Sleeping With the Lights On: The unsettling story of horror by Darryl Jones (2018)

Posted by Benjamin E. Noad on October 11, 2018 in Blog, Reviews, Uncategorized tagged with

 

I want to start this review unprofessionally by making a confession: as a ‘madhouse nerd’, I carry a copy of Roy Porter’s Madness A Brief History (OUP 2002) in my bag for quick reference. This is especially helpful for post-archival walks around Scotland, and it currently sits next to my absinthe spoon (my Gothic version of a Sonic Screwdriver). I am delighted to say that Darryl Jones’ Sleeping With the Lights On is, to me, an equally cherished book. This welcome contribution to horror’s critical bibliography is an extensive resource, though short in length. Sleeping With the Lights On will be essential reading for fellow scholars of the dark arts, and it is easily accessible for the everyday reader and horror fan more generally. I was struck by the tantalising possibilities for future discussion in Jones’ afterword, and I will have more to say on this below. First, however, I want to draw attention to the rewarding content of specific chapters, and to speculate further upon horror’s ongoing evolution as a cultural form.

In the introduction, Jones considers the enduring appeal of horror from classical mythology and Jacobean revenge plays, to its recognisable and iconic forms today. Jones examines the excessive and elusive mode of the Gothic and articulates a vision of horror as more than just a taboo-breaking aesthetic. In Western popular culture, horror emerges variously as pulp fiction, in films, and in music. It persists in the form of the novel and short story; it inspires bewildering atmospheric video games, and it looms over the internet. Horror, as Jones puts it, is

‘unquestionably an extreme art form. Like all avant-garde art, […] its real purpose is to force its audiences to confront the limits of their own tolerance – including, emphatically, their own tolerance for what is or is not art. Commonly, hitting these limits, we respond with fear, frustration, and even rage.’  (6-7)

Horror is not some spectral presence like the entities it depicts; it is a very real and visceral art form that confronts us daily. For Jones:

‘Horror brings us face to face with our own flesh, our corporeality, and with the mutability and malleability of that flesh, its softness, its porousness or leakiness, its vulnerability, its appalling potential for pain, its capacity for metamorphosis or decay, its stinkiness and putridity, its transience and mortality.’ (14)

Abject, but also omnipresent. Fear and horror are remarkably inescapable.

Yet Jones is wary of partial definitions. For example, in a discussion of Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927), Jones points out that the totalising definition of horror as ‘fear of the unknown’ is ‘clearly partial, and in some cases demonstrably wrong’ (22). Horror engages with the cultural anxieties with which it is contemporary: this explains the influx of invasion narratives present in fin-de-siècle literature. Here, Jones names Stoker’s Dracula, Marsh’s The Beetle and Wells’ War of the Worlds as examples of imperialist fears about reverse colonisation. Jones explains that: ‘works such as these […] are not […] comments on “our deepest fears,” or on fear of the unknown, but arise out of and give form to, social and political anxieties’ (24). Consider the fears of nuclear holocaust that emerged during the Reagan/Thatcher years: ‘[t]he problem with nuclear anxieties was not that these fears were unknown, but that we knew exactly what to be afraid of’ (25, original emphasis). The still terrifying Threads (BBC 1985) and other explorations of nuclear aftermath have contributed to a cultural familiarity with global annihilation. Today, Jones rightly notes, ‘the bombs have not gone away; the world can still be destroyed many times over. It is fear – cultural anxiety – that has moved, taken new forms. Contemporary fears of global warming and ecological catastrophe have produced a post-millennial wave of ecohorrors’ (26). Dare we speculate here on the potential for Trump Gothic or Brexit Horror? Undoubtedly such things exist, (AHS: Cult, for example), but the idea of horror as living memory – the horror of the present – amalgamates fear of the unknown with fear of the ‘quite certain’.

Fittingly, then, the first chapter turns to monsters. Jones devotes this discussion to our most beloved revenants, the zombie and the vampire. Monstrosity is introduced as a physical category and in political, moral, and cultural terms. While this section is likely to be familiar to those more versed in the theoretical specifics of vampires and zombies, there are still some fresh insights into the horror imaginary. (On a personal note, I have made a Christmas reading list from the discussion of cannibalism on page 32 onward). This chapter is followed by some observations on ‘The Occult and the Supernatural’. Here, Jones examines the textual evolution of diabolism and its politics, analysing the figure of the Devil. This includes mention of Matthew Lewis and Dennis Wheatley, and a detailed discussion of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, the novels and films respectively. The commentary on ghosts which conclude this section gestures toward future apparitions that might emerge in modern manifestations of the ghost story. For Jones, ‘[t]he appearance of ghosts is the eruption of the past into the present, and troubles our sense of progress, of a one-directional arrow of time’ (80). Ghosts interrupt as much as they disrupt, and are, as Jones puts it: ‘time out of joint’ (80). The chapter ‘Horror and the Body’ contains an illuminating discussion of metamorphosis, and more specifically, deals with the topic of lycanthropy. This is an extensive chapter, and Jones’ keen knowledge of Ovid makes for some especially rewarding interpretation. The topics of body horror and torture porn are discussed at length and Jones eerily reminds us that: ‘[o]ne of the most disturbing things about modern torture porn is its corporatization’ (100). The ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s leave behind a legacy easily exploited by the demands of mass distribution: the ‘remake’ of I Spit on Your Grave, for example, is disconnected from the cultural work of its predecessor but seeks to profit from the notoriety of the original.

The chapter of ‘Horror and the Mind’ turns to the haunting relationship shared between madness and horror. Jones writes that ‘[t]he practice of the representation of madness in horror can be more nuanced, often turning on the problematic, undecidable relationship between “madness” and “normality”’ (103). (It was also refreshing to see that someone else had read Sarah Wise’s brilliant book, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in England [2012]!) In addition to horror’s polemical madness as unreason, and the haunting presence of the psychiatric institution, there is an engaging analysis of the serial killer. Considering the largely anonymous personalities of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and the infamous Norman Bates, Jones raises an especially important question:

‘The cinematic figure of the psycho troubles us on a particular categorical boundary, that between human and non-human. Does he (they are almost always male) belong to a secular, materialist ontology, (where madness is a social problem, where it can be treated by psychiatric intervention), or does he belong to a supernatural order?’ (119)

Jones acknowledges that Myers, Voorhees and Krueger are essentially supernatural and indestructible entities, but as they uncannily invade the bedroom and basements of their victims their madness is markedly beyond human. There is something telling about serial killer narratives in relation to the perceived failure of the asylum: psychiatrists in the horror film are often portrayed as corrupt or megalomaniac, while psychiatric nurses are either tyrannical or grossly incompetent. As if mirroring the underfunded real-life mental health services, and practices of ‘community care’, horror narratives demonstrate a madness that knows no bounds: it is cast out from society because we do not really know what to do with it.

The final chapter, ‘Science and Horror’ explores how the ‘fear and distrust of science and scientists is a major component of modern horror’ (122). One of the most striking ideas encountered here concerns horror’s scientific illiteracy, and how ‘[t]he notion of a scientific and humanistic culture viewing one another with mutual incomprehension and suspicion was ripe for exploitation in horror’ (134). There is an illuminating section on technophobia here, but I want to draw attention to Jones’ original idea of ‘unhorror’ as described in the afterword:

‘Unhorror resembles horror, and deploys, often in a very self-conscious and accomplished way, many of horror’s tropes. Its vampires are better looking and have sharper fangs. Its metamorphoses are seamless, using computer-generated imagery to transform its monsters in a way which comprehensively outdoes the attempts of the previous generation of make-up and visual effects artists. Its monsters are bigger and more destructive.’ (141)

This idea gestures towards the limits of horror: bound up in marketisation, often doing ‘the thinking for its audience’ (141), can mainstream Hollywood horror cinema still be considered scary? This is carefully considered throughout this chapter, as the relationship between contemporary culture and the evolution of horror becomes more complex, yet nonetheless enduring.

The afterword leaves much room for thought. Tantalisingly, the internet is addressed via mention of the Slender Man. As the book ends by considering how vast the internet as a topic is, I could not help but wonder more about this. After reading this book, I thought about how horrifying the internet can be. Of all the places it could have turned, my morbid mind went straight to the perverse accounts of ‘red rooms’ on the dark web. Allegedly, these are livestreams to whom an exclusive audience is invited to watch someone murdered before them. I keep thinking of how the very name of ‘red room’ conjures the folklore of Bluebeard. Horror is clearly an inescapable part of culture, and its myths and motifs continue to inform and shape our conception of the world: horror can sometimes make sense of gruesome and unjust situations, it does not just invent them.

This new book from Darryl Jones will undoubtedly inspire thought-provoking critical studies of horror’s future; for now, it remains an unsettling but mesmerising story of culture’s most strongest and oldest emotion.

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