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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Generating Horror Plots, Part II

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the first three of a baker’s dozen (plus one) of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.

1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

2. Develop a continuing theme. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

3. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

4. Rescue a damsel in distress. Perhaps Dean Koontz uses this technique for generating horror plots more than any of his contemporaries, especially in his more recent novels, including The Husband and The Good Guy. In Koontz’s universe, a woman can seldom protect and defend herself, or even find her way through life, without relying upon a strong, competent, able-bodied, and taciturn man. The women’s ineptitude in this regard often cause rather improbable plots on Koontz’s part. Nevertheless, his stories tend to be suspenseful, fun reads. In The Husband, Mitch Rafferty, a gardener, receives a telephone call from his wife’s kidnapper. He tells Mitch to watch a man who is walking his dog across the street. The man is shot and killed on the kidnapper’s orders, demonstrating that he is dead serious about killing Mitch’s wife, Holly, if Mitch tips off the police or fails to provide the hefty ransom that the abductor demands--one which is way beyond Mitch’s financial scope. Fortunately, as it turns out, Mitch’s brother is wealthy, but, of course, the plot twists and turns to the point that the reader wonders whether Mitch will ever rescue Holly or even manage to stay alive himself. The Good Guy’s storyline is similar. This time, the blue-collar worker is Tim Carrier, a stone mason. He’s having a drink at a local bar when a man arrives and, mistaking him for the hit man he’s hired to kill a woman, hands him his $10,000 fee and a photograph of the intended target, Linda Paquette, a Laguna Beach writer (like Koontz himself). Minutes later, the hit man, Krait, enters the bar, mistaking Tim for his client. Tim hands him the money he’s just received, telling Krait that he’s changed his mind about having Paquette killed. Then, he finds the intended target, and he and Paquette flee, the killer on their trail. Fortunately, Tim’s past has well prepared him to be Paquette’s protector, for Krait is an able and relentless, conscienceless killer. Koontz’s modern knights in white armor will uphold the tradition of chivalry, no matter how dead it may be in the everyday world in which the rest of us have to live.

5. Find the strange in the familiar. Two specimens of this approach may be offered, one as much a failure as the other is a success. Although we have discussed them previously, we offer a truncated version of our previous discussions here to demonstrate the technique of finding the strange in the familiar. The failure is the film, The Happening (2008), which was directed by M. Night Shyamalan. As most horror stories of this kind begin, the movie starts by showing a series of bizarre, seemingly inexplicable occurrences: mass suicides and murders by individuals and groups whose behavior is markedly aberrant. As the series of such incidents continue, spreading from person to person, from group to group, and from town to town, various theories are considered and abandoned as to the cause of the strange happenings. Is a bio-terrorist attack behind the events? Is it an epidemic of some kind? A botanist thinks that plants may be responsible for the murder and mayhem, releasing airborne toxins to defend themselves against humanity. The protagonist, a scientist named Elliot Moore, and his wife Alma take refuge with an murdered friend and colleague’s orphaned daughter Hess inside an eccentric old woman’s house as the plants continue to press their attack. Their hostess becomes infected, but they escape her attempts to kill them and, later, leave the house, surprised to find that the attacks have ceased. Three months later, watching TV, Elliot, Alma, and their adopted daughter hear a newscaster warn that the mysterious happening might have been but “the first spot of a rash” to come. Alma discovers she is pregnant, and, as she and Elliot celebrate, another series of bizarre suicides and murders take place in France. The film seeks to find the strange in the familiar, seeing flowers and shrubs and trees, especially those which blow in high winds, to be as menacing as poisonous weeds, but it is difficult to fear vegetation, wind or no wind, and the suspense simply doesn’t build, despite the mad and dangerous behavior of the infected humans whom the plants are bent upon exterminating. The heavy-handed, moralistic environmentalist theme of the movie is about as profound in its delivery as a PETA ad. The plot suffers in other ways, as does the characterization of all the players, but these are matters outside the present concern. A story that is more successful in eliciting the strange within the familiar is Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” Stoker suggests, far more subtly and effectively than Shyamalan, that there may be prodigious unseen powers operating behind the scenes, so to speak, of the natural events that take place in a remote stretch of forested countryside outside Munich on Walpurgis Night. Stoker he suggests that a tall, thin man who’d appeared seemingly out of nowhere and vanished as abruptly after frightening the coachman’s horses and leaving the Englishman stranded in the countryside as twilight gathers toward Walpurgis Night may be the unseen watcher, and perhaps also the occult, supernatural force that seems to control such natural forces as the weather, the wolves, the effects of the blizzard, and the hail. Alternatively, a note to Herr Delbruck by Dracula suggests that Transylvanian count himself may be opposed to whatever supernatural force is controlling these forces of nature and that, as this power’s adversary, he is acting, for reasons of his own, as the Englishman’s protector, however short-lived this self-assigned role may turn out to be. Examples of other stories that are more or less successful in seeking the strange within the familiar are Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 and most of the stories by H. P. Lovecraft. Concerning the finding of the strange in the familiar, the reader is advised to peruse the several articles that we have posted previously on Thrillers and Chillers, under the heading “Everyday Horrors.”

6. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). The past is prologue to the present. Stephen King employs this technique in It, in which an ancient evil makes a reappearance in Derry, Maine, every 27 years. In its last previous appearance, it was defeated by the Losers Club, who reunite as adults to take it on when it makes its next appearance in town. In Summer of Night, a novel that is similar in both plot and theme to King’s It, Dan Simmons’ ancient evil, associated with the House of Borgia, seeks to establish itself in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, but it encounters the determined resistance of five pre-teen boys and a street-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Bentley Little also employs the technique of bringing up the past and relating it as prologue to present catastrophes on several of his novels, including The Resort, in which a former nightmarish resort, although razed long ago, somehow determines the fate of a present, nearby resort and what befalls its staff and guests. A movie that takes this tack is Poltergeist, wherein, because a housing development has been built upon an Indian burial ground, there is hell to pay.

Stay tuned: We will explore additional horror plot staples in subsequent posts.

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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.

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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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