other tales is “Ligeia.” As Kevin J. Hayes points out, in The Annotated Poe:

The ending leaves many questions unanswered. The reappearance of Ligeia can be interpreted as a phantasmagoric illusion [an image projected by the so-called magic lantern, a type of early projector], an opium-induced hallucination [the narrator uses laudanum], a psychological fantasy, a modern recurrence of a traditional transformation legend, or an actual event. . . .

Comments Poe made concerning the story's problematic ending indicate that he'd intended the story to have a supernatural ending. A friend of his, Pendleton Cooke, asked about the story's resolution. In response, Poe “suggested how he might have improved it”:

One point I have not fully carried out—I should have intimated that the will did not perfect its intention—there should have been a relapse—a final one—and Ligeia (who had only succeeded in so much as to convey an idea of the truth to the narrator) should be at length entombed as Rowena—the bodily alterations having gradually faded away.

It seems that Poe, unlike King, Little, and a host of other writers, learned his lesson about writing sloppy endings. He was careful, from then on, to plan more carefully the outcomes of his stories, the vast majority of which have the unified structure and the single effect for which he has become famous. For example, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is based an article, “Anecdote towards the History of the Spanish Inquisition.” According to this article, “when General Lasalle entered Toledo, he immediately visited the Palace of the Inquisition,” where he tested a torture device, which he found to be in good order.

As Hayes observes, the way in which the article recounted the story was ineffective from “a dramatic point of view,” so Poe reversed its chronology:

Though fascinated by the story, Poe nevertheless recognized what was wrong with it, at least from a dramatic point of view: it was backwards. By having Lasalle arrive in the first sentence, the article destroys all possibilities for tension and terror. Poe turned the story around, describing what happens to one particular prisoner while saving Lasalle's timely intervention for the final paragraph.”

Poe had learned the lesson that he would teach in “The Philosophy of Composition” and exemplify in the majority of his own short stories, essays, and narrative poems: in the words of the bard, “All's well that ends well.”

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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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