Halloween Fun: Deconstructing Horror
In 1945, as World War Two was winding down, Edmund Wilson wrote two
critical pieces dealing with the mystery novel. He was troubled by the rise in sales of a
form he thought commercial and crude. Indeed, in an earlier article writer about west
coast writers’ “The Boys in the Back Room,” he described James Cain’s work as
“ingenious in tracing from their first beginnings the tangles that gradually tighten
around the necks of the people involved in those bizarre and brutal crimes that figure
in American papers…” (newspapers).
When readers wrote him to confirm that there was real literature between the covers
of so-called mystery novels, Wilson gathered up a pile of popular crime fiction by Nero
Wolfe and Earle Stanley Gardner, setting out to evaluate the field in a piece
titled ”Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” He said of Dashiell Hammett’s
The Maltese Falcon that it was “not much above those newspaper picture strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a handful of beautiful adventuresses.”
This piece was attacked by a pack of readers who said he had read the wrong mystery
writers. Wilson then wrote a piece titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd.”
Here he gave faint praise to Raymond Chandler, stating:
“To write such a novel (a work of art) you must be able to invent character and
incident and to generate atmosphere and all this Mr. Chandler can do, though
he is a long way below Graham Greene. It was only when I got to the end that
I felt my old crime-story depression…. Because… the explanation of the mystery
is neither interesting nor plausible enough.”
Edmund Wilson never got what crime fiction was about. It’s an entertaining ride on a
dark night with a drink and cigarette in hand. A cure for loneliness. What was needed
for the detective novel reader was not an Edmund Wilson, but a gemologist, who
could weight and measure and cut the gems of crime fiction, noir, suspense, define
their splendors and describe their angles of complexity.
I’m not sure there is a book out there that does this for crime fiction, but I do know
one that works for horror films. It’s titled Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. Written by Thomas M. Sipos, it’s a vast handbook for horror film audiences, scholars and fanatics.
Published by McFarland in 2010, Horror Film Aesthetics logically analyses horror as a sourcebook that clearly defines the genre.
Sipos is an expert in the field, both as a writer of horror fiction and as a definer
of the horror genre. He is the author of such fiction as Hollywood Witches, a look at the true horrors of Hollywood, Vampire Nation, a bloodsucking tale of Romanian Communism, and Pentagon Posessed: A Neocon Horror Story. He runs Tabloid Witch Awards, an annual Santa Monica film festival that features new horror films from around the world.