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.


Cap'n Bob said...

Not being a horror fan per se I haven't read any of King's work in that genre, but on your say so I'll seek this one out. I love talk about pop culture, especially the low end of it. And is there anything lower than a movie with Arch Hall, Jr?
On a related note, I watched The Haunted World of Edward Wood, Jr last night and it was fascinating. I didn't know Vampirella had an affair with Orson Welles, for example. Assuming she's telling the truth. Anyway, Wood, for all his ineptness, had a loyal cadre of followers. The only one with anything bad to say about the man was Bela Lugosi's son.

Anonymous said...

Love this book, the sections on Bradbury and Ramsey Campbell particularly. Campbell's a great writer who's gotten short shrift, now only being published by Leisure.

King's observations on the workings of good horror in general are also of value to writers who want to pen scary tales.

Jeff P.

Will Errickson said...

I hope DANSE MACABRE isn't forgotten! I discovered it as a teenager in the '80s and it really awakened my appreciation for horror in all its forms. It is so wide-ranging and folksy, and introduced me not only to other horror writers like Campbell or Shirley Jackson, but people like Harlan Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner, etc. King's brain seems like a warehouse of 20 century cultural artifacts. Wonderful, wonderful book whether one is a horror fan or not.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

I have yet to read this book, and I know I should since I work in the sf/fantasy fields.

Brendan DuBois said...

Ed, you and I are once again on the same page... a wonderful book, and I wish King would write more non-fiction... just love the way he tells those kinds of tales.

Todd Mason said...

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.

--Knight didn't actually say that so much as that he was unimpressed with the inconsistencies and sloppiness in Matheson's writing when Matheson did other things very well indeed, and particularly in the 1950s when he was doing the bulk of his reviewing, Knight was if anything a more successful and widely-respected writer of fantastic fiction. I suspect envy wasn't much in it. Knight, however, was emphatic in his criticism, there's no two ways about that.

But I realize this is a sore point here.

Stephen B. said...

A fine book, DANSE MACABRE truly is a favorite.

I've read it several times and it's told mostly in a conversational tone. Like a very long essay on suspense and speculative fiction movies, stories, and novels.

My Dad reminds me that DANSE MACABRE is a Saint-Saens piece also - seems fitting.