Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Forgotten Books: Danse Macbre

Danse Macbre by Stephen King

Forgotten? Nothing by Stephen King is forgotten. I imagine that virtually if not literally everything he's published is in print. That said, even some readers of his horror novels may have passed this one by. Not everybody is inclined to read a long overview of the horror field but they should because this is one of the most articulate, occasionally eloquent overviews of an entire genre I've ever read. And lest you think it might be a bit on the dry side, it's a hell of a lot of fun and far more revealing about the Stephen King of the early 80s than most of the interviews he gave back then.

What gives the book its gravitas is the fact that in discussing horror as an expression of the human condition, King demonstrates how dark fiction and dark movies fit into the sociology of various eras. One of his most interesting points, early on, is how fiction is fed by fact. He talks about the assassination of John Kennedy, how horror brought us together. "That moment of knowledge and three day spasm of stunned grief which followed it is perhaps the closest any people in history has ever come to a total period of mass consciousness and mass empathy and--in retrospect--mass memory." Where were you when JFK was killed? Most of us of a certain age can tell you exactly.

Kennedy's murder inspired a sub-category of horror, I think, the paranoid thriller. My favorites here would be John Huston's almost viciously disdained Winter Kills and (surprise) Larry Cohen's Best Seller, Winter Kills because of its vast conspiracy, Best Seller because its smaller but more cunning conspiracy. But horror fiction of all kinds was effected by Kennedy's murder because we as a people underwent a transformation that remains with us today. The cynicism, the anger, the madness that came from that day in Dallas could be felt in all popular art but most especially in what was being done with horror, mostly notably in Europe.

This is only one example in a book filled with commentary on just about every aspect of our lives and how it touches on the creation of horror fiction. King is riffing here like a great jazz musician, telling stories about his drive-in movie days on the one hand, referencing Thornton Wilder on the other. There are long looks at movies, at fiction, at publishing, at movie making, at the usefulness of crowds to distinguish between a critics' darling and something worth seeing. He plays the whole orchestra here.

I didn't really understand this book the first two times I read it back in the eighties and nineties. But this time I saw it for what it is. Ostensibly it's about horror but not really. It's about a couple of different eras and a couple of different generations and what happened in those times and to those people. There's no equivalent now for the many teenage delights King talks about. We're in a rougher age. Nor are many of the writers he recommends read much any more. They don't fit in with Twitter or even e-mail. And I'm not sure that a gentle soul like Fritz Leiber would have much time for reality TV--though he'd likely write a hilariously poisonous story about it.

But that's the beauty of this book and it is a beautiful book. It's a true honest generally unsentimental piece of Americana and a savvy look at how pop culture intersects with everyday life.

14 comments:

Iren said...

I always have had fond memories of the book, and of all the books King has yet to write a squeal to, this one should be at the top of the list.

Craig Clarke said...

A fantastic choice, Ed. I still refer to Danse Macabre for indepth information on classic horror.

Todd Mason said...

yes, but...well, the paranoid thriller was already well in place, with such dandy examples (both well-filmed) as David Ely's SECONDS and Richard Condon's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (leaving aside such ancestors as Chesterton and Kafka and all had left us). I do like DANSE better than I do any of the novels, possibly excepting CARRIE...and Fritz Leiber lived through some pretty damned ugly times, too, Ed...and, as you note, didn't shrink from tackling them. I'll take the inane, even ugly "reality" shows ahead of the posited life in "Coming Attraction" and THE GREEN MILLENNIUM.

Ed Gorman said...

You're right, Todd. There were several notable paranoid thrillers in place before JFK's murder but I think his death gave the new ones a contextual reality that hadn't been there before. After Kennedy's death anything seemed possible. Though of course we were glutted with all kinds of crazed conspiracy theories that worked a lot better in novels that in so called non-fiction. And you're right about Leiber, too. Being an alcoholic myself I have some sense of what he went through during that period of his life. Don't I remember Frank Robinson talking about getting a job at Science Digest (?) only to find that the job he was being offered had been Leiber's--who'd just been fired? But Leiber's best years were ahead of him thank God.

Todd Mason said...

You got it. Hearst's SCIENCE DIGEST, proving the tradition of heartless bastardy wasn't over yet.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Although I think _Danse Macabre_ is well written, I don't agree with King's negative comments about Rod Serling and _The Twilight Zone_.

Deb said...

This was the first Steven King book I ever read. I suspect I'm in a very small group of people who read King's non-fiction which then became a gateway to his fiction.

Iren, I don't know if you'd consider it a sequel, but I enjoyed his more recent non-fiction, "On Writing" (I think that was the title). It's more about his personal writing habits (and the aftermath of getting hit by a van), but there are digressions about what he reads and why.

Todd Mason said...

Well, given the derivative nature of too much of King's own fiction, it is amusing that he (not unfairly) picks on the too often one-punch retreads of the TWILIGHT ZONEs written by Serling particularly (Charles Beaumont's scripts for the series average much better). Serling could do better, as with "Time Enough at Last" and "...Maple Street," but usually didn't. The episode with a Luddite being chased around his house by his electric razor was particularly embarrassing in this wise, but it was hardly alone.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning Leiber, one of my favorite writers, unfairly forgotten these days. Although I think I read recently where someone was bringing out a new collection of his stuff, so there's hope. And you're right, Ed---he'd make mincemeat out of so-called reality TV.

Loved "Danse Macabre". In college, I skipped a chance to see a press-only preview for "The Howling" to go home to Maine for a King signing. He signed my hardcover, first edition of D.M., which I still have to this day.

Jeff P.

Brendan DuBois said...

Great comments Ed... years and years ago in college, King came to speak to us... and during the Q&A, I asked him about DM and whether he was going to write another non-fiction like this... and he said maybe... alas, that's been a long, long time....

Todd Mason said...

Well, as Deb pointed out, ON WRITING is another much better than average King effort, and relevant enough to DANSE. (It's not up to Wilhelm's STORYTELLER or Knight's CREATING SHORT FICTION [sorry, Ed], but it's good and fit for their company.) Les Daniels's LIVING IN FEAR came out some years ahead of King, and permanently impressed young me. Nothing quite like them has found its way toward me, in scope...there is David Hartwell's shockingly wrongheaded intro to THE DARK DESCENT, and, moving in a more academic direction, ST Joshi's also sometimes rather questionable assertions, among some others, but I'm not sure anyone else has quite taken on the range that Daniels and King have...perhaps RAMSEY CAMPBELL, PROBABLY, a column-collection rather than a book-length history and/or rumination...I'm probably foolishly forgetting at least something by David Skal, and others. Douglas Winter's interview collection, at least, deserves a mention.

Leiber continues to be redribbled out by publishers, happily as far as it goes. He's too important to go completely out of print, surprisingly so far. Bloch, too.

Fred Blosser said...

Ed, I agree that the JFK assassination profoundly unsettled America, but not so sure it fueled the paranoid thriller as much as Watergate did ten years later (and to a lesser degree, the Church Committee revelations about CIA covert operations). Post-Watergate saw SIX/THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN,PARALLAX VIEW, and EXECUTIVE ACTION (a two-fer released at the height of Watergate which proposed that JFK had been assassinated by a cabal of right-wing Texas oil barons). I don't see too many influential conspiracy novels anymore, maybe because such fantasies have been taken out of the realm of prose fiction and transplanted into radio talk shows and tea-bag assemblies.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Fred, in a smaller focus, John Grisham had a corner on that market for a while.

Mark said...

Really, her books are starting to get very superfluous and approximately predictable to study... although I have completed all the books to date with the exception of Blood Noir, the series is starting to go stagnant.

Thanks for the review.

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