In its own warped way, horror fiction has always reflected whatever is happening in the world around it. The most obvious metaphor is a funhouse mirror, offering a twisted representation of its surroundings for the audience’s surprise and entertainment. Inevitably, some of horror's attempts to portray the surrounding world will be more successful than others.
In its own warped way, horror fiction has always reflected whatever is happening in the world around it. The most obvious metaphor is a funhouse mirror, offering a twisted representation of its surroundings for the audience’s surprise and entertainment. Inevitably, some of horror’s attempts to portray the surrounding world will be more successful than others.
In 1978, Michael Moorcock–the doyen of Britain’s new wave science fiction–wrote an essay entitled “Starship Stormtroopers.” In this left-libertarian broadside against much of the fantasy and SF canon, Moorcock mentioned horror fiction only once and was clearly unimpressed by the genre:
“In a writer like Lovecraft a terror of sex often combines (or is confused for) a terror of the masses, the ‘ugly’ crowd. But this is so common to so much ‘horror’ fiction that it’s hardly worth discussing. Lovecraft is morbid. His work equates to that negative romanticism found in much Nazi art. He was a confused anti-Semite and misanthrope, a promoter of anti-rationalist ideas about racial ‘instinct’ which have much in common with Mein Kampf…Lovecraft appeals to us primarily when we are ourselves feeling morbid.”
In using H. P. Lovecraft as representative of horror, Moorcock portrayed the author’s notoriously bigoted views as symptoms of a problem endemic to the genre. Liverpudlian author Ramsey Campbell offered a more tempered view of the topic. “The horror story is often assumed to be reactionary,” Campbell acknowledged in his introduction to Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. However, as he went on, “To say that horror fiction is fundamentally concerned with reminding us what is normal, if only by showing the supernatural and alien to be abnormal, is not too far from saying that horror fiction must be about ordinary everyday people confronted by the alien.” Campbell then praised Barker as a writer who avoided such a reductive approach, instead using horror to explore broader horizons.
Admittedly, it is hard to deny that the theme of “ordinary everyday people confronted by the alien” sums up a large portion of horror fiction. The ambiguity of the term “alien,” which can mean both foreign and monstrous, is a key point here. From the Transylvania of Dracula to the Slovakia of the Hostel films, macabre fiction has a history of equating foreignness with inhumanity and malevolence. At the same time, however, many writers have attempted to confront such reactionary impulses.
It could be argued that any major social concern or controversial topic will manifest in some form within the horror genre. Let us consider, for example, the history of racial tension in twentieth-century Britain, from the height of the British Empire to the ongoing influx of non-white immigration throughout the postwar decades. How has British horror fiction reacted to the changing racial makeup of the United Kingdom?
Racism in British Horror Fiction
Literary history certainly has no shortage of racial caricatures, and British horror fiction has done its bit to perpetuate this state of affairs. A particularly notorious example dates back to 1912, when weird fiction author Sax Rohmer introduced the iconic villain Fu-Manchu in a serialised story later published in novel form as The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu.
The battle between Chinese crimelord Fu-Manchu and English protagonist Nayland Smith is outlined in specifically racial terms, the two characters identified respectively as “the head of the great Yellow Movement, and the man who fought on behalf of the entire white race.” Fu-Manchu is referred to as “the enemy of the white race” and “the giant foe of the white race,” who strives for “the victory of the yellow races over the white.” Indeed, we are told that “his existence is a danger to the entire white race.”
Fu-Manchu’s sheer inhumanity leads Smith to suggest, in all seriousness, that he may be possessed by “an evil spirit of incredible age” as a result of having been born near a Chinese burial-ground. Smith’s theory of a demonic connection is apparently borne out at the very end of the novel, when the captured Fu-Manchu suddenly vanishes in a burst of flames, leaving behind a note which indicates that he has been spirited away by Satan: “I am recalled home by One who may not be denied…Seek not my ashes. I am the lord of the fires!”
Inevitably, the novel’s physical descriptions of Fu-Manchu combine the racialised with the demonic. Here is an account given by Nayland Smith of the crimelord’s appearance:
“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect…Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
Rohmer was far from the only writer to show this tendency. Consider this description of an African servant in Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel The Lair of the White Worm:
“[T]he face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp–the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.”
In some ways, the stereotypical portrayals provided by Stoker and Rohmer are opposites. Stoker’s Oolanga is “low” and subhuman, while Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu possesses a “giant intellect” that marks him as superhuman. One aspect is consistent between the two portrayals, however. Both figures are devilish, monstrous, not quite human. Their racial characteristics are used to mark them as creatures of horror.
Stoker was an influence upon Dennis Wheatley, a once-popular thriller writer who made his debut in 1933. It is possible that the character of Oolanga inspired a scene in Wheatley’s 1934 occult novel, The Devil Rides Out, where the heroic Duke de Richleau and his friend Rex discuss a run-in with the villain’s African servant:
“What about this servant that you mention?”
“I only saw him for a moment when he crossed the hall, but he reminded me in a most unpleasant way of the Bogey Man with whom I used to be threatened in my infancy.”
“Why, is he a black?”
“Yes. A Malagasy, I should think.”
Later on, the heroes encounter the novel’s first demonic entity, which takes on the appearance of the African servant, again equating non-white with non-human.
The Britain of Dennis Wheatley
When it comes to Dennis Wheatley’s portrayal of race, The Devil Rides Out is not an aberration.
Wheatley was very much a right-wing reactionary, a fact that is spelled out at length within Phil Baker’s masterful biography The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Prior to World War II, Wheatley admired Mussolini; he was also a supporter of General Franco. His attitude towards the democratic process was clearly elitist. Wheatley argued that voting should not be distributed on a “one man one vote” basis, and instead supported plural voting weighted towards people with “superior mentality.”
Despite his interest in esoteric belief systems, Wheatley had little tolerance for religions originating within black societies. He described Vodou as “one of the vilest, cruelest and most debased forms of worship ever devised by man,” complaining that “the Negro has carried [Vodou’s] foul practices with him to every part of the world which he inhabits.”
The hero of The Devil Rides Out, the Duke de Richleau, had his last adventure in Wheatley’s 1965 novel Dangerous Inheritance. The introductory text to the first edition was forthright about the story’s racial politics. “The Duke de Richleau and his friends…still believe in all that the British empire stood for and that marriages between people with different-coloured skins rarely bring lasting happiness.”
In fairness, Wheatley’s portrayal of ethnic minority groups is not entirely irredeemable. At a time in which anti-Semitism was mainstream in Britain, and thriller writers regularly used Jews as conspiratorial villains, Wheatley created a sympathetic Jewish character in the Duke de Richleau’s sidekick Simon Aron. Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny the essential bigotry of Wheatley’s fictional world.
“[I]t seems as if Wheatley regarded everything that threatened his way of life as the work of the devil,” said Ramsey Campbell when discussing The Devil Rides Out. “It isn’t just reactionary…It’s nakedly racist.”
“Dennis Wheatley was a bit funny about that sort of stuff,” agrees Alan Moore. “Anybody with a colour other than white…they’re generally dead by the end of the book and they’re generally villains.”
In Wheatley’s fiction, it is not only certain races that are associated with devilry. It is also certain political movements. This can be seen in his 1960 novel The Satanist, which portrays trade unions as being manipulated by infernal forces. Wheatley was not merely utilising a plot contrivance for the sake of a good yarn. He seriously entertained the possibility that left-wing and politically progressive movements, up to and including the anti-apartheid lobby, were the work of devil-worshippers. “Is it possible,” he once asked, “that riots, wildcat strikes, anti-apartheid demonstrations and the appalling increase in crime have any connection with magic and Satanism?”
Wheatley drew upon a number of sources when crafting his purportedly true-to-life depictions of the occult. One of these influences was Robert Fabian, a sometime Detective Superintendent who, after retiring, wrote a series of books about his time in the police force.
In his 1954 volume London After Dark, Fabian thrilled his mid-century readers with titillating tales of taboo topics. These include drugs (“the cult of ‘reefer’ smoking [is] closely bound up with jazz musicians and coloured men”), homosexuality (“The underworld term for these men is ‘Queers.’ The puzzling thing is that they are usually normal in appearance and manner”), sex work (”The real danger of having people like Red Kate active in London is that they pander to perverts, and it is from the ranks of perverts that practically all the most savage, puzzling crimes emerge”), porn films (“Many of the girls who wait under Piccadilly’s street lamps could show you the places where you can, any night, see films with such titles as ‘Julia Learns the Ropes’”), cross-dressing (“There are men who enjoy dressing up in women’s clothes, and who thereby commit an offence against the law”) and, yes, devil-worship:
“If sinful cinemas are not enough, there are practitioners of evil who will arrange to raise the Devil himself to be your sulphurous nocturnal playmate!
The practice of Black Magic–of diabolical religious rites in the heart of London–is spreading steadily. There is more active Satan-worship today than ever since the Dark Ages, when witches were publicly burned upon Tower Hill… men and women will congregate at midnight in secret temples of South Kensington, Paddington and–I believe, Bloomsbury, too–to strip off their clothes and worship Satan with ritual and sacrifice that would shame an African savage!”
Wheatley and Fabian offered similar visions of the mid-century United Kingdom, in which the worship of Satan is merely the most graphic symptom of a decline into vice and immorality. Where Fabian demonstrated the chaos of modern Britain, Wheatley imposed order upon it with the help of his fictional heroes. The Duke de Richleau and his cohorts were always on hand to battle the apparently intertwined forces of Satanism, socialism and civil rights.
But Wheatley’s model was not one that could last forever. Postwar Britain had opened its doors to immigrants from Commonwealth countries including Jamaica and India. The shifting ethnic demographics of the United Kingdom did not go unnoticed by horror writers, not all of whom were as insensitive as Wheatley.
Nigel Kneale–the writer best known for the SF-horror Quatermass television series–tackled racism in his short story “Oh, Mirror, Mirror,” which was published in his 1949 anthology Tomato Cain and Other Stories before being reprinted in The Pan Book of Horror Stories. The main character is a little girl, Judith, whose aunt forbids her from leaving the house. According to the aunt, the girl is an ugly duckling who will never become a swan, forever too unsightly to be seen in public.
We eventually learn the reason for Judith being such a pariah. She is a racial minority. Specifically, she is a white person in a predominantly dark-skinned society; in a parody of “Snow White,” her aunt describes her as having skin as pale as bedsheets, eyes as blue as copper rot, and hair as yellow as fading grass. “Not thick and black, like other people.” The story ends with the aunt preparing to artificially darken Judith’s skin, just as generations of black women have attempted to lighten their skin so as to fit Eurocentric beauty norms.
Like Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “The Other Foot,” about a post-apocalyptic colony where black people outnumber whites, “Oh, Mirror, Mirror” condemns racial prejudice through simple role-reversal. The white author attempts to show a presumed white readership what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism and so creates a scenario in which whites are a racial other.
As an anti-racist message, this obviously has its limitations, and it quickly dated. When Conservative MP Enoch Powell delivered his “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, he quoted a constituent as fearing that “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” In such a climate, “Oh, Mirror, Mirror” could easily have been mistaken for a warning of things to come rather than a call for empathy. Nevertheless, Nigel Kneale deserves credit for deriving horror not from the racial characteristics of non-white people, as so many of his contemporaries were doing, but from the evils of racial prejudice.
As can be seen, old assumptions were changing. In the next post, I will look at how writers of different political stripes responded to the transformations that occurred across Britain in the following decades, an era which saw a rise in racial diversity and a corresponding mobilisation of the far right.