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Horror as a literary genre (review)

20 March 2018

HorrorHorror by Mark Jancovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very disorganised book.

It begins with a discussion of the 1984 Video Recordings Act in Britain, and the issue of censorship, and then eventually notes that the Bill was “the culmination of a popular campaign against the so-called ‘video-nasties’… No clear definition of the ‘video nasty’ existed but it was generally accepted that they were examples of pornography and horror.”

But Mark Jancovich gives no clear definition of pornography or horror, at least not at the beginning, so at first sight the book appears to be about censorship. I can’t help feeling that much of the material in the first chapter, titled “The horror genre and its critiscs”, could have been relegated to an appendix. There is a lot of information about the critics, but very little about the horror genre itself.

The author then goes on to trace the development of the genre in various historic periods, beginning with late 18th-century Gothic novels, in relation to the prevailing social conditions at the time and place that the particular works were written. He also usually begins with the social conditions, and then mentions the works of horror fiction that were produced in the period, or some of them.

Sometimes the description of social conditions appears quite accurate, at other times it seems rather flimsy, resting on nothing more t5han the assertions of the author. Also, the linking to the social and cultural conditions is patchy, and sometimes seems very unconvincing. Dracula, for example, is presented as a symbol of capitalism in a rather shallow analysis. A much better one appears in Vampires, mummies and Liberals. Of course a book dealing with an entire genre can’t go into the same amount of detail as a monograph dealing mainly with one work, but still it could have been more convincing.

Between the world wars of the 20th century Jancovich speaks of “Fordism”, which I assume derives from Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, though he doesn’t mention it. In a way that could also belong to the horror genre, as could Orwell’s 1984 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies — they certainly inspire horror in the sensitive reader. But they are not mentioned, and H.P. Lovecraft is only mentioned in passing. By the end of the book there is still no satisfactory definition of horror as a genre.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    20 March 2018 11:51 am

    If you are after a good overview of the horror genre in fiction and film (with good background on radio and comic books) it is hard to beat Stephen King’s 1981 book Danse Macabre. Of course it is a bit dated now – although I understand there is re-release with a new essay. I haven’t read the updated edition. This book is strictly concerned with the history of the genre, so notes about sociological changes etc are entirely tangential. The book is chaotic, and it is a little self-indulgent, as it includes a certain amount of Stephen King on Stephen King’s writing. However, I recommend it as a good read from someone who knows the genre inside out.

    • 20 March 2018 8:52 pm

      I did read that, about 20 years ago, but I think his more recent one was far better — Stephen King on writing | Khanya. But of course that is not so much about the genre as about his own writing.

      • David permalink
        20 March 2018 9:08 pm

        I concur – Stephen King On Writing is a better book by far. Not a genre study, as you observe.

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