I’ve read several of W. Scott Poole’s books, and each time I read one I want to read another. Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire is my most recent. At first I was a bit reluctant to pick this one up because I misunderstood the “carnivals” of the title. I don’t find clowns scary and I’m not really a fan of carnivals. I didn’t make the connection with Ray Bradbury’s early story collection Dark Carnival. Bradbury? Well, why didn’t you say so? But there is serious darkness here. Poole traces the history of the American empire alongside the truths that horror films reveal. This isn’t an easy book to read despite Poole’s fluid style and literary gifts. Historians are uniquely placed to find truths that our country has so carefully hidden in our efforts to make ourselves the international “good guys.” In unflinching terms, Poole traces the darkness of our acts, domestic and abroad, that have created so many dark carnivals.
The first couple of chapters are nearly impossibly good. The entire book is insightful, but as is often the case with pop culture I find my experience limited to movies and novels of the horror genre. There is absolutely fascinating stuff here. It really begins with Harry Truman, but Poole traces how Ronald Reagan’s presidency was in many ways guided by science fiction authors who projected proudly the idea of America dominating the world. Even to the point of becoming fascists. Often confusing movies for reality, Reagan prided himself on being an empire builder who was a boon companion to the rich while keeping the poor exploited and un-empowered. And it hasn’t just been Republican presidents who’ve done this (although they are clearly the most egregious offenders). There are many moments of pause and reflection in this book and much of the horror comes from history rather than horror films.
Poole has made a name for himself as an analyst of politics and horror. Very few “innocent” stories are as guileless as they appear to be. Empires demand loyalty and must be constantly fed. And they are extremely hierarchical and oppressive of those beneath the level of influence in their considerable power structures. Dark Carnivals is a brilliant and disturbing book. It did, however, take me down an avenue that Poole himself doesn’t explore. Ray Bradbury was pretty much a Democrat until Reagan. He wholeheartedly bought into Reagan’s false narrative and became friends with Republican presidents. The disconnect from the man who wrote such masterpieces critiquing this kind of thinking caused a bit of personal whiplash for me. His own dark carnival had drawn him onto that insidious merry-go-round. Even the insightful can be lured by the tempting power of empire.