If anyone is qualified to write on the modern horror phenomenon it is certainly Stephen King, the acknowledged expert concerning what frightens people. King’s specialty is domesticated terror—tales that take seemingly benign things or events and find the dark twist capable of producing a shock of horrified recognition in the reader, listener, or viewer. Like other contemporary critics of the genre, King sees the mid-to late twentieth century as a perfect time for a resurgent interest in all things that terrify. He points out that this renewed fascination with the macabre began shortly after the explosion of the first atom bomb. Since the onset of the nuclear age, storytellers of all varieties—writers, filmmakers, musicians—have been finding much to frighten them. King’s book gives readers a look at the types of situations, creatures, and personalities he believes terrify modern audiences the most.
King first distinguishes horror as a subgenre of fantasy, including in this broader category tales classified as science fiction. Within horror, King marks out three subclasses: tales of the Vampire, tales of the Werewolf, and tales of the Thing Without a Name, all of which he traces to what he sees as their roots in the fiction of nineteenth century Great Britain. Like many other contemporary critics, King points to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula as the templates for these creature types.
King’s treatment of these three wellsprings of contemporary horror will be of interest to any student of British Romanticism, the history of the horrific, or the three authors under consideration. He cogently explores the ways in which each writer constructed his or her characters and story and examines the reasons that each of these three archetypes gives rise to horror, revulsion, fear, and self-recognition in the reader. Even though many other books and journal articles have been devoted to these novels, King’s discussion of them will provide an uninformed reader with a useful starting point.
King is at his best when he considers individual works, for his examination of the theoretical aspects of the horror genre often lapses into discussions of interesting but only marginally related ideas. Readers interested in popular culture will prefer his lovingly detailed analyses of a great number of pop hits, from films such as The...
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Stephen King is certainly not the only contemporary writer to consider the nature of horror; he follows in a tradition that extends at least as far back as Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny. In fact, horror in fiction, film, and television has become the topic of much critical debate and analysis, particularly since the 1970’s, when many scholars turned their attention to the field of popular culture. Yet few makers of the stuff analyzed by such critics offer their thoughts on the nature of popular forms, at least not in an extended or widely disseminated format. In Danse Macabre, King offers readers an evaluation not only of the genre itself but also of himself as a writer. Thus, the book serves as an interesting supplement to the fiction he has written, as an exploration of the genre about which he is clearly an expert practitioner, and as an introduction to the study of popular culture and horror fiction and film that will perhaps be more accessible to readers than the many scholarly treatises that have also been published in this field.
Finally, Danse Macabre brings together a greater variety of horror genres than a typical treatment of the field does. While there are many books on horror, most of them confine themselves to the study of one form of horror: film or television or mainstream fiction or popular fiction. King bridges the differences to show readers that, no matter what the form, horror deals with the same themes and topics, employs the same generic archetypes, and provides the consumer (reader, viewer, or listener) with the same entertainment and the same sought-after release.