Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones

Just when you thought it was safe…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Since I started reading more classic horror and revisiting some classic science fiction, I’ve come across Darryl Jones many times, as the editor of various anthologies and as the writer of entertaining and informative introductions for some of the Oxford World’s Classics series. So when I discovered he had written a book on the history of horror, I felt there could be no better guide to a genre in which I’ve dabbled but still don’t know well. Jones is Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.

The book is deceptively small, but it’s packed full of concentrated juicy goodness and, as I always find with Jones, written in an engaging and accessible style that avoids the tendency towards lit-crit jargonese so beloved of so many academic authors (and so hated by me).

It begins with a great introductory chapter that discusses how horror has been around since at least the beginning of written records. Jones then gives manageable definitions for all the terms used in describing horror literature – horror, terror, Gothic, uncanny, weird, etc., (a true boon for the struggling amateur reviewer!). He talks about how horror in popular culture reflects the anxieties of its time: fear of invasion, nuclear armageddon, climate change, etc. Along the way he cites zillions of examples from both books and film, and what I really loved about it is that the ones he cites are the popular and familiar ones, rather than obscure ones known only to specialists and hardcore fans. This meant that I had the pleasure of knowing enough of them to enhance my understanding of what he was saying, while at the same time adding loads more to my must-read/watch list. He gives a clear idea of where they fall on the spectrum, so that I found it easy to decide which ones would be too gruesome or graphic for my moderate tastes.

The following chapters are themed, again each packed full of examples. Starting with monsters, he discusses the origins of vampires and how they changed over time from aggrieved peasants into the aristocratic version of today, narcissistic, sexualised and romantic. Zombies originated as a response to plague fears, were later used as a commentary on slavery, and now, Jones suggests, as a response to extreme capitalism, especially after the crash.

Next up, he discusses the supernatural – ghosts and the Devil. I found this chapter particularly interesting as he discusses the modern (i.e. 19th century and on) rise of the ghost story as a response to the shock to the Victorian psyche brought about by Darwin’s evolutionary theories – a theme I’ve become aware of in so much writing of that era. Likewise, the modern surge in stories starring the Devil and his worshippers, he suggests, may have risen out of Catholic attempts to redefine evil for a modern age and of Protestant beliefs in impending apocalypse.

The next chapter looks at the use of the human body in horror, from werewolves and other forms of metamorphoses, through to pain, sadism and torture porn. Although this is the aspect of horror that appeals least to me – not at all, in fact – I still found the discussion interesting and was happy not to add too many new items to my to-be-read list.

Horror and the mind is much more my kind of thing again, and Jones takes us into a world of madness and asylums, with Poe’s succession of insane narrators leading the way. He discusses perceptions of madness and how they have changed over time – is madness a symptom of evil, or is it a social and political construct? He mentions the prevalence of highly-qualified fictional madmen and muses as to whether madness is seen as a symptom of intelligence or over-education. He talks about the double – for example, Jekyll and Hyde – and how this has been used to portray a fracturing of the individual. And he leads us on to the serial killer, perhaps a response to the terrors of the anonymity of suburbia and of fractured communities, leaving people vulnerable to victimhood.

No history of horror could be complete without the mad scientist. Jones takes us on a jaunt through the impact of Darwinism – Frankenstein, Dr Moreau, etc – and onto more modern iterations – the fear of nuclear holocaust, then evil machines, out-of-control androids and, most recently, the perils of artificial intelligence and the online age.

In his afterword, Jones looks at how horror is faring in the new millennium. Though he is critical of the tendency towards remakes of old classics, he gives many examples in both book and film of original horror arising from today’s concerns – the economic crash, the environment, the continuing racial divide in America, etc. He discusses the rise in popularity in the West of horror from Asia, particularly Japan and Korea, and hints that this is perhaps an indication of the beginning of the decline of American cultural domination. He finishes with a brief look at horror moving online, into podcasts and memes and creepypasta*– a word I had never before heard but am now determined to use at every opportunity.

(*Urbandictionary.com tells me that creepypasta are “essentially internet horror stories or a myth passed around other sites, to frighten readers and viewers”. The above image is The Slenderman, a creepypasta star.)

Overall, an excellent read – short enough to be approachable but with plenty of breadth and depth in the discussions. And with five million (approximately) titles for me to follow up on… isn’t that a truly horrifying thought??

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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21 thoughts on “Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones

  1. Uh-oh, it would appear your TBR is in for some more bloating!! This sounds like an interesting read. As a reference, if nothing else. Do any of us ever have too much knowledge?!? Oh, as an aside, did Tommy and Tuppence know yesterday was National Cat Day? If so, I imagine you were kept running with all their demands!!

    • Haha – I know! I started listing all the ones he mentioned but the list was becoming huge! So I decided to be sensible and just look the book up any time I wanted to see a film or find a story. Well, I tried to wish them Happy Cat Day, but they pointed out in no uncertain terms that every day is Cat Day as far as they’re concerned…

  2. I’m not well-versed in the horror genre, either, FictionFan, and this sounds like an excellent guide to it. I like the fact that it’s both informative and accessible. That’s a really difficult balance for a writer to strike. And all of those examples, too…. Best keep them to yourself, though, lest there be a spate of feline book ordering to add to your TBR… 😉

    • Yes, I loved that he used so many of the films and books and stories that we’ve all read or seen – it made it easy to understand what he was saying. Haha, but there were still plenty more that were extremely tempting… I nearly started a new challenge, but decided I should be sensible for once! Let’s hope T&T are willing to go along with me on this one… 😉

  3. What an interesting sounding book even for someone like me who tends to steer away from horror these days although I read plenty in my ‘youth,’ Fascinating to see how horror can be divided into types and I can see from the distance of time I preferred the horror of the mind over the other types back in the day and it is probably where if the urge took me I’d go to now too. I’ve never found I could believe in ghosts or the devil although of course I may yet be proved wrong on both counts 😉

    • I’ve found horror reading quite addictive since I started it again a few years ago – one story leads to another… Yes, horror of the mind is one of my favourite themes too, and actually quite often shows up in darker psychological thrillers, even if we don’t strictly think of them as horror stories. But I think the mad scientists win for me – I love all those stories that are half sci-fi, half-horror…

  4. Kids these days-creepypasta? WTF?

    I love when literary criticism is written CLEARLY!!! It’s so hard to find these days, but really, so important. Why has it taken people so long to figure this out?

    • That was the good thing about it – it covers all aspects of horror, from mild to aarghh so there should be something in there to appeal to most tastes. And he’s very good at giving an indication of just how horrific they are, so us scaredy-cats know which ones to avoid… 😀

  5. I like that he gives a “scare-factor” for the things he writes about. My level of creepy tolerance is pretty low! I like spooky books, but there’s a limit for me – and I like watching scary movies even less.

    • I can cope with supernatural spookiness, probably because I don’t believe in it, but I have a very low tolerance for human horror – serial killers and suchlike. And I don’t ever want gore! I agree – movies scare me far more than books or short stories ever do. I still remember the night I saw a double-bill of Psycho and Psycho II in the cinema… 😱😱😱

  6. This one definitely sounds up my alley! When I was a little kid I bought a book called Real Vampires; it was all about the vampire legends throughout history, and the way that people would try to avoid vampires or destroy them after they were trapped. I had never heard of Creepypasta but I have heard of these scares that travel around the internet, and a lot of times they actually manifest in real life. There was one about a clown in particular that made its way into real life, including to the colleges in my area! The police actually got involved. I’m going to see if I can find this book at my library.

    • I hope you can get a copy but it’s a very new release in a kind of niche market so they may not have it. I had also heard of the memes although I’d never come across the word creepypasta before. The one I pictured, The Slenderman, was, I believe, cited as having inspired two young girls to commit a murder. But I’m not convinced that horror really inspires people to murder – I suspect you have to be nuts already…

    • It’s very good for giving an idea of all the different things that count as horror, from classic dystopias through to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre! I’ve certainly grown keener on horror the more I’ve read of it…

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