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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Listening to Stephen King's Danse Macabre

This past week I've been reading the 2010 re-release of Stephen King's outstanding Danse Macabre, a survey of the entire genre of horror, from folklore and stories through TV and movies.This has always been a favorite nonfiction book for me, especially because King is so knowledgeable and so opinionated-- he is fair and free with his judgments and tries to plum the meanings of horror while deliberately keeping the tone conversational. It's an outstanding review of horror.

The book has a 2010 introduction entitled "What's Scary?" in which King attempts to reckon in one essay with the thirty years of material that has appeared since King wrote Danse Macabre, and this essay is so good that it only serves to tantalize me with the possibility of a more thorough revision. As it stands, the essay is just a bonus; Danse Macabre remains as it has ever been.
For those who haven't read it: King in Danse Macabre picks the motif of a basic horror "tarot deck"-- the Werewolf (Wolf Man and all transformation stories), the Vampire (Dracula and menacing and seduction stories), and the Thing without a Name (Frankenstein and man's-mistakes-stories)-- and shows how these motifs return again and again. Jekkyl and Hyde? Werewolf. Hulk? Werewolf. Alien? Dracula.
The book itself is dated-- and how could it not be? But it's too good to skip-- too personal and interesting a review of the horror genre-- so we must read it today as a book trapped in amber.When Danse Macabre, the second edition reprinted here, came out in 1983, Reagan had been President only three years. Inflation was out of control but gasoline had just topped out at $1.40 a gallon. It's a different world-- King discusses literature and movies so beautifully, discussing the intricacies of Shelley's Frankenstein and the movies based on it, but of course he hasn't had a chance to discuss the Branagh Frankenstein , nor to have seen Coppola's Dracula of 1992, much less Twilight. You know what else didn't exist? Well, think of something that happened after 1983 in horror, and this book has yet to reckon with it. Off the top of my head I'd list these things that have implications for the horror fan:
  • VHS and the home video market, the neighborhood video store, and Blockbuster
  • The death of the home video market
  • Letterboxing
  • Home theaters and giant-screen HD TVs
  • Netflix, iTunes, Youtube and Streaming-- all of which now make it possible to actually see "Horror of Party Beach" after reading about it, rather than simply hoping it might turn up randomly on TV, as we would have just ten years ago
  • Charles Band direct-to-video movies and the like, which exploded the number of Grade-Z horror films many times over
  • DVDs-- and commentaries!
  • Stadium seating theaters and the death of old cineplexes
  • The return of 3D-- not the Amityville 3D/Jaws 3D period King mentions occurring during the book's writing, but the Avatar period we are experiencing now.
  • The explosion of young adult fiction and the Twilight Phenomenon, as mentioned
  • True Blood and role-playing games like Vampire: The Masquerade
  • Alien-- which in Danse Macabre exists only as Ridley Scott's horror/SF movie, afterwards spawned Aliens and on and on
  • Nightmare on Elm Street and the 80s horror cycle-- though King's long 2010 essay/ introduction does gloss very well the modern horror era and offers some wonderful insights
  •  Torture porn like Hostel and Saw (again, something King glosses well in his introduction)
  • Giant miniseries like King's own The Shining and The Stand
  • Stephen King the Phenomenon in a way unheard of in '83
Every one of these make ripples throughout each of King's chapters in Danse Macabre.
The only reason I even mention the datedeness is that King is alive and writing, the book is so well-done. If Danse Macabre had come out in the 30s and its author were long gone, we'd be able to read it as an old survey book. But Danse Macabre is so strong, even today, that it begs for revision-- a more thorough revision than King may want to take time on. (This happens in law, too-- a Professor might write a fantastic book on contract law, but in time it will need to be revised in every chapter. Usually what happens in those cases is later professors do the revisions. I could see that-- King could command King's Danse Macabre, 2012 Edition, with a small army of revisers.)

Should you get it? Yes. Absolutely. But I sure wish you could get a revised one in due course.

1 comment:

  1. Van Helsing is a fast-paced, computer graphics-laden horror/adventure/fantasy film wherein Universal re-imagines its core stable of classic horror characters. I actually like cgi, I'm not a purist, I love the genres--I'm not looking for realism, and I love fast-paced action-oriented thrill rides as much if not more than I love character studies.

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