Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror
by James B. Twitchell
Oxford University Press, 353 pp., $18.95
“Is this the promised end?” asks the good Earl of Kent, devastated, in the last scene of King Lear as Lear enters, carrying in his arms the body of the murdered Cordelia; to which Edgar adds, “Or image of that horror?” Images of horror are Twitchell’s theme in Dreadful Pleasures. He doesn’t pause over this episode, although Lear isn’t entirely absent from his pages. Images of actual horrors, of which there has been a sufficiency in modern life, are only glancingly alluded to: the victims of Hiroshima and the Holocaust, the swollen bellies of starving Ethiopian children we see on the evening news as we settle down to dinner. Nor is Twitchell concerned with the transformations wrought by art upon horrifying realities—Elephant Man is mentioned only as an instance of the genuine horrors which do not interest him here. Artificial images of horror—especially those conveyed by Gothic fictions and mass-culture films—are Twitchell’s concerns.
He notes that we are now undergoing a revival of horror in popular culture. Michael Jackson’s Thriller cassette was at the top of the charts. Stephen King’s novels predictably become best sellers and film vehicles. The Bronx—not previously unknown to horror—in 1977 had an exhibition at its Museum of the Arts of “Images of Terror and Fantasy,” the descriptive catalog of which was published and widely distributed in paperback. Children are indoctrinated with “Count Chocula” and “Frankenberry” breakfast cereals. Shortly before midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, youthful audiences queue up, in costume and makeup, for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These fans have their own newsletter, The Transylvanian, and an official poster book. I only recently learned from a back issue of People magazine that we were about to have a new Bride of Frankenstein, this one directed by Franc Roddam, and offering a feminist revision of the tale; Baron Frankenstein now declares, “I might make the New Woman—independent, free, as bold as a man.” Why not? (This film, released as The Bride, came and rapidly went the past summer.) So Twitchell is onto a truly remarkable phenomenon which calls for exploration.
A specialist in Romanticism, he wrote two recent monographs, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature (1981) and Romantic Horizons: Aspects of the Sublime in English Poetry and Painting, 1770–1850 (1983). In The Living Dead he has an intriguing epilogue on D.H. Lawrence and the modern vampire, considering in detail Lawrence’s characterization of the Brangwen women as Lamias, or female vampires, in The Rainbow and Women in Love. But the book is concerned mainly with the previous century. For readers too anemic to face up to the 868 double-column pages of the team-written Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood (1847) Twitchell gives a compendious summary in an appendix. Varney remained the king of vampires until Bram Stoker came along with Dracula as the century drew to a close. Stoker read up on Varney …