13 October 2018

DON'T TURN OUT THE LIGHT!

Darryl Jones. Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story Of Horror. Oxford University Press 2018

Darryl Jones’s Sleeping With the Lights On has a wide range of reference, eclecticism and comprehensiveness. In just over 168 pages he admirably delineates “horror” as a cultural power embedded in Western art and civilisation and still allows himself a few nods towards Asia (The Ring horror franchise of the 1990s.) 

From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the bloody rituals of Greek drama, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shakespeare, the 19th century’s exploration of the gothic / sublime, Fraser’s The Golden Bough right up to our post-world war horrors of nuclear threats, pollution and individual anxiety: internal horror and its external threats are seen to accompany us, indeed are a strong component of what it means to be human. And Jones finds horror not just in our cultural products (films and books) but in the thoughts of Herodotus, Hobbes, Burke, Darwin, Thoreau, R.D.Laing and Foucault.

(Of course a lot of this territory has been explored before. My own personal reference bible is still The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan and published in 1986. But that was a large encyclopaedia, whilst Sleeping with the Lights On is a small guide that synthesis equally important and newer material.)

Perhaps the most persuasive chapter of Jones’s book is called “Science and Horror.” He quotes the astrologer and SF writer Carl Sagan who reminds us of our unease concerning science and scientists “For in 1995 half the scientists on Earth work at least part-time for the military.” Jones thinks we have good cause to be apprehensive.

“Victor Frankenstein is only the most famous of a large group of unethical experimentalists in bloodstained laboratory coats, scalpel or serum in hand, or else of bloodless, abstract theoreticians who would, like Edward Teller, destroy the world in order to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Fiat experimentum in corore vili (“Let the experiment be performed on a worthless corpse”). The attitude expressed in this Latin proverb informs much of the anxiety horror has bout science, the fear people have of being treated as corpora vilia, expendable experimental subjects.”

Horror films and horror fiction have struggled (still struggle?) for cultural respectability. Yet the paradox is that one of horror’s chief aims is to attack the decent, respectable and normal – the bourgeoisie and capitalism being primary targets, According to Jones (and I agree with him) horror is often at its most potent when transgressive. He rightly mentions George Romero’s film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) as a landmark work with its critique of violence, white American values, racism and the war in Vietnam. In 1972 Romero made Dawn of the Dead. This savage attack on consumerism (Zombie survivors of a holocaust take shelter in a supermarket) causes Jones to declare.

“Dawn is probably best viewed as a combination of a delirious Swiftian satire and a Frankfurt school treatise: this is Theodor Adorno’s Culture Industry, once again red in tooth and claw.”

Although I feel Jones’s is being a bit ripe and overblown I generally share his reaction.

In fact most of Jones’s observations about horror are apt and succinct. Perhaps my only quibble is the book’s length. I felt that a little more space was required to make his commentary breathe more deeply. Sometimes it feels inconclusive. Take the final section on “Horror since the Millennium.” The idea that horror entertainment, now co modified by a bland capitalism, has drained it of its energy to produce an easier “un-horror” (eg The Twilight movie series) is an argument in need of greater development.

Yet Sleeping With the Lights On has much to say. It’s a compelling introduction for anyone wanting to resource and explore the concept of what constitutes the horrific -certainly a cultural force to be seriously faced and examined and Jones understands this very well. – Alan Price


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