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 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 post-9/11 “normalization of torture” across popular culture, making it difficult to know whether the sub-genre 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 non-specialist 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.
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
Published 11 October 2018
Darryl Jones, dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, was born and raised in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. He grew up in the 1970s, “a propitious time for anybody interested in horror”, “watching great, scary television” from Dr Who and M. R. James’ Ghost Stories for Christmas to Hammer House of Horror, and later Saturday-night double bills of classic horror films.
He studied at the University of York, staying on to do a PhD on the novels of Jane Austen. “English at York at the time was still heavily under the influence of F. R. Leavis, [which] gave me a very solid grounding in the literary canon.”
In his research career, he has ranged beyond canonical boundaries, uniting such seemingly diverse figures as Austen and H. P. Lovecraft. What, then, are the central concerns of his work? “If only I knew the answer to that question!” he replies.
“Perhaps the major argument I try to make for horror in Sleeping with the Lights On is that it is central to the history of human culture…also, it is a form of avant-garde art, and like all avant-garde art its real function is to test the limits of our tolerance – including our tolerance for what is and is not art.”
How would he go about persuading someone who has never bothered with horror fiction that they are missing out on something interesting and important? “I would also say that, at its best, horror is a cultural form that poses serious questions – about the state of your soul, the nature of evil, the reality of perception, the misery and consequences of marginalisation and inequality, extreme psychological states, the ethics of representation, the limits of tolerance, our attitudes to our bodies, how to live together in society, and much else besides.
“And even when it isn’t doing that for you, it can make you want to scream, or laugh, or puke. What’s not to like?”