Fascinating lists!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Visual Metaphors?

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Of the five senses, the primary one has always been sight, but until the advent of audio-visual technology, humanity has been able to use sight (and sound) as a communication tool only in rudimentary ways, one of which has been to agree with others that certain letters should represent particular sounds and that these sounds, voiced or unvoiced (that is, written), should signify the things that the sounds were intended to represent. Such communication is not only imperfect, but also indirect and abstract, rather than immediate and concrete.

However, with the advent of audio-visual technology, especially motion pictures, some of these limitations have faded and, today, audio-visual media, especially motion pictures, have become the main way by which humans communicate ideas. Progress marches apace, leaving the poor storyteller who is dependent upon the mere use of words behind. The best he or she can hope to do is to create word-pictures, or images, through descriptions.

However, if one cannot “beat them,” he or she may “join them,” and authors of fiction can learn, from their brothers and sisters in the film business, how to use images more effectively than, perhaps, they have done in the past, when readers were not as inundated by filmmakers’ sophisticated and subtle dramatization, rather than narration, of stories.

Trevor Whittock’s Metaphor and Film is a study in this and other aspects of the use of language, both linguistically and cinematographically. His book opens with three examples that indicate the nature of his text’s concern, one from “a director,” Alfred Hitchcock, another from “a scriptwriter,” Paul Schrader, and a third from “a film critic,” James F. Scott, before inviting his own readers to consider whether it makes sense to speak of “visual metaphors” at all and, if so, in what way and to what extent. The examples, like Whittock’s book in its entirety, are both interesting and enlightening.

Hitchcock declares:

“At the beginning of the film [The Birds] we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop. He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says to Tippi Hedren, “I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterisation as a wealthy, shallow playgirl. And later on, when the gulls attack the village, Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage. This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery . . . . It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds. Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside. . . (1).
Schrader points out:

In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for the theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness . . . (1).
James F. Scott observes:

White-light fog is used in the underwater sequence of The Graduate in which Benjamin, donning flippers and goggles, flees to the bottom of the family swimming pool, presumably to escape the overbearing camaraderie of his parents and their circle of friends. As the camera assumes his point of view, the world becomes a gloomy blur, shimmering but indistinct, agitated by the motion of the water and toned in a bilious, washed-out green. While the metaphor of diving reflects Benjamin’s introversion and retreat, the color quality of the image indicates the psychic cost of his escapism. He has ducked away from the plastic gewgaws of suburbia but only to set himself adrift in a turbid world of ghastly color and uncertain shapes (1).
Are the examples of visual metaphors or are these devices more akin, as W. B. Stanford believes, to “symbolism, parallelism, analogy, anything but metaphor”? (2). It is precisely this question, and others associated with it, that Whittock takes up in his fine study of Metaphor and Film, to which I will return in future posts.

Whittock, Trevor. Metaphor and film. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Terminal Freeze," Blow By Blow

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

I just finished reading Lincoln Child's novl, Terminal Freeze.  It's 320 pages long.  I read it in five hours.  That's 64 pages an hour, or a little more than a page a minute.  I'm not bragging, just making a point.  By using the same method that I use, you can read novels quickly, too.  Why would you want to do so?  You can read more of them, gaining a better perspective on either an individual's entire collection of work, a better understanding of the entire genre itself in which he or she works, or a better appreciation of both an individual author's work and the genre to which the work belongs, all with a minimum investment of time.  In addition to reading the novel, I also wrote one-sentence summaries of each of its chapters as I went, so that, by the time I'd read the entire novel, I had a summary of the entire story, which enhances my memory of what I've read and provides a handy dandy means of evaluating and critiquing the novel, should I ever wish to do so.
If you'd like to follow the method of my madness (or the madness of my method), here's what I do when I want to speed up the reading process:

  1. First, read the blurb. A blurb is the text on the inside of a hardback book’s flyleaf (the paper cover in which hardback books are usually wrapped) or on the back cover of a paperback. by reading them, you’re saving yourself from having to read maybe fifty, or even 100, PAGES of the novel itself, and you will know the main character’s name, the setting, the basic storyline, and the names of lesser, supporting characters.
  2. Realize that a chapter can be summarized in one sentence. Then, read the chapter only until you can summarize it in one sentence.
  3. After each chapter, write a sentence that summarizes what it presented
  4. Keep a list of characters’ names, brief phrases that identify them, and the names of the places in which the action takes place.
  5. Skip most of the description and exposition. Read just the dialogue. By reading just the dialogue, you will be able to keep track of the story well enough to summarize it. Only dip into the descriptive or expository blocks of text when you need to do so to reestablish a sense of continuity and context--maybe twice or so every four or five chapters. You will find that you are skipping entire pages of the text and still know what’s going on.
  6. After reading and summarizing each chapter and updating your list of characters and settings, stop! You are done with the book. 

Here is the result of my application of this process to Terminal Freeze:

Chapter 1: The face of a melting glacier near Alaska’s Mount Fear falls away, revealing the mouth of an ice cave.

Chapter 2: Scientists exploring the cave find a monstrous beast (a gigantic cat) frozen in the ice.

Chapter 3: Although Usuguk, who travels south with his people, warns the scientists to leave the region, declaring that they have trespassed upon holy land, defiling it with their presence, the scientists refuse to leave.

Chapter 4: Kari Ekberg, a Hollywood location scout, arriving at the scientists’ research station to prepare for a docudrama about the discovery of the frozen beast, is given a tour of the facility--except for the northern section, which is off limits to her and everyone else, including the squad of soldiers who maintain and guard the post.

Chapter 5: As they escort Ekberg to the ice cave to see the beast, two scientists, paleoecologist Evan Marshall and evolutionary biologist Wright Faraday, explain their expertise to her.

Chapter 6: In an underground bunker below Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, Jeremy Logan, allegedly a professor of medieval history, reads a secret memorandum concerning the deaths of a team of scientists who had been encamped at Mount Fear.

Chapter 7: Emilio Conti, the executive producer, begins filming on location, explaining that the host of the docudrama will arrive before the crew ascends Mount Fear to cut the beast from the ice--live, on camera, before millions of viewers.

Chapter 8: The Hollywood team’s legal representative, Wolff, shows the scientists a contract that their leader, Gerard Scully, signed, authorizing them to extract and thaw the beast’s carcass, on live television, despite the scientists’ objections.

Chapter 9: Using a laser and a diamond-tipped drill, the television crew extracts a block of ice in which the beast is entombed from the ice cave’s wall and transports it to a climate-controlled vault to thaw before the eyes of their television audience.

Chapter 10: Conti interviews Marshall, dramatizing the setting and dialogue, but angering the scientist when he asks him about his “dishonorable discharge” from the army, despite his having been awarded the Silver Star, and his refusal to carry a weapon, and Marshall refuses to cooperate further.

Chapter 11: Faraday reports to his colleagues that tests he’s conducted indicate that the beast is not the saber-toothed tiger they’d supposed it to be; it is at least twice the size of such an animal.

Chapter 12: An examination of the carcass--or what can be seen of it inside the block of ice--proves inconclusive as to the animal’s identity.

Chapter 13: The docudrama’s host, Ashleigh Davis, arrives, by helicopter, along with her trailer, which has been trucked in aboard an eighteen-wheeler driven by Carradine, an ice road trucker.

Chapter 14: Logan, identifying himself as a hitchhiker, who was picked up by Carradine on his way to deliver Davis’ trailer, introduces himself as the scientists gather to watch the docudrama host film a sequence of her show outside the climate-controlled vault.

Chapter 15: Marshal awakens to discover that a hole has been cut through the floor of the climate-controlled vault.

Chapter 16: Wolff locks down the compound so he can investigate and recover the carcass stolen from the vault, but the new arrival, Logan, is nowhere to be found.

Chapter 17: Faraday, having taken pictures of the hole in the vault’s floor, determined that the hole was made from above, not from below, as Wolff had supposed, which indicates that whoever sawed the hole through the floor knew the combination to the vault’s lock.

Chapter 18: Conti believes that the carcass was stolen through an act of sabotage to be disposed of and vows to make a documentary of the crime, asking Marshall to star in the film.

Chapter 19: Logan tells Marshall about the recently declassified memorandum concerning the deaths of the scientists at Fear Base.

Chapter 20: Josh Peters relieves McCoy Tyner, searching the compound for the carcass of the beast, and is attacked from behind and knocked unconscious.

Chapter 21: Faraday and the team’s graduate assistant, Ang Chen, tell Marshall of test results they’ve obtained on ice from the cave in which the creature was encased: it seems to contain ice--and a microscopic view of the photograph Faraday took of the hole in the floor suggests that the hole was made from teeth, not a saw, as if it had been chewed through.

Chapter 22: Logan reconnoiters E Level of the research facility, where he encounters the military leader, Sergeant Gonzalez, who tells him that the facility’s off-limits section had “extra berths” in it “that no military ever used” and is rumored to have involved the mauling by a polar bear of scientists who were involved in top secret work.

Chapter 23: After Marshall and his team’s computer scientist, Penny Barbour, put Conti, Wolff, and Ekberg on notice that the filmmakers will be sued if they libel or slander the scientists in their docudrama about the climate-controlled vault’s having been sabotaged, they inform the Hollywood executives that one of their men, Josh Peters, has been “torn apart” beyond the compound’s “security fence.”

Chapter 24: At Wolff’s request, Marshall examines the body, concluding that a polar bear could have killed Peters, but Wolff still insists that the creature’s carcass was stolen in an act of sabotage and suggests that Peters was killed to frighten the rest of them from continuing the Hollywood team’s search for the missing creature.

Chapter 25: Intent upon making a revised docudrama of the creature‘s theft and Peter‘s supposed murder as part of the sabotage of their original film, Conti sends one film crew to photograph the fearful reaction of the rest of the crew to the news of Peter’s horrific death and a second crew to film Peters’ corpse before it is put into cold storage.

Chapter 26: Logan discovers a notebook--perhaps a journal--that one of the scientists on the earlier, catastrophic, aborted mission kept while at Fear Base.

Chapter 27: A he prepares to leave the room in which Peters’ corpse is temporarily stored., having photographed the body, cameraman Ken Toussaint encounters “the face of nightmare.”

Chapter 28: Faraday reports to Marshall his suspicion that the ice that encased the creature was unusual and melted below the freezing mark, allowing the animal trapped inside, which may have been alive rather than dead, to escape after its ice prison had melted.

Chapter 29: Trying to pitch a screenplay to Davis, Carradine escorts her to her trailer, where they hear a loud knocking, which turns out to b Toussaint, hanging from one of the trailer’s window awning support arms, who, although he first appears dead, screams, “It plays with you! And then when it’s finished playing--it kills.”

Chapter 30: Toussaint, who has survived the attack upon him, describes his attacker as huge and equipped with many teeth; Peters’ corpse is missing; Wolff refuses to allow Carradine to drive the crew to safety in Davis’ trailer, which he offers to tow behind his eighteen-wheeler.

Chapter 31: Logan tells Marshall that the dead scientist’s journal hints at horrific events at Fear Base, and Marshall decides to take a snowmobile to visit the Tunits to see whether they can shed any light on the incidents, past and present, that have occurred at the research facility.

Chapter 32: When Allan Fortnum returns from shooting images of the Hollywood crew’s horrified reactions to Peters’ death, Conti gives the cinematographer his next assignment: stand by to film the monster as it tears its next victim apart--but Fortnum refuses to be party to this outrageous task.

Chapter 33: Both Davis and PFC Donovan Fluke, who escorts to her new accommodations, which are closer to those of the military troop attached to Fear Base to afford her better protection, are attacked by the monster.

Chapter 34: Visiting the Tunits’ settlement, Marshall finds it deserted except for Usuguk, who has remained behind to speak to the scientist, certain that Marshall would come.

Chapter 35: Sergeant Gonzalez orders the camp evacuated; everyone will ride in Davis’ trailer, which Carradine will tow with his eighteen-wheeler; meanwhile, Gonzalez plans to hunt for the beast; when Marshall returns, his colleagues plan to meet with him; only Conti and Ekberg refuse to leave, staying to film yet another revised docudrama.

Chapter 36: After Marshall tells Usuguk how he had accidentally killed his friend during the war in Somalia and had refused to cover up his mistake, thereby earning a dishonorable discharge, Usuguk agrees to accompany him on his hunt for the creature, but only as an unarmed advisor--and the shaman won’t share what he knows about the slaughter of the earlier scientific expedition party.

Chapter 37: Sergeant Gonzalez and his two men, Marcelin and Phillips, remain at Fear Base to hunt the beast after everyone else but Creel, Faraday, Scully, Marshall, Logan, Conti, Ekberg, and Wolff leaves in Davis trailer, which is towed by Carradine’s big rig.

Chapter 38: Conti and Ekberg plan to follow the soldiers, filming their hunt of the creature.

Chapter 39: Marshall returns to the nearly deserted research facility with Usuguk and learns of the monster’s killing of Davis and Fluke; Usuguk tells the others that he was the sole survivor among the earlier research party, “the one who got away.”

Chapter 40: The military troop, commanded by Sergeant Gonzalez and accompanied by Creel, the roustabouts’ foreman, follow the beast’s bloody tracks through the base‘s power station, and it attacks the group, killing Creel, after which Gonzalez retreats.

Chapter 41: Usuguk, a former soldier who had been stationed at Fear Base, tells the others how another, smaller spirit-beast killed the scientists of the earlier expedition and declares that the larger one awakened by the present expedition is an invincible and immortal guardian of the mountain in which Fear Base is installed--it cannot be killed, but it will kill them all.

Chapter 42: After crossing a frozen lake, the tractor-trailer is caught in a gust of wind that slams it into a rock and breaks one of the fuel tanks; the other tank is only one third full, and there is not enough fuel to take them the rest of the way to their destination, Arctic Village.

Chapter 43: Inside the base’s power station, the soldiers try to electrocute the creature, but to no avail.

Chapter 44: Following the soldiers, Conti, Wolff, and Ekberg find the bloody trail and Conti films Ekberg’s reaction to seeing the head that the monster had ripped from Creel’s body.

Chapter 45: Faraday finds that the monster’s white blood cell-rich blood makes it impervious to bullets but is hypersensitive to--and may be killed by--sound, so maybe they can convert the secret wing of the base into an echo chamber; meanwhile, Sergeant Gonzalez’s attempt to raise Conti and Ekberg on the radio is unsuccessful.

Chapter 46: Conti, having forbidden Ekberg to respond to Gonzalez’s radio call, orders Wolff and Ekberg to investigate a stairwell with him, and they feel pressure inside their skulls as the monster approaches them through the darkness.

Chapter 47: As Usuguk tells the party his people’s legends concerning the monster, Gonzalez, Sully, Marshall, Faraday, Phillips, and the shaman find an already-built echo chamber in the secret section of the facility.

Chapter 48: The creature kills Conti, but Ekberg escapes.

Chapter 49: Ekberg radios Marshall, advising him of Conti’s death and of her own risk, and, while Scully seeks batteries to operate the echo chamber’s sound equipment, Marshall rendezvous with Ekberg to protect her from the monster and lead her back to a site outside the echo chamber, where the monster can be ambushed.

Chapter 50: As the monster pursues them, Marshall and Ekberg retreat toward the ambush site, only to learn that no batteries are available and that the scientists have had to connect the sound equipment to a power source inside the echo chamber itself, which is farther than Marshall had anticipated.

Chapter 51: The sound equipment fails to stop the creature (as does a barrage of bullets), which attacks Scully, who is operating the sonar weapon, and tears him limb from limb.

Chapter 52: Marshall retreats with the sonar weapon into the echo chamber, where the sound is magnified, and, using a different set of “harmonics,” kills the monster with the sound waves, which cause its head to explode.

Chapter 53: Against all odds, Carradine’s big rig manages to haul the trailer to Arctic Village.

Epilogue: Logan suggests that the first beast was the second creature’s pet and that the latter had been searching for the former when it became encased in the wall of the ice cave.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Learning from the Masters: Lincoln Child Shows Us How to Write an Effective Opening Chapter

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Typically, an opening chapter, beginning in media res, sets up a mysterious, sometimes bizarre, situation that involves danger, compelling a character (usually the protagonist) to take immediate corrective action, the outcome of which may be left, for the moment, in doubt.

Let’s take a look at each of these elements.

In media res means “in the middle of things,” and refers to the narrative technique of presenting an incident out of context, apart from the related sequence of related incidents of which it is a part. A classic example in detective fiction is to begin the story with the discovery of a murder victim’s corpse. Obviously, someone killed the person. Who? How?, Why?, When?, and even Where? (the dastardly deed could have been done somewhere else and the body moved from the true crime scene to its present location) are all implicit, but as-yet, unanswered questions. The incidents that led up to the murder have been omitted. The story, in other words, has begun in media res.

The way to create mystery is to withhold key explanatory details that would create a context in which the situation would be understood. Often, such details relate to who or what is causing the situation, how the situation is being caused, or why it is being caused. A writer has only five questions with which to work in developing his or her plot and in creating, maintaining, and heightening the suspense that keeps readers reading: Who?, What?, When?, Where?, How?, and Why?* It is best, perhaps, in the opening chapter to address as few of these vital questions as possible. If an author supplies the what?, for example, and need to address the other four questions, it is probably best to leave them for later. By keeping the reader guessing concerning these questions, the writer maintains suspense.

The bizarre, of course, is the unusual. The unusual can be outlandish, but it need not be. The unusual can be a description of the life of a little-known people, such as an arctic or an Amazonian tribe. It can be a look into the customs of a different culture, past, present, or future. It can involve an expedition to another world. The unusual can be the anomalous, phenomena that do not fit the current scientific view of nature or reality. The bizarre may relate to the monstrous, the abnormal, the deviant, the fiendish, or the aberrant. Folklore, legends, and myths are sources, at times, for beliefs and attitudes that may seem bizarre to modern men and women.

Danger is most often associated with the body; it is physical. Such danger should always be present in a horror novel, of course (and is present in almost all genre fiction). However, physical danger is often coupled another type of danger--theological, philosophical, social, familial, or technological, for example, which compounds and elevates the physical dangers to which the characters are exposed. Danger to the body is frightening, but when such danger is coupled with perils to faith, belief, nation, family, or infrastructure, the fear is magnified.

The danger must force the character (usually the protagonist) to take immediate corrective action, but what is “corrective action”? Ideally (from the characters point of view), it is action that solves the problem which he or she has encountered in the opening chapter’s situation. From the readers’ point of view, though, the problem should never be so small or simple that it can be easily solved by the endangered character. Instead, his or her attempt to solve the problem should fail and, in fact, lead to or cause an even greater, related problem. Therefore, “corrective action” might mean no more than evading the danger, escaping it, or temporarily neutralizing it, only to have the same peril recur, with greater intensity or be replaced by a superior, but related, hazard. Until the end of the story, “corrective action” is generally either evasive action or stop-gap measures designed to postpone what seems to be inevitable death and destruction or a failure of some lesser sort. (As a rule, if the opening chapter does not involve the protagonist, the character who is involved in the opening chapter’s situation must turn out to be related in some way, directly or indirectly, to the protagonist or the protagonist’s plight.)

Lincoln Child’s novel Terminal Freeze offers a textbook case of beginning one’s story in media res and of setting up a mysterious, sometimes bizarre, situation that involves danger, compelling a character (usually the protagonist) to take immediate corrective action.

A tribal shaman invokes a ritual by which he hopes to appease gods who, he believes, have been angered by a woman’s careless violation of a taboo--a violation that has already led to some (unnamed) catastrophe and which, if it is not propitiated, may lead to more, even worse calamities. He performs the ritual, but it doesn’t work. Instead, something far worse threatens his people, and the shaman realizes that it is not the woman’s accidental breaking of the taboo, nor is it the failure of the ritual, but something far worse: “Only a violation of the most serious of all taboos could cause the kind of spirit fury he now paid witness to” (4). The shaman’s response is to order the woman to pack her belongings, for they must leave the next day, to travel south, “to the mountain” (5), where the violation of the most sacred taboo, presumably, has occurred. Readers are left hanging, so to speak, concerning the question as to whether the shaman and his people will be able to put matters right. If not, what horrible fate awaits them? This is another question that, left, for the moment unanswered, compels further reading.

*Some argue that a sixth question, How many? or How much? is also implied by any situation.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

News You Can Use

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Newspapers may or may not be dying, but, until they do (if they do), one of them, USA Today, as I have indicated in previous posts, provides, in its “Across the USA” column, bite-size morsels of news that horror writers can use: these tidbits provide the imaginative horror writer plenty of food for thought. Of course, you have to be a bit twisted to add the right imaginative (and imaginary) twist to these items, transforming them from prosaic fillers into storylines with potential to frighten and repulse.

Here, as in other, similar, earlier posts, are my own takes on these tidbits. (First, the tidbit; from the September 12, 2011 issue, page 8A; then, the imaginary take on it.)

Item 1: Texas: Longview -- As children, their parents dressed them in identical outfits and for 18 years they shared a bedroom. The Kent quadruplets have turned into young women who are students at East Texas Baptist University. “I’m looking forward to just growing while I’m in college,” Kinsey Kent said. “Since we aren’t together as much, we have the opportunity to grow as individuals.”
Twist: This is an interesting idea. The main question, for me, is how will the four sisters change, now that they can become themselves? Will some change for the better and some for the worse? What type of horrible transformations are in the (Tarot?) cards for these young women? Witches? (That would be an ironic possibility, given their attendance at a mainstream Christian college!) Vampires? Werewolves? This tidbit is one a horror writer can--or should be able to--really sink his or her teeth into!

Item 2: Utah: Salt Lake City -- A West Valley City man has been sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the beating death of his girlfriend. Third District Judge Judith Atherton handed down the sentence to Thomas Valdez, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in July. Police found Maralee Andreason dead on march 9, 2010, from blunt force trauma to the head.
Twist: So, he clubs her in the head, killing her, and he’s charged with murder in the first degree--and he gets off with 15 years to life--and the judge who hands down the sentence is herself a woman? Why did Thomas receive such a relatively puny sentence? What was his girlfriend like that would justify such treatment of her killer? I mean, there must have been some hellacious extenuating circumstances! Was she a witch? A vampire? A werewolf? (Probably neither of the latter two, because a club’s not going to kill a vampire or a werewolf all that easily, so the most likely scenario, of these three possibilities, is that she was a witch, but what did she do, put a curse on her boyfriend? If so, why?) There’s a story here, somewhere, and it could be a humdinger!

Item 3: Vermont: Stratton -- New York City area residents are gathering Tuesday for a fundraiser to benefit the Stratton Foundation’s Flood relief Fund. New York City escaped serious problems when Tropical Storm Irene came through, while Vermont was hit hard.
Twist: A politician should “never let a crisis go to waste,” the Democrats recently observed. What was Irene if not a crisis, if not for the Big Apple, for Vermont, at least? The fundraiser sounds noble, but when’s the last time a New Yorker was noble? Never! That suggests that New York City area residents may be raising money, but it’s probably to fund something dark and sinister. Maybe they are planning to build underground concentration camps in which to incarcerate--uh, I mean, house--pesky homeless people and are using Irene as an excuse to raise big bucks. They’ll give a smidgen of the money they raise to Vermont and keep the rest to improve the subway (by building subterranean homeless “shelters”).

Item 4: Washington: Spokane -- A 25-year-old man accused of murder was found dead in his jail cell. County Sherriff’s Sgt. David Reagan said deputies discovered Tristan Jordan on Saturday morning when they went to his cell to serve him breakfast. Cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner.
He’s locked in a cell. Let’s assume that he didn’t kill himself. What did? What could get into his locked jail cell, and how did it manage the feat? A demon? A monster that can take the form of solids, liquids, or gases, one that came through the ventilation system or the pipes, as a gas or as water, and then turned into a solid--solid steel, maybe?--and delivered a little brunt trauma to the prisoner’s head, maybe? There are other possibilities, too. Maybe he was poisoned by his jailers for some reason. Hey! I’m just saying. . . . I mean, weren’t they on their way “to his cell to serve him breakfast” when he was “found” dead?

Item 5: West Virginia: South Charleston -- State Police unveiled a 45-foot-long mobile command center that will help them manage special events and respond to disasters. It has satellite phone technology, weather radar systems, and a planning room. Its official rollout will be Oct. 15 at Bridge Day events at New River Gorge.
Twist: Are you freakin’ kidding me? A “45-foot-long mobile command center,” fully loaded with satellite technology, “weather radar systems, and a planning room”? This sucker has a mission other than the “official” one of supposedly lending a helping hand at “special events” and aiding “disaster” victims. It has “UFO Chaser” written all over it, that’s what I think. But nice try with the references to “special events” and “disasters.” The cops are hunting for spaceships and aliens--they just don’t want the state’s taxpayers to know what they’re really funding!

Item 6: Wyoming: Powell -- Weeks after Glenn French’s death, farmers gathered to harvest the fields he planted in the spring. “It’s a community effort of people who saw a need and filled it. And it’s a tribute to my brother,” Larry French said. “He was one of the kindest people I ever knew.”
Twist: What did Glenn plant, and how many acres of it is there? Is the crop marijuana, perhaps, or something more exotic, like seeds that fell out of the sky, on a meteorite that landed in the south forty a couple of years back? Maybe it’s a whole passel of man-eating plants like the one in the Little Shop of Horrors or flowers similar to H. G. Wells’ “strange orchid.” Whatever it is, it must be one hell of a crop to have managed to get the whole community to turn out, hoes in hand.

Item 7: U. S. territory: Guam -- Police arrested four men and two minors as part of an investigation into the stabbing death of three men. The adults are Benny Sam Robert, Osupwang Jery Muritok, Jeff Pedro, and Vimson Menisio.
Twist: What linked these four men (and two minors), and why did they stab three other men to death? What was in it for the killers? A common reward of some kind, or something different for each of them? Was it just money? Or maybe some deep, dark secret, maybe about the tire identities of the killers, that was best taken to the grave. Something about voodoo, maybe, or Satanism, or human sacrifice? The apocalypse is always a possibility, too, if all other ideas fail. Find the link between the killers or between the killers and their victims, and you find the story.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chillers and Thrillers has added two new polls! (Scroll down, way down!)  Vote early and vote often!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The First Three Closing Paragraphs in “Gideon’s Sword”: A Study in Motivation

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

An earlier series of posts examined Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s use of opening chapters in their latest Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast novel, Fever Dream. In this series, I will take a look at the authors’ use of the first three closing paragraphs in their first Gideon Crew novel, Gideon’s Sword. Since I won’t be providing more than the most cursory and pointed chapter synopses, readers who are interested in how this thriller arrives at these closing paragraphs will have to read the book, which is unlikely to be the best thing that ever happened to them, but will likely be a fairly satisfying experience.

Here’s the closing paragraph of chapter 1:

“Dad!” he screamed into the grass, trying to claw back to his feet as the weight of the world piled up on his shoulders, but he’d seen those feet move, his father was alive, he would wake up and all would be well (7).
At this point in the novel, Gideon is twelve years old; he has just seen his father shot, numerous times--has seen him, in effect, assassinated by soldiers as he sought to surrender, hands up, having released his hostage. His screaming of “Dad” reinforces the father-son relationship that the chapter established earlier, and young Gideon is portrayed almost as though he is an animal: he is belly down, in the “grass,” screaming as he seeks to “claw” his way “back to his feet.” A pitiful figure, the boy is made even more so by his hope (vain hope, readers will surmise) that his father, who has been shot multiple times, will survive. This paragraph brings the chapter’s action to a climax and motivates readers to read on. It also characterizes Gideon, showing his love for his father, his desperation, and his naiveté.

As chapter 1 ends with the dying of Gideon’s father, chapter 2 concludes with the demise of his mother, who has extracted from her son, who is now twenty-two years old, the promise that Gideon will avenge his father’s murder:

Those were her last words, words that would resonate endlessly in his mind. You’ll figure out a way (13).
Her words, reiterated by the omniscient narrator in italics, become important to the authors’ characterization of Gideon as a young man who can and does perform the impossible, not only in avenging his father’s murder, but also in saving the world--or, at least, the United States. His love for his parents motivates him to plan, to scheme, to strategize, long-term and on the fly, persevering against all odds until he succeeds in attaining his objective. The deaths of his parents, whom he loves, fuels his resourcefulness, his perseverance, and his occasional ruthlessness.

Chapter 3 ends with a single-sentence conclusion:

There was only one way to find out (17).
Gideon has developed a specialized search engine that tracks hits concerning the classified document that his father had written for the government, and, during this chapter, he discovers that a hit has occurred “in a table of contents released to the National Security Archives at George Washington University” concerning his father’s “still-classified” report, “A Critique of the Thresher Discrete Logarithm Encryption Standard EVP-4: A Theoretical Back-Door Cryptanalysis Attack Strategy Using a Group of y-Torsion Points of an Elliptic Curve Characteristic y.” To most readers, myself included, this title is apt to sound impressive, despite its unintelligibility, and this effect, perhaps, is all that Preston and Child intend. For his part, despite his own mathematical aptitude, Gideon is unable to understand all of the document, although he realizes that “this [may] be the memo that General Tucker had supposedly destroyed” and the one that his father had been authored in criticism of the “Thresher” logarithm that got him killed. Given the motivations of his love for his parents and his desire to honor his mother by avenging his father’s murder, readers are likely to be convinced that Gideon will do whatever he needs to do to accomplish his mission now that he has what may be the lead he has long sought. If there is “only one way to find out” whether this is the “brass ring” he’s been seeking, readers will likely believe that Gideon will do it, whatever it is.

Note: To further strengthen Gideon’s motivation to serve his country, even after he has avenged his father’s murder, he is informed that he has but one year left to live, for he is dying of a “vein of Galen aneurismal malformation,” or “an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins in the brain involving the great cerebral vein of Galen,” a “usually congenital and usually asymptomatic” condition which is both inoperable and fatal, usually within a year or two (72-73). Given this veritable death sentence, Gideon is told, he can either “spend your last year amusing yourself, living life to the fullest, cramming it in till the end” or “working for your country” (75). That Gideon chooses the latter alternative ennobles him to readers and reinforces his motivation to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals and to serve his country.

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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