Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
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 Tingler (1959) and Night of the Living Dead (1968), to the E. C. comics of the 1950’s, to Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and such writers as Robert Bloch and Peter Straub.
Danse Macabre is a personal and critical text; readers will learn as much about King as a writer and a fan of both pulp and mainstream horror films, comics, television, and fiction as they will about his views regarding the means by which these media work to produce horror in their audiences. Despite a caveat at the book’s opening that he will avoid the trap of autobiography, much of what King has to say does have to do with himself—not only with why and how he writes but also with who he is. In some regards, Danse Macabre resembles a long, rambling magazine interview, this time with King acting as both interviewer and interviewee. Readers concerned only with learning about King’s notions of horror should be prepared for some very lengthy autobiographical digressions—many of which will, however, contribute to a better overall understanding of this very popular and influential writer of tales of terror.
People who are students of popular culture and pulp fiction will find Danse Macabre particularly rewarding, for King devotes much of his book to analyzing examples of this variety of horror. He lovingly discusses such motion pictures as the original versions of The Thing (1951) and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and points out why they are uniformly more effective than their remakes. His treatment of budget and B-grade horror films is especially interesting. King also gives readers a good idea of comic-book horror prior to the time that the industry censored itself in the late 1950’s. He gives attention to cult favorites of 1960’s television such as The Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows.
By far the longest section of the book is “Horror Fiction,” a chapter in which King discusses what he sees as ten representative examples of the contemporary tale of horror. His treatments of his fellow authors clearly show his understanding of this mode. Among the authors whom he considers are Jack Finney (The Body Snatchers, 1955), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, 1959), Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962), Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, 1967), and Peter Straub (Ghost Story, 1979).
In the opening sections of Danse Macabre, King makes a distinction between two worldviews, one of which he labels Apollonian, the other Dionysian. The former encompasses the rational, intellectual, moral side of human nature—the superego that keeps most people acting civilized most of the time. The latter refers to the physical, amoral, hedonistic, out-of-control aspects of human behavior that most people do not admit to experiencing and keep closely guarded and in check. It is the Dionysian side of human nature, King says, that all works of horror explore and exploit, and he traces it through his sustained treatment of the figures of the Werewolf, the Vampire, and the Thing Without a Name.
King concludes Danse Macabre with an antiphonal chapter titled “The Last Waltz: Horror and Morality, Horror and Magic,” in which he intersperses an interview he gave to a reporter for The Washington Post with a catalog of horrifying real-life events, scenes of modern mayhem and death. In part, the chapter is intended to provide an answer to the question “Why do you write the type of stories that you do?” It is also meant, however, to demonstrate that the real world as King sees it is itself a rather horrifying place. Yet King sees the world not merely as a dance of death but also as a place where a childlike imagination provides each person with the means by which to confront and overcome the horror.