Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Monsters in America: guess what? They're us!

History professor W. Scott Poole is a man who loves his monsters. He's very clear about that. His deep fascination with the monsters of American history has allowed him to craft an examination of how these monsters have reflected and influenced history.

"Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting" reveals how all manner of creatures have been woven into the fabric of American history since settlers landed on the Atlantic shore. Sea monsters and slashers, freaks and Frankenstein have all played a part in the collective past of this nation.

There are a number of books and scholarly works that examine horror as a reflection of society's ills and fears. Even I once wrote a paper about the spike in the popularity of horror movies during economic recessions and depressions. Poole goes beyond that to say that monsters aren't just escapist entertainment for rough times. Monstrous imagery has been used in political rhetoric and debates about racism, the sexual revolution, the dissolution of the American family, and many other topics.

It's relatively easy to look at movies for social criticism and Poole's take on everything from 1932's "Frankenstein" and 1968's "Night of the Living Dead" are interesting. But Poole stretches back before movies and TV dominated our culture. Poole discusses the legends of sea monsters that traveled up and down the Atlantic seaboard and how those tales influenced Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" and how Melville in turn reinforced ideas about white settlers destruction of Native American communities. "Frankenstein," well before Boris Karloff sauntered onto the silver screen, was used in arguments about slavery, often referencing black men as physically strong but operating on pure mindless instinct.

For a scholar, Poole's style is also worth noting. Yes, the text is written in a traditional scholarly form. But unlike many textbooks, Poole will slip in a colloquial phrase every once in a while. It's a pleasant way to remind the average reader than Poole, at heart, is a fanboy, too.

One interesting argument late in the book pits Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" saga in direct opposition to the HBO series "True Blood." (No mention of Charlaine Harris's novels is made, which is OK with me because I think they are almost as bad as "Twilight.") The argument Poole makes is that while "Twilight" is the antithesis of horror in that its goal is to reinforce traditional family and marital roles, "True Blood" not only breaks from traditional roles, as horror often does, but establishes the new roles as uniquely American in the 21st century.

Poole reveals a bias against "Twilight" that I appreciated, but his examination of the series is no more or less forgiving than his looks at any other entry into America's canon of monsters. And while Poole states that his book will give no clear definition of what a monster is, he does say that America will always find -- or create -- the monster it needs for every era and situation.

Finally, "Monsters in America" proves that horror fans aren't just hormonal teens and overweight single men who still live in their parents' basements. You, young horror aficionado, could grow up to be a professor.

Threat level: ORANGE. Worth the time to read, although I fear many won't be able to get over the scholastic tone. (For an explanation of our ratings, visit the Warning System page.)

"Monsters in America," by W. Scott Poole will be released by Baylor University Press on Oct. 15.

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