3.10.2012

A sort-of review: Danse Macabre, by Stephen King

I scare easily. There's no question of this. I've never been a huge fan of scary movies. When I was not yet thirteen, a girl in my class had a sleepover birthday party. I don't recall if she was first generation American, or if she had actually been born prior to her family coming over from China, but her parents were...I'd like to say open-minded, but I think really they may have just been a little oblivious. They allowed her to rent Scream for the sleepover.

A bunch of twelve-year-olds (plus the birthday girl's younger sisters--10 and 7, I think) watching Scream late at night. It may have scarred me for life. Prior to that, I think the scariest thing I'd ever seen was the ghost of Mary Meredith in The Uninvited (1944). Unless you want to count Tony Pierce's haunting craziness in The Bodyguard. God, I love that movie. Okay, and some of the classic "Twilight Zone" episodes are really freaky.

In recent years, I've tried to be a little braver. A little. My best friend and I went to see the remake of The Amityville Horror in 2005. I'm sure Ryan Reynolds was really hot in it, but I wouldn't know because Ali and I spent the entire time watching the top two feet of the movie screen, my sweater blocking out the rest, out of fear. I've seen the second and third installments in the Scream series...through my fingers. I went back and watched every episode of Snick's "Are You Afraid of the Dark"...while at work, in the daytime, and only if I fast-forwarded through the opening because swings moving by themselves freak me the hell out.

I've seen both Perfect Getaway (2009) and The Orphan (2009), both of which are really thrillers....and both during the day...at work. Actually, the biggest jump in my horror/thriller education (until very recently) was watching each and every episode of CBS's "Harper's Island" back in 2009...in the comfort of my home, after dark, and not screaming every time something remotely scary happened.

In the last year, I've started watching some good old classic horror films (see: The Creature from the Black Lagoon or The House on Haunted Hill). And then I got turned on to "The Walking Dead" on AMC. This led to more of the....less classic horror films (see: Dead & Buried or Return of the Killer Tomatoes). I don't count the Jaws series (or any of those shark attack/megalodon films) in my education, partly because that (to me) has always been a different type of scary, and also because most of them are just awful and inadvertently hilarious. And finally, this led to seeing The Woman in Black last month. I was really good up until a bit with a rocking chair, at which point I started letting the sleeve of my sweater hover in front of my eyes now and then.

I didn't plan to do an actual review of this book, and this is not really a review. The copy I had belongs to a friend of mine (with whom I saw The Woman in Black) who lent it to me while he was on vacation, and I read it (mostly) to gain an understanding of a genre that I didn't really understand very well at all.

Danse Macabre is a work of non-fiction, by Stephen King, about the genre he knows best: horror. It was first published in 1981 and, as a result, only concerns stories (novels, short stories, radio plays, and films) up to that point. The bulk of the focus is on the works written during King's lifetime (he was thirty-three in 1981).

But the brilliant thing about King's insight into this subject is that the genre really doesn't change. He bases his analysis on the idea that horror can be boiled down to three archetypes: the vampire (see: Dracula), the werewolf (see: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) and "The Thing Without a Name" (see: Frankenstein). And over thirty years later, the method of the madness has not changed. I often found myself classifying and re-classifying more modern pictures and novels as the book went on. But this was not just a lesson in classification. Rather, it was a dual lesson in anthropology and literature, one that--when applied to my affinity for fantasy novels--was truly illuminating.

I just want to say three very brief things about this book, and then I'll let you all be:

1. I can't imagine being not only settled with a family and published, but so incredibly intelligent at thirty-three years old. The man amazes me.

2. King's voice in the book is exceedingly casual and, therefore, the reading of it is very comfortable. There's no high-handed alienating jargon. It's quite down to earth.

3. I can now go forward in my reading with a better understanding of why fantasy and horror exist, and to what extent they are useful in allowing modern readers of fiction to live and imagine and create. The world may be very different than it was in 1981, but some things - like fear - never really change.

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