Fascinating lists!

Monday, July 9, 2018

H. G. Wells: The Art of "The Cone"

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


H. G. Wells's masterful short story, “The Cone,” tells a simple, straightforward tale of vengeance and horror. During his stay with Horrocks, who manages the Jeddah Company Blast Furnaces, the artist Raut, who is making a study of the ironworks, has an affair with Horrocks's wife, talk of which the manager overhears, including his wife's confession of her love for Raut.

During the lovers' conversation, Horrocks's wife insults and denigrates her husband as unimaginative and insensitive and praises Raut for the love and beauty he has brought into her dull, drab life. Like Raut, she has an aesthetic appreciation of life, whereas, she tells Raut, her husband “thinks of nothing but the works and the prices of fuel,” having “no imagination, no poetry.” Horrocks also overhears his wife's mockery of him, before he enters the room and offers to take Raut for a tour of the ironworks so the artist can get a better view of its aesthetic effects.


As the men tour the ironworks, Horrocks points out its “effects,” as he leads the artist along, gripping his arm so firmly that it hurts Raut. On their way through the industrial landscape, Horrocks explains how cones have been added to block the throats of the furnaces so fire doesn't “flare out” of them like “pillars of cloud by day . . . and pillars of fire by night.” Despite the cones, however, occasionally a furnace does belch “a burst of fire and smoke.”

A sign warns, “Beware of the Trains.” As a train approaches, Horrocks shoves Raut into its path, pulling him back at the last moment, so that the artist narrowly escapes death. As they resume the tour, Raut wonders whether Horrocks is aware of his affair with his wife and whether, as a result, he had “just been within an ace of being murdered.”


Continuing the tour, Horrocks points out additional effects, such as the canal. “You've never seen it? Fancy that! You've spent too many of your evenings philandering,” Horrocks tells Raut.


They take an elevator to a “narrow rail” overhanging a furnace seventy feet below. “That's the cone I've been telling you of,” shouts Horrocks, “and, below that, sixty feet of molten metal, with the air of the blast frothing through it like gas in soda-water.” He adds that the cone's “top side” is 300 degrees, which is hot enough to “boil the blood out of you in no time.” Raut tries to escape, struggling with Horrocks, who detains him, and Raut plunges into “empty air.” Although his lower body makes contact with the “hot cone,” Raut manages to cling to the chain from which the furnace's cone is suspended, the tremendous heat singeing his hands and causing “intense pain” to assail “him at the knees.” Raut tries to ascend the chain, but Horrocks flings coal at him, shouting, “Fizzle you fool! Fizzle, you hunter of women! You hot-blooded hound! Boil! boil! boil!”

Only after Raut, still clinging to the chain, has been immolated does Horrocks's anger pass and “a deadly sickness [comes] upon him.” as he smells “the heavy odour of burning flesh . . . . his sanity” returning.

From “below was the sound of voices and running steps. The clangour of rolling in the shed ceased abruptly.”

* * *

The plot of Wells's story is itself a thing of beauty. Tight, unified, and artistically executed, with every detail leading to the final effect, it's a tale of terror worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.


Beyond the plot itself, Wells's story is a masterpiece of literary excellence because of its style. A tale of vengeance against an artist, the story is rendered as if Raut himself might have painted it, as a series of images, some impressionistic, others surreal. Wells's protagonist doesn't only speak of the aesthetic effects of his workplace, but the omniscient narrator's artistic descriptions of these effects is like detailed verbal paintings, as these few samples indicate:

The night was hot and overcast, the sky red, rimmed with the lingering sunset of mid-summer. . . . The trees and shrubs of the garden stood stiff and dark; beyond in the roadway a gas-lamp burnt, bright orange against the hazy blue of the evening. Farther were the three lights of the railway signal against the lowering sky.

* * *

Horrocks pointed to the canal close before them now: a weird-looking place it seemed, in the blood-red reflections of the furnaces. The hot water that cooled the tuyeres [“a nozzle through which air is forced into a smelter, furnace, or forge”] came into it, some fifty yards up—a tumultuous, almost boiling affluent, and the steam rose up from the water in silent white wisps and streaks, wrapping damply about them, an incessant succession of ghosts coming up from the black and red eddies, a white uprising that made the head swim.

* * *

They went . . . through the rolling-mills [“a factory or machine for rolling steel or other metal into sheets”], where amidst an incessant din the deliberate steam-hammer beat the juice out of the succulent iron, and black, half-naked Titans rushed the plastic bars, like hot sealing-wax, between the wheels. . . . They went and peeped through the little glass hole behind the tuyeres, and saw the tumbled fire writhing in the pit of the blast-furnace. It left the eye blinded for a while. Then, with green and blue patches dancing across the dark, they went to the lift . . . .


These descriptions support Horrocks's view of the ironworks as itself an artistic setting as well as a technological marvel. Unlike Raut and his own wife, Horrocks is able to see the beauty of technology and industry. It is ironic that such beauty, as Horrocks perceives it and the narrator describes it, should be the background to the artist's demise at the hands of Horrocks and the technology of the ironworks itself.


But Wells achieves yet more through the figures of speeches, allusions, and point of view his omniscient narrator employs in describing what, to Horrocks, is a work of art and what is to his victim, “Gehenna,” “a place of burning, torment, or misery.” From Horrocks's point of view, the ironworks is described as a work of art; the furnace is personified as Horrocks's “pet” (“I packed him myself, and he's boiled away cheerfully with iron in his guts for five long years. I have a particular fancy for him”); and the water of the steaming canal is described with an allusion to “sin” and “death,” just as the “flames” that once erupted from the “throats” of the furnaces looked like God, as He revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites, as “pillars of cloud by day . . . and pillars of fire by night” (Exodus 13:21-22) as they journeyed through the wilderness.


Wells's descriptions are dynamic, not static; they move and act, as if the ironworks is itself a conscious entity, a willing instrument of its manager's revenge. The movement prevents the plot from slowing, keeps up the pace of the action, and is perfectly suited to the tour of his workplace that Horrocks conducts. The descriptions heighten and underscore the unity between Horrocks and his beloved ironworks, emphasizing the relationship that exists between him, as a man, and the industry and technology of the works he manages.


Horrocks's appreciation of the beauty of the ironworks also suggests that both the artist Raut and Horrocks's wife underestimate his sensitivity, intelligence, and imagination. It is not that he lacks the ability to appreciate beauty, but that the type of beauty he appreciates differs from that of Raut and Horrocks's wife. They are detached from the material world, thinking in terms of “effects” and of romantic passion; a man of the earth, a “Titan,” Horrocks is immersed in the physical world of labor and sweat, of industry and technology. To him, the ironworks is a place of beauty, whereas, to Raut, it is a “Gehenna,” a blot upon the beauty of the countryside, and, to Horrocks's wife, it is a stifling, suffocating place devoid of beauty and love. The story suggests that it is the illicit lovers who are unable to appreciate beauty—at least the beauty that Horrocks is able to see.


The characters live in different worlds, which results in a conflict of aesthetics, passion, and love that ends in horrible death for Raut, a realization of the darkness within him for Horrocks, and the end of an affair that Horrocks's wife said opened “a world of love” to her. The story suggests that life, like the setting in which it is experienced, may be a place of beauty which suggests the presence of God, as the ironworks does for Horrocks, or a “Gehenna” of torment and anguish suggestive of hell for those who cannot fathom the beauty and majesty of the place. The story also suggests the significance and power of aesthetics, for it is both the appreciation of the ironworks's beauty, on Horrocks's part, and the failure to appreciate the beauty of such a place, on Raut's and Horrocks's wife's part, that leads to adultery, betrayal, vengeance, and murder and to the horrific death of the artist at the hand of the ironmaster:


His human likeness departed from him. When the momentary red had passed, Horrocks saw a charred, blackened figure, its head streaked with blood, still clutching and fumbling with the chain, and writhing in agony—a cindery animal, an inhuman, monstrous creature that began a sobbing intermittent shriek.

Abruptly, at the sight, the ironmaster's anger passed. A deadly sickness came upon him. The heavy odour of flesh came drifting up to his nostrils. His sanity returned to him.

God have mercy upon me!” he cried. “O God! what have I done?”

He knew the thing below him, save that it moved and felt, was already a dead man—that the blood of the poor wretch must be boiling in his veins. An intense realisation of that agony came to his mind, and overcame every other feeling. For a moment he stood irresolute, and then, turning to the truck, he hastily tilted its contents upon the struggling thing that had once been a man. The mass fell with a thud, and went radiating over the cone. With the thud the shriek ended, and a boiling confusion of smoke, dust, and flame came rushing up towards him. As it passed, he saw the cone clear again.

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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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