Invitation to the DANSE: Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE Considered

I've been meaning to read Stephen King's survey of horror DANSE MACABRE for many years but I held off, partly because my enthusiasm for King waned a bit as I grew older and partly because when I set out to write my own revisionist Dracula epic I didn't want literary theory and structural spreadsheets rattling around in my head to compete with the characters--new and familiar--who were trying to find my version of their voices. But King was a seminal reading experience for me as a youngster. My first withdrawal from the public library in my then-hometown of Merrimack, N. H. was a paperback edition of 'SALEM'S LOT, and CARRIE and THE SHINING taught me all about writing in the "streams of consciousness" narrative voice many years before I encountered James Joyce. So in a sense this was a forced encounter with an old friend--sort of like looking up a childhood pal on Facebook--and, as might be expected in such a situation, both an awkward experience and a rewarding one.

Earlier this month, I finally decided to give DANSE MACABRE a test drive, and then inhaled it in about three days. The book reminded me both of what I once loved about Stephen King's writing and what caused me to drift away down the years. This is a work that can best be described with the word "largesse"--it has the same expansive voice and at times sprawling and even wayward structure that seems to have blossomed in King's work around the time he graduated from the great hope of horror fiction to National Institution, which I would date to the publication of THE STAND, the 900 page doorstop of a book subsequently republished at over 1100 pages in an "uncut" edition.

The best metaphor for the voice and structure of DANSE MACABRE is perhaps one floated by the book itself. King talks of the "secret window" at one point, through which the dark visions of the subcutaneous world of night rush in. DANSE MACABRE throws that window open like a burglar with a crowbar, letting in a fair amount of light but also a good deal of wind. At times it feels almost free associative in the way it rambles around its topic; there are digressions within digressions, and even some rather startling factual errors, as when King talks about the terrifying plot twists inside Walt Disney's BAMBI and mistakenly kills off Bambi's father by gunshot, leaving his mother to participate in the epic forest fire finale long after she's been slain by Disney's faceless hunters.

The approach does make space for some intriguing autobiographical passages, a few offering revelations about King's fiction he himself seems only partly aware of. The Manichean simplicities of the old EC horror comics from the 50s stand revealed as perhaps the pivotal influence on King's own work, and he transplants his love of them onto the whole horror genre by consistently insisting on its fundamental conservatism--its desire to restore order and punish the wicked.

I think this begs an important question about what we go to horror stories for, and also judges them almost entirely by their (usually restorative) endings. After reading DRACULA, do we retain the details of Stoker's rushed and rather unsatisfying finale, where Dracula is actually vanquished by a Bowie knife rather than the popularly accepted stake through the heart? Or does our mind linger over the titillatingly unwholesome and transgressive sexual content--the seduction scenes, the symbolic rapes of Harker, Lucy and Mina? Why did audiences consistently cheer for Freddy, Jason and Chucky, transforming them into the "heroes" of their respective movie franchises? Who do we root for in the final reel--Kong or the airplanes?

King's discussions of iconic works like Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Stoker's DRACULA and Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE feel a bit tossed off and obligatory (he's especially weak on FRANKENSTEIN, never even acknowledging the popular conception of its central myth as being one of humanity beset by that which it creates, even though there's a fair amount of pagespace devoted to that theme when he gets to the atomic paranoia films of his own childhood in the 1950s). I was quite charmed, though, by his identification of HYDE as literature's archetypal "werewolf" story--a novel interpretation that seems to me to be quite illuminating, original, and correct, and symptomatic of the flexible imagination at work inside these pages.

King affirms his status as what I would call a "blue collar intellectual"--someone raised on pop culture and unwilling to cede an inch to what he sees as a shadowy and highfalutin' critical establishment when it comes to the profundity and importance of the various junk culture sources that moved him as a child and suckled him as an artist. There's a surprisingly consistent and somewhat unattractive anti-intellectualism percolating in these pages. Critics, scholars, graduate students, professors, and even those aspiring writers King sees as simpleminded enough to believe writing can be learned and taught, appear in King's crosshairs again and again. As a result, there's actually precious little to be gleaned from DANSE MACABRE that seems to me to be really useful to the novice writer. This is more a book for the horror consumer seeking to educate him or herself on one noted practitioner's tastes and proclivities--his sense of his own tradition.

The Fieldingesque voice, which frequently addresses the reader directly, is charming and consistently modest, and startlingly fine writing materializes in unexpected places. King, who was a young father when he wrote this book, is especially insightful in his descriptions of the childhood mind--its openness to the astonishing, its indiscriminate curiosity, its constant alternation between terror and wonder. He also proves himself a loyal but clear-eyed friend, celebrating his literary peers Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison in vivid and literate portraits that acknowledge their massive contributions to horror, sci-fi and fantasy, while also seeing their reputations as strong and secure enough to withstand a bit of constructive criticism.

As literary analysis, DANSE MACABRE is probably a bit too diffuse and idiosyncratic to stand as anything much more than a highly quotable oddity. But taken either as a revealing autobiographical glimpse into the mind and processes of one of the titans of contemporary horror literature, or as the spiritual diary of an archetypal "monster boomer," it's expansive, at times instructive, and frequently a massively entertaining read.

April 18, 2011