Sunday, January 22, 2023

Book Review: Stephen King's Danse Macabre

Book Review: 'Stephen King's Danse Macabre'
3 / 5 Stars

'Stephen King's Danse Macabre' first was published in hardback in 1981. This trade paperback edition (400 pp.) was issued by Berkley Books in July 1982. The book doesn't have any reproductions of book or magazine covers, but is illustrated with black-and-white stills from films.

I remember reading 'Danse Macabre' in 1982, by which time King firmly was established not only as a bestselling horror author, but one of the bestselling novelists in the USA, period. At that time I found 'Danse Macabre' competent, but not particularly remarkable. How does it stack up when re-read more than forty years later ?

The book is designed to provide an overview of horror in the popular culture from the Victorian era all the way up to the early 1980s, and, as such, necessarily can only address the initial stages of what in the 80s was turning out to be a horror boom. There are chapters devoted to the seminal works of Shelley (Frankenstein), Stoker (Dracula) and Stevenson (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), horror programs on the radio during the first 50 years of the 20th century, and the era of 'classic' horror films. King also covers the horror films of the postwar years and, in a particularly lengthy chapter, the modern era of horror novels. 

Interspersed with these chapters, is one devoted to King's own childhood and adulthood as an aficionado of the horror genre. King clearly intends this chapter to be a riposte to the belief on the part of some observers that, as a horror author, he somehow is afflicted with psychological and spiritual imbalances that drives his affection for the morbid and the distasteful.

'Danse Macabre' tries to find a difficult middle ground between the academic treatise and a popular analysis and does reasonably well in this regard. For the most part King's forays in the 'literary' attitude are restrained; such as, for example, promoting the idea that most horror media reflects the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysian world views. Elsewhere in the book, however, he'll lurch into lowbrow culture and reference the Penthouse Forum, something no academic ever would do.

Not surprisingly, many of the novels and short story collections that are featured in King's 'Top 10' modern horror works since have receded from the public consciousness. Thus, I don't believe that many contemporary readers under the age of 50 are going to have familiarity with Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Anne Siddons The House Next Door, Ira Levins' Rosemary's Baby, and Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man. But, to his credit, King includes Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Ramsey Campbell's The Doll Who Ate His Mother, and James Herbert's The Fog among his Top 10, which should resonate with horror fans under the age of 50 (as well as devotees of Paperbacks from Hell). 

King's personal opinions are, as one might expect, applied to the media under consideration. He dismisses John Saul (Suffer the Children), Frank DeFelitta (Audrey Rose), William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), and Richard Lortz (Lover Living, Lovers Dead). He does express considerable fondness for Harlan Ellison, and provides a lengthy, and entertaining, footnote from Ellison describing Harlan's adventures with the script of what would come to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

The book's appendices provide a list of King's top 100 or so horror films, as well as a list of 100 top books. While bearing in mind that these lists inevitably are dated, looking through them certainly will lead the reader to some further investigations. For my part, I went and obtained the Harry Crews' 1976 novel, the Southern Grotesquerie Feast of Snakes

I finished 'Danse Macabre' with mixed feelings. While there are some sections that are engaging and informative, there are others than belabored the subject and tried my patience. Hence, a three Star rating is advisable. I can't recommend the book to all horror and fantastic fiction fans, but those who are interested in an overview of the genre as it stood in the early 80s, on the cusp of the Paperbacks from Hell explosion, may find it valuable.

2 comments:

Maldoror said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maldoror said...

Does King mention Richard Lortz (Lover Living, Lovers Dead) somewhere in his book?

Personally, I really like Lortz