Danse Macabre (1981)

Danse Macabre is Stephen King's first non-fiction book, a survey of the horror genre which was written in part so that the author would not have to explain his attraction to the field any more. King adopts an informal, chatty style which will be familiar to those who have read the foreword to his short story collection Night Shift. Starting with the bones of a lecture series (Themes in Supernatural Literature, given at the University of Maine) and incorporating personal opinion and elements of autobiography, King reviews developments in the horror genre over the preceding thirty years.

To provide historical context for these developments, King first turns to the origins and archetypes of horror, citing the common myths and urban legends of childhood as our initial exposure to the genre - he gives as his main example the tale of the killer with a hook for a hand who preys on nubile teens out at the lovers' lane. But we can draw a line from these (often still current) stories back to the grotesqueries of the Brothers Grimm, and further back to Aesop's fables (which are themselves shared across many cultures in some form or other). I find the sociological implication of this argument interesting: given that this type of story occurs in most societies, we can posit that humans have developed a powerful need for cautionary tales, with two main purposes in mind: explaining the unknown and controlling the young.

King makes a point of emphasising the moralistic nature of most horror stories - they tend to be conservative, preserving the norm and punishing the transgressor. He gradually gives us the core elements on which horror is built: fear of death, the unknown and the dark, and the helplessness we experience in the face of losing our sense of control. It is no coincidence that these are states which many of us associate with childhood. King argues that the lack of sophistication in horror can allow us "to regain our childish perspective on death". This is amply illustrated by King's works, which tend to feature at least one child in peril; as an author, he is almost always successful in forcing the readers to put themselves into the shoes of a young character, with the result that we begin to get scared as if we were that age. On a personal note, I enjoyed matching King's basic tenets with examples of his application of said tenets. Although he provides some illustrations from his early work, there are numerous later novels which spring to mind throughout his discussion of the mechanics of what truly scares us.

The early chapters also allow King to attempt a definition of the degrees to which we experience this fearful response: terror, the 'purest' form, is rooted firmly in anticipation; horror is the moment when we finally see the creature responsible for our anticipation; and revulsion is the visceral 'gross-out' scene where the creature pulls someone's guts out. As King explains, "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." There is something satisfyingly honest about this.

Moving on from the theoretical side of fear, King introduces the novels which effectively created modern horror, and on which almost all modern horror depends. These are Stoker's Dracula, Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Shelley's Frankenstein. In these excellent works, King recognises three horror archetypes: the vampire, the werewolf and the thing. After reading his narrative of the development of each archetype, across all media, it is difficult not to agree - although I should probably point out that King is not saying that Dr Jekyll is literally a werewolf; he effectively uses the term to apply to any character who is transformed into a base monster at the expense of their humanity. Tied into this is another of King's central ideas, that of the battle between our Apollonian (intellectual, moral, noble) and Dionysian (base, pleasure-seeking, anarchic) characteristics. In this light, the vampire and the thing are generally purely Dionysian beings, while the werewolf is in transition from one side to the other. The concept is epically illustrated in The Stand, where the battlelines are drawn entirely according to this duality, but it is also represented in a more personal way in, for example, Jack Torrance in The Shining. Anyway, enough theory for now.

Having established his general principles, King moves on to look at horror as it is represented in the various media. Regarding television, he turns scathing, describing the medium as, among other things, "the bottomless pit of shit". Although he obviously has fond memories of both The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, King is more concerned with their shortcomings - and they are really the shortcomings of television as a whole: it's far more scary when you use your imagination. Simply showing some producer's version of events immediately quantifies the unknown. The same is true of cinema, of course, although the bigger the budget, the better (theoretically, if not always actually) the effect should be. However, both are prone to compromise and studio/network pressure, and the results are more often on display right there on the screen. King prefers radio to either of them; sound effects direct the listener's thoughts to the right area, but the detail is filled in by the imagination. Horror needs to be focused and put together skilfully; mediocrity = bad.

Despite these reservations, King devotes two chapters to horror in cinema, one covering the classics of the genre (up to 1981) and the other devoted to populist junk. He traces the history of horror on film, from German expressionism to exploitation via Hammer-era gimmicks. I like his enthusiasm for cheesy rubbish and his descriptions of ludicrous gross-out scenes he has seen. Aside from producing a list of great films to be watched at the earliest available opportunity, King also discusses the pitfalls of the industry. Sadly, his comments have been borne out by some pretty shoddy subsequent interpretations of his own material. Interestingly, though, he then moves on to briefly mention the "porno-violence" in some of the worst films of the day, a topic which recently reared its head with the whole "torture porn" media craze.

However, by far the longest section of the book is turned over to literature. Horror fiction is, of course, King's chosen genre and it's intriguing to see what he would recommend. He begins by introducing a fourth archetype: the ghost. The ghost is a link to the past, a reminder of forgotten crimes, of wronged souls. Starting with Peter Straub's Ghost Story, King explores the narcissism - and resulting introspection - of the New American Gothic. He brings in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, source material for The Haunting, and The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddon. The haunted house, complete with malevolent intent and the distortion of perspective, perfectly represents the strength of will and self-obsession of the traditional (evil) ghost.

From here, King moves on to a pair of studies in paranoia. Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin is a classic of urban paranoia. Rosemary's sinister situation results in a questioning of faith and a fear of any kind of change, no matter how seemingly benign. Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers, meanwhile, is more concerned with small-town paranoia. In some ways, King argues, this novel set the mould for the modern horror novel: in warning about the annihilation of the free personality in society, Finny unwittingly found his novel co-opted during McCarthy-era paranoia about the reds under the beds. In correspondence with King, he spells out the point that he himself meant no deeper meaning to the story: it's about pod people replacing humans with perfect (but emotionless) replacements. I love it when writers say this kind of thing.

I won't go through all of the authors in detail here. Books of note, however, include Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (both books I really like). And it was nice to see James Herbert (The Fog, The Rats and many others) being championed at one point. While placing him firmly in the pulp tradition of extreme gore and lurid subject matter, King praises how he "assaults the reader". The section is informative and entertaining, containing - as I mentioned above - correspondence and conversational anecdotes with many of the authors he profiles. It's clear that some of these writers were influential in King's formative years, while others are seem more like the colleagues they actually are. Either way, these revealing passages are something of a coup.

King goes on to talk about horror in general terms, as an artform and as simple entertainment. He highlights the link between horror and humour, pointing out that horror is essentially unbelievable and foolish if handled incorrectly: story is all important, and King is not afraid to show his contempt for authors he considers to be poor at delivering it. He is equally dismissive of literary critics, citing their "infuriating elitism and their total ignorance of what popular fiction does." King also briefly mentions the responsibilities of the author/filmmaker/TV writer - is there a morality behind the story? And who is to blame if a copycat decides to emulate something you wrote?

King finishes this engrossing book by stating that horror is not about death so much as magic, dreams and imagination. After all, it's only fantasy. But during the night, when you feel a chill run down your spine and your eyes stare unblinking at the words of a finely crafted story, horror acts as a reaffirmation of life. I quite like that.

Notes on things which didn't make the grade from my initial seven pages of notes: I especially liked King's comments on "people who turn to the end" and those who fold down the corners of books to mark their place (it's nice to know that I'm not alone). I also had quite a nice paragraph on the role of the horror writer as the watcher for the mutant among us, but I lost it when Firefox decided to shut down for some reason and it's getting late now. Lastly, King on the primary duty of literature: "...to tell us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about people who never existed." Good turn of phrase.

Next: Cujo.


Sasha said...

Excellent lunchtime reading. Really like that last quote. Definitely thought provoking as I review my own responses to the variety of horror media, a genre I generally avoid as you know. Probably seeing 'Nosferatu' at around 10 didn't help. Oddly I will listen to 'horror' stories on the radio and first came across some of stories in 'Night Shift' on Beeb 7. Filling in the blanks yourself from what the voices leave out is effectively chilling.

On the ghosts section, surely there is also the undermining of the sense of safety generally ascribed to home and shelter by the uncontrollable invasion of something 'other', be it a sub-conscious spectre or actual spirit? Those are the stories that always seem to me the most transgressive - the ultimate 'there's no place to hide.' Which says more about me really. Anyhow, another one for my damn list.

Dan said...

Yeah, King covers ghosts and haunted houses in more detail than I perhaps conveyed, but I have tried to keep this review a vaguely reasonable length! It got a bit out of control for a while there until I pruned it back...

Also, by the time I finish this project, my plan is that you will be a fully fledged horror fan.

Sasha said...

Let's not ask for the moon, Dan, but you might get the stars.