Monday With Mildred: “Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror”

Wasteland The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror book cover.

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror

A cursory examination of horror fiction before and after one of the most significant wars in the long history of wars will show pretty easily that it was indeed changed, as well as the consumers of that fiction who were changed irrevocably by the unimaginable carnage and loss. The Great War messed up the world in a lot of ways, and making everyone either a little or a lot insane after 1919 was one of them.

The author, W. Scott Poole, writes at the very end of the fantastic forward, “I have tried to write of these things with as much bitterness as possible.” He refers to how WWI still affects us, not just with horror but political turmoil and terrorism. Unfortunately for the reader, what he does is turn the book into a dull recitation, like a college freshman history paper that goes from A to B again and again. This is not bitterness but an unimaginative laundry list.  If he wants to see history treated with true bitterness, he should read They All Love Jack.

He writes, “Horror became an outlook on life rather than a new entertainment amid the sheer number of dead.” And, “After 1914, the world changed, and so what frightened us changed. Horror became our most fundamental approach to the world.” The largest focus was on death stemming from years of piles and piles of corpses, which makes sense because no war before or since has torn apart an entire generation of men and left a significant amount of their corpses ground into the Earth, their individuality forgotten.  This unhinged the creators of horror fiction, like Murnau’s Nosferatu, the macabre visions of Kafka, and James Whale’s Hollywood slick and dark visions. Frankenstein may seem quaint today, but we’ve had nearly a hundred years since then to become more and more accustomed to horror that challenges to an extreme degree.

Dark creations must have an audience. The Great War saw the acknowledgement that war can profoundly change the psyche of a person. The expression “shell shock” is introduced in that time. We know it as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was very disappointed in how little Poole treated with this angle of the subject.

You would think that discussions on such topics would be really fascinating, and maybe in other hands you would be correct. Poole only touches on a lot of subjects, like comparing pre-war with post-war, with only cursory descriptions of either, though he goes on and on. He uses a lot of words without saying a lot, and I can’t figure out how he could do that on a subject that holds a wealth of possibilities. He struck me as an Historical writer with aspirations of High English authorism, and he didn’t figure out how to mesh the two successfully. It can be done. Poole didn’t manage it. 

Luckily it’s a short book, so you might be able to do what I couldn’t: finish reading it. I made it about three quarters of the way through before I began skimming the rest. It’s unusual for me to not finish a book on history, especially on two subjects that are fascinating to me, the Great War and horror fiction. But I found this book to be dull as dirt. Lifeless, which is ironic I suppose. Read the forward. I found myself wondering if Poole wrote that, because it was pretty good and had me looking forward to the meat of the book.

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