Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror

By W. Scott Poole
Publisher: Counterpoint, 2018
David F. Beer, Reviewer

A Classic Photograph from the Great War

I learned a lot from Wasteland and enjoyed reading it. It's easy to read since it's so well written and is filled with information on the writers, artists and filmmakers of the decades following the end of World War One. Given such a profusion of details though, it's a great shame the book lacks an index. I found myself wanting to go back to something several times and had to leaf through a lot of pages to find it. Nevertheless, if you are interested in possible ways the Great War may have given birth to the horror genre in the arts, you will find this book absorbing.

The author claims the war destroyed most of the human values and outlooks that existed before 1914 and shocked and horrified the world so much that it has never really recovered:

In every horror movie we see, every horror story we read, every horror-based video game we play, the phantoms of the Great War skittle and scratch just beyond the door of our consciousness. Numberless dead and wounded bodies appear on our screens, documents of barbarism coauthored by the Great War generation and all the forces that have fed off them in the decades since (3-4).

Although this idea might strike us as somewhat overstated, there's no question that Poole has assembled a great deal of supporting evidence. The destruction and horror that took place during this war (compared to previous wars) forced an indelible impression not only on those who fought but also on the public, and these effects were long-lasting. Literature, art, and film reflected and perhaps even prolonged the trauma.

The Cripples, Otto Dix, 1920

Our primal fear of death and of the dead was undoubtedly rekindled by the war's human harvest: millions dead, many mutilated, many unburied and left to decay in the mud. Untold thousands of soldiers, wounded, shell-shocked, and horrified, returned as mostly silent mementos of what had happened. The dead and the un-dead were never far away. And according to Poole, those artists, writers, and directors who had been in the fray themselves and now had nightmares, "never stopped having the same nightmare, over and again, a nightmare they told the world" (13). The silent films Nosferatu and J'accuse are but two of the earliest manifestations of this horror, the latter specifically invoking a zombie-like return of the dead.

The book includes a Foreword, "Corpses in the Wasteland," and an Afterword, "The Age of Horror." In between are five chapters with apt headings: "Symphony of Horror," "Waxworks," "Nightmare Bodies," "Fascism and Horror," and "Universal Monsters." Useful end notes are provided also. Each chapter discusses numerous examples of literature, art, and film from the 1920s to the 1940s, which the author employs to support and illustrate his thesis. Although the last two chapters tend to look more toward fascism and its attendant horror, most of the book focuses on creative work of the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, Britain, and the United States.

Film was perhaps the strongest influence on people's memory and fears after 1918. We meet numerous directors in this book and often get interesting information about their lives and quirks as well as their work. F.W. Murnau, Albin Grau, Abel Gance, Bertolt Brecht, Max Brooks, and Fritz Lang are but a few of the earlier producers of influential films. Of the latter, the author states:

Fritz Lang, home from the war but most certainly bringing the war home with him, had long been fascinated by the macabre, the nature of evil, and the relationship of both to the social order. His work, like that of Murnau, Gance, and Leni, shows us more than how the Great War inspired a generation to embrace a death obsession. We see how such a fascination, in some sense the beginning of the horror tradition itself, both critiqued and called into being societies in the thrall of dread (101).

The same view is applied to the work (and sometimes lives) of many writers and artists. The poet T.S. Eliot, authors such as Franz Kafka, Ernst Jünger, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Arthur Machen, and the works of Freud and others, are all discussed and summoned to support the author's central idea. The notable American writer of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, (only famous after his death) is frequently cited. Works of painters Otto Dix, Max Ernst, and Dali are considered, as are the schools of Dadaism and surrealism. The final chapter takes us right up to the present, to when

. . . the gorefest of the slasher films began in the 1970s and has never really stopped. Blood spurts in red fumes from empty-eyed victims who, in some cases, become collections of body part. . . The horror has remained with us because the conditions that made for the Great War and its aftermath are still in place (254).

Wasteland's author, W. Scott Poole, is a college professor who teaches courses and writes books about horror and popular culture. Although some of his connections might seem a bit strained to some of us, he obviously knows what he's talking about and he makes a good case. In some ways I can agree with him that the age of horror began during World War One and still flows onward. I recommend this book as a fascinating and original take on the Great War.

David F. Beer


  1. The St. Mihiel Trip-Wire July 2006 has an article on James Whale, the director of Frankenstein, and the effect of the Great War on his life and work:

  2. Thank you, Andrew. I looked up your article and enjoyed it. I should have focused a bit on James Whale in this review. David Beer

  3. A very enjoyable book. He pushes the thesis a bit too hard at times, but does a fine job of mustering evidence.
    And he also shares my love for some great films, like The Black Cat.

  4. Perhaps the Depression also added to the idea of horror in literature bringing about a brutal WWII. Cheers

    1. Towards the end of the book Poole does advance the story into the 1930s, but focuses more on fascism than economics.

  5. I would like to read about the British horror writer William Hope Hodgson, who was killed in action at Ypres in April 1918. A prequel?

    1. He led a fascinating and extraordinary life.
      I admire his fiction. It depends on your taste, but _House on the Borderland_ is wild, and some of his short stories are very good.