Death in Horror Movies is When the Monsters Get You

(Danse Macabre)

Most of these books are a revisiting for me. I’ve read a huge portion — probably 90+% of King’s library, some of them many, many times. There are only a few that I’m positive that I’ve never picked up before this journey through his works in chronological order. But we’ve arrived at one of them with Danse Macabre.

I’m not sure why I’ve never read this one before. I’m not someone who hates hearing from the author of stories I like — I read King’s forewords and notes in his fiction books religiously, and often wish for more. I look for interviews both written and spoken as well. But that fact remains that among the vanishingly few King works that I hadn’t yet read before now, two of them are the two nonfiction works, Danse Macabre and On Writing. I can pretty well guess why I haven’t read On Writing — despite being a writer of sorts myself, I’m usually not interested in books that tell me how to do it. Stubborn, I guess. I’ve heard good things about On Writing, though. I guess I’ll see when I get there.

If there’s a reason why I haven’t read Danse Macabre, I’d guess it comes down to not being super invested in the history of horror in various media. Although I don’t know why not, now that I’ve read it, It’s actually pretty interesting. It is super dated, though. I mean, it should be — I’m reading this in August of 2021. It was published in 1981 — I was only a year old when it came out — and it focuses largely on the time periods between the 1950s and 1970s, a time period that my own mother is too young to remember much of. It was updated in the 2000s, but it’s still pretty old.

That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting or relevant. If you’re going to talk about the history of horror — or the history of anything — old things are par for the course. But I think that people much younger than me will also just fail to get some of the references he makes without looking them up, and some probably went entirely over my head because I’m too young to get them. That doesn’t make it a bad book. And if you’re looking for a history of horror in your life, you probably can’t go wrong by getting Stephen King’s thoughts on it, at any point in his career. But I found myself wishing for a more modern take on the subject by the same author. I’d like to see him look at some newer work and see how it links back to the older work. It just feels like there’s a lot missing, I think because Danse Macabre focuses on work that was done entirely before I was born, and I’m old enough now that things that came out when I was in my teens and twenties feel like they have a place in history now.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly interesting, for example, was when he talked about radio horror dramas. I, of course, missed this entirely — the medium was dying out when King was a boy and it was long gone by the time I came along. However, now we have podcasts. If you’re a horror fan and you’re not listening to, say, The NoSleep Podcast or Creepy, what are you doing? Why not? Go listen! I love these podcasts because they seem to tickle the same parts of my brain that Stephen King and other horror authors I like also tickle, and also because, like books, they allow my imagination to fill in blanks and images — which tends to be far scarier than film or TV images — but they’re also easier than reading — more like film or TV in the amount of work they require my brain to do. But are they similar, in execution or in spirit, to old radio dramas? I really don’t know, since I don’t have the life experience required to make that judgment. I’d like input from someone who does know.

Stephen King’s trademark writing style comes through here just as it does in his other works. No matter what he’s writing about, King strikes me as above all accessible. It feels as if he’s talking to you — not lecturing on a subject that he knows well and that I don’t know, which would be fair considering that he is who he is — but more like a person who’s excited about a subject and wants you to understand more so that you can share that excitement. I was previously under the impression that Danse Macabre was more of a how-to for aspiring horror writers — which may also be why I’d never read it, as much as I like to read and listen to and watch horror, I don’t have a particular interest in writing it — but it’s not that. I imagine that the insights in Danse Macabre might be useful for aspiring horror writers, and more generally, any insights from Stephen King will probably be useful to any type of aspiring writer. But it’s really more of a book that relays information and backstory about an interest that the author can reasonably assume that he shares with readers of his work. And that’s what makes it worth reading

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