Brock, Jason V.: Disorders of Magnitude: A Survey of Dark Fantasy.
Jason V. Brock's Disorders of Magnitude, the latest volume to join S. T. Joshi's Studies in Supernatural Literature series, aims to give "a dynamic, holistic overview of [dark fantasy's] most significant aspects" (xi). Brock uses the phrase "dark fantasy" in a very fluid sense, as much of the work he emphasizes could as readily be called horror, weird, slipstream, and so on. Bearing that in mind, along with the fact that the book addresses not just literary fiction but also selected films, television programs, and even a few examples of painting and sculpture, should give you some sense of how difficult a comprehensive survey of this massive, variegated terrain would be, even if restricted, as Disorders effectively is, to the Anglo-American world. Yet Disorders deserves praise for going a great distance toward achieving this impossible goal.
Like the other titles in Joshi's series, Disorders makes a valuable contribution to the study and appreciation of supernatural fiction. Perhaps even more so than the other books in the series, it should appeal not just to experts and scholars, but also to the interested lay reader. Despite the uniformly stylish covers and shared focus on supernatural fiction, however, the series as a whole is otherwise quite heterogeneous. Disorders of Magnitude is a very different beast from, for example, the essays in Robert Waugh's excellent collection Lovecraft and Influence; unlike that collection, Disorders is resolutely and unapologetically not primarily a work of academic scholarship. The book's title reflects its refusal of systematicity and structure; it is, instead, exactly what its introduction declares it to be: "an eclectic overview" of some areas of particular personal interest to the author (1).
That it will not be a scholarly study is signaled by Brock's Introduction, which states that the "expressive artists in society allow us to connect far better than any dry historical litany of events or numbing collations of databases ... they reach us with greater clarity than the sometimes incorrect conclusions of even the best-intentioned critics and scholars" (4). Brock approaches his subject matter with a style that effectively marries informality with a degree of (often quite pointed) humor, and with a total eschewal of any pretensions to academic literary theory. The passage quoted above gives some inkling of the polemical tone that Brock at times assumes, a tone that frequently reminds the reader about the unfortunate tensions that sometimes simmer between professional writers of horror fiction, genre fans, and academics studying the genre. Brock's caveat against academicism is surely informed by a suspicion of what Matt Hills has called the "horror-as-schooling" tendency of much academic writing about horror fiction and film, which typically subordinates the fictions themselves to some theoretical or philosophical agenda. That is clearly not the case here; Brock's interest is in the fictions and their creators, and to a limited degree in their historical contexts. He is manifestly not interested in imposing an overt theoretical framework over them.
The book contains six chronologically organized sections, each of which comprises several short reflections on writers and artists linked to the period they cover. "Part One: The Darkest Age" begins with a summary of key points in the development of early Gothic fiction from Walpole to Lovecraft. Although amusing and idiosyncratic, these essays are basically glosses on material that has been thoroughly mapped by preceding generations of writers, scholars, and fans; for example, this section offers a cursory discussion of various proto-Modernist aspects of Frankenstein and Dracula. It is only with the third chapter of this section, focused on Famous Monsters of Filmland founder Forrest J. Ackerman, that the book really takes off in its own direction, and Brock's enthusiasm for and knowledge of his materials shines through.
"Part Two: Things Become" focuses mainly on mid-twentieth-century writers--including Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury--while also offering some thoughts on how the ubiquity of cinema changed popular consciousness. "Part Three: Rise of the Speculative Mind" is the most sustained and consistently developed section of the book, moving from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (and contributing writers such as William Nolan and Charles Beaumont) to Roger Corman and the rise of kaiju films following WWII. With "Part Four: Slashers, Blockbusters and Bestsellers," the book becomes more desultory, providing very brief comments on topics ranging from the films of George Romero to the novels of Stephen King. This tendency continues in "Part Five: A Century of Speculation," which touches on topics including the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival and the achievements of S. T. Joshi and David J. Skal, and into the final section, "Part Six: From (And Into) the Beyond," where topics include Fangoria, William F. Nolan, and John Shirley.
Throughout the book, Brock is insistently partisan in both his praise and his criticisms, and he wastes little time deflating writers whose work he thinks is overrated. He states, for example, that King, Straub, and Barker "produce the same characters and scenarios over and over to a sycophantic and adoring public" (189). Indeed, his vitriolic iconoclasm and suspicion of populism is at times almost Poesque in its intensity, as in his claim that King "has been a big drag on the horror field," to the point that he "poisoned the entire enterprise with his phenomenal success" (188).
On the other hand, filmmaker Dan O'Bannon, whose work has been much maligned by film critics and scholars, is given a refreshingly positive re-consideration in chapter 25. Brock adds his unique perspective in praising David Skal's scholarship and the fiction of Joe Pulver in chapters 31 and 32, respectively, and in chapter 35 he details the formation of the H. P. Lovecraft Filmfest. He explores the sustained popularity of Mythos monsters, vampires, and zombies in popular culture in chapter 43, and expresses appreciation of John Shirley's horror fiction in chapter 44. It is during such moments, while at its most partisan, that the book is also strongest, though in each of these cases the reader might wish that Brock had been able to provide a more sustained treatment of these deserving topics. Probably the best, and certainly the most fully developed section of the book is chapter 14, "L'Age d'Or to Gotterdamerung--'The Group,'" which focuses on Charles Beaumont and the literary circle in which he was a key figure during the days of the original Twilight Zone series (80).
The book's conversational style generally allows for both ease and enjoyment of reading, but in some instances its informality can be a source of confusion. For example, Brock makes frequent use of cautionary quotation marks ("scare quotes") around words and phrases, often without explaining why their punctuational exile is necessary, as when he discusses the difference between illustration and other forms of visual art: "While still using the same reference points/vocabulary as 'fine art,' the images generated are created to dramatize an aspect or principle of another work ... They are more 'representational,' although abstract art can be a component of an illustration (usually in the context of 'graphic design' rather than a strict interpretation of a scene or concept)" (31). Although in most cases this ironic distance is self-explanatory, its overuse becomes distracting.
Another problem is the book's lack of engagement with existing scholarship. Although it is certainly true that there has been scant critical attention to most of the figures Brock discusses, it is regrettable that in the rare cases where there is at least a little extant scholarship on a subject--for example, Lovecraft's fiction and its popular legacy, Ray Bradbury's fiction, H. R. Giger's art--Brock often does not incorporate such resources. Most of the endnotes in the book refer to his other writings and his impressive archive of documentary footage and interviews. These are valuable materials that deserve to be disseminated but could be usefully supplemented by references to other pertinent material. Such an acknowledgment of other critical works would have made this book much stronger.
Disorders of Magnitude is an impassioned and informed, but also somewhat haphazard foray into many of weird fiction's most under-explored regions by a Virgil who is one part cartographer, one part evangelist, and one part iconoclast. This wide-ranging, playful demonstration of its author's knowledge of and passion for dark fantasy fiction is both valuable resource and entertaining read. Its price and marketing as a scholarly study, however, is likely to confuse its reception and limit its reach.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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