Monday, April 19, 2010
Forgotten Books: Danse Macabre
There are certain books you open up with a feeling of coming home. I'm not sure how many times I've read Stephen King's Danse Macabre but it's probably five or six times all the way through. And numerous times when I've opened it to read a specific arc or chapter. I started reading it when I was going through my latest series of radiation sessions and, as always, it made me happy. It's just one of those books.
Ostensibly the book deals with the traditions and tropes of horror fiction, movies, television, radio and comic books. But in the course of discussing horror from its inception to 1981 when the book was first published, King gives us a cultural, intellectual, and sociological overview of both our society and his own life. You're propelled through the book quickly because King has stocked it with so much information, discussion and smart-ass asides. The section on the terrible movie Robot Monster makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I read it. And yes, there's even a picture of the guy in the gorilla suit and diving helmet. And I still can't believe that Elmer Bernstein, one of the truly great composers of movie music, wrote the music for it.
One of the pieces I was especially taken with this time--maybe because I'd just finished rereading Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser--is King's comparison of Bradbury-Dreiser. Huh? But he makes his case very well--I imagine King was a hell of a good teacher--noting that he's not saying they're alike in theme or style but in the way they frequently overplay their hands.
King has some occasional fun with science fiction fandom, remarking on its frequent complaint that science fiction novels rarely get much respect from the mainstream press. But as King points out, science fiction reviewers can be pretty savage on their own writers. I remember as a teenager not liking Damon Knight's reviews because of their meanness and, in the case of Richard Matheson, what I felt to be envy. According to Knight Matheson was a hack who could do nothing right. I'd say Richard's had a pretty good run despite Knight's opinion of him, wouldn't you?
The final segment, Horror and Morality, could stand alone as a lecture worthy of a semester's study if you coupled it with reading six or seven of the novels King mentions his discussion of horror's relevance to the culture at large.
Stephen King's written a lot of books. This is one of his best. It demonstrates that he's not only a first-rate storytellert but a first-rate thinker as well.