"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
Danse Macabre is a non-fiction book by Stephen King about horror in general, taking in classic works of fiction, radio, film, urban myths, stories, television and even fairy tales. Although not exactly up to date, it was published in 1981, Danse Macabre is a fascinating and very readable book if you are interested in the genre. It's full of stories, observations and King's nostalgic memories of old black and white tv shows and childhood. There is a vast amount of material in the book and many different films, authors and television shows under disscusion and, for this reason, it's a great book to just randomly dip into when you are stuck for something to read.
The book is split roughly into 10 sections and my (old) paperback copy (with red cover) is 468 pages long. It includes a typically enjoyable King introduction about the origins of the book and also a very useful and extensive list at the end of horror films and books that King believes are important to the genre and recommends. His personal favourites are marked with an asterisk.
One of the charming things about the book is the easy style of King as he relates his thoughts and memories on all things strange and spooky. It's great fun to be in his company throughout Danse Macabre. It begins with King remembering being in a cinema in 1957 at the age of ten:
"For me, the terror - the real terror, as opposed to whatever demons and bogeys which might have been living in my mind - began on an afternoon in October of 1957."
The young Stephen King is watching Earth v Flying Saucers and with great relish recalls the effect it had on him and contrasts it with the earlier The Day The Earth Stood Still. The difference being the aliens in Earth v Flying Saucers were not friendly and just wanted to blow everything up. Near the end of the film the screen goes blank and the manager appears. In grave tones he tells the terrified children that the Soviets have just launched Sputnik. King does a great job in Danse Macabre by tying in current events and their relation to the production of horror. The mysterious and untrustworthy Soviets are now in space so the phrase "Look to the skies," from sci-fi horror films suddenly has resonance in the real world.
It's little details like this that make the book fun. It also enables the reader to pick up interesting bits here and there about modern American history.
The book continues in this addictive vein. King relates the stories that used to freak out him and his friends when they were children. He also relates the story of 'The Hook', according to King; "An oral tale of the sort that never has to be written down. It is simply passed around mouth to mouth." King gives us a version of the story and says that it exists simply to "Scare the shit out of little kids after the sun goes down."
These creepy and sometimes gross childhood tales are always good fun as are King's vivid memories of listening to spooky radio shows with his eccentric Grandparents. For King, radio was a great medium for horror because it was left to your imagination. It's the reason why HP Lovecraft was always a King favourite you suspect in that he never quite showed you what was behind he door. Your own imagination will always be able to spook you out more than a rubber monster or indeed a description of one.
Danse Macabre is a bit rambling at times with tales and topics overlapping and pauses for a story or autobiographical digressions but it's all part of the charm of the book in my opinion. It's always absorbing and interesting even if you aren't too familar with a specific book or television show under discusson.
King discusses archetypal characters of horror ( Vampires, Werewolves etc) and traces them through history in their various treatments, both scary and comic or simply commercial. There is far too much material in the book to mention in a review but you can read King's thoughts on everything from The Cat People to James Herbert to Dracula to Ramsey Campbell to HP Lovecraft (perhaps his greatest inspiration) and on and on. It's interesting too to read about non-horror films that affected him like the Diane Keaton film Looking For Mr Goodbar and, given that this was written in the early eighties, it's also interesting to see films like Prophecy, The Amityville Horror, Alien and Dawn Of The Dead are fresh in his memory and discussed as examples of recent horror.
Favourite bits? King's memories of the notorious (and eventually banned) EC horror comics that he loved as a child. He recounts several of the more lurid tales he remembers from these comics including 'Foul Play' where a cheating baseball player comes to a very gruesome end. It was also interesting to learn more about people like Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison. Ellison shares King's view that television isn't quite the best medium for horror but King admits he has a gigantic television and goes on to discuss old shows in great depth. There is also what King calls 'The greatest footnote in history' where he reproduces a couple of fascinating stories (one possibly apocryphal) about Ellison's ill-fated attempt to come up with a story big enough for Paramount to use in the forthcoming for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where Captain Kirk and co are about to finally jump to the big screen. Gene Roddenberry ("Who couldn't write for Owl-poop" according to Ellison) and Paramount executives eventually drive Ellison to walk off the film after rejecting his ideas and suggesting some truly awful and nutty ones themselves. On a sidenote, it appears that an Ellison idea, which sounds a bit like a jest on his part, was picked up for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, but I digress.
King also has fun with The Body Snatchers and the subsequent film versions and mocks snooty critics like Pauline Kael who went on about the Mcarthy Witchhunts, conformity and Communism. To the actual author it was just a book about aliens! I also love the chapter on television. Interestingly, King reflects that The Outer Limits was a greater show than The Twilight Zone in his opinon. He ascribes this to The Twilight Zone being about morality tales more than anything else whereas The Outer Limits was genuinely creepy and had a clearer purpose and blueprint. He recounts his favourite episodes which include David McCallum as a Welsh coal miner who is sent forward in time two million years, the first astronauts on Mars being menanced by a gigantic snake and a creature of pure energy being absorbed into a radio telescope.
If you love these old shows it's great fun to read about them through King and makes you feel like ordering a couple of box-sets. I also enjoyed reading about largely forgotten but spooky shows like The Night Stalker and Rod Serling's Night Gallery. King remembers the creepiest episode from Night Gallery which revolves around earwig insects.
Overall, Danse Macabre is a fascinating book if you are interested in this stuff. It's one of my favourite books to just dip into and read when bored or on a train on something. Perhaps the fact that it doesn't go beyond 1981 is a slight drawback (it would be great to read King's thoughts on the last twenty-five or so years) but there is a vast amount of material and fun to be had in Danse Macabre and Stephen King is a tremendously warm, entertaining and funny companion throughout the book.
I first read Danse Macabre when I was a teenager, and I've just finished revisiting it again now, after picking up a copy when I was on holiday.
It's an overview (or should that be overlook?) of horror from the late nineteenth century up to the eighties, when the book was first published.
King's thesis is that there are archetypal monsters that pervade horror fiction from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, through Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula, all the way up to the Lovecraft in the twenties, the cheesy pulp novels of the fifties and sixties, and he finishes with looking at adaptations of his own work in the eighties. He looks at books, magazines, radio and television shows and films, with in-depth analyses of various standout examples, such as Rosemary's Baby, Whale's Frankenstein, and his Kubrick's version of "the Shining".
It's avery thourough overview of a huge subjest, but sometimes King is sketchy on the details of what make the novel or film or whatever work, in his view, instead talking iun terms of little vignettes from his own life and work - this is sometimes a little distracting. For example he breaks off a discussion of "It Came From Outer Space" to talk about the first time he heard about "Spootnik" (sic).
I found aspect of King's nonfiction writing style profound when I was a teenager, but it seems rather pompous and inconsistent to me now, really rather spoiling the insights of this master horror writer, rather than enhancing them.
One other thing. The book, perhaps necessarily is full of spoilers. Almost every major horror text of the last 100 years is discussed, and the endings are mentioned. If I hadn't already read or seen most of them, I would be a bit annoyed. Well, when I say "100 years" I mean up until the eighties - I would like to see a revision, or an appendix, that cover the last 25 years, during which, I think everyone would agree, quite a lot has happened.