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March 8, 2021

Book review – Danse Macabre

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danse_macabre_trade_paperback_largeDANSE MACABRE

Stephen King, Baker and Taylor pb $21.95

If you ever wonder why people read or write horror fiction, or want some signposts to the good stuff, then Stephen King’s 1981 book Danse Macabre is a good place to start. The book itself is an artefact of a slower age before personal computers and mobile phones took over, and when King schlepped the enormous manuscript of The Stand along New York streets to his publisher rather than uploading it to the Cloud (now there’s a name for a horror story).

King’s style is entertaining, knowledgeable, jokey, unpretentious. Its only drawback is in his inclination not to know when to shut up when drawing conclusions, but he can be forgiven for that.

Danse Macabre covers film, books, radio and television, and King’s enthusiasm makes each medium come alive. He also looks at the historical roots of horror fiction, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), one of the earlier vampires. He tips his lid to the master of weird fiction, HP Lovecraft (1890–1937), whose works inspired King to write horror. There are writers who express themselves more powerfully and clearly than Lovecraft but few come up with such charming phrases as ‘carven mausolea of the nightmare countries’ – staple fare on Lovecraft’s dread-drenched pages.

King tells us that the work of horror ‘is not interested in the civilised furniture of our lives’. Its purpose, contends King, is to help us cope with real horrors; it is ‘an out-letting and a lancing’ – a kind of catharsis. The books and films reflect the ‘free-floating anxieties’ of their times. A good case in point is the number of mutant monsters in Japanese films produced after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The horror film is also ‘an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behaviour’, so according to King the horror writer is ‘neither more nor less than an agent of the status quo’, which involves at least having a full belly and enough money to buy a book or watch a film. The horror concept of a cosmic war waged between good and evil certainly helps support the fear-inducing status quo of some religions, but one must allow that it also provides the element of conflict all drama is tied to. King dwells on conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian forces within our own personalities and how horror fiction naturally reflects that.

At a deeper level than nightmare monsters, King also examines ‘social horror’, by which writers such as Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby) parody our own justification of repression in whatever form. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and George Orwell’s 1984 also tackle that edge of ‘social horror’.

King even attempts to answer the question, ‘How do you justify earning a living by feeding off people’s worst fears?’ In addition, he provides us with a list of horror films to watch and a list of books (Watership Down seemed a peculiar choice) to read, so you may find yourself well and truly lost among the crepuscular labyrinths of unease.

See more about King at stephenking.com.

~ Michael McDonald


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