Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Danse Macabre Thirty Years Later

When Dr.AC asked me to contribute to this blog, he suggested the following approach:

"Beyond that, I like reading personal reflections on seminal films, books, TV, etc. that shaped you into the horror fan you are today."

Never let it be said that I don't aim to please. The seminal item in question for today's symposium is Stephen King's Danse Macabre, originally published in 1981. Technically, I'm a little bit early with this, but as it so happens there's a new edition this year for which King has added a new essay called "What's Scary," so this turns out to be topical. People have been calling for King to write a follow-up to Danse Macabre for years, given the explosion of the genre since its publication. I doubt that this new essay is going to quiet those demands.

In any event, Danse Macabre was kind of my Rosetta Stone for the genre for many years. My parents gave me a copy for Christmas in 1983 and it has rarely spent much time shelved with my other books. It's always lying around somewhere, having recently been used as a reference. I'm on my third copy now. I read the two before it to tatters.

My first copy looked about like this when I replaced it

I spent a good portion of my youth hunting down the movies and books King mentions in the body of the book and (especially) in his appendices, a quest that led me down surprising avenues. Not only was Danse Macabre my gateway drug into horror, it led me into world cinema and hardcore literature.

Two examples:

  • King describes the end of William Faulkner's Sanctuary, in which Popeye is hanged. King's account of it is pretty droll, enough so that I was able to approach Faulkner as fun reading rather than as "Literature" with a capital L. Having my footing with Faulkner (and King's own ideas of the Gothic novel) was useful when it came to reading Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and The Fury for class in college.

  • King includes on his list of seminal horror movies from the period between 1950 and 1980 some entries that might raise some eyebrows among some hardcore horror fans. Specifically: The Seventh Seal, The Hour of the Wolf, Throne of Blood, and The Exterminating Angel. I mean, I'm totally down with the notion that Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Luis Bunuel made horror movies, but the idea was surprising to the teen-age me. Pursuing these movies led me into the broader world of cinema, not least of which were the other films by these three filmmakers.

In other words, it's fair to say that Danse Macabre has enriched my life far beyond my obsession with horror, and even if I didn't like a single one of King's other books, the man would remain one of the genre's giants on the strength of Danse Macabre alone.

The downside for me, though, is that Danse Macabre puts the exclamation point on King's golden period. King's first decade as a novelist was primo. Everything after Danse Macabre is problematic. I get the feeling that in writing the book, King wound up dissecting the golden goose. He started actually thinking about things that he was doing unconsciously before (though it's also possible that he was derailed by his coke addiction). He hasn't been the same writer since.

Danse Macabre itself is the cornerstone of my horror reference library, one of four books I return to time after time. For the record, the others are Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (later retitled, after much complaining from horror fans, I'm sure, as An Illustrated History Of Horror And Science-fiction Films), Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman (which picks up where Clarens leaves off), and The Monster Show by David Skal. I like Danse Macabre best, though, because it retains King's distinctive voice, that conversational tone that has made him one of the most popular writers ever.

As a side note, King's latest big doorstop of a novel, Under the Dome, is pretty good. It harken's back to King's golden period, which is when it was originally conceived. In spite of its length, it's all full-stop forward momentum, punctuated by memorably nasty scenes of violence. Check it out.


Anonymous said...

Pen and ink is wits plough...................................................................

Will Errickson said...

Wow--I have *exactly* the same feelings about this book. I read it around the same time too. I'm planning on doing a write-up of DANSE MACABRE sometime soon myself; you really nailed what makes the book so special. And nice to see a shout-out to Kim Newman's masterful work.