Saturday, September 17, 2011

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

Danse Macabre
By Stephen King
Copyright 1981

October 4, 1957 and an Invitation to Dance

What was it that turned Stephen King onto horror – real horror! It was that day, October 4, 1957 when mankind altered his view of his place in the cosmos.

According to King, he was at a movie theater, viewing the sci-fi classic Earth vs. The Flying Saucers when the picture was stopped. The theater manager appeared on stage and told the audience that it had just been reported that the Russians had successfully launched Sputnik. Now, the Russians had an object in space – the first manmade object in space. We’d never look at our world the same way again.

He goes on to contrast two sci-fi movies of the era: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The former had helpful aliens that came to help man and prevent him from destroying itself. The other featured aliens bent on destroying mankind.

He then invites us to join him on a retrospective of horror in all its forms over the last 30 years.

The Tail of the Hook
In this rather disorganized chapter, King attempts to describe what he defines as the essence of horror and tries to differentiate between science fiction and horror.
He sees it as the Appollonian being disturbed by the Dionysian. He discusses “freaks” as in people in freak shows as horror, the common campfire story (such as the murderer on the loose at a lovers lane who has a hook on his hand), and the modern tales of horror.

He discusses E.C. Comics, the pulps of the 1940s and 1950s, the low budget movies of Roger Corman and American International Pictures, and modern horror set against the backdrop of space such as the movie Alien.

He raises an interesting point that fans’ interest in horror as a genre has ebbed and flowed over the years. It tends to flow during difficult economic times.

I understand that King is trying to lay a foundation for his analysis of horror that is to follow, but the chapter is a disorganized, stream of consciousness essay on the subject.

Tales of the Tarot
King says that before we can have any discussion of modern horror, we must go back to its roots. He defines those roots in thee novels of the 19th century: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In those three novels, we find the archtypes for horror: the creature, the undead or vampire, and the wolfman.

He first discusses Frankenstein. He tells the well known tale of Shelley and her friends stranded at a remote mansion by rainstorms. They take turns reading aloud ghost stories before all setting off to write their own tales of horror to bring back to the group.

King informs us that no novel has produced as many movies based upon it as Frankenstein. It is Boris Karloff’s character, the creature, for which the story is best known even though it is named for the creature’s creator, Baron Frankenstein.

King summarizes the novel and discusses how Hollywood, for good and bad, distorted Shelley’s story. In Shelley’s story, the creature is human enough, can reason, think, speak, and has emotions. He wants a mate. When the Baron won’t deliver, his creature seeks revenge.

As we all know, in the movies (with few exceptions), the creature is a grotesque, unthinking monster. Much less intellectually stimulating are the movies, but they make for better theater, King tells us.

King praises Shelley for her story, but pans her storytelling. Shelley is not a very good writer in King’s opinion with her monsters and their counterparts arguing as if before a Harvard debating society.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel of sexuality, King states. The bite of a vampire is the ultimate hickey. Sexuality and horror have always been melded and, as King points out, movie makers have always incorporated the two. Even in the Bela Lugosi incarnation of the movie, Lugosi plays the evil Count as suave and smooth – a real lady’s man.

Vampires and the undead form a large block of modern horror from the various interpretations of Stoker’s novel, their sequels which have little or nothing to do with Stoker’s novel, as well as the zombie which first appeared in film in the 1920s and was brought to the fore so aptly by George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead.

King admires Stoker’s novel although he points out that Stoker did not create the vampire as a creature of literature. That was done by a writer by the name of John Polidori with his short novel, Vampyre which King says is not good at all. It is believed that Polidori simply retold Lord Byron’s The Burial.

Ironically, King – the man who has written four novels longer than 1,000 pages – criticizes Dracula for being overlong.

It is here that King begins his effusive praise of H.P. Lovecraft, showing how Lovecraft drew upon Stoker’s style of writing to conjure creatures of his own mythos.

The character, the Wolfman, finds its basis in Stevenson’s novella. A good man is transformed into an evil being. Of the three novels King says form the bedrock of modern horror, it is Stevenson’s sleak story he likes best.

The transformation, willingly or unwillingly, is a fixture in modern horror. Everything from the movies based on the novel, from The Wolfman, to the Incredible Hulk all find their basis in Stevenson’s story.

King says one could include Henry JamesTurn of the Screw because some see it as the basis of the modern ghost story. He eschews it because James ultimately relies on the rational and psychology to form his story.

An Annoying Autobiographical Pause
King delves into his own past to try to determine what it was that led him to write horror. He first explores the psychology of horror writers. Those who loathe the genre often ask what makes people write that sort of thing. There must be something in their past that warped them psychologically.

King does have a bizarre incident from his past that he relates. When he was four, he left his house to play with a neighbor. A short time later, he returned home and refused to speak the rest of the day. His mother was horrified that the kid with whom he’d gone to play had been hit by a train. King heard later that they picked up pieces of him with a wicker basket. King has no recollection of the event and does not ascribe his desire to write horror to the event. He simply acknowledges to those who seek psychological reasons for the horror writer’s lust for the macabre, that the event is there.

When King was just an toddler, his father left the family, never to be heard from again. One day while exploring the family attic, King came across a stack of horror and science fiction pulp novels from the 1940s. King’s mother explained that they belonged to his father. King’s father, he learns also aspired to be a writer and submitted stories to pulp magazines, only to be met with rejection.

It was reading the stories in those pulps that started King’s lifelong love affair with the fantastic and the horrible.

Radio and the Modern Set of Reality
Like many of us who love Old Time Radio (OTR), King sees it as one of the great story telling media in history. Unlike television or movies, it requires the listener to engage his imagination in visualizing the story – the theater of the mind as E.G. Marshall called it in his opening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater was completing its eight year run on radio when King wrote this book and he pans it. He says it is amusing, but a shadow of the earlier versions. His favorite shows were Suspense and Dimension X.

I fully and wholeheartedly disagree with King’s assessment of CBSRMT. That show was a staple of my childhood and many of those stories stayed with me for more than 20 years before I rediscovered it on the Internet.

He recalls his first true moment of terror as the night he sneaked down the steps of his family home and secretly listened to the radio broadcast of Dimension X episode Mars is Heaven – an adaptation of the Ray Bradbury story from The Martian Chronicles. King points out that the broadcast date of that story would have made him four years old – a bit precocious to grasp the story. I wonder if he didn’t hear the later, 1957 broadcast of the same story on the radio show X Minus One. Both shows, which adapted scripts from the best sci-fi writers of the age, were excellent.

He also discusses how movies and eventually television started out by essentially using script writing style of radio, having people describe action to the audience as it was unfolding – something necessary in radio but entirely foolish in the visual media.

The Modern American Horror Movie – Text and Subtext
King examines horror movies made from 1950 – 1980, describes their plots (the text) and the allegory they deliberately or accidentally represent (the subtext)

Some of his analysis was old when he wrote it. Who, for example hasn’t heard of or read the thinly veiled allegory of a “Red under the bed,” in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? But when he sets different movies against the time they were made, King brings forth some interesting observations.

For instance, King sees the movie, The Thing from Another World as pointing out the folly of the policy of appeasement that allowed Hitler to gain valuable time (and more Jews to die) in the run up to World War II?

It was published as a novella in 1938 by author John W. Campbell, so the timing is right. King points out that the military men on the base want to trap the thing and kill it. But there’s this mealy mouthed scientist that is sure that if we just try to reach out to it, we can learn from it. As King points out, that scientist gets his just before the military men – paragons of effectiveness and efficiency in the 1950s, dispose of the creature.

Compare that reliance on the surety of the military in the 1950s seen in such films as The Thing from Another World, Them!, and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers against how the military was portrayed in 1970s works such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the military were the bad guys who were too eager to kill the aliens without first trying to understand them. King accounts for this by pointing out two generations’ experiences with the military: World War II versus Vietnam.

King provides many more examples and I’m not going to rewrite the chapter for him. But one example really jumped out at me because it was the movie was a favorite of mine as a child, but has not withstood the test of time. King states that the movie, The Amityville Horror (and Jay Anson’s book by the same name) are an allegory for the financial insecurity the middle class felt in the 1970s.

Yes, it’s supposed to be based on a true story, but everybody knows it’s not. But the theme that runs through the novel is finance. The house is priced cheap. We learn that right away. George Lutz’s contracting business is struggling. The nephew loses $1,500 cash in the house and George writes a check to cover the balance of a catering bill for the young man’s wedding, convinced that the money is still in the house. George finds the bands that wrapped the money, but the cash is gone and the check bounces. Finally, the family walks away from the home.

Perhaps it’s a better allegory for today’s economy. How many people have homes (meaning mortgages) that are terrorizing them and eating them alive.

King provides commentary on the quality of the movies (or lack thereof) he examines, but makes no recommendations. The chapter is a semi-scholarly examination of the horror movie and how it fit within the context of the times.

The Horror Movie as Junk Food
King turns away from analysis of great cinematic horror and to what he calls the “junk food” of horror. While the term is meant to be pejorative (as it should be because so much of cinematic horror is junk), he likens this exploration of Hollywood and independent B-movies as an mining expedition – finding a small diamond amidst all the coal.

The greatest of these independent B-pictures, made with just pennies for a budget, was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Romero is a film maker with a mixed reputation for making some damned good movies and some truly tasteless, useless pictures such as Last House on the Left.

But even casual horror fans are familiar with Romero’s sensational Living Dead series. King mines deeper to find great scenes in otherwise bad films. He pans the awful Roger Corman film, Little Shop of Horrors, but is taken with the scene where Jack Nicholson delights in the pain of tooth extraction.

Nobody made as many bad horror films as Roger Corman (except maybe Bert I. Gordon), but King finds a few well written and well acted scenes in several of Corman’s abomoninations.

One of King’s favorite bad movies is the 1979 movie, Prophecy. I found this film passable, but not good. King delights in it. He likes the setting of New England and the film’s core premise. But he’s just as quick to pan its many plot and casting shortcomings.

He also delves into the irredeemable picture that is so bad you just have to laugh. Pictures such as Robot Monster and Plan Nine from Outer Space bring joy in how funny they are trying to take themselves seriously.

What is remarkable as King explores the dregs of horror films is that he does not explore deeply the works of Ed Wood and Bert I Gordon. These guys, forerunners of Roger Corman who tried so hard to turn out gritty heroes and horrifying monsters on low budgets, thought they were making serious pictures. They tried to replicate the success of Universal Studios and MGM on low budgets. I always looked on these two directors as tragic because, unlike Roger Corman who just wanted to put something out there that might be marginally entertaining, Wood and Gordon thought they were making great movies. It’s a shortcoming in King’s analysis that he did not draw more from their body of work.

The dregs of horror as we know it today – what is often referred to as “torture porn” – had not yet been invented. I’ve never watched a torture porn film, but between the gratuitous, over the top gore, there might be some good scenes.

The Glass Teet, or, This Monster Was Brought to You by Gainesburgers
The term, Glass Teet, was coined by writer Harlan Ellison who richly despised television as a story telling medium and dedicated a volume of work panning it and those who enjoy it. As King points out, Ellison is not saying that television sucks. He’s saying people suck AT television.

Very few television shows based on horror have lasted long. Censorship (also called network standards and practices) inhibited unleashing real terror. A few gems have made it onto the small screen, although they’ve not lasted long.

King considers Thriller, hosted by horror legend Boris Karloff as they greatest of them all. It lasted but two seasons. He also holds the first of two seasons of The Outer Limits in high regard (for which Ellison penned two episodes). But he pans a couple favorites of the genre such as The Twilight Zone and Kolchak: The Nightstalker.

King admits that by panning The Twilight Zone, he’s spitting on an icon and acknowledges the high regard with which the series is held in the horror genre. But he says it was transparently moralistic, sappy, and didn’t really horrify. He does acknowledge that the show had great episodes and great moments, but credits the writing of men such as Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury (who wrote but one episode – an adaptation of his own story, I Sing the Body Electric), and Charles Beaumont.

He implies that Rod Serling’s best writing was done for other shows and for a few great movies such as the script for Planet of the Apes. He even uses Serling’s own words to back this up where Serling, in his final interview, admits that he thought that only about one third of the Twilight Zone episodes were great, one third average, and one third poor. I think King and Serling are both giving Serling short shrift. There were certainly some poor episodes of the Twilight Zone. But the show was also presented some of the most memorable moments in television history. It would seem my favorite writer and I have divergent tastes in what makes good television.

As for Kolchak, King states that the two movies based on a poor novel were fantastic. The great Richard Matheson scripted both movies and made them into primetime movie of the week hits. The series, King says, replicates the slow decline of the Universal Studios horror genre from horror into comedy. Kolchak, King says, was too much camp, not enough horror. I agree. The show has a faulty premise. Horror demands that the reader or viewer suspend disbelief. But the story must be plausible and for this newspaper writer, week after week , to stumble into the realm of the supernatural only to have his editor kill the fantastic story, is just too much.

Kolchak is not without its charm and I do enjoy watching several of the episodes. Darrin McGavin makes Kolchak a likeable and sympathetic character. Some of the stories are actually intriguing if not horrifying. But as King points out, when it seemed that the horror was falling short, the writers went for camp and the show just fizzled. Nonetheless, I remain a fan and enjoy watching an episode of this 1970s relic from time to time.

Horror Fiction
King dedicates about one third of his book to naming and analyzing what he thinks are the great books written between 1950 and 1980. Some of them I’ve read, some I’ve not.

The first book he lists as great is Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I must admit, I’ve never read this, but have heard from others that it is an excellent book. I’ve seen the movie and it was enjoyable enough. But, as one can tell from my blog, I spend a great deal of time comparing books and the movies based on them and know too well a so so movie can be made from a great book.

I’ve read only two Straub novels: Shadowland, which was ok, and Koko which I thought was dreadful.

King claims that it was Ghost Story that created the American gothic tale as the old men of the Chowder Society did battle with the ghost that inhabited their town as well as the guilt from a horrible past wrong they committed in their youth.

He also dedicates a great deal of words in a divergent summary and analysis of Straub’s first published book, Julia.

For the great haunted house books of that era, King nominates Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rivers Siddon’s The House Next Door. To King, these are the archetypes of what he calls, “The Bad Place” of horror. A less modest man (and King is not a particularly modest man) would have included King’s The Shining. But maybe Mr. King was more modest in the late 1970s.

Jackson’s novel about psychic experiments inside the dark and foreboding Hill House still stands at the pinnacle of the sub-genre of haunted house books. Written in the 1950s, Hollywood is still cranking out movies based on it (although none as good as the 1963 version called The Haunting). King himself took a crack at retelling Jackson’s story in an uneven – and sometimes dreadfully bad -- three part miniseries entitled Rose Red.

Siddon’s book, King says, transplants the haunted castle of European literature to American suburbia. I’ve never read Siddons’ book and to my knowledge, there was never a movie made about it. The story is told by observers watching as several successive residents who inhabit the home next door to them go insane.

As King describes it, The House Next Door is the stuff of Hammer Horror set in suburban Atlanta. His advocacy for the book has encouraged me to seek it out and take it in at some later date.

To his list of great horror novels of 1950-1980, he adds Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. He credits it, along with The Exorcist, for bringing horror novels back into vogue in the 1970s. I don’t know if I would rank Rosemary’s Baby in my top 10 novels of all time, but it would rank high. Before I discovered Stephen King, I discovered Ira Levin. As a pre-adolescent, I took in Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the Boys from Brazil, all of which I found on my mother’s bookshelf. They, along with Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings, were my introduction to adult horror literature.

King sees Rosemary’s Baby as a novel that was simply a product of the times. It was penned during that era when Time magazine displayed its controversial cover bearing the headline, “Is God dead?” With God dead or dying, (he wasn’t, but leave it to the media moguls of New York to try to slay him), the birth of Satan’s child in New York to a middle class couple fit right in with the times.

Rosemary’s Baby is also a rare instance where the movie is a straight retelling of the novel. Roman Polanski, who had his run-in with pure evil when his lovely wife was murdered by Charles Manson, and committed great evil when he raped a 13 year old girl, made a masterful movie and Mia Farrow who would go on to encounter evil when she married a pedophile, was exceptional in her portrayal of Rosemary Woodhouse.

King provides some great insight into Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers which is next on his list. According to King, Finney says he had no political ideology, no allegory, no metaphor in mind when he wrote The Body Snatchers. Like most great story tellers, he simply wanted to write a good story.

This is another book I read as a child and have not picked up since. My recollection of it is hazy, but I’ve watched both movies based on it recently. The 1956 Kevin McCarthy version is close to a straight retelling as I recall. King says the story works so well because of its setting in a small town, where everybody knows everybody else. Small towns tend to be insular. Everybody knows everybody’s business, but they don’t share it with outsiders. What better place for aliens to stake their claim in our world?

Next on King’s list is Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. While he includes it on the list of great novels, he’s critical of Bradbury’s writing style, saying parts of it are over written. This comes from a man who practically invented over writing.

I think King misses what Bradbury was going for in his tale of a haunted carnival coming to the now mythical Green Town, Illinois. It is an adult novel told in a child’s voice from a child’s point of view. What do children do once they start to put together sentences? They talk too much. Is there too much narrative in Something Wicked. . .? Perhaps, but Bradbury does make us feel like it is a child telling us the story and there is something special in that.

Where King criticizes Bradbury on one hand, he offers high praise on the other. He says many writers are defined as horror writers, science fiction, writers, adventure writers, fantasy writers. To King, Bradbury is simply Bradbury – all things to all readers. High praise indeed – and true!

At the time of King’s writing, Disney had not yet made its entertaining, but not overly great movie based on the second of Bradbury’s Green Town trilogy.

Next on King’s list of the pantheon of horror fiction is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. Why he chose this instead of Matheson’s I am Legend is beyond me. I have read both and while I think The Shrinking Man is a good book, I think I am Legend is a GREAT book that has inspired three direct movie retellings and redefined the whole genre of zombie stories.

King does not say it in this book, but has said in other writings that it was Matheson more than anyone else who inspired him to write horror fiction. He calls The Shrinking Man, “. . .another case of a fantasy novel packaged as science fiction in a rationalistic decade when even dreams had to have some sort of basis in reality.”

As King points out, Matheson, like Bradbury, eschews hard science fiction in favor of telling a good story. If you want to know how things work, King tells us, read Robert Heinlein or Larry Niven. If you want to read a good story, take in Matheson or Bradbury.

Matheson’s shrinking man is affected by radiation, just like the big bugs of the 1950s movies. Matheson has given us our foundation in rationalism to tell a great adventure tale of a small man conquering large obstacles inside his own home – doing battle with his cat and later, in the cellar, with a black widow spider.

In its time, King postulates, it tells of man’s shrinking importance in a society becoming increasingly dominated by machines.

King adds Ramsey Campbell's The Doll Who Ate His Mother to the list. I’ve reviewed on collection of Ramsey Campbell stories and, looking back on it I was too harsh on Campbell for those stories, more than a year later, still resonate with me. I’ve never read a Campell novel.

Campbell’s novel is about a supernatural cannibal who eats a man’s arm shortly after it is amputated. King says that Campbell provides a new take on the horror archetype Dracula as the three main characters hunt down the creature.

The most obscure entry into King’s list of legendary books is James Herbert’s The Fog which King points out bears no connection to the John Carpenter film of the same name. In Herbert’s novel, a strange fog is released from a canister lost by the government. That fog invades an small English town and causes the people to commit maniacal murder upon each other.

What sets Herbert’s writing apart, King tells us, is how “he seizes our lapels and begins to scream in our faces!” in his story.

King brings his list of 10 important novels to a close by including Harlan Ellison’s collection of short stories, Strange Wine. It is clear that King is an astute admirer of Ellison’s. Those in the writing trade either hate or love Ellison just as Ellison either hates or loves them. A caustic personality is Harlan Ellison.

King goes on for several pages and more than a thousand words about Ellison and his short stories before telling us that Strange Wine is a great collection of fables packaged as fantasy and science fiction.

King wraps up by informing us that horror literature is a booming industry filled with garbage to be avoided. As garbage, he points out two writers whose works I have enjoyed: John Saul and Frank DeFelitta. While neither Saul nor DeFelitta (who wrote Audrey Rose) never wrote anything with the epic feel of The Stand or the sheer terror of The Shining, they never wrote anything so bad as Gerald’s Game.

The Last Waltz – Horror and Morality, Horror and Magic
King wraps up his tome of terror by informing us that horror is, at its essence, always a morality tale. For horror to work, evil must be contrasted with good. Bad events hurt. Good events bring happiness. Bad people are to be punished. The good are to be rewarded or at least made into heroes if they meet their end.

King’s book is badly dated with age, but still full of wonderful information for lovers of classic horror and science fiction such as myself. It would be a treat to see him update it, but King only writes non-fiction books every other decade.


  1. The latest paperback edition of DM includes an intro essay by King which functions as a sort of update on horror in the intervening 30 years since DM was originally published. As with DM, I agree with some parts and disagree with others, but reading King's book as a teen in the '80s made me begin to take horror very seriously.

  2. I will definitely have to check out the new edition. I remember reading DM in the early 90s, before the Internet made b-movies available to watch, and remembered fondly some of the really good horror and sci-fi, and even the bad. I wanted to see them again. Alas, now I can.

    It was through this book I was introduced to H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson. I've read all the Lovecraft and am about 1/3 of the way through Matheson's library.