When I originally read the first couple of pages of Danse Macabre I remember being a little pissed off. I felt cheated that this new ‘novel’ by Stephen King was actually a nonfiction book about horror. Those feelings certainly didn’t last too long. Maybe for a minute or two. I kept reading it, because even though it was non-fiction, basically what we’d at first call a memoir, the story inside, King’s personal story about his journey with horror, was just as fascinating as any of his own tales. I refer to the book often in these columns, and even though it isn’t fiction, it is what I would call fundamental reading for all fans of horror fiction and film.
It is the ultimate Tattered Tome.
And the book is pure, unfiltered Stephen King. There were many who felt this was a book only he could write, and there were those who felt he shouldn’t even attempt such an ambitious project. Surely, your fans will shred you apart. They’ll find everything that’s wrong and eat you alive for making such mistakes. King knew this going in, even implored his fans to write to him if they found any glaring errors he made with his references. With the help of Dennis Etchison, an excellent horror writer himself as well as somewhat of an expert in the field, subsequent editions have corrected many of the errors in the text fans pointed out to King. Chances are, there will be a follow up to Danse Macabre in the future, a retrospective covering the years since its release. King has addressed some of this in his ever-expanding forwards in each revised edition, though many want him to take those musings further with something more on the lines of a sequel. Time will tell.
Beginning with an enticing event—the Soviet release of the first space satellite, beating the USA in the space race—King ties this experience to one of our favorite pastimes, watching movies in a theater setting. The weekend matinee informed as much of his early explorations with horror as did the written word, and this section allows King to break down what he believes to be the foundation of fear. The membrane between the conscious and subconscious mind, never truly as thick as we’d like it to be, is fertile stomping grounds for what King calls phobia pressure points. Horror, whether in books or movies, invests heavily in these pressure points, expanding our most primal fears in ways we can all relate to while making them culturally significant. That old, creepy house on the hill? There’s a reason we all fear it, and it’s more than just the unknown. It’s instinctual, and culturally embedded through centuries of tall-tales and massive over-stimulation through various forms of media. These are the true foundations of horror, an emotion that’s ingrained deep in our DNA.
King likens the horror genre to a dance, hence the title of the book. Early on, he mentions horror is just a subset of the fantasy genre, and while some may agree with him to some degree, I personally feel that since horror is a universal emotion, as a genre it is wide and deep enough to stand on its own legs quite nicely. Following King’s direction, it is easy to spot the tenuous membrane that separates the speculative genres like fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. It is possible to get a mix-breed from the soup and get stories that are so universal in nature they flow through our cultural subconscious like blood. I feel that horror can and often does dance through all speculative narratives at some point or another; it’s all a matter of perspective.
The major theme of the book is how horror in fiction and film captivates readers and audiences for thirty years. From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, we are never far from horror. We find it in comics, novels, short-stories, television, even radio. Horror resides in science-fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers. And King immersed himself in it, and we see those stories reflected back at us through his own stories. Personal and energetic, these first impressions bit him hard, and it shows in his work. King takes us through his own stories, connecting the dots between Stoker’s Dracula and ‘Salem’s Lot, providing commentary along the way, such as the infamous ‘rat-scene’ cut from the final text by his editor’s insistence. He dives in deep to the three most influential horror stories, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the aforementioned Dracula, all of which have achieved ‘immortal’ status and are the foundation for modern horror fiction even today.
After tackling horror in film and television, King moves on to modern horror fiction, and mentions the three books written after the mid-century mark that paved the way for writers like himself and his peers, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other. The thing about these sections is he really spends more time talking up a slew of other writers whose work is essential reading, such as Peter Straub, and even writers you wouldn’t necessarily think of as horror writers like Anne Rivers Siddons, author of the super creepy The House Next Door. Peppered through-out the text are short autobiographical anecdotes, but it is worth mentioning here that this book is not an autobiography. At least it’s not biography like one would come to expect; King spends more time talking about his influences, which are our influences, or at least should be.
Speaking of influences, inspirations, and motivations, the smallest section of the book probably contains the most information pertinent to horror fans. King provides readers with two appendices; one for the films released between 1950 and 1980 that shaped the fiction he writes, the other performing the same function for the books that left an impression on him. It is these two lists, especially the books, that I have used as my own path for my horror education. Of course, human nature dictates and individual taste forms as much of that as one could expect, so not every title listed will work for you. Nonetheless, one should use these lists as a guide to enlightenment, or maybe think of them as a flashlight to guide you down the path of darkness. As mentioned above, there have been rumors of King writing a sequel to Danse Macabre, a book covering the thirty years since the1980 cutoff point of the original book. That is something I think we’d all like to see, but not anytime soon. I’ve had the original lists for thirty years, and I still haven’t finished with all of those recommendations.
After the release of King’s IT adaptation this year, social media exploded in a kind of Stephen King revival. Good thing too, since Netflix really hit it hard with an adaptation of both Gerald’s Game and 1922. Stephen King fans compiled lists of their favorite King books and stories on Facebook and Twitter, and while those lists are cool, not once did I notice anyone mentioning Danse Macabre. Maybe this is because it’s not fiction, that some think it is a mere reference guide, and while both of those statements are true to some degree, the book is much more than that. By writing about the history of modern horror, King provides us with a way to navigate the massive amount of media out there, and if there’s anyone who knows horror, it’s Stephen King. Regardless if it’s fiction or not, Danse Macabre is essential reading for any fan, or writer, of the genre. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore and secure a copy today if you don’t already have it. It is the one King book you must own in your library, as its suggestions will only lead you deeper down the path of horror.
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