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4.0 out of 5 stars The Roots of Fear, April 2, 2010
This review is from: The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment (Paperback)
I am somewhat fond of horror books and movies, but I am not what Walter Kendrick would call a "slasher maven". It's the old fashioned stuff stuff that I like: horror films from the thirties, traditional ghost stories, gothic novels, _Weird Tales_ anthologies. Like Kendrick, I believe that horror media contains the "occasional genius" (xxvi) but that it is mostly "infatuated collectors, mad self-dramatizers, scrambling hacks, stern remonstrators, fools, gulls, [and] lunatics" (_ibid_). It is not a field that has engendered many classics, but it has provided a certain amount of fun.

_The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment_ (1991) is a scholarly study that traces the roots of horror back to the mid-eighteenth century with the resurgence of Graveyard poetry (such as Gray's _Elegy_), sentimental romances (such as _The Sorrows of Young Werther_), the gothic novel (like Walpole's _Castle of Otranto_), melodramatic plays, and accounts of "true life crimes".

In later years, horror fiction became more "Genrified" into _Weird Tales_ stories, pulp fiction, E.C. horror comics, and monster movies. In recent years, the horror industry has become more graphically violent with horror being the main emotion intended to be raised among the audience. (Earlier works of horror aimed for other emotions in addition to horror.) Kendrick argues that the violence may in fact recede over time.

Kendrick notes several paradoxes relating to the roots of horror fiction. At a time when cemeteries were becoming more sanitary and modern, the public thought of them as gloomy and horrific sites with yew trees, owls, ravens, and crypts-- sites for murder or (at the very least) Dark Meditations on Mortality. Gothic castles totally unlike real medieval castles anchored themselves in the popular imagination. (They later evolved into Old Dark Houses.) Rotting bodies and faces were also popular. They had actually been around before in paintings and statuary. But before, they were _familiar_. Now, they were to be _feared_.

Kendrick repeatedly uses the terms "horrible books" and "horrible movies". He claims that his reason is purely descriptive, that he does not want them confused with "gothic architecture". In this, I believe that Kendrick is being disingenuous. They are terms that invite ridicule. While much of horror fiction/movies is pretty awful stuff, I believe that Mary Shelly, J.S. Le Fanu, and M.R. James deserve higher accord than Kendrick gives them. Even lesser writers like W.W. Jacobs, F. Marion Crawford, and Robert Bloch were a bit more than miserable hacks grinding out potboilers.

On the balance, though, this is an excellent and well-written study. It is a reminder that Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell had their predecessors-- and that they were not exactly like what we take for granted today.
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Paul Camp
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Location: Chattanooga, TN United States

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