In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new introduction to horror fiction
Trying to tell the story of the horror genre in under 200 pages may seem a daunting prospect – indeed, almost a horrifying one. But thankfully in Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror, the erudite Darryl Jones is our guide, picking up just the right example on the end of his pen (to borrow from and adapt Chesterton’s description of Jekyll and Hyde author Robert Louis Stevenson) and weaving together the disparate periods of horror fiction in all its forms – not just literature but film and TV too – in order to give us not so much a brief history of the horror genre as the story of the genre’s themes, tropes, interests, and preoccupations.
Darryl Jones is just the person to guide us through the various strands, subgenres, and aspects of horror fiction, from vampires and monsters whose pedigree in horror literature stretches back several centuries, to modern-day ‘monsters’ such as serial killers (Jones is wonderfully astute about the trend in horror novels of making the serial killer some sort of genius: in reality, he notes, most are unremarkable under-achievers who have largely failed at life). And despite the fact that Sleeping with the Lights On comes in at just 181 pages including the index and further reading section, Jones also makes space for some nicely detailed case studies, including the knotty complexity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Shelley, like her husband Percy, was steeped in Romantic ideas of Prometheus as liberator of mankind and Blake’s notion of Milton’s Satan as a brave rebel against God’s tyranny; yet Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, is also in some respects a cautionary tale about the dangers of using Prometheus as one’s inspiration for scientific discovery and experimentation).
Speaking of science and technology, Darryl Jones is nothing if not up-to-date in his cultural references and his contextual coverage, taking in contemporary examples of the intersections between ‘horror’ and technology (such as Levan Gabriadze’s 2014 film Unfriended, about ‘a vengeful supernatural social media stalker’), but also ranging back through the nuclear age, the heyday of the British Empire (which left a profound mark on British horror fiction, as Conan Doyle’s horror stories and novels such as Richard Marsh’s The Beetle readily attest), the Enlightenment, Elizabethan theatre, and even back to the classical world of The Bacchae. Jones treats all of this with a light touch and yet he brings an authority to this study (he’s a Professor of English Literature at Trinity College Dublin and has published widely on horror fiction) which makes it ideal for both students and enthusiasts of the genre.
Sleeping with the Lights On is also beautifully designed in the pocket hardcover edition, with a die-cut cover partially revealing the black and blood-red artwork beneath, with a silhouetted axeman, presumably fresh from a murderous spree, flanked by a cast of zombies (and the obligatory hand stretching upwards from the grave, mirroring the skeletal branches of a sinister-looking tree above). In other words, it’s an ideal gift for the horror-lover who wants to learn a little more about the genre as a whole, about the links between Byron’s doctor and the Vampire Diaries, or between Jekyll and Hyde and David Cronenberg’s films. But what makes Darryl Jones’s take on the horror genre so compelling is his more idiosyncratic links, such as when he quickly moves from The Terminator to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Horror, like sand after a trip to the beach, gets everywhere.
Shortly after receiving my review copies of Sleeping with the Lights On, the publishers, Oxford University Press, sent me another recent publication Darryl Jones has worked on for them: a wonderfully expansive collection of horror stories from E. T. A. Hoffman in the nineteenth century through to twentieth-century masters like Algernon Blackwood and more marginal figures like the fascinating William Hope Hodgson. I plan to review that shortly, since – like Jones’s edited collection of Conan Doyle’s Gothic tales (also published by Oxford World’s Classics) – its introduction is informative and insightful, and Jones makes you want to go back and reread (or read for the first time) the stories within. Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror, too, is bound to whet the reader’s appetite for the books and films discussed, or send readers back to some of the classics of the genre.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.