David Kordahl

The Low Road

In Lit, Pop Culture on 2012/02/20 at 2:59 pm

I read a short book on Horror over the weekend. Its title is Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, and its author is Jason Zinoman. Here’s what I had to say in an Amazon.com review.

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Let’s start with the good: this book is consistently entertaining, reads slickly, and is packed with the sorts of anecdotes that we turn to the entertainment pros to deliver. I’d not known before about Dan O’Bannon’s contributions to the genre, either. I’ll also say that Mr. Zinoman has a knack for framing the facts in terms of his thesis narrative, which basically posits that the problem with the “Old Horror” (pre-1970s) was that it was afraid of being nasty, whereas the “New Horror” (post-1970s) was willing to go full-bore for a scare, refusing to respect old conventions of rounded storytelling or good taste.

Unfortunately, there’s a bad side to this, too. Zinoman’s insistence that Michael Myers is a creation of genius because he doesn’t have a back-story reflects the lowest-common-denominator sort of thinking that the film showcases. Though they’re passingly mentioned, there’s not much room in this discussion for directors like Cronenberg or Lynch, who make you think even as they scare you. To Zinoman, this is contrary to the primary ethos of the New Horror, whose “dangerous” qualities are what set it apart.

This cherry-picking attitude also pervades the book’s ending critique of modern horror. While any horror fan knows that the present has spawned its share of terror masterpieces, Zinoman dismisses these works as somehow not counting as much because they’re not “mainstream.” For a piece whose subtitle praises “eccentric outsiders,” this seems like a complaint that’s either inconsistent or willfully reactionary.

All in all, this book isn’t a work of serious criticism but something more akin to an extended series of magazine articles—which isn’t to say that it’s bad. If you want to know more about John Carpenter, George Romero, Brian De Palma, and Wes Craven, this is a key work. If you’re interested in Zinoman’s blinkered overview of how this all connects to the present, on the other hand, you should probably read his Slate.com articles, first…but even then, even if Zinoman’s opinions aren’t quite to your liking, the committed horror fan would have to admit after an evening with this book that he’s spent late nights looking at worse.

***

Anyway, if you’d like to read the Slate articles, here you go. And since I had a simple suggestion on how to improve any discussion of horror films (viz., ADD MOAR CRONENBERG), I leave you with a lovely image of the surgically garbed Jeremy Irons, twin gynecologist at work.

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