A couple of years ago, W. Scott Poole wrote a book about H. P. Lovecraft that I did not like, and a few years before that, he wrote a book about monsters in America that I also did not like (Part 1 and Part 2). Having read much of his work, it is clear that he and I have very different views on the origins and development of the horror genre. This week Poole releases a new book, Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, unread by me, about what he sees as the profound impact of World War I on the development of the horror genre. While there is no doubt that the war found its way into horror—as it did comedy, as Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and many others attest—my visceral reaction to his claims in a recent Vice interview is that he has grossly overstated the case.
I’ll let Poole make his argument before I explain why I am skeptical of it:
The macabre had existed long before the Great War, in epics, gothic novels, the work of Shelley and Stoker and Baudelaire. But new themes that we connect with horror—dismemberment, mutilation, the dead that return for revenge, the sense that not only a house might be haunted, but that the whole world could become a charnel house—this appeared for the first time and found a far larger audience. What I have seen in the writings of veterans, including those who became some of the first horror auteurs, is a desire to compulsively relive the trauma over and over again. Horror is a language of trauma. […] This is perhaps the most important way that horror became part, not only of mass culture, but of how we see the world. The 19th century had sentimentalized death in many ways, especially in burial and mourning practices. This became impossible after the Great War, and both soldiers and civilians were buried in mass graves, unidentified and unidentifiable. We see in horror films like Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924) or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) the idea of the body as an automata, a kind of death doll, an empty husk. This is terrifying.
The first and most important way Poole’s argument does not entirely conform to facts is through his choice to focus almost all of his discussion on horror films of the 1920s and 1930s and to consider this as “horror” and all the literary work that preceded it as “the macabre.” This artificial distinction allows him to see the obvious connections between World War I and the succeeding decade’s horror as something apart from the horror tradition of the prior century and a half.
The specific themes he pretends are new—dismemberment, mutilation, revenants, and a world of charnel horror—are all themes that were found in the Gothic writers, the Romantics, and the Victorians. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a fairly ideal example of many of these themes. But the restless dead seeking revenge can be found in the very first horror novel, The Caste of Otranto, in the 1700s! It is, quite literally, one of the most important themes in Gothic horror. Mutilation might have been limited in the 1800s due to the boundaries of propriety and taste, but H. G. Wells filled The Island of Dr. Moreau with mutilated bodies in grotesque parody of the human form. The whole world turned to a charnel house is, arguably, less a theme in prewar horror, but only because the Victorians and Edwardians didn’t distinguish cleanly between horror as a genre and literature as a whole. The literature that followed the American Civil War dealt extensively with the horrors of war, but authors like Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce often did so directly, by telling war stories of brutality, horror, and fear, rather than by blanketing their thoughts in metaphor.
Poole’s mention of the body as an automaton is perhaps the most outrageous appropriation of the past in service of the present. This was literally the starting point Mary Shelley used for her Frankenstein, and the tension between the traditional distinction of body and soul animated much of Victorian horror fiction. Granted, the Victorians tended to focus more on the soul than the corpse, but reanimated corpses were not beyond the Victorian purview.
He suggests, too, that any appearance of an open field strewn with dangers is an evocation of No Man’s Land between the World War I trenches, but this surely must be an oversimplification. Similar imagery appears in the eerie Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady and in the war stories of the era. Blasted heaths and haunted moors were long a staple of British horror fiction, and Arthur Conan Doyle made use of them in the Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902.
I do not mean to minimize the trauma of World War I, but I do mean to say that the horror that followed the war enhanced the themes that preceded it. Images and themes that reflected the war did so only in ways that were more extreme versions of the reactions to previous wars, especially the American Civil War. Poole seems to have overstated his case in the hopes of lionizing interwar horror movies and pulp fiction at the expense of everything that came before. If anything, he is right on one thing: The war helped make horror into a genre, but that was not a good thing. Becoming a genre divorced it from high literature and high art, forced it into the shadows, and left it much diminished in stature compared to the supposedly healthy literature of the modernist movement.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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