Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: Stephen King's Danse Macabre

Originally published in 1981, Stephen King's Danse Macabre was his first work of non-fiction. He takes his readers through his influences and offers his own insights into all aspects of the horror genre.  By book's end it feels like you just shared more than a few beers with the master of horror while discussing trends in American pop culture in the decades after 1945.

Dance Macabre's thesis is simple: horror serves as a filter for anxiety.  And boy there is sure enough to go around the past several decades! Therefore, as times get more frighting, horror tends to flourish.  Although King spends some time on the origins of the modern horror story, penning it down to three novels from the nineteenth century: Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula.  As anyone knows who's ever taken a course on Gothic Literature, Horace Walpole's ghastly novel The Castle of Otranto is credited for inventing the modern ghost story.  Gothic literature deals with the supernatural and the irrational side of humanity, largely in response to the French Revolution. And a prudent one at that after Europe witnessed an idealistic revolution descend into the chaos of the reign of terror (yet another age of anxiety)  Gothic literature paved the way for the Romantic movement.  King did his homework.

As a cold war kid, young Stephen seemed to consume all that pop culture had to offer in the 1950s and 1960s - horror comics, b-movies, and all the great popular writers of fantastic fiction - Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury to mention a few (remember this was a time when the government tried to ban comics).  Writers like them paved the way for the new generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s.  All this stuff makes for fun reading with extended analysis of films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf or episodes of The Outer Limits.  Pop culture studies are now taken seriously in academia so Danse Macabre is oddly enough a pioneering work in the field.

Sizable sections of the book provide a survey and analysis of the horror film and literature.  It is fun reading about films like Night of the Living Dead (the ultimate horror film), Rosemary's Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many others because they are still relevant.  While it is worthwhile to go into sociological critiques of horror films, as King does, he also argues that a good story is essential for any film or novel to work.

Despite the sometimes sloppy and repetitive prose, there are some great sections on storytelling and some insights into King's own creative process, including the origins of his epic work, The Stand.  One notable undercurrent in Danse Macabre is anti-intellectual strain running through it.  No opportunity is spared in taking jabs at literary critics.  I have no intention of getting into the whole question of whether popular fiction is literature, but King gets more respect these days. Although I have not read his latest foray into historical fiction 11/22/63, it has received a fair share of favorable reviews.  It appears King is getting the last laugh.