Saturday, June 23, 2012

Stephen King: Danse Macabre (1981)

Danse Macabre is a look at the history of the horror phenomenon in books, comics, movies, radio, and TV over a thirty-year period (1950-80; the book was published in 1981). King also discusses the genre's influence on American popular culture and its enormous influence on his own writing.

King goes back to the 19th century for the bedrock texts of the genre - Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein - and traces their development, evolution, and long-lasting influence. He discusses the important works of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Henry S. Whitehead. He talks about several books at length, including Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955), Peter Straub's Ghost Story (1979), and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).

It is fascinating reading, especially for someone fairly ignorant of the genre like myself. And while some of the book could be labelled as academic, King maintains the informative, conversational tone for which he is well-known.

Some snips from the book:

This book is intended to be an informal overview of where the horror genre has been over the last thirty years, and not an autobiography of yours truly. The autobiography of a father, writer, and ex-high school teacher would make dull reading indeed. I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams.

But because I am a horror novelist and also a child of my times, and because I believe that horror does not horrify unless the reader or viewer has been personally touched, you will find the autobiographical element constantly creeping in. Horror in real life is an emotion that one grapples with — as I grappled with the realization that the Russians had beaten us into space — all alone. It is a combat waged in the secret recesses of the heart.

I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more nor less than a necessary illusion—but at least the feelings which we think of as "positive" and "constructive" are a reaching out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication. Feelings of love and kindness, the ability to care and empathize, are all we know of the light. They are efforts to link and integrate; they are the emotions which brings us together, if not in fact then at least in a comforting illusion that makes the burden of mortality a little easier to bear.

Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone. It is paradoxical that feelings and emotions we associate with the "mob instinct" should do this, but crowds are lonely places to be, we're told, a fellowship with no love in it. The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration ... but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again. . . .

The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools -- to dismantle themselves. The term catharsis is as old as Greek drama, and it has been used rather too glibly by some practitioners in my field to justify what they do, but it still has its limited uses here. The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing ... and it may well be that the mass-media dream of horror can sometimes becomes a nationwide analysts' couch.
Horror movies and horror novels have always been popular, but every ten or twenty years they seem to enjoy a cycle of increased popularity and visibility. These periods almost always seem to coincide with periods of fairly serious economic and/or political strain, and the books and films seem to reflect those free-floating anxieties (for want of a better term) which accompany such serious but not mortal dislocations. They have done less well in periods when the American people have been faced with outright examples of horror in their own lives.
Let's talk monsters.

Exactly what is a monster?

Begin by assuming that the tale of horror, no matter how primitive, is allegorical by its very nature; that it is symbolic.

Assume that it is talking to us, like a patient on a psychoanalyst's couch, about one thing while it means another. I am not saying that horror is consciously allegorical or symbolic; that is to suggest an artfulness that few writers of horror fiction or directors of horror films aspire to. . . .

Horror appeals to us because it says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say right out straight, with the bark still on; it offers us a chance to exercise (that's right; not exorcise but exercise) emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand. The horror film is an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy—to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears. Perhaps more than anything else, the horror story or horror movie says it's okay to join the mob, to become the total tribal being, to destroy the outsider. . . .

When we turn to the creepy movie or the crawly book, we are not wearing our "Everything works out for the best" hats. We're waiting to be told what we so often suspect — that everything is turning to shit.
[K]ids are the perfect audience for horror. The paradox is this: children, who are physically quite weak, lift the weight of unbelief with ease. . . .

The irony of all this is that children are better able to deal with fantasy and terror on its own terms than their elders are. . . .

A certain amount of fantasy and horror in a child's life seems to me a perfectly okay, useful sort of thing. Because of the size of their imaginative capacity, children are able to handle it, and because of their unique position in life, they are able to put such feelings to work. They understand their position very well, too. Even in such a relatively ordered society as our own, they understand that their survival is a matter almost totally out of their hands.

Children are "dependents" up until the age of eight or so in every sense of the word; dependent on mother and father (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) not only for food, clothing, and shelter, but dependent on them not to crash the car into a bridge abutment, to meet the school bus on time, to walk them home from Cub Scouts or Brownies, to buy medicines with childproof caps, dependent on them to make sure they don't electrocute themselves while screwing around with the toaster ... Running directly counter to this necessary dependence is the survival directive built into all of us. The child realizes his or her essential lack of control, and I suspect it is this very realization which makes the child uneasy. It is the same sort of free-floating anxiety that many air travelers feel. They are not afraid because they believe air travel to be unsafe; they are afraid because they have surrendered control, and if something goes wrong all they can do is sit there clutching air-sick bags or the inflight magazine. To surrender control runs counter to the survival directive. Conversely, while a thinking, informed person may understand intellectually that travel by car is much more dangerous than flying, he or she is still apt to feel much more comfortable behind the wheel, because she/he has control . . . or at least an illusion of it.
[N]o one is exactly sure of what they mean on any given subject until they have written their thoughts down; I similarly believe that we have very little understanding of what we have thought until we have submitted those thoughts to others who are at least as intelligent as ourselves.
Next: Cujo.


laura k said...

Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955)

Jack Finney?! Wow! I go back a long way with him - thanks to the late Pete Fornatale - but I didn't know he wrote this.

Someone should persuade King to write an updated edition, or publish an update online, putting the current zombie/vampire craze in context.

laura k said...

I especially like the excerpt on horror for children. It's very reminiscent of what Maurice Sendak said. (Two unsurprising thoughts from me.) Thanks for including that.

johngoldfine said...

Jack Finney must have a special resonance for native New Yorkers reading 'Time and Again'! Wonderful book.

allan said...

L's a big fan of Time and Again!