"The Thrill of Repulsion: Excursions into Horror Culture" Book Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Published by Schiffer Publishing
Written by William Burns
2016, 280 pages, Non Fiction
Released on July 28th, 2016
William Burns’ knowledge of the horror genre, its contents as well as its history, is staggering. The Thrill of Repulsion showcases his impressive knowledge of genre fiction via a series of curated lists, such as “The 13 Most Deranged Horror Director Debuts” and “The 13 Horror Movie Adaptations that are Better than the Book.” From Lovecraft to Argento to Carpenter to Zombie, Burns knows them all intimately, and from his unassailable position as a human encyclopedia of horror he leads readers through a winding, best-of meditation on scary stuff in film (and other media).
Burns is a professor of English, and his chatty book is notable for connecting horror to broader discourses on film, literature, and philosophy. (One fascinating chapter is an essay linking The Exorcist to Kierkegaard.) Among the most interesting and useful portions of the work are its final two sections, “Literature and Comic Books” and “Music.” The chapters here include “The 13 Most Lovecraftian Stories” (a survey of Cthulhu Mythos tales), and “The 13 Most Ghastly Horror Comic Artists.” The former is especially helpful for me, as I love Lovecraft but am essentially a newcomer to the expanded Mythos. More generally, Burns’ succinct reviews have helped turn me on to films I might not have considered and now very much want to see (The Devil Rides Out, The Witchmaker, Valhalla Rising).
While Burns’ horror-centric erudition is unquestionable, the value of the book is less apparent. With its lists and its lack of source citations, it reads like a series of blog posts, not itself a damning criticism, but it seems at odds with the reality of a physical book—particularly one whose author bio indicates his professor status, which might prime audiences for a scholarly book (this is not a scholarly book). Burns does indicate that some of the book’s content began as articles on Horror News Network, and their Internet origins shine through in printed form. The book occasionally veers into essentialism, both in Burns’ repeated claims that real horror is “transgressive” (insisting on “realness,” boundaries, and definitions is itself an inherently conservative act) as well specific comments about moviegoers’ sensibilities, as when he writes,
I have noticed that the kind of monster a horror fan likes tells you a lot about the person and their aesthetic. Vampire aficionados are usually romantically elegant, werewolf fanatics more brutally primal, zombie zealots more graphically visceral, ghost obsessives more faithfully anticipative, and satanic enthusiasts more worldly and cynical. Those who prefer the witchcraft category of horror film are a singular kind of epicurean that delights in the ritualistic, ceremonial, ornamental, and diabolical. Now, when I talk about witchcraft, I don’t mean those pretentious Wiccan, neo-Pagan, Druid, New Age, White Magic, Mother Earth hold-hands-and-dance-around-a-maypole-on-the-equinox ‘witches.’ I mean witches that draw pentagrams and summon Lucifer, demand blood sacrifices to the Goat of Mendes, hold blasphemous orgies of violence and sex, lash out with black magic, and curse the good and righteous. (99)
A typology of horror fans is obviously problematic (to say nothing of the casual dismissal of whole swathes of spiritual practitioners). Repeated claims of horror street cred and constant name-dropping throughout contribute to the sense that anyone who disagrees with the views expressed here are not “real” horror fans. I’d like to view this posturing as tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not clear that that’s the case. Arguably, a kind of generic territoriality makes a certain amount of sense in a work that is, after all, about a particular genre, and all of us horror writers do have to deal with the simple but critical task of defining what it is we’re writing about. (I certainly have done so.) But it’s important, no matter how many lists one curates, to stay humble.
Ultimately it may be best to think of this as a coffee table book (which by no means is a bad thing). On this level it certainly succeeds as an interesting look at one fan’s preferred horror flavors.
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