Books: Boo! (Scared Yet?)

Marina Warner, a keen student of fairy tales, takes a look at things that go bump in the night

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Lady writer on the TV/talk about the Virgin Mary..." the band Dire Straits once sang. "Lady writer on the TV/ She had all the brains and the beauty." When reminded of this, said lady writer breaks into peals of embarrassed laughter. "I guess that was me," confesses Marina Warner, whose second book, Alone of All Her Sex, a study of the Virgin Mary, came out around the same time as the 1979 song. "I wish I could claim something of more distinction in terms of popular culture, but I don't know that I can."

In her North London study, a sunny garret heaped with books and files, Warner, 52, comes across as rather more donnish than Madonnaish. Ever since that Virgin Mary book, however, she has built a genre-defying career by filling in the gaps between high art and low, merging an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, mythology and language to put her original spin on such subjects as Joan of Arc, the female form and, most famously, fairy tales. Her 1994 From the Beast to the Blonde was a sort of search for Mother Goose: a look at the (mainly female) tellers of fairy tales that is filled with such tidbits as why Bluebeard's beard was blue--it is the color of both desire and melancholy, "the marvellous and the inexplicable." Now Warner has published a sequel, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 435 pages; $35), about (mainly male) giants, ogres and devils and what they can tell us about society's fears.

As in her previous work, Warner's methods in Bogeyman are culturally omnivorous, ranging over Goya, the Alien movies, the origins of the word boo and the many meanings of bananas. Best dipped into rather than read in one go, the book very much matches contemporary experience. "We live in a floating, borderless mass of impressions and images which come at us," Warner explains.

Her goal is not so much to build one grand argument but rather, she says, to "make the books stories in their own right." Nevertheless, a feminist, anti-Freudian thread runs throughout her work. Unlike Bruno Bettelheim, whose classic work The Uses of Enchantment puts a Freudian gloss on fairy tales, Warner believes the stories "represent a way of thinking about problems, particularly family problems: intimacy, sexuality and practical areas like money, dowries, property and hierarchy--who has the power to free women from their poverty?" In her new book she examines the way fear and pleasure have become intertwined, as horror films and books about serial killers become increasingly popular. "Our monsters," she says, "are of our own making."

The daughter of an Italian mother and a British bookseller father, Warner grew up in Cairo and Brussels before being sent to an English convent school from ages 9 to 17. Though she eventually, painfully, rejected her faith, she says she is still discovering the ways in which Catholicism shaped her. The daily prayers and occasional retreats, those "thrilling" stories about saints, all that icon worship and "the discipline of identification with the suffering body of Christ," she says, "wakened my image-making tendencies."

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