EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD TRAIN WRECK by Eric G. Wilson: Book Review [The Ryan Dixon Line]

Before the internet allowed us to watch footage of people being murdered for free, any aspiring video-age Percival had to search high and low for quality snuff. There was no relic so highly prized as the Grail of gross, Faces of Death.

Often shelved in the back rooms of those pre-Blockbuster video stores located in strip malls, grocery stores and along lonely roadsides, this mondo masterpiece was spoken of by those who had seen it in a hushed, foreboding tone reminiscent of Large Marge’s admonition to the hitchhiking Pee-Wee. A dark fate surely awaited anyone brave enough to press play.

However, aside from the rather pedestrian suicides, autopsies, and slightly more elevated baby seal clubbing, the most fondly remembered scenes – everything from the eye -bleeding electrocution to that cute grizzly nibbling on a little foie gras d’ humain – were, alas, fake.

In hindsight, that the film was narrated by one “Dr. Francis B. Gross” should have been a red flag regarding its legitimacy. But my teenage self really wanted to believe that someone had actually shot footage of young women (surprisingly buxom, considering the supposed Third World trappings) sacrificing a willing man, eating his flesh and engaging in an orgy where the corpse’s blood proved a far better lubricant than K-Y Jelly ever could. I’d be lying if I said that along with being repulsed, I also wasn’t kind of turned on.

In his fascinating, but ultimately frustrating new book, Wake Forest professor Eric G. Wilson dives into this fecund topic of morbid curiosity. It’s the sort of high concept that will intrigue readers before they even read the flap. After all, the title says it all:  Everyone Loves a Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

Wilson gets right to the heart of the matter, hooking us with an effective teaser, his account of turning on the television on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001:

“…the footage at this point was… gruesomely beautiful: swelling ebony smoke against the blue horizon. And the film inspired this staggering thought: “‘Here is one of those rare ruptures from which history will not recover, and I am alive at its occurrence.’ I felt exhilarated, inappropriately, and I was ashamed.

We delve into the second chapter expecting Wilson to serve as both teacher and therapist. He’ll put a figurative hand on our shoulder and whisper, “It’s okay,” while revealing why we spend late nights searching for roller coaster accidents on YouTube or slow down while passing a fatal pile up, despite complaining about others who do so.

Instead, we’re quickly confronted with that hung over, 8:00 a.m. class realization that the professor should have spent a little more time on his syllabus. Wilson tarnishes his well-played teaser with several chapters that could have easily been combined to form a readable introduction. Separately, however, they serve up a deathly dull cocktail of personal exposition (“I am an English professor obsessed with the Gothic worlds…”) and lots and lots and lots of questions that we’ve already asked ourselves many times before purchasing the book, such as:

“ What is the meaning of suffering?”
“What is the significance of death?”
“Do all children like to blow things up?”
“When does a site of wreckage, where lost loved ones are buried, become holy ground?”
“Why am I so interested in the morbid?”

Even though Wilson seems physically incapable of writing chapters that stretch beyond five pages, the narrative remains stuck in neutral for much of the book’s first half. Within this bite-sized buffet there are some promising beginnings like a profile of “gore hound” Rick Stanton, a collector of serial killer memorabilia. Stanton’s hobby seems an ideal set-up to explore the history of collecting relic grotesqueries like the foreskin of Christ, but Wilson doesn’t bring that topic up until much later in the book and does so without utilizing the organic context Stanton’s story offered.

Ironically, the one chapter that does feel fully fleshed out also almost derails the book. After some heady theorizing on the societal appeal of serial killers, Wilson contacts Joyce Carol Oates, considered a literary expert on the topic thanks to her chilling, first-person serial killer novel Zombie and influential New York Review of Books essay “I Had No Other Thrill Of Happiness.”

Wilson requests confirmation on his belief “that celebrity serial killers are psychologically rich revelations of our deepest fears and desires.”

Oates instead delivers a devastating riposte, stating in no uncertain terms that Wilson seems “to be concentrating on superficial elements” and that “…the more you know (about real serial killers), the less enthralled you are likely to be.”

Instead of valiantly defending arguments to which the reader has just dedicated several hours of their life reading, Wilson suddenly wonders if he was “relying too much on theory and not enough on experience.”

But Wilson doesn’t stop at this rather embarrassing disclosure. He then takes his previously stated admiration of Hamlet to the breaking point, subverting his status as authorial expert to become his own uncertain protagonist:

I wish I could say that I overcame these anxieties by having a revelation that once more restored my confidence—an intuition disclosing the true nature of the morbid, say, or a discovery of ironclad evidence for Jung’s theory of the shadow. The doubt, insecurity, persisted (and persists)….What if I’m shallow? What if I’m missing the point? What if I’m dead wrong?

This is not what you want to hear from an author after forking over $22 for their book. Thankfully, Oates smackdown scares Wilson away from anymore faux poetic musings about serial killers or other dark night of the soul stuff. His focus turns to the more tactile elements of macabre curiosity and the book shows signs of life, starting with a meditation on how an adolescent Thomas Hardy was turned on by the corpse of a woman he saw being hanged. This little bit of literary sex ed provides an effective on-ramp for our own introspection on the secret sexual appeal of undesirables like Casey Anthony and Ted Bundy.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck reaches its emotional peak with passages exploring how the ever-lingering presence of death influences our lives in surprising ways. An analysis of how the great poets formed our contemporary ideas on death segues into a profile on Nowell Briscoe. Briscoe is a Southerner with a passion for collecting the obituaries of family, friends and interesting strangers he has come across like “a beloved teacher who reminds him of his own high school history instructor or a man so eccentric that he sported a walrus mustache and pince-nez glasses in 2009.” Written with a subtle, quiet power (and thankfully devoid of Wilson’s first-person intrusions), these passages succeed at investigating the book’s major themes with satisfying depth while also providing us with a reading experience that mirrors it; we become as fascinated by the idea of death as the personages Wilson profiles.

Unfortunately, the spell is soon broken. Wilson’s journey to Gettysburg and the precious few pages devoted to the “dark tourism” industry is an unsatisfying aperitif to a subject that demands its own book.

Much of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck’s final pages are dedicated to Wilson’s own struggles with bipolar disorder. While honestly written, Wilson performs stunts Cirque du Soleil wouldn’t attempt in order to thematically connect this admission to everything that has come before. One also can’t help but be annoyed that Wilson wastes page space on his own troubles when we are still so hungry for more information on the numerous topics, almost all equally fascinating, he has already touched ever so briefly upon.

If Eric G. Wilson had decided to truly explore the topic of morbid curiosity and not just offer a survey course, then Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck might have tapped into the many unmentionable macabre attractions hiding within all of us. Instead, the book is like an harried tour guide, rushing readers past topics and themes, providing all-too-brief glimpses into the true beauty and horror of the various subjects before declaring that it’s time to move on.

If you want to read a real train wreck, follow Ryan Dixon on Twitter @ryanbdixon. Order a copy of his graphic novel, Hell House: The Awakening here.