Everest House / 1981 / 400 pages
A Nonfiction Critique
"The writer of nonfiction is all too visible," King states in the first foreword to Danse Macabre. By design, fiction is a lie, and though King has stated that the duty of fiction is to find the truth inside the lie, there is no room for equivocation when it comes to facts. Danse Macabre, King's first full-length work of nonfiction, aims to take a serious look at an important segment of the horror genre's history, from roughly 1950 to 1980, with stops along the way to explore the roots and origins of the modern horror story.
Though it has its origins in the syllabus for a literature course King taught at the University of Maine (Themes In Supernatural Literature, 1979), Danse Macabre is neither dull nor dry reading. Attempting to impart knowledge as well as entertain, King's dissertation soon takes on the cadence of his novels. Scholarly without distancing the average reader, King's discussions touch on origins of horror in all forms of popular media: radio, television, film, comics, and books. He breaks apart television shows like Dark Shadows and proves their significance, making one wonder if horror schlock is really schlock after all. Though radio programs such as Thriller and The Inner Sanctum might seem hopelessly antique, King examines them so convincingly that they seem fresh and relevant. The pop-culture humor that made many of King's Garbage Truck columns so funny (and would later surface in his Pop of King column for Entertainment Weekly) is very much in evidence in a chapter titled "The Modern American Horror Movie." In addition to seriously examining the themes, motifs, and subtexts of horror cinema, King includes a hilarious quiz asking readers to match seemingly ridiculous plots with titles.
King's chapter on horror literature, however, may be the best. On his most familiar turf, he delves deep into the three (or four) classic symbols of horror literature, and their classic definitive work: The Vampire (from Dracula), the Beast Within (Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde) the Creature Without a Name (Frankenstein), and, lesser, the Ghost (The Turn of the Screw.) Almost all modern horror, King proves, can be traced back to these four archetypes. From here, King examines specific writers - such as Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Ira Levin - and specific works, determining whether they are successful, and if so, why.
Of course, an examination of horror fiction would be incomplete without a look at King himself, and King complies, if grudgingly. A chapter titled "An Annoying Autobiographical Pause" looks at childhood influences that may have shaped his own interest in horror, including an incident that became the basis for his novella "The Body," as well as a story about King's uncle that serves as a defining moment of faith in the supernatural. He divulges his own influences, describing how the works of Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, and Ray Bradbury have impacted his own fiction. Though his analysis is thorough and informative, King cannot quite mask his excitement for his predecessors, or the sheer glee in being able to talk about their stories with readers who will understand.
The Appendices at the end of Danse Macabre include two lists - 100 Defining Works of Horror, Films and Books. For readers seeking the origins and cornerstones of horror film and fiction, these lists are essential. King's later nonfiction book, On Writing, included more recent fiction influences on King's writing and career, but due to the wide gap between the two releases (and the fact that On Writing is now over a decade old), neither list is quite a definitive look at the books shaping King's own writing.
Therein lies the one great flaw in Danse Macabre, and in any book studying an ongoing process. King's study ends around 1980, anticipating but not concentrating on the horror explosion of the 1980s. Subgenres like slasher films, self-aware horror movies like Scream, and torture porn have grown into governing forces in modern horror, as has the rediscovery of zombie fiction and the reinvention of the vampire mythos. Further, when Danse Macabre was first released, King had published eight books; the number is now closer to sixty. A recent re-release included a new essay, "What's Scary," that offers a brief overview of modern horror films, but what Danse Macabre needs is a thorough update or sequel, encompassing the thirty years of horror that have followed it.
Surprisingly, Danse Macabre doesn't feel dated. Because it focuses on a limited time frame, the book reads like a contemporary study on a narrow period in horror history, with glances further back. A definitive explanation as to why Stephen King writes what he write, Danse Macabre remains a readable and vital addition to both King's canon and to the larger field of horror study.