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Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture Hardcover – July, 1998


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (July 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039304582X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393045826
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,600,097 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The words "mad scientist" inevitably summon up the picture of a deranged, obsessive individual with a lab coat and bad hair, working on some grandiose project that probably means trouble for humanity at large. Behind this cartoonish figure, however, lurks a complex series of ideas, emotions, stereotypes, and archetypes. In Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, David J. Skal investigates the whole issue of "our multilevel cultural waltz with the maniac in the lab coat" over the last two centuries.

The first few chapters focus on the origins of the mad-science mentality in the early 19th century. The age of Darwin and the Industrial Revolution saw the birth of many of the stock figures and themes of horror and science fiction: Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dr. Moreau; creation of new life forms, contravention of natural law, science out of control. Then, in the early 20th century, the new medium of film helped make all of these into staples of popular culture. Succeeding chapters deal with types and trends in the mad-science phenomenon, touching on a variety of subjects, such as the classic horror movies of the 1930s, nuclear-age mutation and invasion fantasies, medical horror, the union of man and machine, apocalyptic entertainment, and "Alien Chic."

Movies certainly play a significant role in the whole mad-science phenomenon; Screams, however, is much more than a catalog of the classic horror and sci-fi entries. Skal's insightful, eloquent history gets at the psychological and social roots of our uneasy relationship with science and technology, and our attempts to master the fear of them.

Screams includes abundant notes, many black-and-white illustrations, and an appendix listing dozens of mad scientists from popular culture. Highly recommended. --M.V. Burke

From Publishers Weekly

Art imitates life, which imitates art in this witty and knowing exploration of "mad science" and modern culture. The demonic scientist of pulp novels, B movies, and comic books is extraordinarily popular, says Skal (Hollywood Gothic; The Monster Show), because he "serve[s] as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology." Skal ranges from Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Moreau, from Dr. Jekyll to Dr. Frank N. Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in his entertaining analysis. The author is equally at home with Hollywood trivia and with postmodern cultural analysis?which identifies a gay subtext in horror films and finds the evocation of an "all-male reproductive paradigm" in the Bride of Frankenstein monster's deep forehead scar (a symbolic vulva!). Skal shows how cultural anxieties about race, gender and class roles, technological changes, economic depression and threats of war found their way into horror classics. Of particular interest are Skal's views on UFO sightings?which he finds always correlate with periods of intense social unrest?and "mad medicine" as seen in such works as Coma and Silence of the Lambs (he sees Hannibal Lecter as "an inevitable... iconic representation" of the perceived greed of big medicine in the HMO era). Skal even associates the recent spate of blockbuster invasion fantasies with fear of AIDS. Though Skal's analysis sometimes lacks sufficient depth, it is always fresh, hip and lively. The book is illustrated with 100 well-chosen photos and period illustrations.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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See all 6 customer reviews
It's not clear what that chapter was supposed to be about.
SPM
Mad scientists have been a stape of US and world horror cinema since the very beginning; at no time has the stereotype left us abd today it's stronger than ever.
Kevin Killian
As in his excellent Monster Show, the chapter on B Movies is worth owning this book for -- terrific insight!
M. Packo

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Adam P. Lounsbery on June 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
After publishing books on horror films in American culture, the career of filmmaker Tod Browning, and the history of Dracula from Bram Stoker onward, David J. Skal has chosen to explore the role of the mad scientist in literature and film during the last two centuries. His book, "Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture," begins with Mary Shelley's conception of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, touches on Drs. Jekyll and Moreau, and finally moves on to the twentieth century and its attendant griefs - including, but not limited to, the threat of nuclear war and the career of writer Robin Cook. Skal's main thesis - and it's a good one - is that the public's fear and distrust of scientists and technological innovation has been reflected primarily in the arena of popular entertainment. Skal writes well about the uneasy relationship most people have with science (ie, fearful and antagonistic on the one hand, but unable to live without cars, phones, and computers on the other). The best part of this book is the first half, which mostly deals with Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. From the life of Mary Shelley to the theatrical and film adaptations of her famous novel, the first half of "Screams of Reason" is fascinating and compelling reading. The second half is also interesting, but is sometimes so fragmented and tangential that Skal's main points are lost. Also, he seems unable throughout the second half to draw very many definite conclusions, allowing quotes and examples to simply stand on their own. "Screams of Reason" is most valuable as a sourcebook on Dr. Frankenstein and his ilk, and as a very enjoyable book about popular culture. A wealth of deep insights into the role of the mad scientist in films of the twentieth century will have to be provided by the reader, however.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By SPM on May 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a light, unfocused book. It's supposed to be about mad scientist movies, but the author is all over the place. He starts off by re-telling chunks of his other book, The Monster Show. Then he writes about Mary Shelley and horror literature. He's off to a bad start, repeating himself and having trouble sticking to movies.
By chapter four, he gets to World War II and the post-war period, when mad scientists had become a significant part of popular entertainment. He tries to write about how the public reacts to the Manhattan Project and scientists like Einstein, but his analysis seems to be part of a different book. Is he writing about Mary Shelley, horror movies, science, or what?
Chapter five is all about alien visitations and flying saucers. Chapter six is about mad medical doctors like Mengele, doctor Frankenstein, Robin Cook's book 'Coma' (and the film), Dead Ringers, and AIDS. Chapter seven has something to do with flesh and cyborgs --- I think. It's not clear what that chapter was supposed to be about. The author wraps it all up with a list of famous mad scientists. The list is filler, but I enjoyed reading the "mad ambition/achievement" for each one.
This is good bathroom reading. The subject matter is fun because it's about popular culture and mad scientists, two topics that are never dull. But it's poorly-edited, with the feel of an enthusiastic rough first draft. My guess is that after the success of The Monster Show, Skal sent the idea for this book to his publisher, they loved the proposal, and he hammered it out quickly for fun. That's no crime, but I was really disappointed with it..
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on August 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Mad scientists have been a stape of US and world horror cinema since the very beginning; at no time has the stereotype left us abd today it's stronger than ever. David Skal, the esteemed historian of B movies, has tried to trace this slippery trail from Lon Chaney all the way to the present. As he points out, Hannibal Lecter is today's version of this old, satisfying trope, and Lecter's experiments with moths and menstrual blood can be seen as modern-day versions of the bizarre dreams of Dr. Frankenstein.

Standing slightly outside of society, although given cultural equity in the name of university educations, the mad doctors and scientists who people our movies are always judging us, until the time comes when they get judged themselves (see Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE).

What's all this heckling from other reviewers about Skal's scattershot approach? Cut him some slack, he's trying to entertain and educate us at the same time, that calls for a bit of digression here and there.
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