Monday, October 20, 2014

11 Days 'Til Halloween: Overdue books (Danse Macabre)

I've been wracking my brain trying to remember what the first Stephen King book I ever read was. Clearly I was not as obsessive way back then about cataloging my own consumption habits (and honestly, even if I had been I'm sure those quarter-century old lists would have long since been lost) and in my memory the whole "getting into Stephen King" process is a big 0-to-60 blur. I think IT is a likely candidate, for a few different reasons. I went through a phase (fueled mostly by the pretentiousness of early adolescence) where I was trying to read extremely long novels, just to prove I could. And a friend of mine (Boomer) had read it and talked it up a lot; I'm positive at the time the Boomer was devouring it and unleashing spoilers on me daily in the middle school cafeteria, I wasn't yet into King myself, but rather hung up on fantasy and sci-fi novels with all my forays into horror still ahead of me. When I did finally make the jump into King's works, I can see IT being top-of-mind. But then again, it could have been Pet Sematary, or Salem's Lot, or Misery. I read all of those in rapid succession, one way or the other.

All I know is that I got into Stephen King right around the beginning of high school, and at that time, late 1988, his body of work consisted of these novels: Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, The Gunslinger, Christine, Pet Sematary, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Talisman, IT, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Drawing of the Three, Misery, and The Tommyknockers. There were also a couple of short story collections, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, as well as the four-novella compilation Different Seasons and the quartet of short pseudonymous novels published in one volume as The Bachman Books. That's about 21 books altogether, and it really doesn't matter where I jumped in exactly, only that I dove in somewhere and was immediately hooked and proceeded to tear through (almost) everything as fast as I could.

Of course, Stephen King continued to write and publish just about as fast as he could, and I have distinct memories of receiving a hardcover copy of The Dark Half, the first novel published after my addiction kicked in, as well as the hardcover of The Stand - Complete and Uncut shortly after that (probably birthday and Christmas of 1990, respectively). I hadn't exhausted King's earlier works as I got into the habit of picking up his newer stuff on or close to release dates, nor did I necessarily give up on reading material by authors other than King, so eventually my consumption leveled off. At any given time I might be reading the latest Stephen King, or a cheap paperback reprint, or something else entirely.

Back in those early 90's days I used to spend a lot of time at the mall, and most of that time at the various bookstores. Stephen King was a hot enough property by then for there to usually be a pretty substantial amount of shelf space dedicated to him. Some of the older books, like Cycle of the Werewolf, proved weirdly elusive, and others proved almost as weirdly overabundant (I remember picking up a remaindered hardcover of Eyes of the Dragon super-cheap one idle summer afternoon). No matter how long it had been since my last Stephen King fix, though, I remember there was one book that I would see on the shelves all the time, one book I didn't mention in my mini King bibliography above but which was published in 1981, and yet I would never, ever (at the time) be remotely tempted to pick up: Danse Macabre.

The absurdly simple explanation for skipping over that particular paperback every time the opportunity to pick it up presented itself is that I knew it was non-fiction, not King writing a tale of characters confronting horror but King ruminating on horror as a genre across various formats and time periods, and that held no interest for me whatsoever. I roll my eyes at my younger self now, of course, but the truth is as a teen I only read fiction for pleasure, with zero exceptions. I did well enough in school, reading the assigned texts on historical events and scientific facts and whatnot, but I would never willingly choose to read something fact-based in my free time when there were so many works of pure imagination out there waiting for me. The irony, of course, is that nowadays I read plenty of non-fiction, partly because I don't draw such hard and fast distinctions about what constitutes pleasurable reading anymore, partly because I've made a conscious effort to balance my mental diet now that I'm so far outside the bounds of school. And within the walls of non-fiction, pop culture analysis in particular is something I happily eat up with a spoon. So here we have a book of pop-culture analysis, specifically addressing one of my favorite genres, and written by one of my all-time top authors. I just had to get over some youthful prejudices in order to appreciate it.

So I FINALLY got around to reading Danse Macabre this month. And of course I enjoyed it immensely, but the amount of time that I waited to correct the oversight means that the whole endeavor is now incredibly dated. Danse Macabre conducts a King's-eye overview of thirty years of horror history, from 1950 to 1980 (give or take a few highly influential classics from the previous century that more than merit serious consideration), and Danse Macabre is now thirty-three years old itself. Some of the references are quaint, some judgments are hasty, and some of the unintentional ironies are downright chilling. A couple of quick examples:

1. King is sneeringly dismissive of Wes Craven, which makes a lot of sense in context. As of 1980 Craven was best known for trashy exploitative horror films like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. He hadn't yet unleashed A Nightmare on Elm Street into the world, let alone Scream. It's pretty much a given now that Craven belongs in the Horror Hall of Fame. I have to assume Steve has moderated his contempt somewhat over the past three decades.

2. The biggest recent tragedies in the news at the dawn of the 80's were the mass suicides at Jonestown and the hostage crisis in Iran. The word "terrorist" has a decidedly pre-9/11 flavor when King (frequently) drops it. But pushing the envelope even further, King considers a novel entitled The Fog by James Herbert, written in 1975, and notes how eerie it is that one of the chapters, about a town full of people who are driven insane by the titular miasma and commit mass suicide by stampeding lemming-like(*) into the sea, seems like a rehash of what happened in Guyana except that Herbert wrote his book first. During the same consideration King off-handedly references how another act of insane self-destruction is a commercial airline pilot crashing a jumbo jet into a downtown office building in London ... but of course to King in 1981 that's an example of Herbert's wicked imagination with no bearing on reality. Shudder.

(* = yes I know lemmings don't really run off cliffs and that's a lie propagated by Disney nature films.)

I can only imagine what King would be capable of producing if he were asked to produce a Danse Macabre volume 2, covering the 80's and 90's and new millennium in horror. I'm honestly a bit shocked that no publisher has asked him to do just that, given how many units it would move. Actually, chances are numerous publishers have already made the request and King has declined, citing that he's had his academic-ish non-fiction say on the genre and that's enough for a lifetime. Fair enough.

But there are plenty of good nuggets in Danse Macabre, and I'm still in the process myself of trying to figure out exactly how to parse them all. Especially helpful are the appendices, one for novels and one for movies, where King lists about 100 or so of each he recognizes as modern classics and then helpfully asterisks the ones which are also personal favorites. Clearly at some point I'm going to have to go through these lists and build out some reading/viewing lists of my own. Perhaps another Class Not Taken, with an imaginary syllabus of suspense and supernatural novels as selected by Professor King? Or maybe a large chunk of next year's Halloween Countdown will consist of a horror flick marathon curated by the man from Bangor? We shall see, my friends, we shall have to wait and see.


  1. If wikipedia is to be believed, and of course it is, King added a new essay to the book for its 2010 reissue. So there's that.

    You know, I don't think I've ever read a whole Stephen King book. How the hell did I grow up in the Eighties and never read a King novel? Jeez.

    1. I definitely put King in that category I'm always carping about, the "things with so much popcult ubiquity that everyone is passingly familiar with them". Even as a bystander only, you probably feel like you have a moderate understanding of King's work/career, and you're probably right.

      I do recommend Misery, though, even if you've seen the movie (which I liked a lot, too). But the novel is much more inside Paul's mind, and worth checking out.