Book Review: Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones

“For the fan of horror, Sleeping with the Lights On is a great companion to discover aspects of the history of horror, to dig deeper into films and books you may not be aware of.”

 

It has been mentioned numerous times, not least on this site, that horror seems to be in something of a golden age. Certainly there is no shortage of excellent, and not so excellent, horror films. Television as well, both network and streaming services, is also fertile ground for darker works. And in the realms of literature, fans of horror, weird fiction, and dark thrillers are absolutely spoiled for choice, both from larger publishers and, in greater abundance, the small, independent presses. Perhaps, then, the time is ripe for a more academic look at horror, its history, and the various trajectories it has taken in its long, meandering path. Darryl Jones certainly thinks so. Professor in English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Trinity College, Dublin, he aims to bring a critical and learned eye to the ever-evolving oeuvre of horror. Yet this is no dry, clinical dissertation. Rather, Jones’ passion for and love of his subject matter shines through on every page of this deceptively slim volume.

Opening with a lengthy introduction, Jones first shows us that horror has been around in one form or another since almost the beginning of humanity. Providing a list of rather gory and graphic imagery, we are lulled into agreeing that these scenes appear to be from various video nasties (films banned in the UK through the Video Recordings Act of 1984). Then we are told that no, in fact these images appear unrestricted and unregulated on the shelves of most bookstores; that they are, in actuality, “inside the respectable covers of canonical literary classics”. Works by such lauded writers as Poe, Joyce, Shakespeare; even classical Greek writers. By doing this, Jones reminds us that dark, disturbing imagery is not solely the province of horror stories. Jones continues on, digging deeper into classical works and drawing correlations between them and more recent films such as Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox. His thrust is that there are—amongst other things—class-based reasons as to why there are no calls to ban, say, Titus Andronicus, but there are for the aforementioned “video nasties”. It’s hard to disagree with his argument. But it may also be horror’s intent that keeps it in darkness. Jones asserts that horror, in all its true facets, is about confronting our fears and our capacity to experience and endure those fears. This then, may be why many shy from horror; it reflects the people and the times and the cultures we exist in, and not everyone wants to look honestly at their own reflection. The rest of the introduction dissects horror into three broad categories—Gothic, Horror, and Terror. These are further refracted through the lens of Stephen King’s “hierarchy of horror” from his book, Danse Macabre; terror, horror, and the “gross-out”. Jones also looks at the uncanny and the weird, segueing into aspects of colonialism through writers like Kipling and Wells (with a side order of Freud). All this and we’re still only in the introduction.

Moving into the body of the book, Jones chops up horror into six categories. The first, ‘Monsters’, runs the gamut from classical cryptids such as Manticores and Gorgons, through to Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, before settling on the broad theme of cannibalism. From there, we get rather detailed histories of both vampires and zombies. Jones’ method is to run quickly through a number of different works, before going back and tying them together in interesting and surprising ways. Yet the text never becomes confusing. Jones writes with clarity, knowledge, and enthusiasm for his subject. It’s obvious he’s done his research, and he populates his book with timely and relevant quotes. In this manner, he follows this first section with chapters on: ‘The Occult and the Supernatural’; ‘Horror and the Body’; ‘Horror and the Mind’; ‘Science and Horror’; before culminating with ‘Afterword: Horror Since the Millennium’. Each section is full of a wide mix of sources and works of horror; from the considered classics through to more modern stories, from books to films to TV shows (the obvious exception being the final chapter which focuses solely on recent horror). And in each, Jones illuminates with insight, tying seemingly disparate works together with complicated and often unexpected lines and threads. Being that the book is only a couple of hundred pages or so—and the last dozen or so comprise of a further reading list and the index—it’s inevitable that not every aspect of horror can be covered. Yet there is still a surprising wealth of material, here, and Jones has crammed an awful lot into such a small space. Yet it never feels cluttered or confusing. Themes and arguments (in the classic sense) are circled and reiterated, though never becoming repetitious. The book is immensely readable, with all the pace, momentum, and drive of a compelling thriller. And time and again, Jones comes back to the overriding claim that horror is integral to human nature, stemming from the same well that produces, for example, religion, ritual being a necessary component part of much horror. While it may not be a particularly new concept, here it is given fresh impetus and plausibility. He also posits that horror is adaptable, that it evolves to reflect the times it exists in. In this way, horror examines the fears of the time and place it is created within; not only unique to the individual, but also to the culture they reside in. Yet there can also be universal aspects, facets that transcend our social boundaries.

If you are even the least bit interested in the horror genre this book is a fine purchase. It will educate, inform, and illuminate a genre that almost revels in its obfuscation and slipperiness. For the fan of horror, Sleeping with the Lights On is a great companion to discover aspects of the history of horror, to dig deeper into films and books you may not be aware of. But more than that; for the horror writers amongst us, it’s an absolute necessity. It is inspirational and affirming, infectious in its enthusiasm. A must-buy if you take your craft seriously, if you’re sincere about the business of horror. We now await with anticipation the much-desired expanded edition; with luck, there will be a great demand for it. There certainly is with us.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 208 (pps)
Release Date: 11 October 2018

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