Halloween Special Review: Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (Waltz With This Book!)

“Why do people want to be horrified…why do people pay to be horrified?”

Who doesn’t love Stephen King? Probably a great number of people, but I’m a lover of Stephen King. He is truly the modern master of horror fiction and understands how to get beneath the reader’s skin and scare the bejesus out of them. I never thought of picking up Danse Macabre before, his non-fiction work about the horror genre (in film, fiction and radio). Yes, I picked up his ‘On Writing,’ but as a budding writer that’s just par for the course. However, I picked up Danse Macabre for a pound from a local charity shop a few weeks ago. If you are a lover of horror, or even just like to dip your toes into the muddy waters once in a while, I insist you pick it up as well. It’s insightful look into what makes horror work is incredible.

Danse Macabre is a book you can pick and choose what you want to read, if that’s what you want to do. If you’re interested in horror fiction, you can read the chapters devoted to it. If you’re interested in horror cinema (or even radio!), just read about that. Of course, King’s referrals back to previous statements may be confusing if you don’t read the book in its entirety. As King mentions in the foreword, this book is designed to be read in whatever fashion you choose. However, you’ll miss out so much intriguing and insightful information if you read bits and pieces of it. This is King’s love letter to horror, from a man less than a decade into his professional writing career.

Yes, by this point, King had only published less than ten books (including Carrie and The Shining), but it’s clear from the very beginning of Danse Macabre that he loves the horror genre. In a chapter entitled “An annoying autobiographical pause,” he explains why some childhood “trauma” may have led him to write horror. But, in the end, he writes because something inside him tells him to write horror. King belittles the notion that specific childhood events cause people to write. King embellishes each scholarly argument with a personal anecdote. It may be a well read and researched piece of work, but there’s enough informality and anecdotes to make it feel like light reading. That’s what King does best: write like he’s talking to us, rather than at us.

“I think that we’re all mentally ill”

The Thing…the monster that we created…

Any budding horror writer should read his chapters on horror fiction. He begins by naming the three titans of horror fiction, those titles that gave birth to the horror genre. Those are Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Robert Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He posits each novel as birthing the three horror archetypes (or Tarot cards, as King puts it) that all horror is based on. Jekyll is the Werewolf archetype (not literally a Werewolf, but a symbol of a man changing into his baser nature, Dracula is the Vampire, and Frankenstein is the Thing (as an aside, he mentions Henry James’ Turn of the Screw as the Ghost archetype, but that novel had little effect on American horror literature). Later on, he recommends contemporary modern horror literature, such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, to name but a few.

He takes apart each novel, dissecting it (after protesting against those people who dissect novels…but he doesn’t delve too deep into each one) and stripping it down to its bare elements. Those elements include, according to King, the conflict between the Dionysian (pleasure seeking, immoral) and the Apollonian (rational, intellectual). He’s looking at why horror fiction works.

But don’t worry, if you’ve an aversion to reading and prefer horror cinema (or even TV), King as chapters devoted to both (and radio!). He looks back at the evolution of horror cinema, looking back to The Creature of the Black Lagoon (which scared him as a child) and pinpointing specific pivotal points in horror cinema. It’s an invaluable look at why horror works on screen, as horror primarily is an act of the imagination. It’s about the dark, the unknown. Horror cinema, according to King, has difficulty in getting beneath the viewer’s skin because it’s hard to leave things to the imagination on the big screen. Behind the door may be a ten foot insect, but when that’s revealed it may leave the viewer thinking “at least it wasn’t an 100 foot insect!” But still, there are those horror films that manage to chill viewers to their bones, just as effectively as the greatest work of horror literature.

King’s dissection of Night of the Living Dead is spot on

(Of great interest to anyone remotely interested in the horror genre in general are the Appendixes, which note 100 novels and 100 films that King believes to be essential horror viewing)

“The horror story…is really as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three piece pinstriped suit”

You’ll be finding yourself disagreeing with King occasionally, but I found our disagreements involved me even more in his book. Yes, his tendency to over-elaborate or waffle is on display on here, but it’s more endearing that annoying. An aspect of horror that I’ve only mused upon but never really thought about was King’s assertion that horror is usually conservative in nature. Something from the outside interferes in normal life, and the story is about returning things to normality. It struck me as something I should already know, as obvious as a slap in the face.

One chapter that I was particularly fond of was “Horror movie as Junk Food,” King’s plea to even tolerate the most ridiculous horror films, as there may be something worthwhile in amongst the rubbish. Sometimes, we just need junk food, and that’s applicable not only in our diet but in our reading and viewing habits.

For any horror fan, Danse Macabre should be an essential purpose. King has bathed himself in horror since an early age and knows how to write a damned good horror novel, but he also is learned in the areas of horror cinema, radio and TV. His conversational tone makes the intellectual aspects of his work easier to digest. It’s a work you can dip in and out of, reading about a particular interest or aspect and ignore the rest. But you’ll be missing invaluable information. For me, it ranks as one of King’s finest works.

VERDICT: 9/10. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a love letter to the horror genre written by the modern master of horror. Its dated, yes, but that makes it all the more valuable as an insight into a young (ish) Stephen King. He knows a hell of a lot about horror, and shares it all with you.

Click here for my review of Stephen King’s ‘IT’ (The Book, Not The Film!)

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