'A Decadent Appetite for the Lurid'?: James Herbert, the Spear and 'Nazi Gothic'

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'Horror linked to history': Nazism and Popular Culture1

When James Herbert published his fifth novel, The Spear, in 1978, he had already distinguished himself as an insistently topical writer in works that blended contemporary anxieties with more traditional Gothic ingredients. His first book, The Rats (1974), was set in a London still disfigured by bombsites three decades after the last V2 had fallen on the capital, and fed on widespread unease about inner-city decay as well as an obvious phobia of carnivorous rodents.2 His second, The Fog (1975), dealt with the accidental release of a dangerous gas, and exploited increasing public suspicion of military and governmental authority as well as environmentalists' alarms concerning pollution. His subsequent novels, The Survivor (1976), and Fluke (1977), branched out into explicitly supernatural fiction, but again,Herbert was keenly attuned to the concerns of his time. The Survivor's focus on a plane crash made it a chilling holiday read for a generation of tourists just discovering relatively affordable air travel, while Fluke combined a whimsical animal story with the era's interest in reincarnation. The Spear however tapped into a far more troubling preoccupation: the legacy of Nazism and the possibility of its return. In dramatising these subjects, Herbert's novel often seems to present Nazism in ways that recall the portrayal of Roman Catholicism in earlier Gothic texts, and it is this 'Nazi Gothic' that will be considered in the remainder of the essay.

Although examples could be cited from before 1939, Anglo-American popular culture's fascination with Nazism really began with propaganda films and satirical comedies during World War II.3With the defeat of Germany, both American and British film industries lost no time in replaying the war's edited highlights, but there were important differences between the two nations. The United States mainland had escaped the devastation visited upon British cities, and had not suffered chronic food and other shortages during the conflict. The American economy ended the war in a powerful position, but the situation in debt-crippled Britain was far less rosy. The rationing of key foods and goods until 1953, and the introduction of the National Service Act in 1947, meant that aspects of wartime life persisted for years after the conflict itself had ended: National Service continued until 1960. By the 1950s, the States had embraced a new era of consumerism, and, while it celebrated its military achievements, it looked forward rather than backwards. The British, by contrast, returned repeatedly to the past. This obsessive reconsideration of the war continues to have a major effect upon British culture.

During the period c.1945-c.1960, British literature and film typically concerned themselves with quasi-realist evocations of four aspects of the war. These were the successes of daring military operations such as the 1943 Dambusters' Raid, heroic escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps, the crimes committed by the Nazis in occupied Europe and Russia, and the experience of the 'Home Front'.4 With a few exceptions - Noel Coward's Peace in our Time (1947) and Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952) - cultural production tended to remain within these admittedly broad areas until the early 1960s, when new, often more subversive, responses to the conflict and its aftermath began to manifest themselves. These did not entirely displace previous modes, in that the war remained both excellent box office material and a subject for serious moral and political reflection. However, works such as the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe (1960) and later,Angus Calder's study of life in wartime Britain, The People's War (1969), showed an increasing willingness to interrogate received images of the conflict.

From questioning, even satirising the war, the next step was to imagine having lost it. The Sound of His Horn had described vast areas of Europe transformed into game reserves, where Nazi foresters hunted genetically modified humans. …