Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Danse Party

Last week's DVD release of the classic anthology Thriller (1960-62) got me thinking about where I first read about the show - in Danse Macabre, Stephen King's non-fiction overview of the horror genre. Originally published in 1981, Danse Macabre was a novel-length tour of (mostly modern age) horror in film, television and literature, as written in King's colloquial, conversational style. I first saw the trade paperback edition back in '82, in a local Stop & Shop, and while my mother was wary of the eerie cover, with a purple-shaded image of King with glowing-orange eyes, she eventually relented and bought it for me.

At the time, I was an avid horror fan who had read very little critical discussion about the genre. At least not much pertaining to its recent history. The books on the genre at my local and school libraries were mostly focused on "classic" horror - the films of the '30s through the '50s. Almost any overview of the genre barely gave a perfunctory nod to material of recent vintage. By and large, horror in the '60s and '70s hadn't yet achieved the same critical due as that of earlier eras. At least not in any books that had made their way into my hands.

I mention all this just to give you an idea of how important Danse Macabre was to me. This book was an education and a validation wrapped up in one. It opened my eyes to films, TV series, and books that I had never heard of. It discussed horror with depth, intelligence, and humor - an act that, in itself, was a huge affirmation that my interests had merit. King celebrated horror both as high art and as low art, finding gold at either end of the spectrum. Never taking an apologetic tone, Danse Macabre was written from the standpoint that an appreciation of horror didn't need to come with any excuses. All of this was revelatory to me.

Unfortunately, in an age before there was easy access to, well, everything, most of the films and shows that King discussed were not easy to see for myself - which truly sucked after having my interest piqued - but that's just how it was back then. Things were always just a little out of reach.

One tough-to-find item was Thriller. Prior to Danse Macabre, I had no idea that Thriller existed. I forget whether King's book was the first I'd heard about The Outer Limits but I know for a fact that it introduced Thriller to me. In noting its connections to Weird Tales and to the work of authors like Robert Bloch, and in describing some of the images from the show that resonated in his memory (such as "the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head" from "Pigeons from Hell"), King completely sold me on Thriller. Now that I finally own the series, I'm happy to say that King didn't exaggerate in regard to Thriller's quality. As a horror show, Thriller delivers the goods.

King's endorsement of Thriller is just one example of how Danse Macabre never led me wrong - although I will say that once I got a little older, King's list of what he considered to be the twentiest scariest movies of all time looked more suspect to me. Regardless, all these years later, Danse Macabre is still proving its mettle as an effective guidebook. I can't imagine anyone working in the genre today attempting anything like it. There's just too much ground to cover. Back in 1981, it was possible to write about the last thirty or so years of horror and do "modern horror" justice. Add on another thirty years since then, though, and forget it.

You could write about all those years, sure, but it wouldn't have the same intimate feel as Danse Macabre. King was in his early thirties when he wrote it and it was possible back then for a fan born at the right time to have really seen everything - certainly everything that mattered (and all without the benefit of VCRs and cable TV!).

The horror world was a much smaller place then and that helped Danse Macabre be the book that it is. Now the genre has gone through too many cycles, too many trends; it's become too splintered. I can't imagine anyone - even genre journalists who are paid to see everything - being able to truly keep up. At the time of Danse Macabre, though, it felt like a realistic goal to see it all. For the dedicated genre fan, not much fell through the cracks. Nowadays, it all rushes past you so fast.

Maybe that's the greatest lasting appeal of Danse Macabre for me. It's a reminder of a time when the genre was more approachable. Even if you were a little late to the party, the idea of catching up with everything you missed so far wasn't that daunting. You just needed to be taken by the hand and pointed in the right direction. Danse Macabre did that for me, and for that, I'll always remember it fondly.


Chris Regan said...

I only read it a couple of years ago, but went through the same thing of trying to track down as much of the things he references as I could. It's a great book and really interesting for any horror fan.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, to look at it now it's a great snapshot of where the genre was at the end of the '70s - right on the cusp of the horror boom of the early '80s.

Will Errickson said...

Oh, wow, I've been slowly working on a post about Danse Macabre as well! I think it might be redundant, because I can pretty much simply say "ditto!" to what you have here. Reading it age 15 ot 16 really opened up my head. I also like how it functions as a baby-boomer biography; I learned a some political/sociocultural history from it too. I still look for titles from his list of horror fiction. Great post, thanks!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Will - I hope you'll be posting your thoughts on Danse Macabre, too. I'd love to read 'em!

deadlydolls said...

Has King ever done a followup? I actually enjoy his essays and non-fiction more than his novels, and Danse Macabre is a prime example.

Jeff Allard said...

He did a pair of essays for Fangoria last year that were something of a follow-up with King giving his take on the horror movies of recent years. I think the same essays are included in an updated version of Danse Macabre that was published earlier this year. Haven't checked it out yet, though.

Will Errickson said...

I finally posted my review!