Review: Monsters In America by W. Scott Poole

Review by Jess Peacock

Nobody could be blamed for mistaking Monsters In America for a book that it simply is not. Whether a result of the title itself, or the gnarled trees shrouded in an ominous fog serving as the cover art, this is not some compendium of hauntings in the heartland or a documentation of personal eyewitnesses to the antics of the Jersey Devil. Author and history professor W. Scott Poole has constructed a work that is far more in-depth, scholarly and imaginative than any throw-away bargain bin schlock that fills the bookshelves every autumn, and has set the bar ridiculously high for any future research exploring the locus of historical and cultural studies, particularly as it pertains to the horrific.

Equal parts thoughtful and frightening, Monsters In America explores the darkest recesses of American history, using the distorted reflection of fictional monstrosities to tease out the true horror of this nation’s unflattering past, ideologies, and political & religious nightmares uniquely suited to these shores. Poole writes:
Monsters are “meaning machines,” excavating all manner of cultural productions depending on their context and their historical moment. In American history they have been symbols of deviance, objects of sympathy, and even images of erotic desire. They structured the enslavement of African Americans, constructed notions of crime and deviance, and provided mental fodder for the culture wars of the contemporary period.

Monsters In America is not a simple Sunday stroll through analogous genre icons as they pertain to interesting footnotes in American history. Poole has written an important text that serves as a clarion call for readers to closely examine the commonly accepted narrative of history that has been steadily spoon fed to a people who want to, need to, believe in the overt goodness of America. Monsters, Poole successfully argues, serve to pull back the membranous protective tissue of historical revisionism to reveal the charnel house of injustice and lies found beneath. As Poole so eloquently writes, “American exceptionalism and innocence are nothing but happy bedtime stories for children rightfully afraid of the dark.”

From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein serving as a metaphor of slave rebellion, to the monstrous Saturday matinee mutations standing in for the horrors of The Love Canal tragedy, to a resurgence in the popularity of the Universal Monsters in the 1970’s serving as an anchor for kids living through the “restructuring of American family demographics,” Monsters In America challenges, enlightens, and, quite honestly, frightens in its prescient view of American history, as well as the seeming ubiquity of the monsters of our past and probable future.

Monsters in America | Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting from Baylor University Press on Vimeo.