Friday, October 22, 2010

Danse Macabre by Stephen King (1981): Oh, Baby, Do Ya Wanna Dance?

He may not be Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, or Michiko Kakutani, but Stephen King once wrote what I consider one of the most perfectly devastating criticisms of bad writing ever. Comparing a now mostly-forgotten novel by an unknown writer that he felt was "written pretty good" to the then-current rulers of the bestseller lists, King wrote this author was no Saul Bellow, no Bernard Malamud, but at least not down there in the steerage with people like Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon, who apparently wouldn't know the difference between a balanced line of prose and a shit-and-anchovy pizza.

Down there in the steerage. A shit-and-anchovy pizza. Holy living fuck, do I love that. Inelegant, crude, and yet right on the money. In fact, I love nearly everything about King's Danse Macabre, which is where you'll find that immortal dismissal. Written after he'd just made a name for himself with the hardcover success of The Shining (1977), it's a very personal and informal rumination on horror entertainment in the latter half of the 20th century, coinciding mostly with King's life specifically and baby boomers in general (he was born in 1947 - which means he was nearly 10 years younger than I am now when he wrote this book. Sigh). I first read it as a young teenager, and it also served well in introducing me to various cultural touchstones I wasn't learning about in high school: the uneasiness Americans felt after Sputnik (a pivotal event in a young King's life), the Charles Whitman and Kent State shootings, Charles Manson, the Vietnam War, Black Panthers, and Erica Jong's charming concept of the "zipless fuck."

Almost effortlessly (the genesis of the book was his college lectures teaching a course on supernatural literature), King relates background info on horror in all media: he fondly recalls the Cold War "bug-eyed monster" horror films of the '50s and '60s but heaps scorns on Plan 9 from Outer Space and Robot Monster. Then there's old-time horror radio star Arch Oboler and his "Lights Out" series, as well as TV shows like "Thriller," "Night Gallery," and "The Outer Limits." He muses about changing tastes and sophistication in audiences as well as root causes for our fascination with the macabre (or "mcbare" as he pronounced the word as a youngster). Tying all this together are autobiographical sketches about his youth as an American kid brought up by a single working mother, moving from one town to another and engaging with some of the odder members of his extended family. And then one day he discovers a box of old pulp fiction paperbacks that had once belonged to his now long-departed father, read his first H.P. Lovecraft tales, and a fate was sealed. Lovecraft; as it ever was, as it ever shall be.

As you can probably guess, this is no academic tome filled with references to "hermeneutics" or "metatextualism" or anything like that; Danse Macabre is digressive, insightful, funny, unpolished, wide-ranging, wrong in some places and oh-so-right in others. King's background as a one-time English teacher and lifelong committed reader with catholic tastes allows him to expound, if only briefly, not simply on the horror fiction we all know and love but also commonly venerated writers like Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux, James M. Cain, Joan Didion, and Jim Thompson. And ever the rock'n'roller, King references punk rock kings the Ramones and the Sex Pistols - at a time when few music fans in America had any inkling who they were - noting a similarity between their gleeful noise-making and anti-establishment rabble-rousing and the seemingly antisocial aims of many horror movies. He admits he kinda likes The Prophecy, a much-hyped film failure in the late '70s but says his favorite horror movie of that day is the little-seen Tourist Trap. King is one of those guys that just soaks up whatever's out there; it is as if he is quite literally no snob.

As one might expect, he devotes an entire long and thorough chapter on horror fiction in which he covers a handful of modern works that he feels define various aspects of the genre: Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Anne Rivers Siddons' The House Next Door, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Harlan Ellison's collection Strange Wine, Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, and Ramsey Campbell's first novel The Doll Who Ate His Mother. While expressing disdain for the lifeless aridity of grad-school student theorizing King does some of his own, but it's a livelier, chummier, albeit just as informed approach he takes, sometimes graceless and glib, but often apt and unpretentious.

Whether it's breaking down the famous opening paragraph of Jackson's novel, or marveling at the "ominous jocularity" of Ellison's stories, or discussing how the Gothic tradition is twisted around in Straub's early novels, King really just likes kicking back and talking about what he loves and knows. He lets the authors speak for their own works by quoting at length their letters to him, although acknowledging that sometimes authors are not the best critics of their own work.

A few of King's ideas in Danse Macabre have become pretty well-known as part of horror criticism: the horror genre is "as conservative as an Illinois Republican in a three-piece pinstriped suit" because it wants us to reject the maniacal and monstrous outsider, to see the taboo and avoid it and celebrate our healthy selves (this was some years before Clive Barker, remember). He thinks that when a horror movie builds up suspense and then shows you a 10-foot tall insect, the audience sighs, "I can handle a 10-foot tall insect ; at least it wasn't 100 feet tall, that would've been pretty bad" (I don't think that one holds up at all; audiences are more likely to whine today, "A 10-foot tall insect? Why wasn't it 100 feet tall?"). But most famous of all is this honest admission, which seems to sum up Stephen King and much - but absolutely not all - of his fiction:

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.

Two appendices complete Danse Macabre: one on essential horror film and one on essential horror fiction since the 1950s or so; I've mentioned here before that I've used the latter list as general guide over the years. This is a book I have dipped into over and over again over many years with a deep and abiding pleasure and which inspired in me the desire to look at horror in a larger and more thoughtful way, rather than just taking in the latest movie or novel everybody's talking about. All serious, and burgeoning, horror fans should own a copy. Functioning like a kind of alternative education in art high and low as well as in 20th century Americana, Danse Macabre is an absolutely unmissable and essential piece of horror entertainment itself.

14 comments:

Jeff Allard said...

Awesome write-up, Will! Today, fans can research the genre so easily online but back in the day, a book like Danse Macabre was an invaluable guide - informative, perceptive, and often hilarious.

Eric Rex said...

Danse Macabre was I think the first ever writing on horror that made me sit up and go "there may be something more to this weird little genre" than to which I was willing to give credit. I try to go back and re-read it just to savor the language.

Excellent write up.

Jonny Metro said...

Great read, Will. I love this book, but I truly wish that King would release a follow-up book. So much has happened in the genre since the book was written that I feel it deserves a sequel. Or, at the very least, an updated addition of the original.

--J/Metro

Will Errickson said...

Jonny, I thought about that as I wrote this, and I've thought it over the past 20-odd years since I read it, but you know what? I'm glad he didn't ever do an update. This book is more an autobiography of his impressionable years. Did you ever read his column for Entertainment Weekly over the last few years? He's not the crypt-keeper he once was. Danse Macabre was where he was at a certain period of time in his life, and that's what makes the book so special.

Tim Mayer said...

I bought the book and when it first came out and enjoyed it immensely. Loved his observation that all the AIP teenage monster movies were set in towns were the eugenic squad had showed up early.
But he wasn't the household name he is today. This was just before he became a human publishing industry.

lazlo azavaar said...

I love this book. My seventies-era Signet paperback is literally falling apart at the seams with all the re-readings I've given it. I can open it at any point, start reading, then realize I've blown an hour on it.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

i keep quoting from this book or finding ways that it illuminates my life... strange that it hasn't seemed to age. stuff like the absurdity of the giant chicken heart that swallowed the world are perfect
King's always had a great ear for music. whatever else it is 'Pet Cemetery' is a kickass Ramones song

Peter said...

I loved DM. Nice write up.

Luis said...

I have this and book and read it many years ago. Your excellent article makes me want to dig it out from whatever dark corner it lurks and re-read it.

Ormand Murk said...

As usual, a very insightful piece! I read the book in 1982 - I was 13 years old. King (even though he found his films to be crap) peaked my interest in seeing the films of Andy Milligan and I used his book recommendations as a checklist for must-reads long into my 20s...

Aaron Mason said...

Nicely done writeup on the book and a welcome reminder of what King used to be.

It seems to me that the timing makes it improbable but did he not take a shot at Laymon's "The Cellar" in this book?

Seems impossible since they were only a year apart, but I can't think where else he would have had the opportunity to.

- Aaron

dr.morbius said...

I've read three copies of Danse Macabre to tatters. Those appendices are pure gold. Danse Macabre makes a terrific double feature with his book, On Writing.

Oh, and a terrific blog you have here. I've lost a big chunk of my day perusing it.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, Doc! Just what I like to hear. On Writing was very good as well.

Rob Kirby said...

Honestly, I think Danse Macabre is King's best book. Reread it many times over the years.