Bite-sized chill fac­tor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The scari­est film I’ve seen is Ben Wheat­ley’s Kill List (2011). In truth it’s not that ter­ri­fy­ing but what put the wil­lies up me at the time was sit­ting down to watch what I thought was one of kind of flick (a thriller) and then, about twothirds of the way through, be­ing plunged into a graphic oc­cult hor­ror movie with a bril­liant, sick­en­ing end­ing.

Stephen King or MR James never bother me that much be­cause I’m men­tally pre­pared for a “hor­ror” story and thus not ter­ri­bly moved when the mon­sters ap­pear. But af­ter watch­ing Kill List I found my­self wor­ried that the back door didn’t lock prop­erly in a dodgy part of St Kilda, and I slept with an axe un­der my bed for the next week.

That’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween hor­ror and other genres. Hor­ror works on the deep re­cesses of the mind. Hor­ror turns on switches that kept our an­ces­tors alive long enough to pro­cre­ate and pass their genes onto us. Flight or fight is some­thing even an amoeba seems to un­der­stand.

Dar­ryl Jones’s Sleep­ing With the Lights On: The Un­set­tling Story of Hor­ror is a nice primer and guide to the his­tory of hor­ror fic­tion in lit­er­a­ture and film. At 200 pages it’s not ter­ri­bly com­pre­hen­sive and those look­ing for, say, Neil Gaiman or James Her­bert in the in­dex are go­ing to be dis­ap­pointed. This is not to knock the book, Jones isn’t writ­ing an en­cy­clo­pe­dia, he’s at­tempt­ing to give us a breezy sum­mary of the genre, from The Epic of Gil­gamesh and Greek tragedy all the way up to Jor­dan Peele’s Get Out (2017), for which Peele won a scriptwrit­ing Os­car. In this he largely suc­ceeds.

With so much ma­te­rial at his dis­posal, Jones, a pro­fes­sor of English at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, must find some grand or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple. He de­cided to split the book into five sec­tions: mon­sters; the oc­cult and su­per­nat­u­ral; hor­ror and the body; hor­ror and the mind; science and hor­ror. There’s also an ex­cel­lent af­ter­word that looks at the de­vel­op­ments in hor­ror since the turn of the mil­len­nium.

Mon­sters is a lively sec­tion, tak­ing us first through can­ni­bals then early vam­pires, clas­sic vam­pires and fi­nally an­noy­ing teen vam­pires.

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