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.