The idea for Stephen King’s non-fiction book “Danse Macabre” came from his friend, and former Doubleday editor, Bill Thompson. “Carrie,” “Salem’s Lot,” “The Shinning,” “Night Shift,” and “The Stand” were all edited by Thompson. King was at first hesitant to write a book that chronicled the influence of horror through a variety of different mediums. He changed his mind, however, when he realized he already had the catalyst for the book; his lectures from when he taught at the University of Maine at Orono.
“Danse Macabre” is a retrospective on the contributions that horror made to books, films, radio, and television during the years 1950 through 1980. King doesn’t merely write about the horror genre itself, but how horror can transcend into other genres such as fantasy, mystery, science-fiction, and thriller. In part, King writes about what influenced his own writing. There are other times, when he focuses his analysis on what he feels were not only the best examples of horror, but also what, in his opinion, doesn’t work. Even if sometimes what King feels doesn’t work has received high praise from others looking at the same work with a critical lens, he doesn’t shy away. Throughout, King’s opinions contain his own brand of comedy and sarcasm, that his readers have come to know well. Furthermore, he provides autobiographical accounts from his own life, that connect to what he is reviewing.
One of the things that King expresses in the book is how horror novels, more than any other medium, allow the reader to experience trauma, but it is all vicariously done. The reader from the safety of wherever they are reading the novel, is metaphorically traveling with the character(s) on the printed page, as they take a journey to whatever conclusion the author has chosen for his character(s). King’s words take the reader beyond the surface of the storyline by giving the reader access to the character’s mindset and motivations. King writes that the best emotion a writer in the horror genre can attempt to provoke from their reader is terror. Terror, in turn, allows the reader to fill in the blanks regarding the horror, that is not at the forefront, but resides in the periphery. In order to bring forth genuine terror, the approach of less is more, is highly effective. If terror can’t be produced, then straight horror comes next. When this is done, the reader knows exactly who or what is the threat. Lastly, if neither of the first two can be achieved, revulsion, as King puts it, is a cheap, but sometimes necessary way in order to advance the narrative.
King refers back often, throughout the book, to three classic works of literature; Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In many respects, King feels that most, if not all of horror, can be traced back to the origins of the three books. Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” published by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, on January 1, 1818, equates to monsters in general. For every wisecracking, Freddy Krueger (who wasn’t around when this was written), there is monster, even if it’s a purported human monster, like a Michael Myers, wielding a knife, or some other weapon. The monster itself can also be the weapon, but overall, the attacker is mute. Next, there is “Dracula,” and the need to fill a blood lust, or some other type of unsavory desire. The vampire can be sophisticated and suave like Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel published in London on May 26, 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company. They can also have a feral appearance, and act with primal rage like those in Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend,” which was first published by Gold Medal Books on August 7, 1954. In addition, there is the transformation from man into monster, that was written about in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The classic novella, written by Robert Louis Stevenson, was published by Longmans, Green & Co, on January 5, 1886. While Stevenson’s novella didn’t deal directly with werewolves, it was certainly an inspiration for the depiction of werewolves in future creative works.
“Danse Macabre” was published on April 20, 1981 by Everest House. In addition to the book that was sold to the general public, Everest also published a limited edition. There were two hundred and fifty numbered copies, and fifteen lettered copies, that were signed by Stephen King. At the conclusion of the book, King provides readers with two appendices. The first is for films that shaped his writing during the time period the book covers. The second does the same for the books that left an indelible impression on him. (As an aside: As of the writing of this post, one of the two hundred and fifty copies signed by King is being auctioned on eBay for approximately $2800 dollars).
The main complaint from readers who come to the book years after its publication, is that it is dated. No kidding! If that was a non-starter for certain readers, thankfully not the majority, simply go onto the next book on your ‘to be read list.’ I equate “Danse Macabre” to some of the classes I took in college. For example, I needed an elective, and one of the classes I chose was a history elective that dealt with Europe during World War II. I was very interested in what was discussed in the class, and the books that I was assigned to read. It didn’t hurt that the professor was well versed on the subject, and was able to deliver lectures that were entertaining as well as thought provoking. I find “Danse Macabre” to be the same. I had no problems delving into the non-fiction writing, which centered on creative works, in various mediums, that came out long before I was born. There are, however, distinct differences between the class I took in college, and the past few weeks, while I read the book. I didn’t have to leave my home, to travel to campus, in order to physically attend a class. I could read at my own pace, as much, or as little as I wanted, without fear of not being able to provide the correct answers on a quiz, midterm, or final exam. Lastly, instead of having to pay several thousand dollars, I was able to get the wealth of King’s knowledge for the price of the book. If I hadn’t already owned the book, I could have received the same master class from the master of horror for free by picking up a copy at my local library. I highly recommend the book for King fans, especially if you liked the approach he took in his non-fiction book “On Writing.” My only complaint is that he hasn’t, as of yet, written a sequel covering an additional thirty years, with new book and film recommendations.