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Ogres, bogeymen and someone called Officer Sparrow
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The Independent Culture

No Go the Bogey man: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock by Marina Warner (Vintage £10.99)

No Go the Bogey man: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock by Marina Warner (Vintage £10.99)

After her book From the Beast to the Blonde, which concentrated on female figures in fairy-tales, Warner set out to look at the male characters (aside from handsome princes, whom she deemed too dull). What she ended up doing was something bigger: the whole realm of ogres and bogeys - a subject too vast, really, to be contained in a single volume. And Warner goes even further, exploring not just what scares us, but what consoles us - hence "lulling" and "making mock".

The range of material she brings to bear is frankly awesome: she has, or seems to have, a commanding knowledge of Greek myths in all their variants, of the whole canon of fairy-tale and nursery rhyme, of modern-day children's fantasies (Where the Wild Things Are and, naturally, Fungus the Bogeyman). And the book contains illustrations showing how the iconography of monstrosity has survived from the ancient world through Bosch and Goya to Alice in Wonderland and Walt Disney (the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid is clearly a descendant of Scylla).

There are a couple of problems here, though. One is that the sheer density of reference submerges argument, so that at times the book is reduced to (unusually elegant) list-making, and it's hard at the end to know quite what you've learned aside from a series of dazzling cultural coincidences you can whip out during a dinner-party.

More seriously, when she gets on to modern, trash culture, she is not always on firm ground. Sometimes this is a matter of interpretation. I don't think she distinguishes adequately between survivals of time-honoured forms and deliberate, ironic reference. Sometimes it's a matter of plain fact. She puts forward The Omen as an instance of film's "brilliant use of new technologies - of animatronics and computer-enhanced imaging": but it was made in 1976, and its horrors are nearly all invisible. She talks about Hannibal Lecter's adversary "Officer Sparrow": could she be thinking of Agent Starling? That a blooper like that can survive to the paperback edition doesn't say much for Vintage's editors.

So, a book well worth reading; but one to be taken with a pinch of salt. Which, naturally, you should throw over your left shoulder to ward off the devil.

Ghosts in the Middle Ages by Jean-Claude Schmitt translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago £13)

Ghosts were a problem for medieval Christians. On the one hand, stories about the returning dead were too widespread to be ignored. On the other, Christian theology presupposed dualism - when we died, our material bodies became empty shells, and our immaterial souls were whisked off to heaven (or hell, depending). So when people reported seeing the dead return, what had they seen? Dreams? Demon-induced delusions? Schmitt - a leading Parisian Annaliste, according to the blurb - can get a tad jargonish and theory-laden. But the medieval arguments he describes are interesting; and the stories and illustrations which he adduces in evidence are fascinating.

Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder by Isaiah Berlin, ed Henry Hardy (Pimlico £12.50)

Vico was the first person to establish that the social sciences require a different sort of knowledge from the natural sciences, and to think about things like historical context and empathy for the past; Herder suggested that all cultures have value, even if they don't have our values, and that cultural difference is valuable in itself. So they're people we ought to know about. As for J G Hamann - well, there is a school of thought that says Berlin concentrated on obscure thinkers because there was less chance of being caught out. Hamann seems to have been an anti-rational grouch, hardly a giant of intellectual history but an intriguingly crabbed character.

The Sabbathday River by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Pan £6.99)

When a dead baby is found on the edge of the river, the subsequent investigations and accusations uncover a web of secrets, old hatreds and communal resentments in impoverished rural New Hampshire. Naomi Roth, smart Jewish incomer from New York, finds out just how much of an outsider she is - and how hollow some of her liberal certainties are. It all boils down to an old-fashioned middle-class whinge about the awfulness of the countryside, spiced up with anxieties about what Jewishness means (any resemblance to the story of Moses is purely intentional). Korelitz is Mrs Paul Muldoon, and it's interesting to speculate what the heck their homelife is like.

The Complete McAuslan by George MacDonald Fraser (HarperCollins £9.99)

Fraser is best known as the author of the thoroughly splendid Flashman books - unlikely to be supplanted as the most painless way of learning 19th-century imperial history. It's also worth nosing out his grimly readable memoir of wartime service in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here: the stories gathered here are lightly fictionalised accounts of his post-war service in north Africa. Despite a note of determined political incorrectness, primitive and annoying, they are lovely books, suffused with affection for his fellow soldiers and for the eccentric traditions of a Highland regiment (in which every officer had to have weekly dance classes); and, as you would expect, they are very funny.

Fair Exchange by Michÿle Roberts (Virago £6.99)

Roberts's novel re-creates the world of English radicalism at the time of the French revolution: Jemima Boote, a former pupil at Mary Wollstonecraft's school, dreams of independence and love based on equal partnership; then she gets pregnant by a poet. Annette Villon, an innocent French girl, falls for a Romantic poet called William Saygoodfrom the north of England who has a rather intense relationship with his sister (remind you of anyone?). Unsurprisingly, the men don't live up to ideals. Roberts could try a little less hard to convey sensual experience; but it's a warm, intelligent novel.

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