David Howe talks to editor Kim Newman about an impressive new guide to the horror genre
There have been many books written about horror films. The first appears to have been a general overview of the genre by Michael Laclos called Le fantastique au cinema in 1958 but since then a countless number of works have been produced. The quality of these ‘guides’ has varied from photo-packed works which barely scratch the surface of the subject to Stephen Jones’ exhaustively compiled and beautifully presented Illustrated Movie Guides.
What has been missing, however, has been a good encyclopaedic view of the genre. Something that takes in not only the films – which tend to form the backbone of the genre – but also the film makers: directors, producers, stars, visual effects designers, make-up artistes; authors: of films and screenplays through to horror fiction; and also the themes: everything from ‘the old dark house’ to ‘witchcraft’ and ‘serial killers’.
The BFI Companion to Horror (Cassell, £19.99 lfp/b) sets out to redress the balance by providing just this sort of genre overview. Overseeing this massive task of chronicling over a century of horror is journalist, novelist and broadcaster Kim Newman. Newman has been influential in the genre for many years and has several previous works of non-fiction to his credit (including the seminal Nightmare Movies, first published in 1985 and re-issued in a substantially revised edition in 1988).
The story of the Companion to Horror started several years ago, when Newman was contributing material to The BFI Companion to the Western. ‘At the time,’ he explained, ‘I told the editor that if they were ever in the market for a horror volume, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring as a possible editor. We had lunch, agreed that it was a good idea, and then everything went quiet for several years while the deal was put together. I wanted to create a reference book that would give me a chance to encompass the whole genre rather than just pick at segments of it. This sort of book tends to be known by their editor rather than by title, and I quite liked the idea of there being a big book out there known as “Newman’s” alongside “Maltin’s” or “Halliwell’s”.
Once the green light was given for the project, Newman started defining what the book would cover.
‘The initial outlining was probably the most conceptually difficult bit of the book,’ said Newman. ‘I had to decide what the entries should be, how long they should run, and who should write them. Philip Strick and Phil Hardy were working in parallel on BFI Companions to Science Fiction and Crime, so I tried to avoid too much overlap with their areas.
‘The brief was to deliver around 200,000 words. Of course, this wasn’t long enough – it would have been easier to produce a book twice the size, and there are a great many pieces contained within the book I wish could have been longer. However, I worked very hard at the editing stage to keep it to length (it came in about 4000 words over).
‘In choosing the contributors, I decided who I wanted to work with – both established names in the field and newer, underexposed folks – and tried to give out batches of entries to people who were especially qualified – Tom Hutchinson did all the horror stars, for example. Steve Jones handled the character actors, Tony Mechele the TV series, Christopher Frayling the major themes, David McGillivray the animal entries, Mark Ashworth the starlets and so on. Some people – Alan Jones, David Prothero – were useful all-rounders. I personally tried to stay away from writing about people or themes I’d written about before, and I also did a lot of sweep-up work on those entries which were so brief that it was not worth commissioning them out.
‘In choosing what to cover, I decided that at least half of the entries would be mandatory – those on certain characters, actors, sub-genres, directors, writers. On top of all the people known for their horror work, I wanted to spotlight areas that impinged on the genre, and include entries on Ingmar Bergman and Franz Kafka as well as Wes Craven and Stephen King.
‘The main surprise once the book started to take shape was how complex and inter-connected everything turned out to be. There’s a difference between knowing a lot of facts and seeing them all assembled together, so you can cross-reference them.’
What marks the Companion to Horror out is the attention to detail that is contained within its pages. There are lengthy pieces, as you might expect, on Dracula and Frankenstein, but there are also significant articles on numerous directors including George A Romero, Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. Horror authors are well catered for with entries on popular wordsmiths like James Herbert, Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe as well as many lesser known talents like Ray Russell, Gary Brandner and Harry Adam Knight. Horror on television is also covered, with entries including Doctor Who, Ace of Wands and Chiller as well as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?
The book is wonderful to dip into, with articles on over 500 films, 500 figures associated with the industry and 100 television series as well as numerous thematic entries. The entries range from a few lines to a couple of pages in length. Perhaps the only disappointment is that the book does not claim to be ‘complete’. Films have, on the whole, been omitted in favour of presenting previously unknown information on the genre, but this was a deliberate policy and allows the lesser known information to shine.
At a penny short of twenty pounds, the book is not cheap, but it is by far the best chronicle of the horror genre available. Newman, however, smiles when asked if he is pleased with the end result. ‘I’m just pleased that it got finished! Seriously, I hope it functions genuinely as a companion to the genre, and also that it fits in with the BFI’s publishing program. I assumed all along that people who buy it will already have a couple of books on the subject, and so I deliberately didn’t duplicate the efforts of previous authoritative works by including hundreds of capsule reviews of specific films. What this book does is try to make out the patterns that are larger than specific films – the themes, careers, ideas and recurrences that tie the genre together.’
The BFI Companion to Horror is arguably the most important genre book to be published so far this decade. Newman is already hopeful of being able to expand any future editions and with the groundwork already set, this can only cement this publication’s place as one of the most interesting, readable and accessible guides to the genre yet published.