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{Book Review} Horror: A Companion (Genre Fiction and Film Comparisons): A Rich Assessment of Contemporary Horror

In the introduction to Horror: A Companion (Genre Fiction and Film Comparisons), editor Simon Bacon makes clear the intent of the academic text, that is to focus on the theories of horror relevant to the selected essays, while describing where the genre is now and its possible influences on the future. In five sections, the volume makes clear that the state of horror is quite healthy, expansive, and available to even larger audiences, thanks to relatively new media like VOD and streaming services. In other words, horror is having a moment and reaching unprecedented audiences. One of the book’s real strengths is its focus on international horror, especially the section “National and Cross-Cultural Horror in the Twenty-First Century,” which covers Asian horror, Euro horror, Bollywood horror, Argentinian horror, among other subcategories. Additionally, the essays cover a wide variety of mediums, not only novels and film, but also internet storytelling, graphic novels, and even a black metal album by Crafteon influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. Horror fans and scholars well-versed in the genre will find something new to check out or a different way to think about a familiar film or text after reading the collection.

Several Western films, TV shows, and texts are given hefty analysis, including It Follows, “Stranger Things,” The Purge: Anarchy, and “American Horror Story,” but even though these are familiar, the scholarship presented offers unique insight of these pop culture staples. For instance, in his analysis of It Follows, Murray Leeder places David Robert Mitchell’s film in conversation with Lovecraft, namely the author’s concern for the “weirdness of the unhuman world and its challenge to humanocentrism,” as well what can be known and what lies beyond knowledge. Leeder states that the shape-shifting monster in It Follows, which is passed on after having sex, is intangible and unknowable, thus placing the film in a tradition of horror that comments on the limits of human knowledge and rationality. He deepens the argument by noting that the film presents the inhuman as an “implacable challenge that human prerogatives are simply not up to facing.” Leeder’s analysis argues that It Follows is a film about extinction, and his essay places a contemporary horror film within an even richer tradition, thus showing how the past always influences the present. This is another undercurrent of the collection. Though the works analyzed are from the 21st Century, the essayists root them within a deeper historical context, while also referencing fairly well-known contemporary horror theorists, including Robin Wood, Barbara Creed, and Julia Kristeva, just to name a few.

Photo Courtesy of Northern Lights Films

In an analysis of the Netflix series “Santa Clarita Diet,” Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott study how the show about a mother/zombie is part of a tradition of supernatural sitcoms that places monsters in suburban settings, such as “The Adams Family” and “The Munsters,” while also subverting gender expectations. Like those other shows, “Santa Clarita Diet” merges the family sitcom with horror and teen comedies to attract multigenerational audiences. They add that Lily Munster (Yvonne DeCarlo), Morticia Adams (Carolyn Jones), and Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) disrupted the traditional family home, offering transgressive depictions of gender, but were also contained by network TV conventions. The protagonist of “Santa Clarita Diet,” Sheila, (Drew Barrymore), however, is physically and metaphorically abject because she’s a zombie, thus she already crosses physical, emotional, and moral boundaries. The authors note that Sheila differs from other monstrous females because she’s accepted by those who love her, and she and her family aren’t under the illusion that their situation is normal, unlike supernatural sitcoms of the 1960s. Jowett and Abbott’s essay is another example of how the collection puts contemporary horror in conversation with tradition, in this case 1960s supernatural sitcoms. Equally important is their observation that horror has reached unprecedented visibility and popularity because it is now broadcast across multiple media platforms, a point echoed elsewhere in the collection.

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Additionally, the book addresses current debates within the genre. In Stephanie A. Graves’ essay on Get Out, the author cautions against the term “smart horror,” which has been assigned to not only Jordan Peele’s work, but also films like It Comes at NightThe WitchIt Follows, among others. This distancing was also done to the critically-acclaimed films The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense. These films, which are grounded in horror subjects, tropes, and tones, Graves notes, were labeled “psychological thrillers.” The problem with the labeling of “smart horror” or “psychological horror” is that such labels discount and disparage the wider field of horror, thus suggesting that other horror is dumb. Her essay is refreshing and another standout in the book, considering how much the “smart horror” term has been tossed around over the last few years.

In Simon Brown’s essay on Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars, the author analyzes the popularity of King’s work, while making the argument that we shouldn’t attribute his popularity merely to the fact he writes horror; rather, King’s success is due to the fact that his fiction deals with everyday people and everyday situations. “His characters (mostly male) are straightforward blue-collar folk who go to work and watch the ball-game, right up until they are confronted with the paranormal,” Brown writes. Concluding the essay, Brown argues that the real pleasure of watching It (2017) was seeing the seven members of the Losers Club interact. Yes, it was billed as a horror film featuring Pennywise, but the real heart of the film and novel is the kids. This essay is especially relevant since King’s work is undergoing such a resurgence right now, not only in print, but also film and TV. Brown’s essay focuses less on the horror and rather the prolific writer’s characters, namely how his stories embody small town America and the working-class, hence why he’s always been a perennial bestseller. His protagonists are the little man and/or woman that you root for against the big, bad evil, be it bullies, authority figures, or the supernatural.

As already stated, the collection analyzes some of the more popular Western films, TV shows, and novels of the last few years, but the real highlight is the attention given to international horror. I especially enjoyed Cristina Santos’ essay on Argentinian writer Mariana Enríquez’s short story collection The Things We Lost in the Fire (a must-read), especially the historical context. Furthermore, Ian Olney’s essay on Raw and Eurohorror films and Meheli Sen’s piece on the Bollywood horror film Pari, specifically the way it upends conventions of Bollywood horror, are thought-provoking.

Horror: A Companion (Genre Fiction and Film Comparisons) would make a solid addition to a class on contemporary horror, but the essays are not so dense in theory that they can’t be enjoyed by non-academics. It’s worth checking out for fans of the genre in general. Bacon’s selection of voices and content covered is diverse, thus proving the ever-growing scope and popularity of the  genre.

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