Near the start of his new book, Eric G. Wilson alludes to one of his earlier efforts, a 2008 title in which he explored misery's transformative influence on creativity and self-awareness. Titled "Against Happiness," it wasn't exactly feel-good fare. "I wish it had made Oprah's uplifting list," he deadpans in "Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away."
Though he obviously has a dry sense of humor, Wilson is clearly more interested in life's darker moments. Invoking everything from horror movies and television news footage of the Sept. 11 attacks to Dante's tormented verse and Goya's paintings of cannibals, Wilson makes a strong case that humans are natural-born rubberneckers.
"We are enamored of ruin," he writes. "The deeper the darkness is, the more dazzling. Our secret and ecstatic wish: Let it all fall down."
A hybrid of memoir, journalism and theory, Wilson's book investigates what this impulse tells us about ourselves and how it might inspire constructive reactions like compassion. Surveying the work of his fellow academics -- Wilson is an English professor at Wake Forest University -- he notes, "Some claim that morbid curiosity is only a desire for strong physiological arousal: the unseemly attracts us because it is more stimulating to our bodies than are more pleasant events."
Wilson also travels around the country to interview, among others, a man who collects serial-killer memorabilia and the curator of a ghoulish museum. These chapters are colorful but not particularly insightful.
Equally well versed in pop culture and classic texts, Wilson builds his strongest arguments around notable works of art, explaining the darker impulses that inspired them. Wilson argues that Thomas Edison's 1903 movie "The Great Train Robbery" caused a sensation because the groundbreaking filmmaker "realized at the beginning of narrative cinema that audiences love looking at terrible things." Thomas Hardy had his own personal experience with horrifying events -- he witnessed a hanging as a child -- and his memories, Wilson says, drove him as he wrote a particularly dire scene in his 1891 novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." "Hardy's imagination empowered him to transcend his immediate response to the macabre, consuming and crude," Wilson writes, "and discover deep significance in the morbid occurrence."
"Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck" necessarily deals with a host of grim subjects, yet there are also instances of unqualified beauty. One of these is found, improbably enough, in the chapter on Wilson's bipolar disorder.
Several years ago, after the birth of his daughter Una, Wilson found himself so deeply depressed that he thought about killing himself. He made it through this trying period only after a fortuitous encounter during a group therapy session, and as he happily reports, "Una is now nine years old. She has become a good singer. When the year turns to fall, she plays soccer. She loves the exuberantly morbid stories of Roald Dahl. When she calls me from the study, I answer and walk through the door."
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York.