Magazine article The Spectator

Hush, Hush, Here He Comes!

Magazine article The Spectator

Hush, Hush, Here He Comes!

Article excerpt

Jane Gardam


by Marina Warner

Chatto, 25, pp. 435

Where to begin in this hugely learned, beautifully produced book on the subject of fear? It has the peculiar knowledge of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, the relish of dear old Aubrey's Brief Lives and the thoroughness of The Dictionary of Folk Tales of Katherine Briggs. In fact, `An Anatomy of Fear' might have been a better title since the Bogeyman is not `No-Go' at all. He has been All-Go from the beginning.

And the Bogeyman's beginning is so distant - although he only collected his title and form of address quite recently and the OED doesn't seem to mention him at all that dates `turn into foam bubbles of zeros' when we try to find out when his awful shadow first hung over a human cot. And there's no end in sight to him either. We like to frighten ourselves more and more. At Hallowe'en American clerks now set off to work with axes through their skulls and bloody eyeballs, and in England Guy Fawkes, though really now an anonymous generic `figure of sacrifice', is flung on the bonfire on 5 November with more and more enthusiasm. Horror is the word for entertainment. The myth of Dionysius looks out at us from its dreadful cage in The Silence of the Lambs.

This isn't a book about the nature of evil but about how evil forces both frighten and delight us. The three main sections are 'Scaring', 'Lulling' and `Making Mock', with some seductive side-tracks along the way, like the 'Reflection' on cannibalism: eight (wonderful) `Brazilian Portraits'. All three activities, like the Bogeymen themselves, can transform themselves into their mirror image.

Thus, scaring can be very scary indeed. We can be literally `scared to death', `scared silly' and `out of our mind'. In the Brothers Grimm there is a song from `The Juniper Tree' that is the scariest song in the world: `My mother she killed me, My father he ate me'; and a large part of this first third of the book is given to the crunching and gobbling up and regurgitation of children.

But at the same time the gobbling up seems to be rather satisfying to the gobbled, for, after all, mythical bones can be stuck together again and dead hearts made to beat. Marina Warner has a lovely example of this feeling of security in an account of smiling children in the 1990s being carried round on a fairground ride inside the body of a monster. …

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