Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Danse Macabre by Paula Stiles

A Review by Paula Stiles

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley Books, 1981. 437 pages.

If I had to choose one non-fiction book about horror (which is silly, but go with me on this), Stephen King's Danse Macabre would be my pick. Yeah, it's dated (almost 32 years old now). No, I don't agree with everything he says, especially the part about horror always being reactionary. Yes, he wrote it during his coked-up days. Yeah, it's mostly limited to American and some English works (He really loves Gothic horror).

But, for all its faults and limitations, Danse Macabre is a very good, comprehensive overview of a very broad and messy genre - horror. Even more important for me as a writer, it's an overview from the viewpoint of a writer of horror. King gets more into the nitty-gritty of the writing business in On Writing, which is sort of a sequel to Danse Macabre crossed with a painfully honest autobiography, but, for understanding the themes of writing horror, you really need to begin with Danse Macabre. Danse Macabre is all about horror. If these two books were the only two King ever wrote, he'd still be very well remembered in the genre, indeed.

I want to point out that Danse Macabre, like Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, works best if you don't succumb to the author's persuasiveness and treat it like a bible that is the end-all and be-all of discussions about horror. That way, you waste much less time arguing with King about stuff you don't agree with him on and appreciate the points he does make. For example, I don't agree with him at all that horror is always reactionary and always ends with normality restored - though I'm willing to forgive many of his dated attitudes just for his paean to Mary Shelley, and her influence on the genre, alone. I think that reactionary type is Hays Code-era horror that only applies these days to certain subgenres (like, say, the slasher movie). I think it's entirely possible to write an effective horror story that is subversive, progressive, and that ends with everything a huge mess. Nor does the monster always have to die at the end of the story.

However, what King does that is so useful to the horror writer, budding or otherwise, he lays out early in the book in two chapters, “Tales of the Hook” and “Tales of the Tarot.” The first chapter talks about basic storylines and themes in horror, and what they mean, “inside” versus “outside” horror, the Appollonian (logical) versus the Dionysian (chaotic, id-like) conflict inside us, and so on. The second discusses character types – specifically, monster types. King's idea is that of a Tarot deck that includes archetypes of things we fear: the Ghost, the Thing without a Name, the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Bad Place. In talking about classic Gothic stories, King shows how most horror falls into these archetypes. But I think my favorite of his many summings up about horror is this one about the dreaded “bad end”: “Death is when the monsters get you.”

I think one of the best things about Danse Macabre is that King doesn't claim or pretend to know everything about horror. For all that it's full of literary analysis, this is a very personal book, Appollonian meeting Dionysian and having a big party. I guess that's why On Writing works so well as an impromptu sequel, even though it has a very different structure and approach. Danse Macabre is an important book about horror, its history and its structures, that every horror writer should read.

But don't worry - it's still good, dark fun for all that.

Bio: Possessing a quixotic fondness for difficult careers, Paula Stiles has driven ambulances, taught fish farming for the Peace Corps in West Africa and earned a Scottish PhD in medieval history, studying Templars and non-Christians in Spain. She is the author of horror novel, "The Mighty Quinn,[]" co-written supernatural mystery novels, "Fraterfamilias []" and the upcoming “Confraternitas,” and non-fiction medieval history book, "Templar Convivencia: Templars and Their Associates in 12th and 13th Century Iberia []." She is Editor in Chief of the Lovecraft/Mythos 'zine/micropress Innsmouth Free Press []. You can find her at: