Stephen King’s Danse Macabre

Danse Macabre – Stephen King
Berkley 1983 (Originally published 1981)


Stephen King’s Danse Macabre is a history of horror. It focuses on the 30 years prior to its publication in 1980. I have read most of the old classics of Gothic horror, and in recent years I have turned my attention to more modern stuff. When I started to read King’s book I assumed that I would be familiar with most of the stuff he was discussing.

I was wrong.

In an opening chapter King discusses Frankenstein, Dracula and Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I felt good. I had read all of these. King claims that nearly all modern horror stories can be traced back to these archetypal novels. I wasn’t convinced. These are certainly important books, but claiming that all horror can be traced back to them seems like a bunch of farfetched college-boy bullshit.

Then there’s some very long chapters on horror movies, TV and radio drama. I like horror movies, but I found these parts really, really boring.

After slogging through that stuff, I finally got to the section on horror fiction. I was expecting a broad overview of the field, but King limits his discussions to 10 books published between 1950 and 1980. He chose these books because they “seem representative of everything in the genre that is fine.” To my dismay and great shame, I had only read one out of these 10.

I put Danse Macabre down and sought out all the books King listed. It took me all of August to read them. It has taken me until the end of the year to finish writing about them. Here’s the list and some brief thoughts. Click the title of each book for my full reviews.

  1. Ghost Story – Peter Straub
    This one was really good. Quite scary in parts.
  2. The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons
    This was the only book included that I had never heard of. I absolutely loved reading it.
  3. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
    This was the only book included that I had actually read before. A classic of classics.
  4. Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin
    Great book. Pity about the sequel.
  5. The Body Snatchers – Jack Finney
    Yeah, I guess it is a horror novel. I certainly enjoyed reading it.
  6. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
    A great book.
  7. The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
    My least favourite Matheson novel. Surely I am Legend is more interesting.
  8. The Doll Who Ate His Mother – Ramsey Campbell
    A decent book, but I’m not convinced that it really deserves to be on this list.
  9. The Fog – James Herbert
    Enjoyable trash.
  10. Strange Wine – Harlan Ellison
    This book was enjoyable, but I find it peculiar that King chose it was the only short story collection to discuss. It contains maybe 3 horror stories. King discusses Bradbury’s Something Wicked, but Bradbury’s Dark Carnival or October Country collections are far more horrory than that novel and this collection by Ellison. It really seems to me that King included Strange Wine on this list because Harlan Ellison was his friend.

Not all of these books were amazing, but most of them were really, really good. I had been planning on reading a few of them beforehand, but God knows how long it would have taken me to get around to them at my own pace.

When I had finally finished these ten books, I picked Danse Macabre back up, ready to read King’s thoughts on my previous month’s reading.

BORING.

Stephen King was an English teacher, and much of this book comes from lecture notes he gave at some writing college. He starts talking about the Apollonian and Dionysian natures of the characters in these novels. Dionysus, my bollocks. Also, if you look at this book’s publication date, it seems to have been written at the height of King’s cocaine use. Cocaine apparently gives its users a sense of grandiosity or inflated self esteem. This might explain how King thought it was acceptable to fill his book with such rambling pseudo-academic hogswash.

Danse Macabre is the most influential book that I read this year. It led me not only to read the books discussed therein but also several other books by their authors. Honestly, I really like Stephen King, and the novels discussed in here are great, but I found this book pretty boring. I far preferred reading the stories than King’s thoughts on them. I guess I don’t have much time for people sharing their opinions on books…

I would advise to stay away from King’s non-fiction, but I actually read his On Writing in February and thought it was great. I was seriously trying to do more creative writing, but then covid hit and I used it as an excuse to quit.

5 thoughts on “Stephen King’s Danse Macabre

  1. Yeah, it was pretty long-winded, although he got some good insights from Ira Levin and a few others…I think the book was released when King’s marketability was really rising – maybe, as you suggest, along with his cocaine use – and his publisher was rushing everything he ever wrote into print, for better or worse. To my taste, he’s never topped the first burst of creativity that gave us Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Night Shift and The Dead Zone; I doubt any authors could keep that kind of streak going, and Danse Macabre proved it.

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  2. I haven’t read everything on that list, that’s for sure. I think I need to tackle Rosemary’s Baby, both the book and the (unedited) movie next. (I dimly recall seeing the movie on broadcast TV, where it was surely edited.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t actually read “Danse Macabre” (or “On Writing” either) in years but remember loving it at the time. My wife picked up a 1st edition for me as a gift recently so I may give it another read to see how it compares to my memory but I remember liking it a lot, thinking it was conversational and insightful with a ton of great recommendations. I know it ends in roughly 1980 so I think it’s due for a sequel.

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    1. The recommendations are great. The insight is fine, but I genuinely surprised myself with how little it interested me. I don’t know what’s to blame exactly, but I’m having a really hard time reading anything other than fiction right now.

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