Review: Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Clive Bloom

Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century - Clive Bloom

First, I enjoy this sort of book, where scholars dig into ghost and horror lit and discuss the ins and outs of the form. However, you should be aware that this will mean reading lines like:

p. 103 "...This is creative and liberating not merely in an anarchic sense, because the de-stabilising of social and philosophical and political beliefs springs from, and promotes, a healthy enquiry of, and perspective on, what is asserted as 'social,' 'normal,' or 'given.' Such a perspective is post-Marxist, post feminist, post-Lacanian, and offers a useful contemporary approach to reveal the contradictions implicit in Wheatley's work and the ways in which he uses gothic and fantastic elements to actually bolster up the social fabric."
--Gina Wisker, Chapter 8

This is somewhat unfair because I've plucked that quote from within Wisker's essay, although that's the 4th page in. And I'm coming from this as a former grad student who was focusing on media theory, so it's not like I haven't read that sort of thing. It's just that when scholars pull words like Marxist and Lacanian without any more enlightening information, well... You can still be an academic and yet not write in a way where the theory brings the text dragging down into a slow dullness, such as the reader's eyelids start to droop.

Having said that, there is definitely something here for non scholars, because all of the chapters manage to tell of something interesting, and make a case for picking up various authors and their texts. Although I roll my eyes at the sentences above (the full paragraph would not make you enjoy the theory any more, unless it's the kind of thing you adore), Wisker has completely talked me into trying to dig up a copy of some of Wheatley's writing. She made it sound interesting, both in its cheesiness (I am fond of the shlocky, cheesey stuff too), and in its worldview (not that I enjoy "brrrr, satanism, scary" stuff, I usually like my demons more M. R. Jamesian). I liked the part where Wisker shared how booksellers seemed quite snobbish about carrying/finding Wheatley books for her, as though his books weren't at all worth finding. (They even told her Wheatley was out of print, which he wasn't.)

I actually purchased the book for the chapter on M. R. James - but you can pretty much sum up Clive Bloom's argument about why James isn't much written of by scholars as "there are no depths to plumb with theories" - you know, the Marxist, feminist, etc. This is indeed a book about culture and theory - but to me you can't really look at that and ignore style, and whether the author is actually a good writer. Do the stories work, do people find them readable - that sort of thing. I do think Bloom enjoys James, I think the chapter just comes off as trying to excuse the lack of meat for the theory people when it comes to James. And this to me is an eyeroller, because yes, I studied theory, and sometimes if it's not there (when people aren't stretching the content to make it uncomfortably fit the theory) the thing itself is still worth studying and reading. (I primarily was studying television and used to ask my colleagues and profs why we had to go all polysyllabic when hello, this was television, we could accept the culture and could speak vernacular. I wasn't popular with this argument, but there you have it. I think it's ok not to have theory in everything scholarly.)

But then Bloom may not have intended that tone and me picking up the theory hooha is just thanks to my past experience. Because the chapter where Bloom discusses the books and career of Harry Price again made me add books to my To Read list (Though I probably won't get to, because most of the Price related books are hard to come by. Might be a US versus UK thing.)

p. 75 "...My own fascination with the story began when as an adolescent I borrowed Price's two books from my local library. My sister read them too and we agreed they were the most terrifying books we'd ever read - why? Because they were meant to be true accounts. Although we read them avidly they were never read too late at night in case they might give us nightmares. The memory and fascination remained and many years later I visited the site of the rectory with my wife when we lived not far away in the town of Colchester in Essex."

Doesn't everyone have at least one book that they didn't read late at night for those same reasons?

I'd actually be shocked if most scholars of horror and ghost stories didn't have some sort of personal attachment to them, and it really makes a scholarly essay all the more enjoyable for the reader to be told these sorts of background stories. Not to mention - on that scholarly level - it reveals any biases right up front, which is always wise.

I could go on on and about the content - but I must stress that I did learn a great deal, especially since I've experienced horror novels from the American angle, and authors like Dennis Wheatley (I only know of him via the Hammer film), James Herbert and Angela Carter were new to me. Whether I'll read them has a lot to do with whether I can tolerate the gore (I'm a wimp, I admit - I don't do gore for gore's sake).

Speaking of gore the chapter on the Sex of Horror by John Nicholson - wow, even without reading the actual books there's still nightmare fodder there. But at the same time it definitely makes a case for the transition from the exorcism horror to the more ...oh, overt stuff - I am so not going to quote. Sorry. (Then again, if a mere plot synopsis can make me recoil...well, that says something about the horror I suppose.)

Because I can't find it elsewhere online, I'll list out the full names of the chapters, in order. After each is the author's name.

Empire Gothic: Explanation and Epiphany in Conan Doyle, Kipling, and Chesterton - Victor Sage

The House on the Borderland: The Sexual Politics of Fear - Amanda Boulter
[Good article about one of those books that other horror/ghost/scifi authors have praised but is little read these days. It's been on my To Read But I Haven't Gotten Around To It for too long.]

Horror in the 1890s: The Case of Arthur Machen - John Simons

A Word Kept Back in The Turn of the Screw - Allan Lloyd Smith
[This made me rethink the reading that I'd had on this in high school. Maybe it's just today's culture or the way Smith sets the stage, but I can really see this as a child abuse story as easily as a "the children saw something the shouldn't have" story about class and sex. Then again, my first read of this was some 20 yrs ago, so there's that.]

M. R. James and his Fiction - Clive Bloom

Harry Price and the Haunted Rectory - Clive Bloom
[If you have read any books on haunted places, it would surprise me if you'd not read of the Borley Rectory - read that wikipedia page and see if you remember it. And this is the Harry Price in question.]

Not like Men in Books, Murdering Women: Daphne du Maurier and the Infernal World of Popular Fiction - Nicholas Rance

Horrors and Menaces to Everything Decent in Life: the Horror Fiction of Dennis Wheatley - Gina Wisker

The Abolition of Man? Horror in the Science Fiction of C. S. Lewis - Dennis Butts
[Must confess here that I had no idea Lewis had written scifi of this sort, and yes, at least one should go on my To Read list, if only because it sounds like this is some really interesting stuff. And creepy, very creepy images in the quoted text.]

Scared Shitless: the Sex of Horror - John Nicholson

Horrible Writing: the Early Fiction of James Herbert - Alasdair Spark
[Aside from the work here on Herbert, Spark has a name that I'd be really likely to steal and use in fiction. Alasdair Spark sounds almost Dickensian.]

At Home was All Blood and Feathers: the Werewolf in the Kitchen - Angela Carter and Horror - Gina Wisker

Worlds that Creep Upon You: Postmodern Illusions in the Work of Clive Barker - Andrew Smith

If you find any of this interesting I'd urge you to go take a look at some of Clive Bloom's other books here. My main annoyance is that because many of these are titles possibly used as class texts that the prices are a bit high, and for us in the US perhaps harder to get your hands on. (Knowing me, I'll end up buying some eventually anyway.) Still, some really interesting topics in that mix.