Non-Fiction Reviews

Sleeping with the Lights On
The Unsettling Story of Horror

(2018) Darryl Jones, Oxford University Press, £10.99, hrdbk, xii + 181pp, ISBN 978-0-198-82648-4


Back in the 1970s, I grew up with a shelf full of books about horror movies. Lots of great photographs and interviews with actors, but the accompanying text was not very deep. For such a complex genre, there really aren’t many good attempts to analyse what scares the bejeezus out of us. Stephen King’s Dance Macabre is a very personal but clearly well informed look. Christopher Fraying had a try with his work on gothic literature. And now Daryll Jones has given us Sleeping with the Lights On, and it’s wonderful.

The first thing that strikes you about this book is the quality of its production. The hard back cover with a lightbulb shaped hole, revealing – well – nasty stuff lurking beyond. This is a genuine labour of love, and clearly a very individual reflection on horror and how it has been affected by the wider culture. Jones is not trying to tell the history of how the genre developed (though he does deal with the main monster archetypes chapter by chapter). Its more a series of personal reflections on the way that things which terrify us have been seen over the years. In particular, what horror says about the society which produces it. Why do certain monsters (such as zombies) terrify us more now than in the past (hmm… social underclass after the financial crash? …Well, perhaps.) His range of knowledge is impressive, but not surprising – he specialises in teaching popular literature at Trinity University in Dublin, so his academic credentials are impeccable.

This background knowledge enables Jones to move around the subject with impressive flexibility, and he does not draw the usual critical distinctions between ‘great art’ and ‘low entertainment’. ‘Titus Andronicus’ gets compared with modern slasher films (which is entirely fair – it contains just as much grue as any 1970s video nasty and the dialogue is as banal). I have to say, I was slightly less convinced by his attempt to show where horror is going. The genre is moving online, transmitted less though fiction than by the repetition of ‘true’ stories,a which are just unverifiable urban legends and Creepypasta. All of which is true but – isn’t the nature of horror to be unpredictable? No one really knows what book is going to suddenly stick it’s nasty fingers into what King calls our ‘phobic pressure points.’ But again, the argument is beautifully reasoned and well supported.

My only word of warning is that this book is probably not for everyone. For many of us, it will open a deep literary rabbit hole (I’m already spending money getting some of the books referenced here). It is extremely well written and the style is conversational – but there is an academic tone lurking in the background: a lot of the arguments are profound, psychological, socio-political points. I think my seventeen year old self would have been happier looking at pictures of Yutte Stensgaard and Ingrid Pitt.

Sebastian Phillips

See also Peter's take on Sleeping With the Lights On.


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