Posted on October 15, 2011 by Flames
The Darkest Parts of the Forest: W. Scott Poole on Monsters in America
Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting by W. Scott Poole is that long-awaited book we knew was out there, somewhere, lurking in the darkened woods of the great Unwritten, waiting to leap out and reveal terrible truths about us all.
Both a masterpiece of scholarship and a heartfelt homage to the horror genre, Monsters in America “tell[s] a story about the dark side of American history, through its monsters.”
“I took this opportunity to use the films I love as primary sources,” said Poole, “and to chase down urban legends and think about where these bad dreams come from.”
Where bad dreams come from, indeed!
In Monsters in America, we encounter a history of America and of the American psyche that is far more terrifying than we ever imagined.
This is us, folks, plain but far from simple.
For those of us who call ourselves American, Monsters in America is our history–web-like, violent, and always lurking in the corner of our eye—up to no good, blood on its hands, hellfire in its eyes.
From aliens to zombies, Poole goes into it all. He examines Americans’ love-hate relationship with witches and the wilderness, sea monsters and slavery, the Civil War and serial killers, paranoia and the atomic bomb. Monsters in America is as compelling as it is comprehensive without being over-burdened with academic jargon or objectivity.
A self-professed “lifelong horror nerd”, as well as an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston, Poole is the author of six books, including Satan in America: The Devil We Know and Never Surrender: Confederate Memory and Conservatism in the South Carolina Upcountry. He also writes about popular culture, history, and religion for such sites at Popmatters.com and Religiondispatches.org.
Poole is no stuffy academic. The writing in Monsters in America is smooth and clean and precise, like a scalpel in the hands of a loved one.
The table of content of Monsters in America suggests a linear sprint through 400+ years of American history. Don’t be fooled. Poole masterfully slides around on the silken edge of the draglines and spokes of the spider web of the past, pulling and tugging and drawing taut meaning in the darkness.
Read this book. It will make you want to sing songs of the monsters that prey upon you, just as each page sings the song of our collective past.
“So, without further ado,” writes Poole in homage to his beloved Crypt Keeper, “let us bring on the night.”
So, first things first: Are monsters real?
I do not like the language of metaphor when talking the monstrous. Look, there are lots of books out there that talk about monsters as metaphors of this or that cultural crisis or anxiety. I agree that they function in that way but I also take my monsters more seriously.
Monsters are hardwired into the American experience. It matters that Frankenstein became immensely popular at a time when medical experimentation on racial minorities had become a frightening reality in American history. It matters that the science fiction genre, and sightings of flying saucers, became common during the early Cold War when American became deeply conscious of the possibility of invasion and subversion. And the all too real serial killer stalked our popular culture at a time when we were debating questions of identity, sexuality and the meaning of violence.
Now, I’m no Fortean and certainly not a ghost hunter. I think those hobbies can also end up failing to take the monster as seriously as it wants us too. But I’m also not okay with talking abstractly about the horrific when I think its part of the cultural DNA of historical experience.
In Monster in America, you resist defining monster. So, um, care to say what a monster isn’t?
If it makes you feel safe and secure, its not a monster.
When I encountered Shock Theatre in around 1976, 1977, I spent long Saturday afternoons watching the Universal Studios cycle of monster stories. I will never forget watching the Mummy, becoming convinced that by watching it I had somehow transgressed and fallen under the Mummy’s curse and then being certain that the sudden, violent thunderstorm that hit us that afternoon was somehow part of this dark and evil magic working its will on me.
I think this helped shape my view that the monster is not safe, the monster offers no stability, the monster will not make our sleep better. This does not mean they are evil…but they are always terrible, in the Old Testament sense of the term.
If it makes things feel pleasant or gives you warm fuzzies, then it’s not the monster (I’m looking at you Stephanie Meyer).
What scares you?
Ha! I love it when I get this question. It always sounds like “what scares scary things.”
Honestly, as much as I love, and I mean freaking love, watching and reading horror, it just doesn’t give me the kind of “there is something standing behind me” fear it used to. Minor frissons, no major freak-outs.
If I want some real terror, I read some Thomas Ligotti, an author that combines what’s most frightening in Lovecraft with what is most unsettling in Kafka. Or I just read Kafka. My favorite writer, William S. Burroughs, is no horror writer but there are horrific and fantastic elements in his work that do it for me beyond what even my hero Wes Craven can pull off.
And honestly, I’m mostly scared by life. I’m scared my wife or my parents or my dogs will get sick. I’m scared we’ll keep dehumanizing the poor and marginalized while claiming that corporations are people. Other people scare the hell out of me. These things are the darkest parts of the forest where the monsters hide.
I’m really afraid of drowning, by the way.
Where did Monsters in America start?
It started in my love of the genre and, in fact, I hope horror fans see it as a kind of valentine to these films and the world of freaks that surrounds them.
I want historians to read the book. I need horror people to read it.
On the scholarly side, this is really the first study of the American monster by an American historian and its a pretty weird book in some respects. A look at the endorsements alone shows that early readers and admirers of the book include not only scholars you might expect to be reading a new work of history but also horror novelists like Jonathan Maberry.
I also have to say that the idea to write this was born out of my research on a previous book called Satan in America, where I examined the cultural history of the Devil. I came across a fascinating account of sea serpent sightings in early 19th century Massachusetts that led me to researching a whole public conversation about sea monsters in 19th century America.
What exactly do you mean in the book when you say that “history issues threats as much as it inspires reflection”?
We had one bookstore on the tour that had to back out because they were counting on some support from a local library. The library said no after somebody there took a look at the book and complained about the combination of “bad language” and “controversial ideas that we don’t want to deal with the fallout from.”
History is about a confrontation with the sources of our life and lifestyle. Why do I see monsters at every moment of the American experiment? Its because the past is boneyard and we’ve built what we’ve got on top of it.
History tends to make on the list of “things that most made me want to put a pencil through my eye in school.’ Or simply described as boring. How do you make the drama of human experience boring? You tell a story of consensus instead of conflict and that’s what my textbooks do. And too many of the teachers who use them.
Monsters and their narratives of horror don’t allow you to do that.
Are there monsters you had to leave out of the book?
This is a book full to the brim with all kinds of creatures of the night, from sea serpents to serial killers. So I didn’t leave much out. There are monsters I want to spend more time with. I’m actually working on a project about the 1950s horror host Vampira in relation to the Cold War and post-WWII notions of gender.
Were I writing right now, I probably would also spend some more time on the idea of disease vectors, viruses and contagion in general as one of our new posthuman monsters. I’ve decided it was pretty boneheaded of me to connect 28 Days Later with the zombie genre instead of our growing fears of superflus and nature taking its vengeance on us.
If American history or America were a monster, what would it look like? What would its excesses be?
Something Lovecraftian. Too big, too many eyes, tentacled. And its excess would be hunger, it would be the Thing that could not stop consuming. Some of the darkest parts of our history are all about expansion triumphing over ethics.
And, like a Lovecraftian monster, apocalyptic. The dirty little secret, that squichy Thing hiding over there in the corner, is that our current lifestyle is utterly unsustainable. Why do we love the zombie apocalypse? We are laughing on our way to the gallows.
You dedicated Monsters in America to your goddaughter. What do you hope she learns from it when she is old enough to read it? What do you hope her mother will get from it now?
Niamh Carmichael is a deeply imaginative, book-loving, intellectually curious four year old that rules the world around her. She is also going through a phase of being afraid of monsters (much to my chagrin).
I worry a little that she’ll wonder at first why I dedicated such a macabre, and in some respects gloomy, book to her. I hope by then she’ll be used to her macabre and gloomy godfather. After that though I hope she’ll see it as a way to help her understand the world and its monsters. I hope it will help her see that monsters are sometimes your friends. Though never comfortable ones.
She may be my age before it means anything to her beyond, “Oh yeah, its cool he dedicated a book for me.” You can’t predict these things.
Her mom is a classicist and one of the smartest people I know in the world. The idea that anything I write could teach her something is laughable.
If the folks at Baylor University Press and you publicity team were in a monster flick, which characters would they be?
Oh God, this is may be the best question ever asked of an author in the history of the world.
I love my press, gotta say (authors don’t always love their presses…I haven’t always loved mine) so I would make the movie one of my favs, Nightmare on Elm Street. Associate Director of the Press, Nicole Smith Murphy would be Nancy. I wouldn’t give any monster a chance against that final girl. My publicist from Dechant-Hughes, Kelly Hughes would obviously be the alcoholic mom who…Ok, I’m totally kidding. She would be the Van Helsing figure, wisely guiding our heroes…if Nightmare had one of those. Billy Collins, social media guru? I peg him as the young Johnny Depp (don’t be too excited Billy, Depp’s character bites it).
Oh, and Freddy Krueger? Obviously editor –in-chief Carey Newman. Both because I like Freddy a lot and because I suspect Carey might come back as a supernatural killer. Also, I bet he owns that sweater.
Finish the sentence: “If not for Stars War…”
“…I might never have found the latch to the door to the fantastic”
Ah, here we go, the chance to yet again show myself the melodramatic Star Wars fan. But it’s a serious question because that space fable joined with my growing interest in the monsters of the 1930s to suggest a whole universe of the fantastic. The Cantina scene still feels to me like a revelatory moment. Like some veil between worlds suddenly becoming thin.
I’d add that I could finish that sentence in two other ways “I wouldn’t have all these awesome action figures” and “I might have had better, earlier luck with girls.” Well, maybe I can’t blame the latter on the Wars really.
So if this book had a soundtrack, what tracks would be on it?
Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits. This is the soundtrack the book was written to so it makes sense to read it with the same.
I actually say in the first chapter that most historical works aim to be a highly structured Bach concerto but that history itself is the Sex Pistols, yawping at you angrily like Johnny Rotten. It’s important to remember that when trying to make sense of historical knowledge in general.
What are you watching these days?
I thought I was done with “found footage” (or at least weary of it) until I saw the Norwegian indie Trollhunter. Not as dark as the genre sometimes is but still great fun. I haven’t seen it yet but am excited about The Last Circus. Sounds like Pan’s Labyrinth meets Grindhouse.
Been into Theodore Roszak recently. His bizarre novels Flicker and The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein reimagine gothic horror in mind-bending ways.
I’m also reading Scott Snyder’s Severed series and loving it. I’m a big Snyder fan and pretty into the dark currents in American history he taps for his stories. I loved American Vampire.
I’m a regular reader of Kirkman’s Walking Dead. And, yeah, I’m excited about the second season of the AMC series but so is everybody else in the world so who cares.
Any parting words of advice, wisdom, or caution for fellow monster fans out there?
I guess I would say this: take your monsters seriously. Maybe you just want to be left alone with your popcorn and your movie, but you know you love your monsters more than that. How do they intersect with politics, religion, your view of society? Why do you love them so much and what does that mean?
Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones