Yet another Stephen King book about a writer/teacher from Maine? But this time it’s non-fiction.
A one-line review on the release of Danse Macabre, King’s analysis of horror, back in 1981 sniffed: “Stephen King with his critic’s hat on”.
But, like the homogenous writing and/or teaching heroes of most of his early novels, King is actually well-placed to examine and critique other works, particularly in the horror genre. Obviously there’s a strong leaning towards American films , TV and fiction, but that goes hand in hand with the often interesting autobiographical tone of this book.
I first read this book almost 25 years ago, and at that time still enjoyed King’s novels. I had just finished The Talisman, his brilliant and inexplicably still-unfilmed novel co-written with Peter Straub, and was willing to accept everything he said as gospel. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre was my unerring compass pointing to recommended destinations, and away from dead-ends, pitfalls and washouts. His swooning adoration of Straub’s Ghost Story, a book which I read while staying in a Highland Castle and rattled me like no other novel ever has, further convinced me of King’s worth as a guide through the genre.
Since then of course, I’ve been let down to the point of no-return by both King and Straub, and done enough reading and viewing to form my own opinions about much of the material covered in Danse Macabre.
Although returning to this book in a slightly belligerent frame of mind and far less inclined to be lectured to, I still found it difficult to disagree outright with most of King’s views. When this hopefully-ashamed author of the interminable and unfocused Tommyknockers accuses Ray Bradbury of over-writing I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or choke, but King also nails what is so magical about Bradbury’s work:
“…he lives and works alone in his own country, and his remarkable, iconoclastic style has never been successfully imitated. Vulgarly put, when God made Ray Bradbury, he broke the mold”.
“Amen to that!”: to borrow King’s sometimes annoying habit of falling into overly-chummy “gonna, gotta, aintcha” slang when he feels confident he’s made a point which we’re all going to hoot and murmur “right on!” to.
That quote was from the final and densest part of the book, where King is obviously most comfortable – analyzing American horror literature. As well as Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes and other writers, he looks at The Bodynatchers, Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting of Hill House, The Shrinking Man and, to his credit, a couple of British authors. What unites this list is that they have all been filmed, mostly well, and so if I hadn’t read the novels discussed I have at least ‘seen’ them King appears to have corresponded with the authors, and so the views presented aren’t just his but are also straight from the horse’s mouths, which is insightful and fascinating. Jack Finney, for example, had no thoughts at all of a ‘reds under the bed’ subtext when he wrote the Bodysnatchers – so there!
The Film and TV sections are where the book shows it’s age the most, with discussions of long-forgotten features as ‘current cinema’ (mutant grizzly bear epic Prophecy, anyone?) and an unsurprisingly American-centric and ultimately dismissive view of horror on television. There was much more happening on the box than Kolchak and Twilight Zone re-runs across the pond, Mr King…
Elsewhere, his insistence on distilling characters and themes into Apollonian and Diosynian (good and bad to you and me) are useful categories when King is in full lecturing mode, but feel a little like being constantly tugged on a lead back to his own totemic dog park rather than really being allowed to explore. (Not sure why I fell into a dog metaphor there, maybe it’s the ghost of Cujo…)
On the plus (apollonian?) side, King’s love for the material shines through and his own skills come to life when recounting one of his own viewing or reading touchstones. He quite rightly prophesises the then-recent Alien to be a modern horror classic and recalls 50s and 60s B movies with real affection. Here he recounts an image from such a film which was obviously hugely influential:
“But the feeling that stuck longest was that swooning sensation when good old Richard Carlson and good old Julia Adams were surely going down for the third time, and the image that remains forever after is the creature slowly and patiently walling it’s victims into the Black Lagoon; even now I can see it peering over the growing wall of mud and sticks.
Its eyes. Its ancient eyes.”
Its eyes. Its ancient eyes.”
Perhaps more fond recollections and less lecture note would have gone down better with me, even if I can’t dispute his conclusions. But given all that has happened in the horror genre since 1981, I wouldn’t say no to a follow-up, either.