‘In American history, the monsters are real’

W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting is just exactly that — a history of monsters in America.

We’ve got a lot of them — some came to the New World as immigrants, refugees or colonists, some were dragged here in chains, some were born here or conjured or summoned through hideous rites or assembled in the laboratories of mad scientists. America and its history are filled with monsters.

Poole believes in these monsters and in the stories we have told of them for centuries in America. He believes these monsters and stories of monsters reveal something true and important about who we are as a people, culture and nation. He believes that these monsters are more than “just” metaphors. Metaphors don’t draw real blood or leave a trail of real bodies in their wake.

That sounds like an interesting approach — examining the multitude of monsters in our folklore, films and campfire stories as metaphors to explore American history. Except, as Poole argues, America’s monsters have never been “just” metaphors. Metaphors don’t draw real blood or leave a trail of real bodies in their wake the way America’s monsters have done.

Poole summarizes his main idea in the short article “Darkness on the Edge of Town: American History and Religion as Horror,” and I don’t think I can do a better job here than he does there. Over the longer course of his book, he makes a compelling case that America’s monsters reveal America’s character. We tell ourselves stories to remind ourselves of who we are and of who we want to be, and to remind ourselves of — or distract ourselves from — what we have done.

Poole is an agreeable and enthusiastic tour guide to this horrific history. He’s immersed in the subject with the intimate, affectionate knowledge of a fan as well as of a scholar. And he has an entertaining and insightful knack for pointing out odd connections and the themes that recur in endless variations. His fellow fans I’m sure will be delighted by this collection of horrors, while those who don’t come to this book sharing his love for monster stories may find themselves converted by the end of it.

I came away from Monsters in America with a long list of scary movies I want to see again, to watch with a new perspective and appreciation. Poole has even tempted me to give a chance to some movies I’d previously avoided, such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The brutal violence of Leatherface wasn’t something I ever really wanted to look at, but now I’m intrigued by Poole’s insistence that its story has something to say that’s worth hearing.

And the truth is that even the most horrific fantasies from the most violent horror movies pale in comparison to many of the real monsters of history Poole describes. Consider for example the story he tells of one prolific serial killer from the 1700s — a man whose story makes that of Jack the Ripper seem G-rated. This particular killer was a mad sea captain who abducted his victims and chained them up, still alive, in an almost airless 18-inch high crawlspace below the deck of his ship. There his victims were subjected to every imaginable form of deprivation, degradation and physical torture. Those he killed he killed slowly and painfully, forcing the others to watch as he did so. This serial killer victimized countless men, women and children over many decades.

And he wasn’t acting alone. There were hundreds of such ships with hundreds of such captains, serial killers and sadistic torturers all. And everyone knew what they were doing yet almost no one tried to stop them because it was all perfectly legal.

I’m talking about slaveships and slavers, of course, and this really happened — for centuries this really happened, again and again and again and again. That reality is far more monstrous than the worst things ever portrayed in even the goriest underground horror films.

“God holds us responsible for what we will not look at,” Oswald Chambers wrote. And this is what Poole does very well — he helps us to see those things we refuse to look at. He discusses our monsters as a way of helping us to confront our monstrosities.

Slavery really was, as Frederick Douglass said, America’s “pet monster” and “a huge and many-headed abomination.” The vast and real horror of that abomination still haunts us in many of our monster stories. It lives on in the myths and legends we created to make monsters out of the Other and it lives on in the all-too-real monstrosities we commit in the name of those very same myths and legends.

Poole’s love for the classic Universal monster movies goes back to his childhood, but he takes issue with the contemporary claim that those movies just aren’t that scary anymore. He counters that claim, in part, by arguing that the period of American history from 1870-1941 can be better understood as the Age of Frankenstein. That’s the sort of entertainingly preposterous-seeming claim that one expects to encounter in scholarly books dealing with popular culture, but once Poole lays out his case, it no longer seems at all preposterous. This framework illuminates that period in our history. In that time, as in all times, examining what people feared helps us see what people loved and what they were ashamed of. To understand what people fear is to understand, too, their hopes and their sins.

Poole’s discussion of American life during the Age of Frankenstein helps to explain why, in the context of that history, the climactic finale of James Whale’s film is terrifying. For an American audience in 1931, the sight of an angry lynchmob was anything but quaint escapist entertainment. And just as in Shelley’s book, it raised the question of who the real monster was in that scene.

Our monster stories are never far removed from the compulsion to apply them to other people, an impulse we’ve discussed here quite a bit as the never-ending struggle against imaginary Satanic baby-killers (see here, and particularly here and here). Throughout his book, Poole traces how our fear of and desire for monsters to hunt, to oppose and to kill has had consequences far too real to be easily dismissed as “just metaphors.” From Margaret Jones to Troy Davis, our bloody need for the monstrous other has demanded real blood in return. Margaret Jones died for our sins.

I don’t mean to give this impression that Monsters in America is all heavy-handed and heavy going. Like all good horror stories, it blends delight with disgust. Poole’s tour of horror’s greatest hits is filled with lively wit and playful insights along with the grimmer realities it forces readers to confront.

And Poole has excellent taste. I mean by that, of course, what everyone means when they say anyone else has good taste — I mean that he generally agrees with me. He’s a great admirer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which he discusses at length with great insight into how that story “systematically breaks down the narrative of ordered community of respectability that destroys the monstrous other.” And he can’t abide the Twilight series, which he confesses in an appendix is “the only work discussed that I consider so ideologically and aesthetically repugnant that I see no value in it.”

I had originally composed a rather long list of complaints about Monsters in America — a host of unforgivable omissions and missed stops on Poole’s tour of America’s monsters. Where, for example, is the Jersey Devil? Or Alice Cooper and the nefarious minions of Satan corrupting America’s youth with backward-masking? What of the Satanic soapsellers, or Robert Johnson at the Crossroads, or the millions of Americans regularly slaying monsters with multi-sided dice or in World of Warcraft?

The lack of discussions of those topics was disappointing because they would all seem, in one way or another, to shed more light on Poole’s main thesis. And even more disappointing because, having read Monsters in America, I’m sure that Poole’s discussion of them would be insightful, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Happily, I’ve since learned that Poole already covered most of those topics in a previous book, Satan in America: The Devil We Know. This is excellent news. It means that, for me at least, Monsters in America will have that one key ingredient that every successful horror movie needs: a sequel.

For more:

 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Poole believes in these monsters and in the stories we have told of them for centuries in America. He believes these monsters and stories of monsters reveal something true and important about who we are as a people, culture and nation. He believes that these monsters are more than “just” metaphors. Metaphors don’t draw real blood or leave a trail of real bodies in their wake.

    Voltaire once said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”  I am starting to think that the converse of that is true.  If the devil did not exist, people would find reason to create him.

  • Anonymous

    I mean by that, of course, what everyone means when they say anyone else has good taste — I mean that he generally agrees with me.

    Heh!

  • Anonymous

    Oh wow, I was first!

  • Anonymous

    Poole’s discussion of American life during the Age of Frankenstein helps
    to explain why, in the context of that history, the climactic finale of
    James Whale’s film is terrifying. For an American audience in
    1931, the sight of an angry lynchmob was anything but quaint escapist
    entertainment. And just as in Shelley’s book, it raised the question of
    who the real monster was in that scene.

    I guess that’s true of the angry mob scene, but the closing scene of the movie has always bugged me to no end: Victor has a happy wedding while his colorful grandfather and the servants toast his health.  Maybe I’m too used to the book and this more faithful made-for-TV adaptation I saw as a kid, but shouldn’t these events leave a more long-term impact on the characters?  Thing don’t necessarily have to all end in gloom and doom like in the book, but everyone in the movie just seems to completely shrug off the fact that a) Victor discovered the flippin’ secret of life itself and b) used it to make a creature that killed several innocent people.  But now, a week or so after the monster’s death, that’s just all over and done with?  Water under the bridge?  Weird weird weird.  And the servants being made to toast the House of Frankenstein after everything Victor caused is quite creepy.

    Anyway, it sounds like a very interesting book (and for all I know it fully covers what I mentioned above).  There should be a Slactivist Book Club.

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    And he can’t abide the Twilight series, which he confesses in an appendix is “the only work discussed that I consider so ideologically and aesthetically repugnant that I see no value in it.”

    And I find that easy contemptuousness without a single datum to be academically repugnant.

    Really. I suggest anyone who wants to see an enjoyable deconstruction of the Twilight book to start Ana Mardoll’s most recent in a series of examinations of the first book or Kit Whitfield’s discussion of the phenomenon.

  • http://thewrittenwordreviews.wordpress.com/ Gold_nsilver

    I’ve been thinking lately that the Superhero genre is a better medium to understand Americans through.

    There should be a Slactivist Book Club.  

    I second this!   

  • http://brandiweed.livejournal.com/ Brandi

    I guess that’s true of the angry mob scene, but the closing scene of the movie has always bugged me to no end: Victor Henry has a happy wedding while his colorful grandfather and the servants toast his health.

    Chalk that one up to Executive Meddling; Henry was originally slated to die from being thrown off the windmill. Interestingly, this is NOT due to the Hays Code, which would kick in around 1934.

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    Interestingly, this is NOT due to the Hays Code, which would kick in around 1934.

    Although the Code didn’t fully come into effect until 1934 there were Do and Do Not Lists and a voluntary system — so it can be difficult to disentangle the exact reason for fiddling with the texts.

    Of course, either way, it is executive meddling — the only difference is which executives.

  • Anonymous

    But the sequels always suck!

  • Anonymous

    Although the Code didn’t fully come into effect until 1934 there were Do and Do Not Lists and a voluntary system — so it can be difficult to disentangle the exact reason for fiddling with the texts.

    Of course, either way, it is executive meddling — the only difference is which executives.

    Speaking of the Hays Code and Universal horror movies, one thing the code surprising failed to censure was “Dracula’s Daughter,” which was by far the best of Universal’s horror movies, and also overtly homoerotic.

    Yeah, the entire movie uses vampirism as a metaphor for being gay, including the main character attempting to use hypnosis and psychoanalysis to “cure” her vampirism (it doesn’t work).

    In one really surprising twist, the movie is one of the most positive portrayals of a gay person (okay, a vampire person) until at least the 1980s.

  • Jenora Feuer

    And Poole has excellent taste. I mean by that, of course, what everyone
    means when they say anyone else has good taste — I mean that he
    generally agrees with me.

    Ahhh, if only more people had this level of self-awareness.

  • http://readerofprey.livejournal.com/ readerofprey

    I take this opportunity of scary story discussion to plea for help in an almost but not quite entirely unrelated issue.

    I am a school librarian, and I would like to start a unit on Christmas ghost stories, an old English tradition, with my 6th grades after Thanksgiving.  The Raven is on my list (occurring in the “bleak December,” as of course is a child-friendly version of A Christmas Carol (I believe that “The Turn of the Screw” was a Christmas ghost story, but I think it’s a bit beyond them.

    Do any of the highly educated and brilliant Slacktivites have recommendations of other Christmas ghost stories I could use?  Or a place where I could find a list of them to skim through?

    Apologies for hijacking the thread!

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    Well, since everyone else is quoting it…

    I mean by that, of course, what everyone means when they say anyone else has good taste — I mean that he generally agrees with me.

    …and since we’re on the subject of American monsters, isn’t that what Jeffrey Dahmer said?

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    If you are looking for a list of links to free/online texts of Victorian era (ish) Ghost/Horror stories you might start at Literature of the Fantastic, Gaslight e-texts, and the Horror masters collection stories online.

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    mmy: I think your Gaslight link has a stray quote mark messing up the URL.

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    Thanks Randy. I usually test out all the links when I post. Of course the rare occasion when I do not is the time I messed one of them up.

    Head bang.

  • Anonymous

    And I find that easy contemptuousness without a single datum to be academically repugnant.

    I’ve not read the book, but given the fact that he says “the only work discussed” I don’t think it’s contempt without exposure.

  • Anonymous

     Executive Meddling that’s retconned as quickly as possible in Bride of Frankenstein, thank goodness.  I was always quite pleased that the ridiculous wedding toast was done away with by the sequel.

    (A sequel in which Henry was once again slated to die but managed to survive.  You can still catch a glimpse of him inside the exploding tower, though.  IIRC, they’d already blown it up and couldn’t afford to rebuild and reshoot.)

  • Anonymous

    You might want to check out the works of M. R. James.  Not only was he one of the great ghost story writers, he wrote many of his stories specifically for reading to friends on Christmas Eve.  Here’s a link to his works at Project Gutenberg:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search.html/?default_prefix=author_id&sort_order=downloads&query=2768
    Many think “Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is James’ best story.

  • Guest-again

    Ah, history.

    Well, in the current world, I also grew up with monsters – they were shelling villages from ships, they were dropping bombs from aircraft that took off and landed from ships, they commanded units of ground soldiers involved in various ‘sweeps,’ all part of making yet another country safe for democracy. They were the fathers of my friends, my scoutmasters, my neighbors. They also worked on systems to deliver weapons across the globe (why yes, I know someone who worked for years on the wonderfully named Tomahawk – a system which has outlived his military career, and likely his life, as it continues to deliver its payloads of death whenever a command is given) or developed the skills to serve in submarines capable of wiping out dozens of cities in a few minutes. They gave repeated orders resulting in the deaths of people, in numbers ranging from the single to at least triple digits, some of dead known, most of them unknown.

    The individuals I knew have been replaced as we all grow older – the system they were a part of continues.

    We celebrate these people as heroes, not monsters. This remains a true horror in America today, one that no one seems to know how to end.

  • Anonymous

    We celebrate these people as heroes, not monsters. This remains a true horror in America today, one that no one seems to know how to end.

    Mind what you say about my father.

    (but you’re right.)

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    readerofprey:

    Robertson Davies has a collection of ghost stories for Christmas – High Spirits. I recall that some of them weren’t overly difficult. There was one which featured a Frankensteinian cat unleashed by the University of Toronto biology department to terrorize their rivals. Or something like that.

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

     And I find that easy contemptuousness without a single datum to be academically repugnant.

    I’ve not read the book, but given the fact that he says “the only work discussed” I don’t think it’s contempt without exposure.
    Flag

    I don’t know if he has or has not read it — I am talking about the contemptuous way in which people simply state “it is repugnant” without giving a single reason to find it so.

    In the process of doing my research I have found that many of the people who say such things either a) don’t know the work well or b) have blinkers/coloured lens about works that they DO like that suffer from the same problems.

    I don’t particularly enjoy/like the Twilight series but I think that much of what people of our ilk found ideologically and aesthetically repugnant had as much to do with the author not being part of the current pop culture sensibility and that the problems of the protagonist are those of a modern teenager.

    I would argue that Hunger Games is a MarySue for people who don’t want to face the fact that it is easier (more acceptable) for girls to be independent and kick-ass when the setting is post-apocalyptic. Meyer, whether one likes her world/protagonist or not, sets her stories in a world much closer to our own that does Collins.

    To make a long screed short, much of the easy dismissal of Twilight that I read is written by men who I suspect are dismissing the author as much as the protagonist and the community of fans as much as the text that draws them together.

  • Anonymous

    The most disturbing villains are always those that are the most “normal” of us all

  • eyelessgame

    Does he discuss at all (or is the book not new enough) the current obsession with a “zombie apocalypse”? Zombies seem metaphorical for people being taken over by bad ideas – people who follow ideologies that will lead to social collapse, to the point where you cannot reason with them, and have to shoot them (“in the head” – which I find, pardon the unfortunate imagery, to be rather “on the nose” as far as the metaphor is concerned).  And the apocalypse isn’t of course, metaphorical at all…

  • Ken

    Well, if you want a good reason to dislike the Twilight books, there’s always book 2.  That’s the one where Edward leaves Bella, so in order to get him to come back she starts doing more and more dangerous things, eventually leading to a suicide attempt.  This in a book aimed at teenage girls.

  • http://readerofprey.livejournal.com/ readerofprey

    I have read Twilight, and I also find it completely repugnant and without merit.  In addition to the obvious “Bella finds out Edward has been literally stalking her and is flattered that such a cute boy shows an interest in her,” “Bella and Edward both become suicidal when they break up,” and “Jake imprints on an infant,” here are just a few of the many problems with the books:

    1)  Bella is kidnapped “for her own safety” by the Cullens multiple times in the novels.

    2)  Bella begins doing the cooking and laundry for her father immediately upon moving into his home.  This is barely mentioned and treated by the text as so natural it almost goes without saying.

    3)  Bella seems to regard herself as cannon-fodder, in that she often risks her life to “protect” people who are in less danger than she is in the first place.  For example, in the first book her internal narration is far more concerned with protecting the Cullens from the two vampires that want to kill her than for her own safety or that of her human family, despite the fact that the Cullen’s are super-powered fellow vampires who outnumber the bad-vamps three to one.  (They would welcome a fight to remove the danger if they could arrange it so that Bella would not be hurt in the cross-fire.)  Her extreme willingness for self-sacrifice, whether it is required or not, reveals not so much that she places others’s safety above hers but that she doesn’t value her own safety at all.  The other characters see this as laudable.

    4)  She doesn’t so much “choose” to be a stay-at-home wife and mother as decide that she is “irrevocably” in love with Edward and therefore has no other choice.  (This is actually what she says.)

    5)  In deciding to keep her dangerous pregnancy, risking her life by bringing the child to term, she consistently thinks of the child as “Edward’s baby” rather than “my baby.”  In fact, she never voices an opinion one way or the other about whether or not the fetus is a human life worth protecting – she simply repeats that this may be her only chance to have “Edward’s baby” and recoils at the idea that she might want to adopt or have a child through a sperm donor.  She is offended by the suggestion that she have or raise a child that is not Edward’s, as if the only value the child has for her is that it comes from her husband’s seed.

    6)  The Cullens believe that eating humans is wrong, but they routinely welcome into their home human-eating vampires with the only stipulation being that they kill and feed on people outside the borders of the specific town they are living in at the moment.  They look down on humans as inferior creatures little better than animals.  No consequences occur when the sons of the family “slip up” and murder human beings.  They see Bella as special and unique, and Bella very quickly agrees with their beliefs on the inferiority of her entire species, although it is not until she becomes a vampire herself that she begins to see herself as “special” and therefore worthy of notice by the Cullens.  (Her gratitude for the attentions they lavish on her as a “mere human” is sickening and disturbing.)

    7)  No character grows, learns, or changes over the course of the series.

    There are more, but I don’t feel like writing any.  There is nothing good to find in any of these novels.

  • http://readerofprey.livejournal.com/ readerofprey

    OK, I lied, I have one more thing to say about why Twilight is horrible:

    8)  Bella is portrayed as deep and looks down on others as “shallow”  (this is the main thing Edward likes about her – that she is not shallow like all other humans) yet she dismisses all her potential human friends within seconds of meeting them for superficial reasons.  She and Edward privately scorn and mock a boy named Mike for the whole series simply because he is nice and cheerful, and therefore not deep or interesting enough for Bella.  She likewise writes off a boy named Eric as an “AV nerd” within seconds of meeting him despite the fact that the only description she gives of him is that he “wears glasses.”  This is the character everyone else says is the only human capable of depth and maturity.

  • http://readerofprey.livejournal.com/ readerofprey

    Thanks for the Ghost story suggestions, everyone!  They’ll be a lot of help.

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    Well, if you want a good reason to dislike the Twilight books, there’s always book 2

    Or you can approach the book as giving one interesting insight into why young women starve and cut themselves — the only agency left to them is to self-harm. The book further gives insight into the degree to which the apparent submissive in a relationship can actually wield a lot of power.

  • Anonymous

    We celebrate these people as heroes, not monsters. This remains a true horror in America today, one that no one seems to know how to end.

    As with many things, it’s all in where you’re standing.  One side’s insurgent is another side’s freedom fighter.  (Or, in the case of the American Revolution, one side’s traitor is another side’s patriot.  Sometimes Americans forget that part.)

  • cjmr

    5)  In deciding to keep her dangerous pregnancy, risking her life by
    bringing the child to term, she consistently thinks of the child as
    “Edward’s baby” rather than “my baby.”  In fact, she never voices an
    opinion one way or the other about whether or not the fetus is a human
    life worth protecting – she simply repeats that this may be her only
    chance to have “Edward’s baby” and recoils at the idea that she might
    want to adopt or have a child through a sperm donor.  She is offended
    by the suggestion that she have or raise a child that is not Edward’s,
    as if the only value the child has for her is that it comes from her
    husband’s seed.

    I’ve heard women express these very same opinions IRL.  Especially, (on an infertility board) women trying desperately to conceive a child before their (respective) husband is deployed to a war zone, just in case that is the only chance they get to have a child together.

    I’m not saying it is the correct attitude to have, just that it one of the most plausible things I’ve read about the Twilight series.  (I’m reading along with Ana Mardoll’s blog.)

  • http://readerofprey.livejournal.com/ readerofprey

    Yes, but those women are probably not in a situation where their husband’s child would almost certainly kill them (because it’s half-vampire), but they could safely have a human child.  And Bella knows that whether they accept a sperm donor or adopt, Edward will be raising the child with her.

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    Yes, but those women are probably not in a situation where their husband’s child would almost certainly kill them (because it’s half-vampire), but they could safely have a human child.  And Bella knows that whether they accept a sperm donor or adopt, Edward will be raising the child with her.

    Interestingly enough the trope of “having a child even though it will kill you” is a fairly common one in fiction. There is even a whiff of that in Steel Magnolias. It is a major theme in much Victorian writing. At least in Twilight the inhumanity of the father is based on the fact that he is, quite literally, not human while in the case of Victorian/Edwardian victim it is inhumanity practiced by humans.

    Meyer seems to have taken and old/standard trope in fiction and placed it within another setting where can be held up and examined in a new light.

  • Guest-again

    ‘As with many things, it’s all in where you’re standing.’
    No – the submarine officer was part of a system designed to intentionally destroy cities. The carrier pilots weren’t standing anywhere – they dropped their bombs/napalm/etc and went back to hot showers and movies (like enjoying doing a body count while watching the latest Eastwood Italo western – that is a personal anecdote from a destroyer officer, not a pilot, but I’m sure the example holds).

    The people shooting each other in Afghanistan can be a matter of perspective – the people actively engaged in supporting a system designed to kill hundreds of millions of people on command is something else.

    And in the U.S., we are their servants – look at where federal tax money goes, and one can see that on a global scale, the U.S. system of finely hones mass annihilation consumes roughly half of the money spent on this organized form of death and destruction through every nation on earth.

    One does not have to reach generations back into America’s history – we are still paying their wages every day, and the wages of death, both actual and promised.

    This continues to disturb me deeply – basically, the U.S. has embraced war as a measure of greatness, something that most of the adults from my childhood would have been ashamed of – particularly the military members, they having the best idea of just what the greatness of war looks and sounds and smells like.

    And as a note – debating the military, its actions, and its role is not really my point. My particular scorn is reserved for all the ‘chickenhawks’ – craven hypocrites like Cheney or Clinton, men who felt themselves far too valuable (Cheney had better things to do) or noble (Clinton opposed fighting in a jungle, but didn’t want his personal opposition to personally dying in the mud to ruin his political viability) to actually serve their country, but without apparently any compunctions in using war as a tool for their visions, whether bombing Iraq or Serbia or Sudan or Afganistan or Somalia or Kosovo or …. that list actually goes on for quite a bit, doesn’t it? We seem to be a completely bipartisan society when it comes to killing people, reserving our bitterest scorn for those who feel that death and destruction are a sign of a sick society at best, and an evil one at worst.

    For an increasing number of people across the globe, we are the monsters – ones they don’t even see as another Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone (what wonderful names we use) hits another ‘compound,’ with acceptable minimal costs legally justifiiable in the eyes of the people doing the killing – merely a family or two, along with whatever target of interest had been identified. And since we tell ourselves we aren’t monsters, we even occasionally apologize when we make a mistake too glaring to deny. Without pausing for a second in hitting the launch button the next time. And the next.

  • Hth

    Mmy, the way I read your comment, you are declaring a work that you have not read as “academically repugnant” based on *one single* quoted sentence, which you aren’t even digging very deeply into, as it clearly refers to a previous discussion of Twilight, which you claim you “don’t know” if Poole has even read.  There is only one person here that I know to be judging an author’s work based on preconceived ideas of what sort of a person that author might be, and it isn’t Poole.

  • Anonymous

    I was actually kind of agreeing with you in that post, Guest-again.  My point was that the reason some actions are seen as heroic by one side, whereas they are not seen as such by others, is because those people need to tell themselves that particular story (generally in order to justify their actions).  The other sides are telling their own stories using the same events.  That’s how we get the interesting use of language.*  The behavior is the same but the framing is unique to the story teller, i.e. it’s all in where you’re standing. 

    Also, have you read “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” by Christ Hedges?  I think you would find it interesting if you have not.

    *Another favorite of mine is They use “torture” whereas We use “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  WTF? 

  • http://mmycomments.blogspot.com/ mmy

    No, I actually wasn’t trying to say that — what I find academically repugnant is the way that Fred (and other people) list contempt of particular works as an amusing quirk — without giving a reason why it is acceptable.

    I find this particularly troublesome given the fact that Fred (and many other commenters here) have spent the last 8 years discussing in detail a work that they declare often to be ideologically repulsive and aesthetically without merit. Just as Left Behind deserves more than a dismissive side-swipe so do other series.

    I personally did not enjoy reading Twilight but I think there is a good argument to be made that it is not totally and entirely ideology repulsive — and that those who do claim it to be are often showing a blinkering understanding of and interest in the issue of being a young women in the US today.

    There is a long history of non-academic writers of/about horror/monsters (and the thesis of the book is one that has been written on hundreds of times in academia) of people dismissing entire areas of horror/monsters and missing valuable insights. Since I know very serious academics who have done detailed analysis of the Twilight saga Fred’s comment about the author’s opinion of Twilight left me less rather than more interesting in the book.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5V7WB5LWONXO22R6D4CYEZGYFE Alan

    I have not read the complete Twilight series. What I have read of it leads me to conclude that it is the serialized story of an emotional crippled young woman consumed with self-loathing over her plain looks, who spends the first two books trying to choose between the two emotionally manipulative and potentially violent stalkers who are pursuing her, who ultimately chooses the one that can actually turn her into the same type of monster he is (with the understanding that she will outlive almost everyone she knows outside of her husband’s close-knit family and the very real possibility that she will eventually give in to the temptations of vampiric hunger and murder innocent people at some point in the future), and who has no problems with the idea of her other potentially violent stalker “imprinting” on her own half-vampire daughter with the implication that he will watch obsessively over her until she’s old enough to marry him. And the author has expressly stated that she deliberately did not provide any meaningful desription of what Bella looks like in the books because she wanted teenaged girls reading the series to be able to imagine themselves as Bella. Is that enough personal knowledge of author and the books to justify my decision to loathe them?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5V7WB5LWONXO22R6D4CYEZGYFE Alan

    The problem is that those insights, as far as I’ve been able to tell, are completely lost on both the author and the vast majority of the fan base.

  • Izzy

    See, I think the ideology shown *is* totally and entirely repulsive–and the series deserves examination for that. A bit like the works of Ayn Rand, in a way: this worldview is beyond fucked up, but it’s worth examining for its very fucked-upness, and to gain a better insight into the people who believe that shit.

    It also works as, as you mention, insight into a number of disturbing tropes in both fiction and RL. The fact that the author doesn’t *present* those tropes as at all disturbing is part of the “this ideology is repulsive” thing, but is interesting on an academic level, a bit like the pervasive racism in Gone With the Wind.

    And there’s always the learning-from-the-trainwreck appeal–q.v. Mark Reads Twilight and others–which I’m down with. That’s part of what got me into Fred’s Left Behind critiques.

    On the other hand, I’m not an academic and I don’t really read or react as one, so a footnote that basically amounts to “I’m not analyzing this series because my analysis would  consist of ‘EWWWWWW’ spread out over three pages” is also fine by me. I mean, I’d probably write the same thing about Twilight, or Gor, or a number of other works. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5V7WB5LWONXO22R6D4CYEZGYFE Alan

    I find it interesting that you reject contemptuous dismissal of Twilight as academically repugnant and then you link to Ana Mardoll’s page in which she speculates that Stephanie Myers “hates Bella” and, in an analogy that made me laugh out loud, directly compares Edward to Buck Williams with a link back to this blog! How much space should a writer devote to a critique of something he considers ideologically and aesthetically repugnant? Roger Ebert has the appropriate forum (a weekly review blog) to eloquently explain why he feels that “The Human Centipede” deserves no stars (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100505/REVIEWS/100509982), but I can’t imagine he’d do even acknowledge it’s existence in, say, a scholarly work discussing important developments in the horror film genre over the last thirty years.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    We seem to be talking a lot about a discussion that, as far as I know, none of us here in the comments have read.  All we know about W. Scott Poole’s discussion of Twilight is that it happened and after he was finished discussing it in whatever level of detail he discussed it he felt it necessary to disclaim that of all the various things he discussed, that was the only one he saw no redeeming value in.

    We don’t know the size or depth of his discussion of Twilight.  It may be mere paragraphs, it may be chapters.  It may be spread throughout the entire book, it may be concentrated in one place.  It may go into great depth, it may be quite shallow.

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    Like every other commenter, I’ve never read the W. Scott Poole book being discussed.  However, I know about this little site called Amazon.com which sometimes lets you look at a book’s table of contents or even search inside the book.  As it turns out, Twilight is mentioned on pages 211-215, which may not be enough space for an in-depth discussion of the novel series but is something more than a snarky one-liner.

    (For a sense of perspective:  The chapter “Undead Americans” begins on page 193 and the Epilogue begins on 219.  The book seems to be a relatively short one intended for a popular audience and has a lot of ground to cover, so it looks to me like the author gave Meyer’s work a reasonable amount of space.  Of course, if I ever actually get my hands on the book and read it for myself, I may change my mind.)

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Thank you.

    I tried to do something like that, but it wasn’t available via the service I use for that kind of thing so it went nowhere for me.

  • Grey Seer

     Heh. I, personally, enjoyed reading the Twilight books. I’m a 19 year old guy.

     Of course, it might be relevent that I read them based on the implicit understanding that all the main characters had deep psychological problems and that the primary relationship was a rather dark and twisted thing. Much like I can read Left Behind as a study on unwitting sociopaths and a warning against clinging to religious ideologies in the face of massive disaster, I can read Twilight as a study on the worst kinds of teenage relationships.

     The only thing that really disturbs me about the whole situation is that, in both cases, the authors were apparently unaware of the massive character flaws they were putting into their works.

     Regarding the discussion on American attitudes towards warfare… I can’t really comment. I’m British, and the only proper American opinions I’ve seen on the topic have come from religious fundamentalists and loudly spoken political adherents, who I appreciate do not represent the views of all their countrymen. I’m curious to hear from an American slacktivite about it, though, as it’s naturally rather interesting to someone who actually lives in this world…

  • vsm

    I personally don’t find young women enjoying books about all-consuming passion any more worrying than the sort of fiction young men consume. Consider something like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, a film where women are disposable, terrorism is without context or background and the hero is a multi-millionaire übermensch whose spying on every person in the city is ultimately justified. Despite all this, I don’t see the whole Internet pouring scorn over it. Gee, I wonder why. (Personally, I enjoy the Twilight films much more than Nolan’s takes on Batman.)

  • Anonymous

    “Our monster stories are never far removed from the compulsion to apply them to other people, an impulse we’ve discussed here quite a bit as the never-ending struggle against imaginary Satanic baby-killers (…). Throughout his book, Poole traces how our fear of and desire for monsters to hunt, to oppose and to kill has had consequences far too real to be easily dismissed as ‘just metaphors.’ From Margaret Jones to Troy Davis, our bloody need for the monstrous other has demanded real blood in return. Margaret Jones died for our sins.”

    The “Left Behind” books make a weird sort of sense when looked at in this light. An RTC sees the Antichrist and his bunch (basically anyone who isn’t an RTC) as monsters because, hey, they’re all in league with Satan and will eventually get exactly what’s coming to them.

    But the reverse/inverse is also true. To some of us (or at least to me), the Tribbers are monsters because they’re doing (or not doing) things and/or behaving in ways that go directly counter to the ways that Jesus said that one should treat one’s fellow Man. (i.e. building a tiny secret shelter for a small few rather than a large bunker that could be used to shelter the whole church congregation, among others.) If looked at in the proper perspective, the “Left Behind” books are an interesting — if not particularly well written — series where the (supposedly) “good guys” are worse than the “monsters” that we the audience are supposed to be afraid of.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I find this particularly troublesome given the fact that Fred (and many
    other commenters here) have spent the last 8 years discussing in detail a
    work that they declare often to be ideologically repulsive and
    aesthetically without merit. Just as Left Behind deserves more than a dismissive side-swipe so do other series.

    I think this is where I might have to disagree. I don’t think that any book — good or bad — deserves a detailed description of why someone hates it. If the author of this blog was writing a general interest series about evangelicalism and decided to limit his criticism of LB to a single dismissive sentence, I… well, I would really have liked to hear more but I wouldn’t feel that the books themselves deserved anything more than what they get.

  • Anonymous

    There is a long history of non-academic writers of/about horror/monsters
    (and the thesis of the book is one that has been written on hundreds of
    times in academia) of people dismissing entire areas of horror/monsters
    and missing valuable insights.

    Well, to be fair, there’s also a long history of academic writers on just about any subject doing the same thing. Which subsequent academic writers then pummel them about in very serious journal articles. The phrase, “a detailed account of the reasons for which is beyond the scope of this study,” gets quite a lot of use. And sometimes the account is beyond the scope of the study, and sometimes it isn’t, really, but there simply wouldn’t have been room to get started on it within the volume in question, and sometimes the very serious academic just didn’t feel like going there. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying it happens.

    Like everyone else here, I haven’t read the book, but Hummingwolf is right about what one can see on amazon.com. The culprit sentence is in an appendix on the author’s use of sources, and it doesn’t say he didn’t read or discuss the books (he does, as has been noted, spend several pages on them). It simply gives his reaction to them. I don’t think he needs to tell us why (although maybe he does in another part of the book).


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X