Thursday, October 08, 2020

Stubborn Skepticism Versus Indiscriminate Gullibility

Working on a paranormal romance novella, I'm presently dealing with a recurrent problem in fiction of the fantastic: How long should a character keep rejecting the possibility of the supernatural before admitting it exists? How do you find a balance between jumping to the conclusion that every anomaly proves the existence of a vampire or ghost and clinging to adamant disbelief in the face of overwhelming evidence? Most people who discovered a century-old photograph that looked uncannily like a present-day acquaintance wouldn't think he must be a vampire, after all. They'd say, "Wow, what an amazing family resemblance." On the other hand, if they saw their friend turn into a bat or a cloud of mist, it would be only sensible to entertain the vampire hypothesis.

In DRACULA, Dr. Seward at first quite logically rejects Van Helsing's pronouncement that Lucy has risen from the dead as a vampire. After all, Seward is a man of science, running a "lunatic asylum" according to the most up-to-date precepts and practices. Of course he's aghast that his revered teacher, with advanced degrees in multiple fields, would embrace outmoded superstitions. Even when they find Lucy's coffin empty, Seward falls back on the obvious explanation of grave robbers. Only when he witnesses the undead Lucy walking in the cemetery does he open his mind to the horrible truth. After that, though, he drops his objections; he doesn't try to insist she's a hoax or hallucination.

Right now I'm reading THE HOLLOW PLACES, by T. Kingfisher, an outstanding horror novel featuring an alternate universe. It offers a skillful treatment of the characters' shift from skepticism to belief. When the narrator finds a hole in a wall of her eccentric uncle's combination home and novelty museum, she assumes a visitor must have damaged the drywall and left without mentioning the mishap. Upon starting work on a patch, she and her friend Simon discover a large open area behind the wall. Naturally, they first believe they've stumbled into extra space that was walled off for some reason. As they explore, they see that it's much larger than the dimensions of the building should allow. Even then, they don't think they've fallen through an interdimensional portal. They discuss ideas such as a tunnel constructed by illegal alcohol dealers during Prohibition and try to rationalize the fact that they don't seem to have gone up or down a level as they should have. When they open a door onto a fog-shrouded river dotted by numerous small islands, though, they realize they've entered an alternate world, an "anti-Narnia," as the narrator says. Despite Simon's joking remarks about being poisoned by black mold, they don't seriously waste time on the possibility that they're hallucinating.

My work in progress features a ghost child who performs poltergeist-like tricks. At first, the protagonist does her best to attribute the odd events in her house to the cat, her seven-year-old son, or even herself in absent-minded lapses. Further along, she contemplates whether she might be sleepwalking and moving things around or whether she dreamed the strange singing she thought she heard. The sight of the little girl vanishing before her eyes forces the heroine to accept the supernatural as real. I consider it plausible that an otherwise normal, stable person would believe in a ghost rather than assume she's suddenly gone crazy with no provocation. The latter happens in vintage horror movies, not ordinary life. For the same reason, her highly skeptical boyfriend converts to the ghost hypothesis when he, too, witnesses the child disappearing into thin air.

Where should the creation of a character in fantastic fiction draw the line between the extremes of hardheaded materialism and softheaded gullibility? The former can make a character very annoying, but the latter can lose the reader's sympathy, too. The main reason I never cared for the SCOOBY-DOO cartoon series when our kids used to watch it was that, no matter how many times the gang exposed a haunted house as a hoax, when they investigated the next "ghost" Shaggy always believed in it as uncritically as ever.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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