Stephen King attempts to write a brief history of horror. Written in 1981, King’s scope is television, movies, comics, and books. He wisely limits himself to the previous 30 years. Good thing. There’s a lot of scary stuff, good and bad, between 1950 and 1980. I remember watching quite a bit of it on horror movie/comedy skit shows Big Chuck and Li’l John (aka Houlihan and Big Chuck before Bob “Houlihan” Wells left Cleveland for Florida) and Superhost. Want to know what that was like?
Think Mystery Science Theater 3000.
King starts by defining what he says are the three most important archetypes in modern horror: the vampire, the werewolf, and The Thing Without a Name, exemplified by Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein. That last one King says is also the first true science fiction novel. He then gives a rundown of how horror has evolved from pulpy knock-offs of HP Lovecraft to serious literature (Ira Levin and Shirley Jackson) and back to the weird. He discusses how horror movies went from cheap, thinly veiled Cold War scare flicks to the cheesy goodness of Roger Corman’s American International films (and the cheesy crud of the knock-offs that followed) to social commentary (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives) to a mutant mix of bad horror and serious film making. For television, King pays homage to Harlan Ellison, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits.
Danse Macabre is a love letter to the genre that has rendered so many writers as hacks, but allowed King and a select few others to become giants in American literature. (And if you think King has no literary merit because he writes about the supernatural, you’re a moron. No exceptions.) Sometimes, King talks a little too much about his own work, a fear he admits in the introductions. Remember, though, that this is his first nonfiction work. We are still two decades and a near-fatal accident away from his masterpiece, On Writing.
I first read this book right after high school and loved it. It reminded me of the horror movie shows that were a dying breed by the time I graduated. Part of the attraction to King’s fiction is that he writes about growing up in the same small town in Maine that I grew up in in Ohio.
Danse Macabre is no different.