W. Scott Poole is a professor of history who teaches and writes about horror and popular culture. “Wasteland” relates how World War I became the wellspring of a new category of literature and film known as the horror genre. The book traces the origin of this imaginative and shocking form of artistic expression to the public awareness of the innovative ways the human body was mutilated in that conflict. Poole brings a scholar’s eye to the horror found in literature, film and other artistic expressions ever since.
The Great War “tore a hole in the world,” Scott reports. It was the most devastating episode humanity had yet experienced. Advanced military hardware left 38 million dead and 17 million wounded in grotesque ways. It ripped the entire world apart as never before: the world map was remade and new international powers emerged.
The carnage of the battlefield became apparent to the public as never before. “The first Armistice Day celebration in 1919, placed amputees, men with catastrophic facio-dental injuries, and those blinded by gas and shell fragments at the front of the parade. This induced a haunting for those in the crowd who found the display out of touch with a victory celebration.”
The ferociously hungry monster in the 1922 German film “Nosferatu,” the 1941 horror film “Wolf Man” and the 1943 monster movie “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” all trace their roots to the bloodshed of World War I. Poole explicates how the awareness of the mountains of corpses and the disfigurements of millions have worked their way into the human psyche. He believes horror films touch an audience’s almost unconscious awareness of the excessive violence first seen in The Great War. He then posits a connection between the horror genre and the increased incidence of violence in society since then.
Poole discusses the works of authors Franz Kafka, T. S. Eliot, and H.P. Lovecraft, all authors who had observed the apocalyptic images of the Great War. Seeing firsthand the monstrous deformities of soldiers and civilians influenced their writings. Poole purports that one reason filmmakers and writers have since used horror is to discourage sentimentalizing and glorifying such horrendous conflicts.
Another author Poole tracks is Walter Benjamin. “Benjamin warned that fascism in the 30s represented a kind of ‘art of horror’ by using a politics of terror, the threat that the ‘Real Germans’ or indeed ‘the Real Americans’ faced from Dangerous Outsiders. In 2018, across the world, indeed, on almost every continent, we see the emergence of the fascist impulse again.”
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I, Poole skillfully helps us understand that “the war to end all wars” instigated the horror genre which lives on through literature, film and other art forms. He notes that the genre also suggests the threat of oblivion which daily casts a shadow over our personal lives.
“Wasteland” will appeal to film and military buffs, horror fans, those interested in popular culture and those who seek a better understanding of the escalating violence of the last 100 years. It was for the last reason that I found the book a fascinating read.