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Books: The Sleep of Reason

5 minute read
Brad Darrach



248 pages. Scribners. $12.95.

Up to his chest in the shark’s horrific gullet, the victim screams bright gouts of blood as the great beast drags him down to a hideous quietus.

Horror, revulsion, panic overwhelm everyone who witnesses the climax of Jaws. Yet people have paid more than $150 million for the experience. Why? Why in a world menaced by drug epidemics, official corruption, political assassination, terrorist armies, atomic holocaust and pay toilets do human beings feel a longing to be scared out of their skins? What is this perverse allure of the horrible that in all ages and nations has made men sit at the feet of the taleteller who can summon adrenalin with shadow dangers?

Aristotle’s answer was that pity and terror purged the emotions and left the heart light. Freud thought stories of “the uncanny” released repressed anxiety—real toads come out to play in imaginary gardens. A modern German theologian, Rudolf Otto, was convinced that the goose flesh people feel at horror movies was the symptom of primitive religious experience. But a close look at the history of the fear trip—as Pop-Sociologist Les Daniels demonstrates in this witty catalogue of Who’s Who in Horror—suggests more immediate historical reasons.

Forbidden Fruits. Horror stories were told in prehistory—there are monsters in the cave paintings. In ancient Egypt, the god Osiris was chopped to pieces on the orders of his mother. Terror haunts Beowulf and the Book of Job. But horror as civilized commercial entertainment arose in the rationalist 18th century, and its compensatory function was recognized. In one of his Caprichos, Painter Francisco Goya said it all: “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”

The horrors Daniels describes divide fairly neatly into two species—Things Seen and Things Unseen—and each has inspired its own tradition. The tradition of Things Unseen dates from Horace Walpole, a wealthy English dilettante who built his own medieval castle and in 1764 published the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto. Madness and murder stalk Otranto’s parapets, but violence is held to an artful minimum: Walpole’s readers wanted to nibble at forbidden fruits—but not to find worms.

Edgar Allan Poe was the first great master of the new art of the uncanny. In The Telltale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, he made the horror story a respectable literary form. But only a handful of literary terrorists (Hawthorne, James, Chekhov, Gogol) wrote tales as eerily disturbing as Poe’s. Only one (Franz Kafka) found the ladder to a deeper gallery of madness.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, werewolves and vampires had taken over. In 1897, a London theatrical manager named Bram Stoker published a book called Dracula. It became the most popular story of the supernatural ever written. Uninformed about vampires, Stoker baldly invented his own lore of the undead—how a vampire changes at will into a wolf or a bat, cringes in terror at the sight of a Christian cross, and lives forever unless a wooden stake is driven through its heart.

Body Wig. The tradition of Things Seen has achieved less critical success but even wider popularity. The main themes of the genre were laid down in its first masterpiece, Frankenstein. Written in 1816-17 by Mary Shelley, the 19-year-old wife of the poet, the novel is a brilliant philosophical thriller about the arrogance of science and the revenge of nature. Seventy years later, in 1886, the point of the Frankenstein story was sharpened by Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By combining the scientist and the monster in the same personality, a typical Victorian, Stevenson forced his readers to identify and to ponder.

Curiously, the century that produced the nuclear warhead has not developed a new kind of horror story. Even the tyrannical computers and the Things from Outer Space were foreseen by H.G. Wells and others. What has changed is the technology that transmits the frisson. The shudders that came in books now emanate from screens. But the stories are essentially Victorian or gothic. Lon Chancy dominated the horror market of the ’20s playing 19th century monsters like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the superstars of horror in the ’30s, won their fame as Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula. King Kong was in effect Frankenstein’s monster in a body wig.

Since the ’30s, the quality of horror has steadily deteriorated. Hollywood milked the market by offering two monstrosities for the price of one (Frankenstein Meets Wolf Man) and finally turned the grand old ghouls into shambling straight men for the giggle brigade (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). In the ’50s, and ’60s, horror was further debased by Britain’s Hammer Productions, which starred Christopher Lee in blood-splotched shockers. Their strongest claim to originality was the introduction of the crimson contact lens.

As Daniels details, commercial monsters have now become almost as common as real-life assassins. There are monsters on TV, monsters in comic books, monsters on bubble-gum cards. The Rolling Stones turned their act into a horror show and so did Alice Cooper. Degeneration proceeds apace. Since the book was written, news media have reported secret showings of a pornographic horror movie in which the heroine, at the climax of her big sex scene, is literally murdered in full view of the camera. At this point the horror story merges with something much more frightening: the horrors of real life.

Brad Darrach

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