Friday, March 5, 2021

Lens Crafters, or Yggsdrasil: A World Among Worlds

 Copyright 2021 by Gary L. Pullman



 Like other genre fiction (and, indeed, art in general), horror fiction is mostly a matter of metaphor. A story is a mirror, reflecting the inner “person” of the protagonist; a crowd, representing a community or a nation opposed to the protagonist; or the environment, symbolizing nature or nature's Creator. Depending on its underlying metaphor, then, horror fiction (and, again, art in general) is, thus, either psychological, sociological, naturalistic, or theological, aligning with the traditional, if rather sexist, categories of story conflict once known as “man vs. himself,” “man vs. man,” and “man vs. nature,” to which I would add “man vs. God.” I rare instances, all these categories may be represented in a single story.



Although writers certainly often write stories in several, or all, of these categories, I list a few writers and their stories for each of these classes of fiction, as identified by types of conflict, by way of example:


  • Psychological (“man vs. himself”): “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” (both by Edgar Allan Poe)

  • Sociological (“man vs. man”): Misery by Stephen King and

  • Naturalistic*: “The Strange Orchid” and The Island of Dr. Moreau (by H. G. Wells) and Carrie (by Stephen King)

  • Theological: The Taking by Dean Koontz; Desperation by Stephen King; The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

  • Psychological, Sociological, Naturalistic, and Theological: “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane


*Naturalistic includes stories which feature paranormal, rather than supernatural, abilities, the difference between the two sources of empowerment, as I use these terms, being that the the paranormal, since it is natural, is or, at some point may become, explicable through the exercise of reason or through scientific knowledge, while the supernatural is, by definition, inexplicable by either rational or empirical means, because it transcends nature altogether.

 


Although it is possible, perhaps, that, one day, writers may invent or, more likely, discover a metaphor in addition to those of the psychological mirror, the sociological crowd, and the naturalistic environment (in Crane's story, the ocean is the environment), it may also well be that these three metaphors exhaust the modalities of understanding the human situation. If such is the case, there remains an avenue for gaining additional insights into our lives as human beings involved in our own minds and behaviors, the actions of others, and the eventualities of existence within the world and to further explore what it entails and means to be a human being in a vast nebula of time and space. This remaining avenue is not one road, but many, which don't simply branch, but also interweave, with one another, much like Yggsdarsil, the sacred tree of the Norsemen: each a world unto itself, it is also, at the same time, a world among worlds.



Many of these worlds are subjects of departments or schools in colleges and universities throughout the world: fine arts, sciences, and related disciplines, some of which are, more specifically: anthropology, biology, business, chemistry, computer science, earth science, economics, engineering and technology, geography, history, language and literature, law, mathematics, medicine and health, philosophy, performing arts, physics, political science, psychology, sociology, social work, space science, theology, and visual arts. Are there other worthy disciplines that provide a foundation and a framework for artistic development in general and horror fiction in particular? Of course. The ones listed are merely examples.



To use a metaphor, such disciplines are lenses. They focus or disperse the light of understanding each in their own peculiar ways. To see a story's idea or its characters, its action, its setting, its structure, its implications, its conflicts, or its theme through the lens of philosophy is very different than to view the same element of the same story through the lens of law, the lens of medicine and health, or the lens of politics, and those stories that examine the same aspect of a story, of horror or otherwise, as Crane's “The Open Boat” does are stories that enrich perception and, sometimes, understanding. By seeing a story through various lenses, a writer renews the approach of fiction, or literature (or, again, art in general). Stories, even about familiar tropes and themes, become new again, because they offer fresh insights by their authors' willingness to look anew at them, through a variety of lenses. Such renewal is apt to be not good just for the souls of readers and writers but also for genres themselves.

 


Why, through a story, should a writer and a reader explore just one world, when there are (more than) nine?

Friday, February 26, 2021

US → C → E → FO w/ T

 Copyright 2021 by Gary L. Pullman

Today, Michael Williams, the author of the Twisted Tales series, which presently consists of three books, shares a few tips about how he writes some of his flash fiction stories.


One way that I generate some of my Twisted Tales is by using a formula I've invented. It consists of four steps. First, imagine an unusual situation (US). Second, account for this unusual situation by showing its cause (C). Third, show the effects, or results, of the unusual situation (E). Fourth, show the final outcome, being sure to include a plot twist (FO w/T).


Here's an example, based on one of the stories in Tales with a Twist IV, which will appear on Amazon and other online retailers' sites.


US: A woman begins to hear voices.

C: She's not human; she's a android, and she hears the voices due to a faulty transmitter implant.

E: She is kidnapped.

FO w/T: In rescuing her, police stumble upon a top-secret government experiment gone awry: she is a prototypical android scheduled to be mass produced.


Of course, the steps, or elements, in the formula can be rearranged. Here's another possible configuration for the story:


US: A woman begins to hear voices.

E: She is kidnapped.

FO w/T: In rescuing her, police stumble upon a top-secret government experiment gone awry: she is a prototypical android scheduled to be mass produced.

C: She's not human; she's a android, and she hears the voices due to a faulty transmitter implant.


The elements should be arranged in the manner that best conceals the story's mystery (she's an android) until the end of the tale and best delivers the plot twist that represents the story's “punchline.”


There are plenty of other examples in the Twisted Tales volumes.


Watch this space! Michael may be back, as a guest speaker, sharing more tips on how he writes his Twisted Tales!

Monday, February 22, 2021

ON SALE this week ONLY! 99 Cents!

Tales with a Twist is an eclectic collection of flash fiction, offering over thirty tales of fantasy, horror, humor, science fiction, and suspense.

Stories include a comedian's encounters with “small assassins,” a divorced husband's regrets about feeding his ex's cat, drone technology's new windows of opportunity for theft and ransom, a woman who takes it upon herself to kindly put “losers” out of their “misery,” an invention that gives men too much of a good thing, and a mobster's son who learns too late what honor means among thieves.

This collection also treats readers to an invention that buys another year of life for its inventor; a lovelorn Yeti; a compassionate con man; a desire for peace and quiet that turns into the road to hell; a modern-day Norman Bates with a thing for classy blondes; a talking statue; a couple of stories about Santa; and much more.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Interview with Michael Williams

Campbell and Rogers Press has just published my fellow author Michael Williams's Tales with a Twist III, the third installment in his Twisted Tales series. As someone who has followed Michael since his first book, I am delighted to recommend his series. I love the short, short form and the variety of his flash fiction, and I believe you will as well. Check out his interview, below. He is a man with an imagination and a vision that is on fire!

Interview with Michael Williams

Q: What interests you in the super-short genre of flash fiction?

A: Alfred Hitchcock once said that a movie shouldn’t be longer than the capacity of the human bladder. I find I agree. Edgar Allan Poe considered the effect of short fiction to be more intense than that of longer works, such as novels or—my apologies to Hitch—full-length motion pictures. I also tend to concur with Poe: shorter fiction can pack more of an emotional wallop than longer forms. In our modern, fast-paced world, I think shorter fiction is also more convenient for many. A lot of people want complete stories without having to spend hours or days to read them.

Q: It seems that you prefer fantastic to realistic stories. Why is that?

A: Actually, I enjoy reading and writing all forms of fiction, but I think that tales of the fantastic, marvelous, and uncanny—handy distinctions that Tzvetan Todorov makes—add an element of magic to mundane experience, the icing, so to speak, on the cake. I also believe that, as Flannery O’Connor once said, a writer sometimes needs to use hyperbolic techniques to communicate with readers, and the shock of the surreal; the astonishment of the weird; and the wonder of the otherworldly, the supernatural, the occult, and the mystical provide these rhetorical approaches.

Q: As the titles of your books suggest, your tales are rather “twisted.” I'm going to ask the question most writers hate to hear: Where do you get your ideas?

A: I'm an eclectic reader. I enjoy learning about a variety of subjects. I guess you could say I'm a generalist. Sometimes, when the stars are in alignment, a remembered fact here will meet up with a recalled fact there, and, out of this connection of one thing and another, an idea will emerge. I might combine one of Thomas Edison’s inventions with the spiritualistic belief in the ability of the living to communicate with the dead, or I could update an ancient myth or a modern horror movie. As Arthur Golding wrote, in translating John Calvin, “All is grist for the mill.”

Q: I know you're something of a mariner. Does the sea ever feature in your stories?

A: Not as often as I might expect, but, yes, there is a sea tale or two. In one, the ocean solves a murder, which is rather a novel notion, I think.

Q: By definition, according to the title of your series, Twisted Tales, and by the titles of the books in the series, each of your flash fiction narratives contains a plot twist. How do you think up so many of them?

A: Usually, the story suggests one. However, I also employ a couple of tricks, or techniques—three, actually. First, when plotting a story such as those in Tales with a Twist, Tales with a Twist II, or Tales with a Twist III, I keep in mind the idea that almost everything has a direct opposite: new, old; lost, found; hero, villain; reward, punishment; rich, poor; right, wrong. Then, I start with one polarity and end with its opposite. The second way is more concrete. I keep a list of the plot twists I see in novels, short stories, movies, and TV series. Then, I adapt them to fit the situation or circumstances of my own stories. My third technique is to remember that there is a fine line not only between good and evil and right and wrong, but between all such polar opposites. A person who is cautious may become distrustful or even paranoid; a man who's strict can become controlling; a woman who's concerned with her own health and that of others—a doctor or a nurse, perhaps—can become a hypochondriac; a trusting person may become gullible. Each of these possibilities is a source of plot twists.

Q: How many of your tales with a twist are autobiographical?

A: Many of them are fantasies in which I explore how something might be if a particular set of unusual circumstances were to apply. Many of my stories are thought experiments, of a sort. I place a certain type of character in a particular kind of environment and see whether he or she adapts and, if the character does adapt, how he or she manages to do so. Frequently, the environment is physical, but it need not be; some of my stories' environments are philosophical, or moral, or psychological, or political, or cultural, or otherwise. The autobiographical element, when there is one, may be small—a detail here or there, the description of a place I've been, desires I've experienced, wishes I may have wanted to fulfill, thoughts or feelings or impressions I've had, that sort of thing, embedded in the narration, the exposition, or the dialogue.

Q: Will there be further Tales with a Twist?

A: I'm working on the next one now.

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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