They walk among us

Hor­ror sto­ries, hu­man sto­ries

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Lin­nie Blake is reader in Gothic lit­er­a­ture and film, and head of the Manch­ester Cen­tre for Gothic Stud­ies, at Manch­ester Met­ro­pol­i­tan Uni­ver­sity.

Sleep­ing with the Lights On: The Un­set­tling Story of Hor­ror By Dar­ryl Jones

Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press 208pp, £10.99

ISBN 9780198826484 Pub­lished 11 Oc­to­ber 2018

It can­not have es­caped the no­tice of even the most clois­tered aca­demic that the con­tem­po­rary cul­ture of the UK and the US has been over­run by mon­sters. The body politic has been in­fected by some­thing very nasty in­deed and cul­tural ap­petites have shifted to mir­ror the hor­ri­fy­ing na­ture of civil life in the age of ne­olib­er­al­ism and the alt-right.

Forty years ago, pop­u­lar in­ter­est in ghosts, demons, zom­bies, vam­pires, were­wolves, apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios and ter­ri­ble, trans­for­ma­tive in­fec­tions was con­fined, pretty much, to black-clad lon­ers like my­self, swig­ging cider in night-time bus shel­ters and yearn­ing for some­thing dan­ger­ous to pluck us from the te­dium of our lives. Now, how­ever, hor­ror is ev­ery­where. It has be­come im­pos­si­ble to turn on a tele­vi­sion set, browse any on­line view­ing plat­form, visit the cinema or wan­der the stacks of any de­cently sized book­shop with­out be­ing as­sailed by nas­ties. For as car­toon­ist Steve Bell’s in­sis­tent de­pic­tion of the vam­piric politi­cian Iain Dun­can Smith (at the time sec­re­tary of state for work and pen­sions) quite lit­er­ally il­lus­trated in The Guardian, there is some­thing mon­strous about the ne­olib­eral world and some­thing pro­foundly sin­is­ter about its pro­po­nents.

For who but a mon­ster could pro­mote the dec­i­ma­tion of the pub­lic sec­tor, plough­ing pub­lic monies into mil­i­tary in­vest­ment while aban­don­ing huge swathes of the pop­u­la­tion un­able to repur­pose them­selves as end­lessly mu­tat­ing facets of the zero-hours gig econ­omy? It is a dy­namic ex­plored at length in nu­mer­ous hor­ror texts, not least Do­minic Mitchell’s Bafta-win­ning zom­bie apoc­a­lypse drama In the Flesh (2013-14). We live, it is clear, in in­creas­ingly hor­ri­fy­ing times; the shock pol­i­tics of the post-9/11 world has en­tered into a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with the cy­ber­sphere to dom­i­nate all as­pects of our lives.

There are many aca­demic stud­ies, of course, that have sought to chart the evo­lu­tion of the hor­ror genre, in­clud­ing its Gothic vari­ants, and have looked not only to so­cio-cul­tural and eco­nomic ex­pla­na­tions for its pre­dom­i­nance in times of civil un­rest but have de­ployed the in­tel­lec­tual re­sources of a range of dis­ci­plines: phi­los­o­phy, psy­chol­ogy, neu­rol­ogy and psy­cho­anal­y­sis most com­monly. In Sleep­ing With the Lights On, Dar­ryl Jones does not set out to make a sub­stan­tive con­tri­bu­tion to such schol­ar­ship. In­stead, he draws upon it to chart the the­matic evo­lu­tion of the genre across me­dia and his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods, from clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity to the present day.

This book is aimed, in other words, not at a spe­cial­ist read­er­ship of hor­ror schol­ars, who would be all too fa­mil­iar with its key con­cepts, the tra­jec­tory of its un­fold­ing and the books and films it de­ploys to ex­em­plify its con­cerns. In­stead, this beau­ti­fully de­signed pub­li­ca­tion, small enough to slip in a hand­bag and short enough to be read in one or two sit­tings, does some­thing else. It not only mar­shals an im­pres­sive range of lit­er­ary and filmic re­sources but does so to chal­lenge

The mon­ster walks the line be­tween us and them, self and other, those who be­long and those who must be ex­cluded or cast out

those who dis­miss hor­ror as sen­sa­tion­al­ist trash pan­der­ing to the low­est sen­si­bil­i­ties of its con­sumers.

Thus, Jones looks to clas­si­cal myth, Re­nais­sance tragedy and canon­i­cal works of the 18th and 19th cen­turies, and to the emer­gence of hor­ror cinema and its evo­lu­tion to the present day. Hor­ror, he ar­gues, is not only com­posed of lit­er­ary and filmic texts of con­sid­er­able merit but is closely “bound up with the mean­ing and func­tion of art, and of civ­i­liza­tion”. His book is in­sis­tent, there­fore, in its claims for the cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of the genre – its mon­sters and ma­ni­acs, for ex­am­ple, ex­ist not merely as pur­vey­ors of cheap thrills but as sig­nif­i­cant med­i­ta­tions on the na­ture of evil and em­bod­i­ments of the ways in which var­ied so­ci­eties have po­liced their bor­ders. For the mon­ster walks the line be­tween us and them, self and other, those who be­long and those who must be ex­cluded or cast out.

While none of this is un­fa­mil­iar to schol­ars of the genre, of course, Jones’ book none­the­less suc­ceeds rather splen­didly in en­join­ing a non-spe­cial­ist au­di­ence to take hor­ror se­ri­ously – specif­i­cally as an ide­o­log­i­cally en­gaged means of so­cial cri­tique. He is right, for ex­am­ple, to ob­serve of the pop­u­lar phe­nom­e­non of the zom­bie walk that such “out­breaks of zomb­i­fi­ca­tion have greatly in­ten­si­fied…since the global fi­nan­cial crash of 2008”. And he is right to note that tor­ture porn, a trou­bling form of hor­ror that lingers on the in­flic­tion of pain or mu­ti­la­tion, has grown in pop­u­lar­ity along­side the post9/11 “nor­mal­iza­tion of tor­ture” across pop­u­lar cul­ture, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to know whether the sub­genre op­er­ates “as cri­tique or cel­e­bra­tion” of such prac­tices.

Given the size and scope of the book, of course, there is lit­tle ex­trap­o­la­tion from such ob­ser­va­tions or much in the way of rig­or­ous en­gage­ment with the im­pli­ca­tions of such claims. To a spe­cial­ist reader such as my­self this is a lit­tle frus­trat­ing, as is the ab­sence of aca­demic ci­ta­tion and the in­con­sis­tent at­tri­bu­tion of the­o­ret­i­cal po­si­tions and for­mu­la­tions to their orig­i­na­tors.

As I have said, though, Sleep­ing With the Lights On is not that kind of book. And for the non­spe­cial­ist reader, it is pre­cisely such ab­sences and slip­pages that make it as eas­ily di­gestible as it is.

Hav­ing said that, there is a good deal here that even the spe­cial­ist can find both il­lu­mi­nat­ing and beau­ti­fully done. Jones’ read­ing of ly­can­thropy as “a dis­tinc­tively po­lit­i­cal cat­e­gory, a means of sub­hu­man­iz­ing aliens and Oth­ers by ren­der­ing them as bes­tial”, is spot on. And his ex­plo­ration of hor­ror’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with (mad) science in the light of C. P. Snow’s “two cul­tures” the­sis and Carl Sagan’s sense of a de­mon-haunted world (whereby sci­en­tific il­lit­er­acy leads in­ex­orably to oc­cult think­ing) is also highly en­gag­ing.

The book bris­tles too with sen­si­tive and in­tel­li­gent read­ings of texts, all couched in a style that is ac­ces­si­ble, au­thor­i­ta­tive and of­ten rather funny. Jones’ dis­missal of the Gothic Ro­mance, of which the Twi­light se­ries is per­haps the most prof­itable ex­am­ple (and which he deems “un­hor­ror”), ac­tu­ally made me laugh out loud – its of­fer­ings be­ing deemed nei­ther “dis­turb­ing [nor] scary, ex­cept per­haps to a Marx­ist”.

It is in the After­word, then, that Jones steps be­yond the tem­per­ate tone of what has gone be­fore to ask “what is hor­ror to­day?” and to prof­fer some un­equiv­o­cal state­ments of be­lief, not least that “hor­ror is at its most pow­er­ful when it is at its most con­fronta­tional – vi­o­lat­ing taboos, flow­ing over bound­aries, an­tag­o­niz­ing re­spectabil­ity”, and that much is lost when hor­ror’s “ob­nox­ious, re­bar­ba­tive, con­fronta­tional, grotty, trans­gres­sive, nasty, and dan­ger­ous” dy­nam­ics are di­luted.

Like the genre it takes as its sub­ject, then, this highly at­trac­tive lit­tle book con­tains mul­ti­tudes, fore­ground­ing the fact that hor­ror pro­lif­er­ates most ter­ri­fy­ingly when the world is at its most un­set­tled and hu­man­ity is at its worst. For those out­side the field who’d like to know more, this is an ex­cel­lent place to start – and even for those within it, this is an ob­ject les­son in con­ci­sion of thought and pre­ci­sion of ar­gu­ment. I en­joyed it a great deal.

Apoc­a­lypse now it has be­come im­pos­si­ble to turn on the tele­vi­sion or browse an on­line

view­ing plat­form with­out be­ing as­sailed by nas­ties; be­low, Bela Lu­gosi as Drac­ula

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