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Why “Danse Macabre” Remains Essential Reading For Any Horror Buff

Monday, January 3, 2022 | Scary Reads


I recently re-read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. It’s a 1981 non-fiction book about horror fiction in print, TV, radio, film and comics, and the influence of contemporary societal fears and anxieties on the genre. It amazed me how relevant the book remains and why it deserves a place on the bookshelves of any horror fan.

Though originally published over four decades ago, the subject matter is timeless while delivering perennial value. It includes an appendix of recommended films and books and weighs in at a whopping 450 pages.

Danse Macabre examines the various influences on King’s own writing, and important genre texts of the 19th and 20th centuries. It explores the history of the genre as far back as the Victorian era, but primarily focuses on the 1950s to the 1970s (roughly the era covering King’s own life at the time of publication). King peppers his book with informal academic insight, discussing archetypes, important authors, common narrative devices, “the psychology of terror”, and his key theory of “Dionysian vs. Apollonian Horror.”

When referred to in literary or philosophical discussions, the term Apollonian symbolizes order, harmony, individualism, and rationality, while Dionysian implies disorder, rampant group experience and irrationality. The concepts are based on the Greek gods Apollo, god of the sun, order, music and poetry, and Dionysus, god of wine, chaos and intoxication.

In Danse Macabre King presents the Apollonian/Dionysian distinction as being the very core of all horror: the Apollonian, logical, well-ordered world (for example, the idyllic small town) is attacked by the bestial, uncontrollable Dionysian force – the monster.

The backbone of the text is King’s teaching notes from several college courses he taught in the 1970s. However, Danse Macabre has a casual, non-linear writing style and expresses a desire to avoid, in his words, “academic bullshit.” Not only is the book immensely informative on all things horror, it’s a fun, entertaining read. Would you expect anything less from the master himself?

King does tend to ramble in his fiction – he rambles a lot in Danse – but we know his intent is sincere. He does not lead us stray for naught. What we take away from this treatise is that he is an extremely knowledgeable and well-read scholar of literary history and that horror is his expertise. He leaves few stones unturned in his conjectures on the psychological aspects of his trade.

How the author can push the buttons of terror in fiction is a common theme:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

As horror means different things to different people, King recognizes the wide spectrum of emotion available in the writer’s palette – and the many buttons available which can be pushed to tap into the psyche of the reader. What makes this book such a fascinating read is that it gets inside of the head of King himself, where he reveals a lifetime of exposure to mass media horror stories and the effect they’ve had on him and his fiction.

What we can surmise from this book is that he is a great fan of horror and that it is a lifelong passion. One might assume all horror writers are horror fans, but a deeper dive reveals this isn’t always so. In Danse Macabre, we feel Stephen King’s sincerity and love for the comic books, TV shows, movies and books that have stimulated and stirred his imagination from a very early age. From the science fiction pulps to the Saturday afternoon matinee’s exploring classics like Universal’s Frankenstein, Dracula or The Mummy, we vicariously feel his joyful creeping dread.

King opens the book with a Chapter which begins: “For me, the terror, the real terror, as opposed to whatever demons and boogeys that might have been living in my own mind – began on an afternoon in October of 1957. I had just turned ten.”

We can clearly picture in our minds a ten year old King, most likely a horn-rimmed younger nerdy version of his familiar adult image, slumped down in his movie seat with his popcorn watching Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers when the movie stops and the lights come up in the middle of the picture. He recounts the story with the same wide-eyed wonder he must have felt when he experienced it:

“We sat there looking around, blinking in the dark like moles. The manager walked into the middle of the stage and held his hands up for quiet. Six years later, in 1963, I flashed on that moment when, one Friday afternoon in November, the guy who drove us home from school told us the President had been shot in Dallas.”

King frames real life against the imagined horrors of fantasy, fully knowing that in a world seemingly sane anything can happen and often does. It is a reflection of our own lives, just as this experience was his. He has used this approach in his fiction often. Fusing real life situations and settings with the stuff nightmares are made of.

He pulls no punches when it comes to opinions – and he has many. What I find so cool about King is he affects me as the ultimate professor of writing. He sprinkles throughout the text his observations on the state of publishing, even taking time to admonish the aspiring scribe.

One of my favorite passages from Danse Macabre is this diatribe on poor grammar and shoddy copy editing:

“You’d think that the ability to write lucid prose would be the bottom line for any publishing novelist, but it is not so. If you don’t believe me, go check out the [latest] paperback originals. I promise you a carnival of dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and even a lack of agreement between subject and verb that your hair may turn white. You would expect that proofreaders and copy editors would pick this sort of stuff up even if the writers of such embarrassing English do not, but many of them seem as illiterate as the writers they are trying to bail out.”

I was personally pleased to see King devotes considerable time to cover the work and influence of Harlan Ellison, as well as the late Fritz Leiber. Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness remains one of the most influential and compelling horror novels written in the past century.

As King points out, horror novels allow us to experience trauma vicariously through the hero’s journey in the form of story, and do so in a way that gives us insight and wisdom without placing our own selves in peril. King argues, and justifiably so, that horror fiction does this more thoroughly and effectively than horror movies, which only give us surface impressions. Horror fiction allows the author and the reader to get inside the head of the characters to deliver a more potent punch.

For those horror aficionados who are new to the horror fiction world, Danse Macabre provides a helpful primer citing some of the most influential works of fear fiction and why he feels they are worthy of your attention. If only for the fiction references alone, the book is a valuable asset. Add to this a selective overview of the entire canon of media horror up to 1981, Danse Macabre is essential reading for any horror buff.

Mark W. Curran is a book author and horror film blogger. His indie horror films ‘Hoodman’ and ‘Abandoned Dead’ are now in worldwide release. He edits the weekly Horror Fiction Newswire and moderates the Horror Fiction Central website which feature the latest in horror fiction publishing, news and events.

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