Fascinating lists!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Anthology Ideas (and a Few Freebies!)

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

There are probably as many ways to come up with an anthology idea as there are editors who come up with anthology ideas. In the brief head notes to his stories in his own anthology of twice-told tales, The Collection, Bentley Little mentions a few of them. For any who imagined that the innards of the publishing industry are as confused and messy as those of a dissected high school biology class frog, his comments on the matter suggest that such cynics are pretty much right on the money.

The ecology movement gave rise to the notion for one anthology: The Earth Strikes Back was to be a collection of tales concerning “the negative effects of pollution, overpopulation, and deforestation” upon the planet, or so Little supposed, at least, “judging by the title of the book.”

Another anthology, Cold Blood, was also to be centered on a “theme” and its stories were to have been written to “specific guidelines.”

A third anthology was to have included “stories based on titles the editor provided,” all of which “were. . . clich├ęd horror images.” This one, Little says, “never came to pass.”

According to Stephanie Bond, author of “Much Ado About Anthologies,” these collections “are assembled in various ways,” sometimes as the result of a group proposal by several authors, sometimes at the suggestion of an editor, sometimes as a way to test the marketability of an idea, and sometimes to capitalize upon a specific author’s unusual success. Usually, they come together because “editors formulate ideas for anthologies to fill holes they perceive in the market.”

I submitted a story for an anthology myself. It (the anthology, but my story also) concerned animals. My story was accepted, but I declined the invitation, because it was to have appeared in an electronic magazine and the editor wanted to pay via PayPal. At the time, I preferred payments by check, the old-fashioned way.

Anthologies have a common theme, of course, provided by a timely or evergreen topic, a holiday, an intriguing situation, or any other reasonably good excuse for a score or more (or fewer) stories by the same or different authors of the same genre.

Horror movies have also gone the anthology route. Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye and Creepshow are only two among many. Most follow the simple convention of sandwiching three of four short movies between an opening prologue that sets up the theme to be followed and an epilogue that rounds out the series and provides an appropriate sense of closure.

Were you yourself to publish a horror anthology, what short stories would you include? Your list could indicate not only your own interests in the genre, but also some of the narrative themes, writing techniques, and stylistic approaches your choice of stories represents, especially if you write a brief headnote to introduce each story.

My own imaginary anthology is an eclectic one, featuring some better-known and some lesser-known stories by well-known authors. A few might be by famous people who aren't known for writing chillers and thrillers, but who have written some admirable tales of terror and suspense, and a few others might be written by relatively unknown authors or by authors who are relatively unknown, at least, to most American readers.

In alphabetical order (by author's name), here's the list of the candidates I'd likely include, some of which might stretch the traditional definition of “horror story”:

Bierce, Ambrose: “The Damned Thing

The color of “the damned thing” is the source of horror in this story about a creature never seen before among humanity. (You might also enjoy my two-part commentary on the story, “The Damned Thing": Bierce's Exercise in Existential Absurdity.”) 

Bierce, Ambrose: A Tough Tussle

This story shows what the Civil War was like, up close and personal, for the men who fought it. It's a haunting tale in which death stares the living in the face.

Bradbury, Ray: “Heavy-Set” (in I Sing the    Body Electric)

A childlike man has trouble fitting in, relying on bodybuilding and fantasy to get him through the day. His mother, with whom he lives, hopes his interest will be enough to sustain him—and to protect her. (You'll also want to read my analysis of this story, “'Heavy-Set': Learning from the Masters.”

Chopin, Kate: “The Story of an Hour

When a woman learns her husband has been killed, his demise is a dream come true—or is it?

Churchill, Sir Winston: “Man Overboard

Similar to Stephen Crane's short story, “The Open Boat,” the former British prime minister's tale confronts a pleasure-seeker with the indifference of nature. (My analysis of this story, “'Man Overboard': Questioning Nature and Its Creator,” offers food for thought.)

Crane, Stephen: “The Open Boat

Four men in a dinghy learn the lesson of their lives concerning their place in the cosmic scheme of things. (“Taking Away the Teddy Bear” provides insights concerning this story, “Man Overboard,” and other works.)

Dickens, Charles: “The Signal-man

Based on a true incident, Dickens revisits the scene of a tragic railway accident, suggesting the incident might have had a supernatural cause.

Du Maurier, Daphne: “The Birds

We've seen Alfred Hitchcock's movie, but have we read the short story it's based on?

Faulkner, William: “A Rose for Emily

What secrets is dear old Emily hiding in her family's decaying mansion?

Gilman Perkins Charlotte: “The Yellow Wallpaper

The wallpaper will give you the willies.

Feminism was never like this!

Jackson, Shirley: “Just an Ordinary Day”

At the end of the day, it's time to switch.

Lawrence, D. H.: “The Odour of Chrysanthemums

Before there were funeral parlors, bodies of the deceased were prepared by family members and laid out in the parlor, as in this story.

O'Connor, Flannery: “Good Country People

Her dark suspicions about God and religion don't save her from the traveling salesman with a morbid interest in her prosthesis.

Poe, Edgar Allan: “Hop-Frog

A fool makes a fool of a sadistic king and his toadying couriers. (“'Hop-Frog': A Story of Reversals” investigates Poe's technique.)

Stoker, Bram: “Dracula's Guest

A strange landscape. Rumors of vampires. A graveyard in the midst of a forest. A corpse revived. A werewolf. Military troops. This one has it all, including a note from the Count of Transylvania, soliciting assistance in the protection of his “guest.”

Rabindranath Tagore: “The Hungry Stones

Visions of the dead have a hypnotic effect on tax collector.

Wells, H. G.: “The Cone

The descriptions of an ironworks are extraordinary, as is this horrific tale of terror and revenge.

Wells, H. G.: “The Red Room

Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Wells offers an eerie tale of terror in a haunted castle, offering an explanation opposite that presented in the film adaptation of Stephen King's “1408.” Reading Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of the fantastic and its tendency to be resolved as either marvelous or uncanny helps in understanding the nuances of both this story and the film version of King's story.

Fortunately, for those who may want to read one or more of them, many are available, free, online, as the links embedded in their titles indicate, or may be checked out on loan from local public libraries.

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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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