Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Horror scholar David J. Skal's The Monster Show distinguished itself as one of the few accessible, humorous, and smart books about the broader implications of the horror genre. Taking a historical approach, the 1993 book looked at the ways horror movies, books, and comics reflected the culture from which they emerged, from the post-WWI German film The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (featuring a powerful mesmerist who controls an unwilling killer) to the status-conscious yuppie serial killer of American Psycho. With that sweeping statement out of the way, Skal has turned his attention to one of horror and science fiction's most popular elements, mad science and mad scientists, in his new Screams Of Reason. Starting with the dark romanticism of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Sandman," Skal posits portrayals of mad science as attempts to resolve the cryptic and often misguided world of science with popular perceptions (and misperceptions) of the same. As Skal illustrates especially well in the closing chapters, now is a fine time to consider such matters: Science and technology have never played such a large role in a society that understands it so little. Carl Sagan made the same point in The Demon Haunted World. But where Sagan believed that more widespread science education would serve as a catch-all corrective, Skal discards this notion as a bit too naïve, placing too much faith in the benevolence of science and the ability of the general public to understand it as it grows increasingly abstruse and specialized. Skal argues that portrayals of mad science, which for him encompass everything from The Invisible Man to UFO-abduction narratives, are the battlegrounds on which the conflict between science and popular belief is fought, with neither side necessarily representing "reason." Though Skal occasionally gets bogged down recounting the production history of some of his material, particularly the Universal horror films of the '30s, it's generally a convincing argument. A worthy companion piece to The Monster Show, Screams Of Reason is also a fine, if unlikely, handbook to the sources of a pre-millennial environment that has produced everything from the Unabomber to the Heaven's Gate cult; it does a nice job offering hints on where things might go from here.

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