Review of A. Kalmanofsky, Terror All Around

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Kalmanofsky, Amy, Terror All around: The Rhetoric of Horror in the Book of Jeremiah (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 390; New York: T&T Clark, 2008). Pp. ix + 164. $ 105. ISBN 0-567-02656-6.

This monograph is a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation that focuses on one particular rhetorical style employed in the book of Jeremiah. Kalmanofsky brings the study of the horror genre to the prophetic text and argues convincingly that it is valuable to study certain passages within Jeremiah under the rubric of horror literature. Her delineation of Jeremiah’s “horror corpus” consists of: Jer 4:5-6:30; 8:1-23; 13:15-17; 14:1-15:9; 18:13-17; 19:1-20:6; 23:9-22; 24:1-10; 30:5-9; 34:8-22; 46:1-51:64. The book’s primary argument is that Jeremiah employs a rhetoric of horror as a tool to maintain an audience, desiring that they will hear his message and reform. This concern for engagement with an audience is what differentiates horror from simple fear or terror since it is embedded in the course of a narrative that, while frightening and revolting, also draws an audience along to seek resolution.

The book is divided into three parts entitled “The Horror,” “The Horrible” and “Horror’s Dance.” Part one (“The Horror”) consists of three chapters, the first of which begins with Kalmanofsky articulating her understanding of the composite emotional response that indicates the presence of horror in Jeremiah. Her contention is that both fear and disgust must be present in order to categorize a passage as horror. Her next move is to connect her idea of horror rhetoric to the concept of shame in prophetic discourse. She argues that shame discourse in prophetic literature attempts to create the same emotional responses of fear and disgust, thus linking it intrinsically with horror discourse. She frames the relationship between shame and horror in this way, “Shame discourse provides the goals—horror the method” (14). In other words, she contends that when Jeremiah employs horror imagery, he uses it as a rhetorical strategy that is meant to shame his audience, hopefully leading them to a place where they would be willing to listen to his calls for reform.

This book then articulates two different perspectives of horror; direct and indirect. Direct horror is the immediate response to a threatening entity, while indirect horror is the response to the effect of that entity. To describe how these impact the biblical text, the author treats them in successive chapters. The chapter on direct horror begins with a study of the root חתת which occurs eleven times in her horror corpus. The author examines this root especially in conjunction with ירא and בושׁ which both occur as word pairs with חתת. From these parallels, she concludes that the occurrences of חתת in her horror corpus create a “terror of impotence and certain disaster” (20). She combines this with a study of “birth pang” imagery to show how the text employs the perceived weakness and shamefulness of a woman in labour as a device in constructing horror. The text’s comparison warriors and strong men to labouring women is meant to capture both terror and vulnerability of the occasion as well as to evoke irony by asking men to identify with women.

The chapter studying indirect horror proceeds along similar lines. It also contains a root study and a recurring image in the horror texts. On this occasion, the author conducts a root study of שׁמם, and argues that it describes an emotional response of those who witness devastation. The witnesses are appalled and terrified, perhaps reflecting that this could also be their fate. The connected image is that of “those who pass by,” or the observers who see the devastation of ruined Israel. The author argues that through their shudders and aversion, the prophet communicates the fullness of the horrific situation that is unfolding. This kind of horror evokes fear and shame through the threat that the observer could become like the devastated. As a rhetorical strategy this opens up the question of what the observer needs to do to avoid this fate.

The three chapters comprising the second part (“The Horrible”) shift the focus from the emotional elements of horror to the “monsters” that Jeremiah employs. Monsters are those characters that embody the essential characteristics of fear and disgust. This elevates them over and above merely threatening figures; instead the author claims that monsters must threaten and challenge boundaries of expected reality. Again, the author employs the categories of direct and indirect horror to describe Jeremiah’s monsters, devoting a chapter to each and demonstrating how they induce terror and shame.

In one of the most thought-provoking chapters of this book, Kalmanofsky argues that the direct horror monster in Jeremiah is none other than YHWH himself. The author subsumes the “enemy from the north” references in these horror passages under the monster YHWH, arguing that it functions as YHWH’s agent. In these texts, the author argues that YHWH fits two of the staple categories of direct horror monsters. He is “the crusher” who threatens to shatter and devour his victims, ultimately threatening the dissolution of the natural world. YHWH and the enemy from the North are also “the cannibal.” The author claims that in a natural world, YHWH eats what Israel sacrifices; in an unnatural world YHWH threatens to consume Israel itself. The rhetorical strategy of portraying YHWH with these powerful images has significant potential. When the deity who has established the rules of the natural world sees fit to break them, it is certainly a terrifying idea.

The author then argues that ruined Israel is Jeremiah’s monster of indirect horror. These monsters horrify in their weakness. The audience must reject their brokenness in order to maintain their physical and emotional integrity. She points to texts describing Israel’s abjection that employ vivid imagery resonating with other horror texts. There are three key types of indirect horror monsters that also apply to Israel; the incurable wound, the corpse and the maternal body. This last category furthers the discussion from chapter 2 in which the image of the labouring woman was key to describing the perspective of those experiencing direct horror. This is somewhat perplexing juxtaposition and it shows a difficulty in using the same terms (direct and indirect horror) to describe two different aspects of the horror genre. In the first part the “direct” and “indirect” refer to the perspective of experiencing horror; whether a particular group is its chosen victims or observers. In the second part “direct” and “indirect” refer to the monsters of horror; the ones committing horrible acts and the ones who are the victims. Both the experience and the monsters of horror are worthy of comment, but repetition of terms creates opportunity for confusion.

In the third part (Horror’s Dance), the author brings together the different facets of the discussion and discusses what makes a horror text effective. Her main point is that horror literature works on its audience through a process that she calls “assimilation.” The intent is for the audience to relate to the experience of the character who is under threat from direct horror monster. They are to absorb that character’s viewpoint but remain external to the experience itself. An effective horror text constructs a suspenseful narrative surrounding the actions of the monster and its victims. The audience should be drawn in, wondering if, and when, this monster will be confronted and defeated. A horror plot typically should move from onset to discovery, to confirmation and finally to confrontation, bringing resolution to the fate of both monster and victim. Kalmanofsky rightly notes that Jeremiah’s horror texts do not follow such a narrative outline, but she does note that each of these plot movements can be found in different texts. This is problematic for considering Jeremianic texts as fully-fledged horror, but it does not preclude arguments that Jeremiah uses elements of horror in his rhetoric.

The final chapter puts the theory of the previous chapter into practice. The author provides a detailed and nuanced analysis of Jeremiah 6 as a horror text. The monsters of direct and indirect horror figure into the analysis as well the perspectives that that text employs to provoke fear and shame. This analysis also does a good job of noting how the text switches perspectives, describing the situation as perceived by Israel, YHWH and the prophet himself. Kalmanofsky contends that the prophetic perspective occupies a middle ground which tugs the audience back and forth between sympathizing with Israel as the “victim” of YHWH’s horrific punishment and with YHWH who rejects the horrific being that Israel has become. Her conclusion is that ultimately the text intends for the audience to side with YHWH, reject abject Israel and reform its ways in order to avoid its own devastation. However, the interplay of perspectives creates tension that draws in its audience before the text reaches this final position. This study is certainly a worthy summary of the different elements of horror previously discussed.

Overall, Kalmanofsky’s work shows a tremendous amount of creativity in blending the concepts of the horror genre with the biblical text. The categories that she borrows fit organically into the text. The detailed study of a passage is very helpful to see how horror rhetoric actually functions. It would be helpful to have another passage with which to compare and contrast this analysis, but this monograph does open what could be a fruitful line of research. Ultimately, this work is a useful exposition of one of the weapons in the rhetorical arsenal of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

Joel Barker, McMaster Divinity College