History Channel Thinks Moe Howard Might Be Hitler; Plus: Micah Hanks's Confusing Views on Speculative Fiction
So, all season long the History Channel’s Hunting Hitler is investigating this photograph of “Hitler” to “prove” that the Führer was alive in the 1960s. According to clips shown in the season premier, they found extensive similarities! Sadly, this is all wrong. As a correspondent pointed out to me after the photo made a return appearance this week, in fact, it is a picture of Three Stooges member Moe Howard, taken in the 1970s, part of a series of snapshots taken apparently on the same day in front of the same car. There’s a degree of humor in this since Howard parodied Hitler in You Nazty Spy (1940).
I know I rag on self-proclaimed “mouth of the South” Micah Hanks frequently for his verbose writing style and tendency to use a lot of words to say nothing at all. I’ve tried to avoid his ersatz version of my own research interests as much as possible, but he has recently become infatuated with speculative fiction, particularly horror fiction, and with him crossing so directly into the material covered by my own books on the subject, I can’t help but point out where he goes so terribly wrong.
A few weeks ago, James Gleick released a book on the history of the idea of time travel. This produced a flurry of reactions in which various writers took issue with Gleick’s decision to start the history of the genre with H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, a questionable choice given that even Wells himself had written a time travel story, “The Chronic Argonauts,” prior to The Time Machine. In an article yesterday, Hanks joined the chorus, weeks late and with nothing new to add to the discussion except to splice into it ancient astronaut claims about how passages from the Mahabharata and (unmentioned by Hanks) the myth of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (in various ancient texts and the Quran) and Abimelech (in 2 Baruch) sounds like Einsteinian time dilation. (Ancient Aliens did a whole episode on this back in 2012.) He repeats much of the same material that dozens of other critics listed, but he says something that shows his superficial understanding of the subject: “Although it cannot be argued that Wells had a particularly significant influence on the way time travel began to be conceptualized in literature, we must recognize that he wasn’t the first to posit that travel backward in time might exist.” I honestly can’t tell whether Hanks is simply incompetent as a writer and meant that it can be argued, or whether he is so uncertain about the history of speculative fiction that he fails to recognize the singular influence that Wells’s novel had on the shape that time travel narratives took going forward.
But this was nothing compared to Hanks’s discussion of cosmic horror in an article that celebrates the release of a new collection of William M. Sloane’s horror fiction. Here he opens his article:
Many scholars of the macabre would tell us that when it comes to horror, the varieties of the frightful experience are not all equal. Often in the horror genre, we are given those stories which terrify and tantalize us in a “real world” sense; after all, what could be more frightening than the relatable fears of the murderer next door, the lingering threat of the chance accident, or the general fear of the unforeseen things we may face it in the world each day. […] However, there are other kinds of horror too, which bring to light things far-removed from the everyday, and which arouse fear in ways that are unforeseen, and even unimaginable.
In a very scattershot way, Hanks is trying to delineate the difference between supernatural horror and what we might term the contes cruels, or non-supernatural horror, but he has conflated it to a degree with H. P. Lovecraft’s special cases of weird fiction and the subgenre of cosmic horror.
I’m also a little insulted by the idea that some flavors of horror are superior to others. Granted, Hanks is not wholly wrong that many older scholars of the genre, H. P. Lovecraft predominantly (from whom Hanks is quite clearly cribbing), have held particular horror traditions to be the highest expression of the genre. We find similar arguments in recent years with critical contempt for “torture porn” and other distasteful productions. (I am not immune from criticizing that trend, which has now mostly burned out.) But the elitist attitude that the experience of horror art can be ranked by genre—cosmic horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, contes cruels, on a descending scale—and that some versions are “better” than others is wildly outdated, though sadly more prevalent than one might think, largely because the horror genre retains the air of the unrespectable, and those who enjoy it concoct a variety of justifications for why their favored branch of speculative fiction deserves to join literary fiction in the pantheon of worthy reading for the wealthy and well-connected.
To this I want to add one more point that Hanks made and that I disagree with heartily. Consider this sentence: “Lovecraft certainly managed to tap into a legitimate sense of fear with his sort of ‘cosmicism’, and bleak though it was, his also rose to a sort of prominence which has remained unparalleled in the minds of many of his contemporaries, as well as modern critics.” Let’s leave aside the awkward grammar—Lovecraft’s contemporaries, like him, are all dead now, and the present perfect construction is therefore inappropriate. (Well, I suppose it’s not wholly impossible if we expand “contemporary” to its widest possible meaning: Someone born when Lovecraft died would today be 79, though anyone reading his fiction during his lifetime would presumably be at least 89 today.) No, I am concerned about the use of the word “legitimate.”
One might argue that Hanks is simply too poor of a writer to understand what he implied by a “legitimate sense of fear,” perhaps using “legitimate” as a verbal tic akin to the way “literally” has come to serve merely as an intensifier. But I will take Hanks at his word that he means what he says. His use of that word suggests that there is an illegitimate sense of fear, reinforcing his earlier suggestion that some branches of horror fiction are inherently superior to others.
I have always been a believer that the distinction between high culture and low culture is largely artificial, and in my 2008 book Knowing Fear, I took pains to contrast the elite version of horror fiction with the low culture horrors, from the blue books of the Gothic era to the Syfy original movies of today, that represent how the public actually experiences horror. It’s worth noting here that in the Victorian era, horror fiction (as a division of supernatural fiction) was part and parcel of cultures high and low, and it is really only in the twentieth century that the supernatural in fiction became the poor, bastard stepchild of literary realism (and its even more restrictive subset of naturalism). The elites of that century consigned the supernatural to the masses while they flattered their intellects by imagining that the realist mode better represented reality as it was lived. It was an artificial choice, as fake as the mid-Atlantic accents that the same elites feigned to further separate themselves from the hoi polloi.
I don’t mean to embrace the postmodern idea that value judgments are impossible. I hate vast swaths of crappy, poorly written horror. But I don’t think we can justifiably argue that some genres of horror are inherently superior to others because of their genre rather than the quality of their production. Micah Hanks, in skating across the surface of depths he does not understand, perpetuate ideas even he would probably disagree with were he to think about them beyond the superficial.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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