Monday, 12 April 2010

Danse Macabre

After I mentioned Stephen King’s book about horror, “Danse Macabre” in my main blog, I thought I might just as well do a review of it over here.

The book is quite old by now, the first edition was published in 1981. It covers horror films and horror movies from the 1950s into the late 1970s and very early 1980s. But it also covers the basics of horror: vampire, werewolf, ghost and ‘the thing without a name’ (you might call it Frankenstein’s monster or the creature of the black lagoon or even Grendel). It also covers quite some autobiographical stories and a few points about being a writer (and especially a writer of horror novels).

I own a rather used English copy and used to own a German copy before (which was basically disintegrating when I bought the English one). I also used to check out the German version at the local public library quite regularly before I got my own. The book has accompanied me through most of my teenage years and has given my quite an insight into both the world of a person growing up in the US during the ‘hot phase’ of the Cold War and the basics of horror stories. But while modern Stephen King novels do no longer really interest me, I still pull this book out of the shelf every now and then and read a few chapters. (I still own three Stephen King books: “Danse Macabre”, “Salem’s Lot” and “Needful Things”.)

But what is this book really about and why do I review it here? The book is about horror. About the movies, the novels and, most importantly, the brain. Because that’s where our fear comes from, in reality.

It’s not the huge spider on the screen that makes us afraid. It’s our own fear of spiders that makes us scream or stare or hide behind the back of the guy in front of us. The huge spider is, to us in the movie theatre, harmless. It’s just a picture and can’t harm us. And most of the time, the huge ones are neither as huge (watch “Eight-Legged Freaks” to see some really big ones) nor as dangerous as the movies tell us.

Making people afraid is just as difficult as making people laugh, because both humour and fear are very personal things. And so Stephen King gives us many a personal insight while writing about the field in which he has worked successfully then (and still works successfully today). He writes of his own horrors as well as of the horrors of his generation (the kids born in the USA during or shortly after World War II). Those are not the same horrors my parents faced (who are about his own generation) or I faced as a kid growing up, basically, after the time described in his book.

His analysis of the basics of horror, the Tarot, as he calls it, is extremely well done. He takes four classical novels and a few from the time he writes about to show the basics of vampire (represented classically by “Dracula”), the werewolf (represented by “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) and the thing without a name (represented by “Frankenstein”). He also writes, using various stories, about the ghost, which is such a mainstream topic of horror it has a chapter to its own.

But even more interesting to the modern reader is his look on the horror stories that have been produced between his childhood in the 1950s and the publishing of his book in 1981. People my age or younger have only seen the movies on TV (or video or DVD), never on the ‘big screen’ at all. And the horror described in the novels is not our horror. Because most novels use scenarios that are horrible at the time they are written, but not necessarily afterwards, you see.

Still, the book is great reading material. Stephen King, used to writing novels, writes a very fluid style, even when writing non-fiction. You learn a lot about the history of horror in the Cold War while being really entertained. Give it a chance if you stumble over it.

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