Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
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 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...
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