Horror as a genre is normally analysed in Freudian or social terms – the monster as father, fear of sexuality or concerns at the disintegration of society. This traditionally sees horror as confronting our fears as society ejects its ills and a version of normality is restored at closure.
Jack Morgan’s book The Biology of Horror has a different take on the need for and appeal of horror in the collective consciousness. The book centres particularly on the development of gothic and body based horror, almost as a genre in its own right. Horror, he argues, is the obsession with the biology of death, morbidity and decay. Humanity’s fixation with the process of death and putrefaction gives horror its power and meaning. To this end Morgan illustrates his work with extracts from non-fictional accounts of ‘horror’ as well as fictional – placing the public fixations on charnel houses or executions as precursors for macabre fiction.
Moreover he places particular emphasis on the context of horror and its relationship to comedy. At times this can be a little exhausting as Morgan piles on the quotes and references, but in the main the points are fascinating and insightful. Particular attention is paid to many of the works of Clive Barker, who is one of the few gothic/body horror writers to cross over into the world of film-making. Morgan discusses passages that deal with disgust and bodily fluids, the organic nature of decay and putrefaction, and its fascination with the reader and viewer. In this respect the relevance to David Cronenberg’s films is pronounced. A number of Cronenberg’s films are cited in the text, though not extensively. The spread of disease and pestilence in the viral/parasitic horrors of Rabid or Shivers, the new and mutated flesh of Videodrome or The Fly are all horrors of the body, of fascination tempered with disgust.
A particular source of fascination for the author is the development of a specifically American form of gothic fiction, in an attempt to reclaim gothic literature from its traditionally European trappings. Naturally this starts with Edgar Allan Poe, but also extensively uses two American texts on the history and meaning of horror – H. P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror In Literature and Stephen King’s deceptively easy to read Danse Macabre. The juxtaposition of these more popular, writers with literary heavyweights such as Camille Paglia helps round the arguments and make them more all-embracing and less elitist – egalitarian writing in the shadows of death and pestilence.
There are some slight anomalies. Morgan assumes that a tacit fascination with Gothic literature and film implies that the viewer is also similarly fixated with the actuality of death and decay in real life, hence removing the distancing that literature supplies; but this is a minor point. Overall The Biology of Horror approaches the physicality of horror in literature rather than the psychological and as such is an insightful and surprising read that fires the imagination as to what it is that fascinates us about horror itself.