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Horror-obsessed author takes a look at mad scientists

By Michael Sims

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  David J. Skal has definitely staked out his territory, and within it, he has made himself well-nigh indispensable. His published volumes include an entertaining cultural history of horror, The Monster Show, and a witty, engrossing encyclopedia of the undead, V Is for Vampire. He wrote Hollywood Gothic about how the novel Dracula came to the stage and screen, and he even co-authored an excellent biography of Tod Browning, the director of the 1933 Bela Lugosi Dracula and the still horrific, still controversial Freaks.

Skal's new book, Screams of Reason, bears the ambitious, rather forbidding subtitle Mad Science and Modern Culture. Perhaps the author had decided he'd mined his customary terrain for all it's worth, because this time around he takes on a different theme. Primarily, he addresses the film character of the mad scientist, who has played the role of whipping boy and scapegoat during our century's various science-generated horrors. Along the way, Skal has found a good excuse to gather dozens of hilarious old film stills and publicity shots.

The book's tried-and-true theme proves unexpectedly fertile, but Skal doesn't adhere rigidly to its confines. Instead, he merrily races up every byroad that presents itself, and usually the result is so surprising that it's worth the trip. He examines everything from the iconic hair of Einstein to the many ways in which warped hands are associated with warped scientists. He even works in such seemingly unrelated topics as the social response to AIDS, people who manufacture symptoms of illness, his own encounter with mysterious lights in the sky, and the extraterrestrial mad scientists who supposedly take victims into clinically clean spaceships and probe their body cavities.

This is the sort of unifying theme that could be handled in many different ways. Indeed, it would be fun to contrast this book with one written by a scientist. For Skal is an industrious scholar and a vivid writer, but a scientist he is not. In fact, he hates and distrusts science. The epigraph page of Screams of Reason has two quotations that sum up, as epigraphs should, his thesis. One, by Edgar Allan Poe, is a denunciation of science for preying upon the poet's heart; the other, a generalization, reads, "The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race." Recognize the author? It's the Unabomber. In addition, the book's title alludes to the famously gory paintings of Goya, suggesting that Skal sees science as the domain of butchers and beasts.

At times Skal rides his antiscientific hobby horse like a knight on a quest. Frequently, he seems to mistake science, a means of systematic thought, with technology, the practical and selective application of thought. Surely he isn't opposed to the germ theory of disease, canned foods, anesthesia, or electric heat--all of which represent science in action just as much as smart bombs and genetic engineering do. But he manages to link almost every anxiety of the century with the fear of scientific tyranny.

"A prototype outsider, shunted to the sidelines of serious discourse, to the no-man's-land of B-movies, pulp novels, and comic books," Skal writes, "the mad scientist has served as a lightning rod for otherwise unbearable anxieties about the meaning of scientific thinking and the uses and consequences of modern technology." He's dead-on in this particular assessment.

Sometimes, however, Skal is unable to curb his rampant theorizing, selecting and twisting examples to make them fit his thesis. Now and then, with a perfectly straight face, he tries to buttress an argument by linking bits of information that are so unrelated they refuse to cohere. Take, for instance, his description of everbody's favorite psychopathic cannibal: "If doctors as a group are indeed scarfing down more and more of the economic pie, then a patient-munching monster like Dr. Hannibal Lecter is an inevitable (if perhaps overly literal) iconic representation."

What's overly literal here is Skal's own interpretation. He seldom tires of propounding theories. Occasionally, though, his energy lapses, and he becomes lazy in other ways. He resorts to flap copy to describe a book's theme, or he uses phrases such as "it is not unlikely that" to justify another of his barely anchored speculations.

Nonetheless, this is an entertaining, informative book on a topic that tunes into much of the radioactive background noise of our culture. Just think of some of the mad scientists who lurk in the corners of your mind: Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Strangelove, the man who becomes the Fly, various Vincent Price characters, the irresponsible biologist who finally dies at the hand of the Thing From Outer Space. They're a motley crew--laughing, staring, and leering at us. Mad scientists mock our favorite beliefs and embody our most fascinating contradictions. Like Pogo, they know that we're our own worst enemies. And while we puzzle over that realization, they laugh maniacally and storm out of the laboratory into the night.

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