Acclaimed historian and author W. Scott Poole’s latest book, Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire, is a cutting critique of our nation’s ascension to power and its influence on the horror genre.
Buxton Books on King Street will host a book launch celebration 5:30 p.m. Oct. 4 with a conversation with Poole and College of Charleston professor Mari N. Crabtree. Tickets are $5, or you can get a ticket and a signed copy of the book for $29.50.
Poole is the Charlestonian behind Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror and In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft. In his new work, he has yet again merged American history and horror culture into a fascinating page-turner. In his tome, Poole acts as a tour guide through the dark carnival — a place that connects the more gruesome chapters of America’s history to the varying cycles of horror cinema.
Starting in the 1600s, we’re treated to the lesser told stories of American conquests, wars and genocide that provide a more realistic picture of how the United States came to be. The fifth chapter “Built On Top Of What?” highlights how the roots of American power were based on the violent seizures of lands belonging to Native Americans. The wanton conquests by white settlers of the continent included, as Poole states, “killing Indians, felling trees, slaughtering animals and fencing open land in a ‘new world’ that previously held no concept of private property.” From there, Poole leads the reader to the 1980s when films like The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Shining and Pet Semetary were released. He noted how the haunted Indian burial ground trope used in the movies was employed as a way of dealing with the memory of America’s imperial beginnings.
Recurring themes in the book are the shark and the chainsaw, a reference to two popular mid-70s horror movies, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Both films, as Poole sees it, are reflections of America’s history of blindspots and arrogance in the wake of Vietnam. While one offered a nightmare of an outside force, a shark, threatening middle class America that is defeated by pure American can-do spirit, the other’s portrayal of a cannibalistic family suggests the nightmare was born from joblessness and a country that had turned on its own.
Another standout section in Poole’s new book recounts the effect that military service had on two horror icons — Rod Serling and Tom Savini. For Serling, a high school graduate eager to fight the Nazis who ultimately found himself in the Pacific Battle of Leyte, the pivotal air and sea battle of World War II. He received injuries during his first firefight while the chaos of war occurred around him. However, it was seeing a U.S. transport plane accidentally drop its rations payload on a fellow private — thereby decapitating him — that scarred him most. Serling would use his experiences to help write more than 90 scripts for his television show, The Twilight Zone, including the World War II role-reversal horror tale, “A Quality Of Mercy” and “The Purple Testament,” a distressing story of a soldier with psychic powers.
Before being known as the king of gore, Savini was a soldier in Vietnam who stood guard until an incident involving a duck, a tripwire and a nervous trigger finger found him moved to serving as a combat photographer. Taking ghastly photos of body parts and mutilated bodies provided him a sense of safety and later inspired the special effects for movies like Friday The 13th and Day Of The Dead that would marvel and sicken audiences everywhere.
Poole’s book inspired me to rewatch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The tagline on the movie’s poster asks “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” The first sentence of Poole’s book pointedly asks, “Who will survive America?” At the conclusion of Hooper’s movie, the final girl, Sally Hardesty, finds herself bloodied and alone, laughing and screaming as a truck drives her away from a maniac dancing with a chainsaw. Much like the conclusion of that film, Poole’s book posits that America is alone, suffocating in a madness of its own although nowhere near as innocent. Horror fiction has long been seen as an extension or reflection of horror reality. With Dark Carnivals, Poole does more than that, creating a through-line that is captivating, distressing and illuminating.
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