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 with the reader and is a combination of autobiography and genre study. The tone of Danse Macabre, which is reminiscent of a familiar discussion with an acquaintance or student in a classroom, departs from that of most genre studies. In fact, King notes that at the time he was teaching a course on the genre at the University of Maine and “field testing” with his students the theories and perceptions set forth in this volume. In terms of overall structure, the book is loose; many times King will begin a discussion of a topic only to digress when the book, story, or film under consideration reminds him of a personal experience or other marginally related material. Because of its digressive and fairly personal nature, Danse Macabre can be considered a sort of Rorschach inkblot study of King himself as well as of his preferences as a writer of horror fiction.
King’s treatment of the concept of modern horror begins with his own childhood recollections about the first things that terrified him, events that took place in horror films. He breaks his study of the last thirty years’ worth of terror into various segments according to chronology and genre. The text is fairly evenly divided in its treatment of fiction and film, with perhaps more emphasis being given to the films of the 1950’s and 1960’s than to later films, for King believes that the truly great ones were produced in those decades. The book also covers horror on radio and television. King devotes the first major section of Danse Macabre to building an extended definition of the emotions of horror and terror. He also considers the types of things that elicit these emotions and explores what he believes to be horror’s three archetypal tales: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Frankenstein (1818), and Dracula (1897). Much of his later discussion of contemporary tales of terror (printed and filmed) is based on the distinctions he draws among these three works. The remaining sections of Danse Macabre take up techniques...
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of horror in radio, television, pulp and mainstream fiction, and film. Interspersed among these sometimes lengthy textual analyses are digressions on topics of personal interest to King, such as his favorite “bad movies,” an account of how he came to write certain of his novels, and commentaries on various living authors.
As appendices to Danse Macabre, King offers a reading list of about one hundred books drawn from the period covered by his study and a list of one hundred fantasy/horror films made during the same time span. These two sources will provide readers with good starting places in their study of the genre as well as give them an idea of King’s own preferences.
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 again. King illustrates these points in the boyish glee with which he discusses such admittedly awful films as Robot Monster (1953) and Prophecy (1979). By dwelling on death and deformity, horror films “sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller . . . joys of our own lives.” King makes a strong case for his theories through affectionate discussions of dozens of movies from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks to two recent adaptations of his own novels: Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). He admits that DePalma’s film is more artistic than his novel.
As background for his discussion of both movies and fiction, King explains the importance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) as the foundations of the modern horror story. To go with the already widely used ghosts, these novels popularized three additional archetypes of horror: the thing without a name, the werewolf, and the vampire. The longest section of Danse Macabre discusses ten books published since 1950 that King considers worthy successors to the three masterpieces of the genre: Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956), Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), James Herbert’s The Fog (1975), Ramsey Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1977), Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine (1978), Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door (1978), and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979).
He acknowledges that most horror fiction is “just downright bad” but feels that the writers mentioned above have helped to make the genre respectable and lively. He praises Finney and Matheson for carrying horror beyond the imitations of H. P. Lovecraft which it had settled into during the 1930’s. More recently, Campbell and Herbert have been important as leaders of a new generation of British writers intent upon revitalizing the genre. Campbell is particularly noteworthy for being literate in a field which attracts “too many comic-book intellects” and subtle in comparison to writers such as King himself who specialize in “panting melodrama.” Ellison explores the real horrors of contemporary life with admirable outrage. The Haunting of Hill House and Ghost Story achieve true greatness. King’s enthusiasm for these books is admirable, but too often his analysis is little more than plot synopsis. The most interesting parts of this section are some of the writers’ letters to King discussing their work.
Secondary to the criticism is King’s account of how horror has influenced him, both as a representative member of his generation and as a practitioner of the art, at various stages in his life. The most important horror-related event in his childhood occurred when he found a box of horror books left behind by the father who abandoned him, his mother, and his older brother when King was two. One book was a collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft, with whom King fell in love, and he has been reading horror fiction ever since. Skeptical about Freudianism, he avoids analyzing his fascination with horror, simply saying that it is fun. In explaining how he wrote The Stand (1978), in which most of the world’s population is killed by a man-made virus, King shows how he has used the archetypes he has discussed throughout the book but also admits that he enjoyed wiping out the human race.
Danse Macabre is an informative and frequently entertaining book, but it is also irritatingly flawed. King seems unsure of his audience, sometimes directing his comments toward horror aficionados and elsewhere assuming that his readers have little or no knowledge of the genre. His style and structure are deliberately conversational and casual, but he digresses too often and too lengthily. He takes advantage of the reader’s attention to offer views, usually negative, on many topics unrelated to horror, including swipes at Ronald McDonald, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Woody Allen, Edwin Newman, antiwar protesters, People magazine, the German language, the stupidity of most moviegoers, writers who take more than three years to finish a novel, and numerous others. The most frequent target of his ire is intellectuals, especially English professors, “those lepidopterists of literature who, when they see a lovely butterfly, feel that they should immediately run into the field with a net, catch it, kill it with a drop of chloroform, and mount it on a white board and put it in a glass case, where it will still be beautiful . . . and . . . dead. . . .” Then there are contradictions. At the beginning of the analysis of Something Wicked This Way Comes, it “is probably Bradbury’s best work”; by the end it “is probably not Bradbury’s best work overall.” In his discussion of B-movies, he asserts, “if my ideas concerning the boundaries of art seem rather lenient, that’s too bad. I’m no snob, and if you are, that’s your problem.” Later he claims that “Movies are merely picture books that talk.” He too often defends horror by attacking its detractors, real and imaginary, too vociferously.
For all its flaws, Danse Macabre, which includes lists of two hundred notable movies and books, is a valuable, stimulating introduction to the genre. Its main virtue is that King’s enthusiasm for horror is infectious.
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.