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David Skal and The Monster Show

Sunday 1/14/24

Some sad news that I learned about yesterday: David Skal died on January 1. He was a horror historian who wrote books about Tod Browning, Bram Stoker, Halloween, and lots of good stuff, who did commentaries for the classic Universal horror films when they first came out on DVD. Seemed like a very nice guy. He was only seventy-one, very active in his work, his life taken from him by a drunk driver.

You're some kind of horrible person if you drive drunk. There's no excuse. Anyone busted for drunk driving should never drive again. You're rolling the dice on taking someone else's life. Taking multiple lives at once.

Skal's best known book was The Monster Show, which came out in 1993. That's when I read it. He took chances in his thinking, so that was cool. Much was made about the effects of the Great War on the horror films that followed. It didn't so much matter if one agreed or not as that the arguments were interesting.

People put far too much emphasis on agreeing with someone else. That's because they're insecure. When I read something like Skal's writings on horror films, or James Agee on Out of the Past, agreeing isn't anything I think or care much about. (You can tell a lot about a person by how quickly/likely they are to declare that they agree.) The Monster Show was an important book because it took those horror films seriously, but not too seriously. Skal didn't write like some boring academic. He engaged the reader, and he balanced passion with smarts.

These films were like a joke to many people for a lot of years. Kid stuff. Bride of Frankenstein is one of the greatest of all American works of art, but that didn't mean people were ever open to thinking of it that way. Horror films got dismissed. I'm not saying that The Monster Show came along and changed everything, but it was an encouraging beacon. Skal hit upon a good approach. People with an open mind found themselves having an exciting reading experience.

I was in high school and bought the book at this Borders where I spent a ton of time. So much time. Going through the CDs, the books. On a Friday night in high school, that's where I was, flipping through Bach and Hendrix CDs, examining Flaubert translations, thumbing through Bill James baseball books. I worked in the cafe there one summer home from college. I admired Skal's passion and good-hearted enthusiasm. Skal didn't make excuses for thinking highly of these films, or for just thinking about them, giving them time and attention. He understood that pop culture and art weren't mutually exclusive terms.

That sounds self-evident, but say that a radio episode of Gunsmoke is better than anything Hemingway ever did, and people who have experienced neither are apt to be incredulous, depending on what they think of the source/conveyer of those words.

I fell in love with the Universal horror films early in life. Dracula was the first big one for me, and I think it was the biggest for Skal, though he was critical of that 1931 film, believing it moved too slowly. I think it moves as it ought to move, and its pace is part of the suspended dream state in which it exists. I liked to see and hear what he said, though. He had an ingratiating way about him.

I read his Bram Stoker bio a few years ago. That wasn't really his kind of thing--a bio of an author. I don't like his purple prose and he's usually saying nothing at all when you get down to it, but Greil Marcus's Mystery Train was sort of like the rock and roll version of Skal's The Monster Show, and that's the kind of book that Skal did best. A thinking book with arguments presented and made, and a rich knowledge of subject matter, historical context, the relations--or the possible relations--between things. Jed Perl's New Art City belongs in that grouping, too, I'd say, though it's a tougher read for the average person.

Later today after I get back from the Brattle, I'll flip through The Monster Show again. Such a needless, terrible loss.


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