W. Scott Poole has one of those twisted jobs that kids dream of: he’s a teacher and expert in modern horror. His new book, Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of the American Empire, focuses on the rise of classic monsters – vampires, wolfmen, Frankenstein – and the real monsters we face. His previous book, Wastelandargued that the Great War greatly influenced our fears and monsters, and Carnivals is both a continuation and a shift from classic monsters to truly nefarious – and often invisible – enemies.
Horror isn’t my thing, but I read the classics: Bram Stoker’s Draculaby Mary Shelley Frankensteinall Dusk trilogy. I am interested in the places where horror enters the national imagination and its intersections with romance and detective fiction. But for Poole, the current wave of popular horror shows and movies illuminates many of our deepest fears. And that was before COVID.
Lisa Levy: How do classic monsters (vampire, werewolf, zombie) feature in Dark carnivals? Did they adapt to the times?
W. Scott Poole: I’m really enamored with how the monsters of European literary tradition and folklore flourished in the United States. Much of what we think we know about these imaginary creatures comes from the films of this era… Bela Lugosi in Dracula clearly shows for the first time that vampires can transform into bats. Lon Chaney Jr., the leader of The werewolf, confirms that a silver bullet kills a werewolf. The other (darker) side of my love for these films is that they are an example of American soft power through the networks of mass culture, we have pushed our monsters onto the world in more ways than one. As the book shows, sometimes you see an ugly mirror there.
Lisa: I know, this one is mandatory, but it’s important. Can you talk about the relationship between detective fiction and horror? Any writers you’d hook up for using elements of both?
Poole: Both detective fiction and horror are obsessed with undisclosed secrets, especially the calamity or closure of final revelations. There is a deep darkness at the heart of both as both question violence and how violence works. So of course, it makes sense that the author of “The Fall of House Usher” and “Ligeia” also invented the detective novel. Today we see it in the work of someone like deeply chilling horror writer Daniel Kraus (co-writer of an Academy Award-winning film The shape of water and Zombies) who wrote one of my favorite entries in the Hard Case Crime series, a nasty little Halloween treat called blood sugar. Alma Katsu is an example of someone who mixes mystery and supernatural horror in books like Hunger and the abyss (and she can also write a hell of a spy thread!). Stephen King has long written incredible detective stories and even edgy teapot gothic (Misery and Dolores Claiborne really falls into this category). Paul Tremblay, best known for his best-selling horror novels, is also a high-quality crime fiction writer.
Lisa: Why should crime novel readers spice up their TBR lists with horror?
Poole: Fans of good detective writing are a group of philosophers and that’s something they tend to share with horror fans. If the layered revelations about human nature and violence you unravel in a Raymond Chandler tale move you, you’ll find much the same in good horror fiction…and sometimes bad horror fiction. I don’t think we would have made much of a clean division of the two genres (or used the idea of ’genre’) before the rise of mass commercial publishing and the now rather compelling requirements to identify brand and marketing. Either way, if you’re obsessed with the problem of evil, the mystery of human wickedness at least, crime and horror fiction are your chocolate and your peanut butter.
Lisa: If the backdrop of Wasteland was the Great War, what is the backdrop of dark carnivals?
Poole: In some ways, dark carnivals is an unofficial sequel to Wasteland the First World War therefore remains the backdrop. But rather than focusing on Europe, we see what happened in American popular culture and American expansionism overseas, beginning in the early 20e century until around 2020-21 when I finished the book.
Lisa: Why did you focus on popular film, fiction and performance in dark carnivals?
Poole: You could say I’m making a case in the book for the links between popular culture and military history, an odd leap but I think readers will find it works. Mass culture in all its forms seems to me to act as a sort of cultural dream. What we find in these books, movies, and even PC and console games is a set of tropes that entertain us, that’s what they’re for, but also constantly interact with our political beliefs, aspirations, our myths… confirming or challenging what we think we know… Lawrence Levine, a historian whose work means a lot to me, has called pop culture “the folklore of an industrial society”. Tell us what frightens a culture, or what makes it happy to be frightened, and you will see the underside of what people think about patriotism, the nature of war and the meaning of violence.
Lisa: Can you define post-horror? Give some examples that explain what it is about and why it is relevant?
Scott: I actually reject the term “post-horror” or “high horror.” It betrays a lack of knowledge of the history of these films. There is a section at the beginning of the book that describes the emergence of this term as a result of the work of Jordan Peele and the work of A24 studios. But, as clever film critics have said, it ignores the whole history of the genre. “Arthouse horror” has been a phenomenon since the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. George Romero used horror as a social critique from the sixties and John Carpenter did the same in the seventies. I think it’s a term that has become a way for fans of Ari Aster or Robert Eggers or Peele’s work to justify their interest in horror movies. What’s interesting about this is that it’s correct to consider horror movies a once disreputable genre, but it’s precisely this lowly status that has allowed directors to really open the floodgates of their own imagination without being tied to the expectations of the general public.
Lisa: How are you? dark carnivals timely? Has COVID changed your process, timeline, or general scope of the book?
Poole: That’s an interesting question because, frankly, I don’t think this book is up to date. Much of the focus in non-fiction horror writing these days is on the anxiety that horror produces or the terror on the home front. Meanwhile, the social policy and public health disasters of the past seven years are largely on the minds of policy makers. So where does dark carnivals adapt? This is partly a story about things that had been going wrong for a long time, that America didn’t become a scary place for most people, at home or abroad, when Trump was elected. President. I think, in part, that means I’ve written a book that will irritate people from all political backgrounds…maybe it’s not a great marketing strategy. For me, while I was working on monsters in america back in 2011, then Wasteland in 2016-18, there were too many connections between the horrors of popular culture and the real horrors of empire for me to ignore. I hope it’s a book that finds its audience, of course, but that audience may not yet exist. Maybe they need time to assimilate that black carnival came to their town a long time ago and they didn’t even notice it. We will see.