King's Highway pt. 28: Danse Macabre

Hey, wasn't I taking August off? Yes, I was/ am. But over the course of a few plane and train rides, I polished this one off and figure it won't fit so smoothly into the Dark Tower blogs I have planned for next month. So, roll another number for the road and let's take Danse Macabre for a quick spin.

It's kind of fun to read a book like this in 2012, when so many blogs, including this one, are devoted to the sort of discussion King orchestrates here. It's tempting to say the internet makes books like this (or list-books, for that matter) obsolete. But who knows? Is print dead? Aspects of it, sure, but overall, I doubt it. Either way, it's beyond our scope here.

This book is part autobiography, part overview of the films and books King thinks best inform the horror landscape in America, and part overall-philosophy-of-horror. It comes across as a breezy lecture course, delivered by a professor who may or may not have been drinking before class (or during). One might say it does for American horror circa 1950-1980 what Chuck Klostermann did for 80s metal in Fargo Rock City. 

I remember my brother (or mother) having this on the shelves in the 80s. I tried to read it then, but I didn't know any of the films or books he was talking about, so I never did. I've spent an awful lot of time in the years between getting to know the material, though - not consciously, i.e. at no point did I say Okay, time to make my way through the recommended reading/ viewing/ listening from Danse Macabre. But as suggested elsewhere, certain books and movies are gateway-drugs to certain other books and movies, and once you go down the EC path (to pick one of my own entry points) you end up taking in things like It, The Terror from Beyond Space and Lights Out. So this time around I knew first-hand or was familiar with most of the stories under discussion.

Arch Oboler, showrunner for Lights Out, and Joan Crawford.

I was particularly interested to see King devote some time to the golden age of radio. (Which, he quite rightly notes, was actually the twilight-age of radio; the programs he remembers listening to with his grandparents in his 1950s living room were the dying sounds of the once-unstoppable-entertainment-of-choice. Video may have killed the radio star, but TV was what drove all the radio actors and showrunners to NPR et al.) My apartment in Chicago is in one of the few areas that gets audionoir over the airwaves, and for the past few years, I put that on when I'm cooking or doing dishes. As a result, I started tracking down a lot of Old Timey Radio. There is tons of it out there, for free, if you're interested. (Any sci-fi fan will enjoy Dimension X; trust McMolo.)

One last bit of radio-reverie: I have a very clear memory of being 6 or 7 and huddled around a battery-operated radio in a tent in a campground in Frankfurt, Germany, listening to both an episode of "The Shadow" on Armed Forces Network Radio and a dramatization of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace." And Bill Cosby used to talk about "The Chicken Heart" (which King discusses here) on one of my Dad's old records. (Records that I incidentally melted on the radiator. Not on purpose, of course.)
This was originally published in 1981. King had a bit of an ax to grind with the academic/ lit-critic establishment during this phase of his career, I think it's safe to say. He addresses it explicitly in his Playboy interview, discussed elsewhere, but there are several passages along these lines from DM that are worth reproducing here.

On the overall-futility of over-analyzing things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers: "Like endless discussions of breath units in modern poetry or the possible intrusiveness of some punctuation in the short story, it is really a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and not really interesting unless those involved in the discussion are drunk or graduate students - two states of roughly similar incomprehension."

On the pretentious critical establishment: "...no one is so humorless as a big-time film critic or so apt to read deep meanings into simple doings. 'In The Fury,' Pauline Kael intoned, apparently, in all seriousness, 'Brian De Palma has found the junk heart for America.' It's as if these critics feel it necessary to prove and re-prove their own literacy; they are like teenage boys who feel obliged to demonstrate and redemonstrate their macho... they must surely be aware that while it requires at least a high school education to understand and appreciate all the facets of even such an accessible book as The Body Snatchers, any illiterate with four dollars in his or her pocket can go to a movie and find the junk heart of America."
Probably very true.

And on the narcissism of the intelligentsia: "I can't imagine... anyone trying to scratch out a subsistence-level existence for himself, his wife, and his eight kids giving much of a toot about Werner Erhard's est course or Rolfing. Such things are for rich folks. Recently, Joan Didion wrote a book about her own odyssey through the sixties, The White Album. For rich folks, I suppose it's a pretty interesting book: the story of a wealthy white woman who could afford to have her nervous breakdown in Hawaii - the seventies equivalent of worrying over pimples."

The book's chapters covering the radioactive-panic movies of the 1950s and their evolution through the subsequent decades are particularly fun reading.

"Once you've seen enough horror films, you begin to get a taste for really shitty movies. Films that are just bad... can be dismissed impatiently, with never a backward glance. But real fans look back on a film like The Brain from Planet Arous (It Came From Another World WITH AN INSATIABLE LUST FOR EARTH WOMEN!) with something like real love. It is the love one spares for an idiot child, true, but love is love, right? Right."

A few pics from the film in question.

He mentions how horror film fans like mining the dirt-bins for the discarded nugget of gold, and how every true fun usually has one film they uncovered before any of their friends or for which every true fan is an apostle. King's is Tourist Trap: 

Which made me happy, as I, too, have proselytized, independently of King's recommendation, for this movie. True, he wrote of this in 1981 so I am late to the party, but it was news to everyone to whom I mentioned it. Ditto for The Brotherhood of Satan. 

Among other things, it is produced by and stars the multi-talented L.Q. Jones.

"If we share a Brotherhood of Man, we also share an Insanity of Man."
You mean Brotherhood of SATAN!

"...I see the most aggressive of (horror movies) as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath."

"When the lights go out and we find ourselves stranded in a shoal of darkness, reality itself has an unpleasant way of fogging in. When we cut off one avenue of sensory input, that sense simply shuts down (although it never shuts down 100 percent, of course; even in a dark room, we will see a trace pattern in front of our eyes, and in the most perfect silence we will hear a faint hum... such "phantom input" only means that the circuits are open and standing by."

"Here is the final truth of horror movies: They do not love death, as some have suggested, they love life. They do not celebrate deformity by dwelling on deformity, they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. They are the barber's leeches of the psyche, drawing not bad blood but anxiety... for a little while, anyway."
He devotes some text-time, rightly so, to George Romero's classic. Which if you haven't seen, shame on you.

"The horror movie asks you if you want to take a good close look at the dead cat (or the shape under the sheet, to use a metaphor from the introduction to my short story collection)... but not as an adult would look at it. Never mind the philosophical implications of death or the religious possibilities inherent in the idea of survival; the horror film suggests we just have a good close look at the physical artifact of death. Let us be children masquerading as pathologists. We will, perhaps, link hands like children in a circle, and sing the song we all know in our hearts: time is short, no one is really okay, life is quick and dead is dead."

The section on horror-on-TV is also great reading. The whole book is, really, but the last hundred or so pages devoted to ten or eleven horror novels was less captivating to me, personally, as I had only read a handful of the books discussed. Not so with the TV section; tho it was all before my time, I grew up watching most of this stuff.

King's analysis of the horror films of the 1970s is too comprehensive to sum up accurately here, but as it's my favorite era of film-making, my ears always perk up when it comes under the critical eye.

"This is like a sinister Woody Allen film" may be the most accurate review of Rosemary's Baby I've ever read. As an artifact of the "Is God dead?" era, it is first-rate archaeology, as well as a great flick.

"They are books and stories which seem to me to fulfill the primary duty of literature - to tell us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about people who never existed."

A film I once heard described as "drenched in a menstrual panic," a phrase I've never gotten out of my head.

I quite liked this description of the "dead zone" one must dispel when bringing a story to life:

"In his marvelous novel The Hair of Harold Roux, Thomas Williams tells us that writing a long work of fiction is like gathering characters together on a great black plain. They stand around the small fire of the writer's imagination, warming their hands at the blaze, hoping the fire will grow into a blaze which will provide light as well as heat. But often it goes out, all light is extinguished, and the characters are smothered in black. It's a lovely metaphor for the fiction-making process, but it's not mine... I've always seen the novel as a large black castle to be attacked, a bastion to be taken by force or by trick. The thing about the castle is, it appears to be open. It doesn't look buttoned up for siege at all. The drawbridge is down. The gates are open. There are no bowmen on the turrets. Trouble is, there's really only one way safe way in; every other attempt at entry results in sudden annihilation from some hidden source."

The final section is a nice summary of King's personal philosophy-of-horror and, as with most of the above, is quoted directly from the text:

"The danse macabre is a waltz with death. This is a truth we cannot afford to shy away from. Like the rides in the amusement park which mimic violent death, the tale of horror is a chance to examine what's going on behind doors which we usually keep double-locked. Yet the human imagination is not content with locked doors. Somewhere there is another dancing partner, the imagination whispers in the night - a partner in a rotting ball gown, a partner with empty eyesockets, green mold growing on her elbow-length gloves, maggots squirming in the thin remains of her hair. To hold such a creature in our arms? Whom, you ask me, would be so mad? Well... Perhaps we go to the forbidden door or windo willingly because we understand that a time comes when we must go whether we want to or not... and not just to look, but to be pushed through. Forever."

Colored engraving of the dance of death, from 1483.

"It is not a dance of death at all, not really. There is a third level here, as well. It is, at bottom, a dance of dreams. It's a way of awakening the child inside, who never dies but only sleeps ever more deeply. If the horror story is our rehearsal for death, then it's strict moralities make it also a reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination - just one more pipeline to the infinite."

I don't think the films of Mario Bava/ screen presence of Barbara Steele get much text consideration. (None of the giallos do, actually, though there may be some in the recommended-viewing in the back.) I suppose enough has been written elsewhere about them, but Mario Bava straddles the Hammer-knock-off era and the slasher-giallo era better than most. I'd have included a chapter just on him, were this my own Guide to Horror. But hey!

Finally, King shares a personal anecdote near the end that interested me. While a student at the University of Maine, he attended a lecture given by a couple of Black Panthers:

"These Black Panthers were suggesting an umbrella of conspiracy that was almost laughable.. except the audience wasn't laughing..." (He stands up to ask them if they were actually suggesting Nelson Rockefeller was orchestrating the Vietnam war from some shadowy room under the Pentagon, perhaps in cahoots with UFOs.) "The audience began to shout angrily at me to sit down and shut up. Which I did posthaste, blushing furiously, knowing how these eccentrics who mount their soapboxes in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoons must feel. I did not much relish the feeling... It is impossible for those of my generation, propelled harum-scarum through the sixties... without a belief that someone - like Nelson Rockefeller - is pulling the strings."

I don't know if it's all that generational. The same crowd/ conspiracies exist today, as well as the same sit-down-and-shut-up angry-mob (and furious blushing embarrassment) when assumptions are challenged.

For any fan of horror (or King), Danse Macabre is a rewarding and accessible read.

We begin our exploration of Dark Tower National Park, following the route suggested by The Truth Inside the Lie, with... The Gunslinger.


  1. I would say that while the Internet might in some ways make a book like "Danse Macabre" obsolete, the best reason to read it is for King's writing style and personality, which are both as fully on display here as in any of his novels. Maybe even more so.

    I don't actually listen to them very often, but I love radio dramas (or audio dramas, or whatever the preferred nomenclature is). I'm a moderate-to-big "Doctor Who" fan, and there are TONS of radio dramas starring starring some of the former actors who played the Doctor. I've listened to some of these, and they are fantastic. And, of course, there are a few Stephen King ones, too (most produced by the BBC). I wish there were more!

  2. Thanks, Bryant. Yeah, those BBC folks produce some fine radio drama, to be sure. I've been making my way (slowly) through The Complete Smiley Sessions.

    Speaking of Old Timey Radio, I hope someone does a 'Johnny Dollar' ("the man with the million dollar expense account") reboot.

    Doctor Who is in my one-of-these-days file...

    And I agree re: his writing style and personality.

  3. Great post. A good timing for me to read it, when i have just started my blog a couple of days before. Keep sharing the tips :)
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