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A HISTORY OF TERROR - Fear and Dread through the Ages

By Paul Newman, published by Sutton Publishing at £20. 256pp HBk. ISBN: 0-7509-2008-4

Terror is probably the most elusive of emotions. By its very nature, it must be the most difficult of all emotions to confront, if only because our instinct is naturally either to flee from it or to be so paralysed by it that our reason and analytical faculties are rendered useless in encountering it. How difficult, then, to set out to write about it, to cut it open and analyse it and to explore precisely what has terrified human beings since time immemorial.

But this is precisely what Newman attempts to do. Drawing together a history of the things which have, over the millennia, reduced humanity to terror, he seeks to relate to their historical context matters such as the early medieval terror of leprosy, the later medieval reaction to heresy, the horror engendered in the early modern period (and the 19th century) by the chaos and anarchy produced by social change and disorder, the mythology of late 20th century beliefs (at least in some quarters) in UFOs and alien abductions, and very much more.

The relevance of all of this to WD readers is, of course, the terrors and panics experienced in certain societies under certain social conditions towards those perceived as "witches" and upon whom were pinned the nebulous and essentially unprovable accusations of causing harm to others by means that were difficult, if not impossible, to combat effectively. The book's further relevance can be argued from the perennial fascination of so many pagans for horror literature, the concept of the vampire and the generically "gothic".

Whether it succeeds in the end is a difficult matter to judge. The tendancy of the subject matter to retreat from the objective analysis of the researcher and from all attempts to fix it onto the page ultimately leaves the reader trying to grasp the handfuls of sand which forever run through the fingers. This is understandable and a limitation of the nature of the subject and of the medium for capturing it. However Newman's attempts to understand the nature of terror and its role in society, however and whenever it emerges, is a fascinating and very readable one. Recommended? Oh yes, I think so!