'Bogeyman': terror as cultural history

February 14, 1999|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

"No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock," by Marina Warner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 435 pages. $35.

This reviewer sits down with a pen and a book, "No Go the Bogeyman" by Marina Warner. She will, as is her style, underline every resonant phrase as she reads, every intriguing artifact, every provocative coupling of notion and fact. She will be alert to what is new and what is interesting; she'll quote it back. Such is the stuff of reviews.

Book splayed flat, pen in position, the reviewer begins. "Think of a time near the beginning: not at the start of history, but beyond it, in that outer circle of retrospection where dates turn into foam towers of bubble-like zeros," she reads, she underlines. "Imagine one of those divine children who found civilizations, start religions, provide origins in our stories. A baby. A boy."

What gorgeous writing, that. What an image. The reviewer carries on, the pen keeps underlining. It becomes clear, many pages in, that this is a book in which every line yields something fine -- something angularly intelligent, something shocking. Original, grotesque, bizarre, bursting, stomach-turning, ripe, "Bogeyman" is essentially a book about fear and its obverse, a book of terrors, a book that, in Warner's own words, "explores the paradox that the imagination often stirs up dread on purpose for its own sake, as well as for the mind's stimulation."

It covers cannibalism and lullabies, the obscure and the popular, the exquisite and the mundane. It is cultural history of a most fantastic and frightening kind. Child-guzzling giants, the Bill of Fare at the Foundling Hospital, Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," the movie "Men in Black," the game of 'Boo!,' Batesian mimicry, the Patum, the bloody feast of Corpus Christi, childhood endearments such as 'lambkin' and 'duck' ... Warner romps about in this material and so much more. Were it not so enchantingly written and illustrated (many etchings, photos, reproductions of paintings accompany the text), a reader might simply give up. There's so much here. Too much, it often feels, for a single book.

One is forced to take it slow, a few pages at a time, a dictionary nearby. Warner, the author of five books of fiction and seven previous nonfiction books, challenges the reader, with every sentence, to think hard about matters it's often easier to not think about.

For example, in a chapter titled "Terrors Properly Applied," Warner draws the distinction between the "mimicking metamorphoses of insects and reptiles," and those employed by the human race. "Human beings, by contrast, are choosing, as individuals and groups, to guise and play at being other than they are, and at being far more dangerous," she concludes. "What has changed is the metaphorical and visual vocabulary used to evoke imagined enemies. The diabolical or beastly used to draw on mammals, especially the predators among them, for its arsenal. ... But recently, effective scaring has plundered promiscuously the multiplicity of insect species and morphologies. The bogeys are becoming more complexly hybrid, more terrible, in step with the magnified sense of human capacity for harm and a corresponding need to mount a spectacular defense."

If at times, "No Go the Bogeyman" seems to veer slightly off its track, if Warner's enthusiasm for the unearthed detail sometimes leaves her readers gasping for breath, if one emerges from these pages feeling slightly less than chaste (Is, for example, the nursing child at our breast really, as Warner writers, drinking "his mother's substance in a form of omophagous consumption of like by like"?) nothing can take away from the massive achievement of this book. Marina Warner is a smart, provocative, entertaining author writing serious, important books.

Beth Kephart wrote "A Slant of the Sun: One Child's Courage." She won the 1998 Leeway Foundation Grant in nonfiction, and was also named a finalist in the Pew Fellowship in Arts program. Kephart was also a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction.

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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