Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

By his own admission, Stephen King conceived a taste for horror, and horror films in particular, at an early age. In his adulthood he has come to believe that the “horror industry” exists in its currently flourishing state because people actually need the release that it provides them. His early addiction to things frightening and unsettling also gave him the impetus to explore the elements of successful horror fiction, for he has been making his living producing it since the 1970’s. Among his novels are Carrie (1974), ’Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), The Dead Zone (1979), Firestarter (1980), Cujo (1981), Christine (1983), Pet Sematary (1983), It (1986), The Eyes of the Dragon (1987), Misery (1987), and The Tommyknockers (1987). Until the publication of Danse Macabre in 1981, however, King had made no extensive public analysis of the reasons for the popularity of horror films and fiction. Prior to the publication of this analytical study, he had expressed some of his theories in interviews published in various magazines and in the introduction to his collection of short stories, Night Shift (1978). Danse Macabre is King’s analysis and review of the arena in which he writes, a look at how it works and why. The inspiration for Danse Macabre came from King’s former editor, Bill Thompson, who suggested that he consider the whole horror phenomenon as he saw it: books, magazines, films, radio, television, comics. King was intrigued and decided to undertake the project.

The form of the book takes the shape of a conversation...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Danse Macabre

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

From Carrie in 1974 to Cujo in 1981, Stephen King has written eight books of horror fiction which have reportedly sold more than twenty million copies, making him perhaps the first writer in the genre to reach the mass audience consistently. When mainstream critics approach horror novels, according to King, all they can see are the “clanking huggermugger trappings of the supernatural tale,” not the “strong and universal archetypes that underlie the best of them.” In Danse Macabre King attempts to rectify the critical misunderstanding and neglect of horror art and entertainment by exploring the genre’s general characteristics, focusing mainly on fiction and film with excursions into television, radio, and comic books. He emphasizes the period from 1950 to 1980 and how the horror media of that time have affected his life and work. The book celebrates and analyzes horror and defends it against the charge that its appeal is abnormal.

King avoids making distinctions between horror, fantasy, and science fiction by showing how they overlap. Instead of offering a clear-cut definition of horror, he tries to demonstrate its complexity by examining its numerous facets. He says that horror operates on levels ranging from terror, which he sees as “the finest emotion,” to revulsion. He admits that he settles for “the gross-out” in his fiction when he cannot achieve a higher level. Regardless of the level, horror appeals to people because it gives them the opportunity to exercise emotions which society forces them to restrain. (King combines a great deal of sociology and pop psychology with his criticism.)

King’s two best-developed theses present horror as appealing to and exploiting the Apollonian-Dionysian split in human nature and reinforcing conservative impulses. The Apollonian side is intellectual and moral while the Dionysian is physical, hedonistic, and violent. Many of the best horror novels and movies deal with the emergence of “the Dionysian psychopath locked up behind the Apollonian facade of normality,” as with Jekyll and Hyde and the seemingly timid young man with the mother fixation in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959). According to King, people fear ghosts because they refuse to be bound by Apollonian restrictions and are attracted by them because they represent the repressed Dionysian self. Horror fiction and motion pictures depict outbreaks of Dionysian madness, but these evil forces are always repelled and the Apollonian norm restored. Monsters, freaks, and psychopaths fascinate people because they appeal to “the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us.” Horror’s “main purpose is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands.” King sees horror art as the modern equivalent of the medieval morality play and horror artists as agents of the status quo. Horror art flourishes, therefore, during difficult economic or political times.

King considers most horror movies to be addictive junk food. Because such films are more often made purely for profit than those of any other genre, their art is usually accidental; the horror-movie fan—and King encourages his reader to become one—has to sit through hours of garbage in hopes of experiencing the occasional moment of delight. Good horror movies “knock the adult props out from under us and tumble us down the slide into childhood,” allowing people to see things in pure blacks and whites...

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Danse Macabre Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Adams, John. Review in School Library Journal. XXVII (September, 1981), p. 147.

Choice. XIX, September, 1981, p. 80.

Hemesath, J. B. Review in Library Journal. CVI (April 1, 1981), p. 797.

Klavan, Andrew. Review in Saturday Review. VIII (April, 1981), p. 80.

Quill & Quire. XLVII, July, 1981, p. 66.

Science Fiction Review. X, August, 1981, p. 26.

Slung, Michele. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI ( May 10, 1981), p. 15.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LV, June, 1981, p. 775.