Scary stories;Book of the week

20th November 1998 at 00:00
NO GO THE BOGEYMAN: scaring, lulling and making mock. By Marina Warner. Chatto amp; Windus pound;25. Pain or pleasure? Victor Watson trawls through Marina Warner's encyclopedic work on the monstrous and macabre

This book is about fear. With characteristic sharpness of intelligence and style, Marina Warner ventures into the cultural history of fear and ways of managing it, exploring as she goes stories, classical myth, lullabies, pictures, social rituals and all manner of artefacts associated with the allaying of terrors.

Warner is particularly interested in the paradox that "the imagination often stirs up dread on purpose for its own sake". she believes that cultivating the "peculiar pleasures" of fear has become the "defining flavour of the modern sensibility". She ranges confidently through western history and culture, tackling ghouls, monsters, ogres, child-guzzlers and cannibals, and re-interpreting stories from Beowulf to Sweeney Todd, from Herod to Jack the Giant Killer, from Circe and Scylla to the Spice Girls and Princess Diana, and from Titus Andronicus to the Teletubbies.

The book is arranged in three sections: the first concerned chiefly with tales of scaring; the second with cradle songs and the ambivalent character of many of the traditional ways of allaying the fears of young children; and the third with the ways in which comedy has been used as a defensive tactic, and, more recently, the "delighted terror" sought for its own sake in films and children's stories.

Underpinning this work is a resolute resistance to absolutism: she points out, for example, that stories of cannibalism do not exemplify a universal Oedipal "father as ogre" theory but reflect shifting social forces, in particular the moment at the end of the 18th century when the child - and the rights of children - emerged as a subject. At the same time, the young Grimms were collecting tales in which child victims such as Hansel and Gretel escaped being eaten.

She remarks that "Freud's Oedipal plot has itself become a dominant tale of our time", and goes on to give an account of the connections between male ogres, the shift in the hierarchy of fear from eating to sexuality, and the role of women as mistresses of ovens, kitchens and cauldrons, adding wryly, " 'I'll be Mother' means taking charge of the teapot." This leads to a reference to Raymond Briggs's Fungus the Bogeyman, and a study of nursery rhymes about babies being eaten.

I doubt if No Go the Bogeyman will be read from beginning to end by many readers; it is more likely to be used as a reference work. Marina Warner's manner of presenting kaleidoscopic details with such syntactical dexterity is not to everyone's taste and can be bewildering. A single paragraph refers to Catholic and Protestant baptism, infant mortality, the Tuatha De Danann of Irish mythology, Adam's first wife Lilith, Hans Christian Andersen, Lamia, the branch of coral worn by Jesus in many paintings, a recent French children's story, and the fairy tale "Donkeyskin". And the two paragraphs that follow take the reader on to the Cyclops, the Egyptian god Bes, Judith Devlin on birth defects, a fable by Doris Lessing, and the trial of Louise Woodward.

This is "argument by inclusion", at its brilliant best a kind of inspired list-making which illuminates new perspectives and exposes shifting cultural patterns. But such a method - though sanctioned by precedents set by the structuralist Roland Barthes - can be confusing. The sceptical reader can be left with the thought that the inclusion of references to numerous phenomena in the same paragraph does not necessarily guarantee that they are in fact related or help us to understand their connectedness.

Other parts of the book are written differently, tracing connections and distinctions with a carefully argued lucidity. It is these which most readers will find interesting and helpful, but they have to be hunted out. This work will inevitably appear in the bibliographies of essays by thousands of students, who will, I believe, begin with the index and work their way selectively into this work. They will find, for example, a fascinating account of Lewis Carroll and the Alice stories, a brilliant analysis of King Kong, and an account of the subversive radicalism of books published by the political philosopher William Godwin in the early 19th century, throwing a significant new light on the history of children's books of that period.

There is a whole chapter on the "myth" of the banana - a brilliant analysis that takes the reader with wit and tact from music-hall banana-skin jokes and bawdy gags, back to the banana's quite different significance in Africa and India as a provider of food, building material and shelter, and finally into the sinister discourses of racism.

One of the best things in the book is a critical and historical account of lullabies. Warner demonstrates how lullabies "carry female voices and concerns across time". They are a disregarded means of communication, generally overlooked as "sentimental fribbles", but Warner points out that they also operate as "future personal narratives", as warnings of danger, and as lessons in language acquisition.

"They are," she says, "among the very first utterances directed to babies as persons; this alone makes them worth analysis." With its widely-drawn range of references to lullabies in many languages, this persuasive and humane section amounts to a major contribution to the understanding of a seriously neglected aspect of poetry and song for very young children. But it is a pity it was not published separately. Here, like so many brilliantly coloured aspects of this book, it lies obscured in a vast and wayward compendium of scholarship.

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