Friday, September 28, 2012

Victims in Mysteries, Thrillers, and Horror Fiction Often Invite Their Own Doom

Once upon a time, I loved a good fright. I’d line up on opening night for the latest slasher movie and sleep fitfully for the next month, my dreams drifting into nightmare and back again. But when the next scary movie opened, I was back for my share of fear and adrenaline.

In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween played for the first time in theaters across the land. I was among the first to see it after walking from my home to the nearest theater, a scant two-mile stroll on the way to the movie, but a long, halting march through dark places and spaces on the way home. I jumped at every noise, every movement caught in my peripheral vision.

Halloween was one of the last horror films I saw, but it certainly was not the last book from the horror fiction shelf that I read. I’m a Stephen King fan although I’ve never managed to read everything he’s written. I’ve also read one or two by Dean Koontz and Peter Straub, and of course, I read the Twilight series as well as The Hunger Games trilogy in order to pluck apt pop culture references from them to spice up classroom discussions about any number of other books.

From such books, from The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, and from slasher movies, I have drawn several conclusions about the human condition as seen through the lens of horror, and I’d like to share my conclusions with you in the next weeks. Some of the inferences will be familiar to you because Scream (the first) made the rules well-known. Others, I hope, will give you new ways to think about fiction and horror fiction in particular.

Rule, the First. Victims are rarely innocent or random.

In Tana French’s latest police procedural, the protagonist, Detective Sergeant Kennedy asserts that people who die violently have opened the door to violence and let it walk right in. They have kept secrets or refused help or given into temptation or let wicked thoughts come to life. Indeed, that is a central premise of much written under the genre names of mystery, thriller, and horror.

In Halloween, the good and wholesome babysitter draws the killer to her when she investigates the vacant house her friends have commandeered for a wanton party involving sex and cigarettes. Of course, teens that push the upright boundaries often find themselves impaled upon those struts, and they die horribly, knives thrust through mattresses from below, the killer unseen. He may rise and show himself briefly in the rearview car mirror before cutting off the driver’s screams and air. The driver was in the wrong place at the wrong time, usually well past the hour when men and women should be home behind locked doors, and worse, he or she ignored the simple, sensible precaution of locking the car doors and windows.

Even poor Bill Murray, playing himself in Zombieland, is not an innocent. He masquerades as the enemy, putting himself in jeopardy, and he fully intends to frighten Columbus and Little Rock before mocking their fears. He put himself in harm’s way and died.

In Dolores Claiborne, the title character, Dolores, participates in a fiction called her marriage. Her husband is a mean drunk, capable of dissembling long enough to put her off her guard, then strike her with a fireplace log, unconcerned that he could have broken her back. She hides her pain and her husband’s menace from their daughter, Selena, thus nurturing the greatest lie: that Selena is the child of a loving, good man. The violence that follows could have been sidestepped if Dolores had had better judgment, if she had been able to defy her husband as easily as she defies society and its judgment, if she had been unwilling to serve a self-absorbed, needy employer. The choices that Dolores made led her directly into the nightmare she must live.

And in The Shining, Jack is the architect of his own destruction. His weak character makes him vulnerable to troubling influences: his own inflated notion of his talent, alcohol, and anger. No ghost helped him break his own son’s arm, and evil spirits were not present when he struck a student and lost his job. Jack did those things without The Overlook Hotel or its ghostly past. He opened the door to tragedy long before he became a caretaker.

In examining crime statistics, it becomes apparent that few people are killed or maimed in random acts of violence. Most become the temporary property of a medical examiner because they engaged in criminal activities including drug trafficking, human trafficking, gun-running, extortion, bribery, and promiscuity. They were not simply in the wrong place at the wrong time accidentally; they had chosen to be where they were at that moment.

Even more disturbing are the data that show only 25% of people killed are killed by strangers. The victims in the Aurora, Colorado mass killing are among that group. But the majority of murders are committed by parents, spouses, and lovers who kill those whom they are supposed to love and protect, and they kill for the reasons introduced in horror fiction. They kill in anger, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol--like Jack Torrance. They kill because they failed to act when peaceful means could free them--like Dolores Claiborne. They kill when cornered, frightened, and offended--like Columbus in Zombieland. The Michael Myers among us--the amoral psychopath who cannot feel empathy or shame--is most rare. It is ourselves we should fear more, not him. Still we should be careful not to stray too far from the safety of social mores lest we open the door to Michael and invite him inside.

Reading Challenge:
Read any one of the books and movies mentioned in this post, or think of your favorite horror story. What does it reveal about human nature?

Writing Challenge:

Read an article about horror fiction, found at Then compose your own definition of horror fiction.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to Basics, A Review of Pronoun-Verb Agreement

None of us is perfect. Each of us carries the seeds of our own destruction, especially if we yield to dangerous impulses such as greed and gluttony.

None is a pronoun that refers to no one. Each is a pronoun that refers to one. Both pronouns require the use of a singular verb.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Don't Look Under That Rock ... Unless You Can Handle Troubled Dreams: Police Procedural Protagonists

Several years ago, an acquaintance joined our small group well after dinner had begun. Instead of sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends, he had been called back to work as a social worker in child protection. A mother had answered the voices in her head and tried to kill her child. This time, someone heard the child’s cries and intervened. My friend had just placed the child into the arms of a complete stranger with good intentions but little training.

“I need a different job,” he told us. “I’m tired of walking in the woods and being the one required to pick up the rocks just to see what’s hiding under there.”

None of us had any consolation for such raw human pain. Some said “thank you for doing that work.” Another said, “I’m sorry you have to know so much about the worst in human beings.” Most of us sighed with him.

I think of that man every time I pick up a police procedural featuring a detective with a haunted past. He is typically divorced and somewhat estranged from his children. He has a good heart, one that weeps for the creatures in this world with voices in their head, but he reserves his grit and drive for the victims, brutally and abruptly taken from this life and hurled into another. Living with such emotional tolls drives the detective to drink. He cannot get along with his boss, be he male or be she female. Smart, jaded, and tired, often in need of a haircut or clean clothes or stylish dress, this detective shuffles from work to car to crime scene to witness interviews to pub and finally home to bed. No one likes his methods, but most everyone agrees that he’s very good at what he does.

And what he does is turn over rocks. He sees the human form with all its waste and corruption exposed. He remembers the eyes staring into a truth that none of us knows: the truth that this is indeed the last sight, the last smell, the final sound, the last breath. That detective notices smallest things, things overlooked before, things that only he and Emily Dickinson observe. He sees the family photographs and a still-warm cup of coffee. These mean as much to him as what he does not see: a wallet missing from inside a pocket or a knife out of place.

That occasionally besotted, frumpy detective, sometimes hauling around a beer belly, turns over rocks for the rest of us. He makes us safe by asking the right questions, refusing to ignore contradictory evidence, by taking his time to get it right.

And that’s one reason why I read police procedurals. I don’t want to be the one in the woods required to turn over the rocks to catch a glimpse of man’s dark heart, his evil twin, the beast that lurks in the shadows. I’ll look over the shoulder of someone who will knock over the rocks. I’ll peek into darkness in the pages of a great crime novel, but I’ll do it safe within my well-lighted home, the one with dead-bolts and alarms, the place that keeps the monsters on the other side of the door.

Reading Challenge:

For some of the most flawed police of police procedurals, read Joseph Wambaugh’s satirical novel, The Choir Boys. For a detective so haunted that he often sleeps only after consuming more wine than anyone should, watch the current mysteries about Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, on the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series. Get acquainted with Inspector Rebus, Ian Rankin’s detective in several police procedurals, or Inspector Banks, Peter Robinson’s protagonist. Or choose any one of 100 titles from a list provided by GoodReads ( Procedurals_Mystery_Fiction).

Writing Challenge:

Explain why you enjoy reading police procedurals.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics, Lose and Loose

Elizabeth Bishop wrote in the poem, “One Art:”

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster, . . .

Bishop makes it clear that the act and art of losing relates to loss, to things being lost.

Loose, however, has to do with the fit of clothing, plumbing pipes, and nuts and bolts. Loose means that something is not snug or tightly attached or that something has been freed from its attachment.

Both words have the vowel sound of double “o” as in “moo.” But lose, spelled correctly with one “o,” rhymes with “ooze,” not “noose.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

Duplicity and Guilt: From E. A. Poe to Tana French

My Kindle Fire informs me that I have completed 80% of Tana French’s latest police procedural, Broken Harbor. Because I have not finished reading the novel as I write this, you can safely proceed reading this blog post. I can’t give away the ending because I simply don’t know it--although I’d put money on one particular character if I were a betting woman. I can tell you that this Tana French novel is as compelling as the other three she has written, and I can tell you that I await her fifth novel eagerly.

Conduct an online search, using the name Tana French, and you will find a list of the awards she has received. Her first novel, In the Woods, won four, including an Edgar for Best First Novel. Search for contemporary writers under the genre headings such as Mystery, Thriller, Psychological Chiller, and Police Procedural, and you will find the name, Tana French. Pre-sale orders for her fourth book, released in July 2012, were robust.

One reason for French’s success is her ability to weave an eerie atmosphere within and without. Her conflicted characters, like Poe’s nameless narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” carry a heavy personal burden of divided loyalties and flawed perceptions that push them onward into uncertainty and pull them backward into haunted memories. Torn between passion and reason, her characters dance with madness, and the line that separates those who uphold the law and those who break it is almost invisible.

In Broken Harbor, French builds what, for me, is exquisite and unbearable suspense as Detective Garda Curran develops under the tutelage of Detective Sergeant Kennedy. Not only does each detective have different experiences and temperaments, but each also has a very different mind with regard to evidence, interrogation, and guilt. Neither one is more sympathetic than the other or more sympathetic than the victims or the suspects. All bear scrutiny.

One theme drawn from Broken Harbor, one that I’ve discussed several times for this blog, echoes Sir Walter Scott who said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Jenny Spain, the only survivor of a brutal attack that took the lives of her husband and children defends the primary and usual suspects. The satellites that orbit Jenny Spain’s life do not reveal all that they know immediately; only under pressure do they admit what Kennedy and Curran need to know. Worse, Kennedy and Curran, paired as partners, mentor and mentee, do not reveal themselves to each other, and in some cases, do not reveal all that they know or intuit. Together, these characters weave a tangled web, their deceits compromising the very core of their humanity in pursuit or defense of the truth.

Such complex characters are French’s forte, solidly grounded in works as old as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and even Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. Victims, police, and witnesses render judgments according to their own pasts, but it is the ricocheting ethos of the central characters that drives the story and compels readers.

Just who is a victim? Who has a comprehensible, simple motive? Who descended into madness that transformed him or her from an upstanding citizen into a ruthless killer? And can that killer live with the consequences of passion, or must the killer, like Poe’s narrator, hear the rhythm and pulsing of his failed reason until he exposes him or herself?

Reading Challenge:

Read any one of Tana French’s police procedurals: In the Woods (2008), The Likeness (2009), Faithful Place (2010) and Broken Harbor (2012).  The Likeness features prominently a female undercover murder detective; the others bring a male to the center of the investigation. In each, characters seen before in and around the Castle (police headquarters) emerge as the protagonist, and this use of minor characters in major roles enhances the connections between her novels and the anticipation of the next one.

 Writing Challenge:

Write a review of the Tana French novel that you read. If you seek a model for such a review, consider the resources below:


GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics, Your and You’re

Detectives Kennedy and Curran visit online chat rooms in their search for a motive and the name of the killer. Pat Spain, Jenny’s husband, plagued by noises in the walls and footsteps above in the attic, seeks help from wild life and animal life discussions. True to our very human tendency to err as well as our tendency to relax standards for texting and chatting, Tana French uses simple errors such as the correct spelling of your and you’re to show how wrong we often are when we write in haste and how relaxed our standards are when we chat electronically. Just as you and I might make a spelling mistake in our haste, so does Pat Spain. He also does not proofread his work; he's in a hurry, and he needs answers now.

Still, when preparing documents for work or school, whether they will appear online as emailed messages or hard-copy reports in the hands of several, practice proofreading, remembering that:

·      Your is a possessive pronoun like my, his, her, our, and their; e. g., Did you leave your coat at the party? (a coat belonging to you, not her or him, but you)
·      You’re is a contraction for the pronoun, you, and linking verb, are; e. g., You’re so cold! Where is your coat?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Corporate Villains in the Land of Blue

James Cameron has created box-office gold more than once. The Terminator, Titanic, The Abyss, and Avatar are a very small slice of his record-setting work. Cameron is also an inventor with scientific and artistic impulses. Avatar advanced the 3D effects while pushing CGI to deliver more naturalistic effects.

Audiences love the rich, earthy, iridescent colors of the Avatar kingdom. Tree branches seem to undulate from an enormous trunk, forming the bones in an elegant, artistic landscape full of vibrant, brilliant colors. Other plant and animal life on Pandora soften the bones, providing safe haven for the Na’vi who are the caretakers, not sovereign masters over all they see. This is evident in the symbiotic dance that exists between one Na’vi and one Mountain Banshee. The creature, so fierce and isolate, becomes a servant when the Na’vi has put aside fear and grown humble. He or she knows that all creatures co-exist, each serving a need, each owing a debt.

This is a lesson reminiscent of the real Native Americans, the first caretakers in North America, one expressed by Chief Seattle:

Teach your children what we have taught our children--that the Earth is our Mother.
Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth.
If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.
This we know.
The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.
This we know.
All things are connected like the blood that unites one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth.
We did not weave the web of life;
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the Web,
We do to ourselves.

Puritans and traders ignored the Native American right to exist upon the land; they took possession of the land and of the people thereon, believing in their scriptural right to hold dominion over the earth and in their innate superiority over all other creatures on earth. In one particularly horrific incident in 1637, the English colonials burn alive six to seven hundred infants, children, adult men and women Pequot to avenge the deaths of a few Englishmen at the hands of a rogue. Only two Englishmen die. About twenty sustain injury. For their clear victory, Captain John Mason, one of the men who led the attack, praises his god for “burning them up in the fire of his wrath, and dunging the ground with their flesh: It is the Lord’s doings, and it is marvelous in our eyes! (Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell 194).”

On the Avatar world, Pandora, the Resources Development Association (RDA), with military support, believes itself as entitled to the land and its riches as the Puritans did. They believe their superior technologies and efficiency are an endorsement from above, one that allows them to destroy the Tree of Souls and lay waste to the Na’vi culture. RDA counts Na’vi life as just one more inanimate obstacle to be overcome in its quest for profit and dominion, and this is a popular Hollywood theme.

We cry as the Tree of Souls falls. We grieve when the evil U. S. cavalry shoots the childlike wolf and slaughters the Natives in Dances with Wolves. We cheer for the kids in Goonies as they uncover the treasure that will save their homes from Corporate Raiders, and we celebrate Katniss’s victory without the complete loss of her humanity. We ache for the indignities that unite the Scots against the British in Braveheart, and we gasp as the Emperor destroys Tatooine in Star Wars.

Each of these tales features an organized, institutionalized Scorched Earth villain. And it is part of the human historical record in the category of Imperialism. Art mirrors life; life inspires art, and the art informs us that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Such stories bear the stamp of verisimilitude and can be evaluated for the truth they reveal, a truth that supersedes special effects and fantastic places.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Hunger Games trilogy, examining each book for its verisimilitude. How accurately does Suzanne Collins represent humanity in an unimaginably oppressive world?  

Writing Challenge:

Research the facts of an historical Scorched Earth villain. Bring history to life with all its human suffering and, with any luck, human triumphs.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics

Then is a useful adverb to indicate at what point in time something occurred or at what point in a sequence to do something. For example:

·      I left school, then the rains fell.
·      First, open the pantry and remove a loaf of bread. Next, take two slices from the package and place them side by side on a plate. Then, open the jar of peanut butter.

Than is a functional word used in comparisons. For example:

·      One is fewer than two.
·      Corn is more common than maize in fields across the land.

These two simple words have become two more commonly confused. Pay close attention to the one and only vowel in each word, and proofread for that vowel when you reread your writing.