Revisiting Danse Macabre by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I bought my first copy of DANSE MACABRE — a beat-up paperback from a used bookstore, of course — sometime early on in college. I remember taking it home, along with three or four other books, and being disappointed when I discovered it wasn’t a novel or a new collection of stories.
I skipped around a lot the first time I picked it up. Chapters with scholarly titles such as “Radio and the Set of Reality” and “The Modern American Horror Movie–Text and Subtext” were blown by without a second glance. In truth, I was probably intimidated, but I never would have admitted that. Instead, I’m sure my take on it was something along the lines of: I get enough teaching in school, and I’m not much interested in taking a home course right now.
But, in a way, that’s exactly what ended up happening.
Because while I remember skipping over certain chapters altogether and liking — but not loving — certain other chapters, the sections of DANSE MACABRE that did capture my interest did so in such a significant way that they helped shape the direction of my life.
In many ways it did feel like a home course, but focused on a beloved subject close to my heart (spooky movies and books) and taught by the coolest instructor on campus (Mr. Stephen King).
Here are a few of my long-ago favorites:
* Chapter 2 (Tales of the Hook): First of all, who doesn’t love the story of The Hook? I know I certainly did, as did all of my childhood friends. Take that classic small-town legend and throw in a discussion about the dividing lines between horror and fantasy and science fiction, sprinkle in some wise words covering everything from William M. Gaines and EC Comics to films like DONOVAN’S BRAIN, DRACULA, HALLOWEEN, and I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, and no wonder I was so captivated.
* Chapter 4 (An Annoying Autographical Pause): Another good example of Steve being humble, because this chapter was anything but annoying. In fact, I clearly remember this as the first time I ever found myself interested in “the man behind the curtain.” Before DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King was two things to me: a photo on a dust jacket and his stories.
After DANSE MACABRE, he was a real, breathing human being. A smart young dude from Maine who was remarkably well read and knew the definition of struggle. I was fascinated to read of his early life with his mother and brother, David, not to mention his worst childhood nightmare (one which would pop up later in his second novel) and the first movie he remembered seeing (THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON; it was at the drive-in; he was seven) and his dowsing adventures with his Uncle Clayton.
And when King wrote of finding a box of his absentee father’s books in the attic — “a treasure trove of old Avon paperbacks” — I found myself holding my breath and nodding my head and thinking about how the world works in mysterious and fucked up ways sometimes.
One other observation about this chapter and I’ll move on: I remember thinking at the time that Stephen King told stories about his own life in much the same way that he told his fictional stories. Honestly and without any hint of pretentiousness. It felt like he was talking directly to me, and only me; it felt like he was telling an old friend his secrets.
* And finally there was Chapter 7 (The Horror Movie as Junk Food), in which King admits to liking the monster cheesefest, PROPHECY, a movie I am completely unashamed to admit that I love; in fact, I still have my VHS cassette somewhere.
But it wasn’t until he began discussing another of my favorite monster flicks, THE BLOB (Steve McQueen’s debut and yes I still know the words to the song), that I surrendered and became his willing prisoner.
I remember watching THE BLOB at least a half-dozen times in the dark basement of the house I grew up in, usually with one or more of my older sisters watching alongside me on our old sofa and trying to scare the snot outta me (they were famous for this, and I recall childhood viewings of THE WIZARD OF OZ and CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG with equal parts wonder and terror). I also remember watching ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in that same basement with my older brother — home on leave from the Army — and wishing the movie would never end.
A final note regarding the Appendixes found in the back of DANSE MACABRE.
I’m the youngest of five children, all of whom loved movies, as well as a lifelong fan of the Saturday afternoon Creature Double Features and one of the first kids on my block to buy a VCR and join a video store (trust me, I mowed a lot of lawns for that privilege)…so there weren’t a lot of new discoveries for me in King’s “Appendix 1: The Films”.
But “Appendix 2: The Books” was a different story altogether. King’s list introduced me to folks like Charles Beaumont, James Herbert, Ira Levin, Richard Matheson (I had read I AM LEGEND, but none of the others), John Farris, Michael McDowell and John Wyndham.
In the years that followed, I sought out their books, often using a highlighter to mark titles off the list in the back of DANSE MACABRE — and my world was so much the better for it.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
This is my 11th essay for STEPHEN KING REVISITED, and so far it’s been a wonderful and gratifying experience — one filled with a treasure chest of cherished memories and many surprises.
And this might just be the biggest surprise of them all for me thus far: DANSE MACABRE is one of Stephen King’s most underrated books. There I said it. And I mean it.
Here’s a book that I liked the first time around — liked, but didn’t love. Heck, as I admitted up above, I didn’t even read the entire book.
But this time, my gosh, this time…
It felt like I had discovered an unopened pack of baseball cards from 1978 underneath my bed, opened the pack and found nothing but Orioles players (hey, I got Brooks Robinson!), and then the cherry on top: the gum was still good! So, I shoved the chalky pink slab of gum in my mouth and blew the biggest bubble of my life.
That’s what rereading DANSE MACABRE felt like to me.
Not only a magical return to younger days (there’s that time machine again), and not only an amazing rediscovery…but an exciting new discovery of so much great material I had missed the first time around.
DANSE MACABRE is a love letter, folks. An unabashed love letter. To me. To you. To all of us. And we’re lucky to have it.
It’s also a roadmap. Not only to how Stephen King became Stephen King, but a roadmap designed to help readers find their way and educate themselves about a genre that many still look down upon.
Trust me, I’ve been working almost exclusively in the horror genre for the past 25 years, folks, and I still learned a helluva lot from DANSE MACABRE.
Rereading the autobiographical sections made me smile.
Revisiting “Tales of the Hook” felt like going home again.
And lo and behold, those chapters I once skipped because I feared they would be too scholarly (and, ahem, boring) for my tastes ended up being fascinating reads.
“Radio and the Set of Reality” (like so many other things) made me wish my father were still alive, so I could ask him about his own experiences.
Even “The Modern Horror Movie–Text and Subtext” ended up being one of my favorite chapters in the entire book, as King discusses a handful of my most beloved films: THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THEM!, THE THING, DUEL, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR.
I almost forgot how much THE AMITYVILLE HORROR scared me and my friends the first couple times we watched it. King reminded me with this:
I don’t think I realized how well the film was working on this level until I saw it for the second time at a small theater in western Maine. There was little laughter during the film, no hooting…and not much screaming, either. The audience did not seem to be watching the film; it seemed to be studying it. The audience simply sat there in a kind of absorbed silence, taking it all in.
The lengthiest chapter — and my new personal favorite — in DANSE MACABRE is Chapter Nine, simply titled “Horror Fiction”.
King opens with a discussion of the three books “that kicked off a new horror ‘wave’ in the seventies” — ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and THE OTHER — and that serves as the lead-in to a fascinating, in-depth look at Peter Straub’s books, with most of the attention lavished on GHOST STORY.
Even the footnotes in DANSE MACABRE proved interesting and this one was a favorite of mine:
At one point, while under strain, Don [Wanderley] gives a long, rambling lecture to an undergraduate class on the subject of Stephen Crane. In the course of his talk, he describes THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE as “a great ghost story in which the ghost never appears.” Considering the book’s moody approach to the subjects of cowardice and bravery, it is an oddly apt description of that novel.
Call me weird, but I find that very cool.
When I was finished reading this section I wanted to sneak downstairs to my library and grab GHOST STORY off the shelf — and I can’t think of any higher compliment to give King in this instance.
But, wait, it only gets better — as King actually analyzes the classic first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. I was spellbound.
And later when he highlights this particular paragraph of HILL HOUSE, I could only smile and shake my head, as it is one of my favorite pieces of prose from that novel:
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair… The face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.
Next came discussions of Anne Rivers Siddons’ THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR (an underrated classic in my eyes), Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY’S BABY (King claims A KISS BEFORE DYING is Levin’s best novel; I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read it), Jack Finney’s THE BODY SNATCHERS (the source of countless childhood nightmares), Richard Matheson’s THE SHRINKING MAN, and books by the likes of Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, and Harlan Ellison (including a hilarious — and bloody — anecdote about the time King and his wife, Tabitha, attended an Ellison lecture two days after Ellison had undergone a vasectomy).
One final highlight and I promise I’ll shut up.
When King writes “Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES defies any neat and easy categorization of analysis…”, I knew we were in for a treat. Bradbury’s classic novel of small town America is one of my all-time favorites, and I couldn’t wait to read what King had to say about it.
Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
King opens his analysis by stating:
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, FAHRENHEIT 451, and DANDELION WINE have probably all outsold it, and are certainly better known to the general reading public. But I believe that SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, a darkly poetic tale set in the half-real, half-mythical community of Green Town, Illinois, is probably Bradbury’s best work…
And then spends another half-dozen or so pages delving into the heart — and guts — of Bradbury’s masterwork. It’s mesmerizing reading, highlighted by King’s inclusion of Bradbury’s own heartwarming words:
But, above all, I did a loving thing without knowing it. I wrote a paean to my father. I didn’t realize it until one night in 1965, a few years after the novel had been published. Sleepless, I got up and prowled my library, found the novel, reread certain portions, burst into tears. My father was locked into the novel, forever, as the father in the book! I wish he had lived to read himself there and be proud of his bravery in behalf of his loving son.
I love the book best of all the things I have ever written. I will love it, and the people in it, Dad and Mr. Electrico, and Will and Jim, the two halves of myself sorely tired and tempted, until the end of my days.
When I finished DANSE MACABRE, it felt like I had just had lunch or sat through nine innings of a baseball game with Steve; it felt like I had just watched THE BLOB or THE BIRDS or ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY in my dark childhood basement; it felt like I had just awakened from a deep and wonderful dream.
It felt like magic.
* * *
Fans of ‘SALEM’S LOT should dig this one:
The most vivid dream I can recall came to me when I was about eight. In this dream I saw the body of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a scaffold on a hill. Rocks perched on the shoulders of the corpse, and behind it was a noxious green sky, boiling with clouds. This corpse bore a sign: ROBERT BURNS. But when the wind caused the corpse to turn in the air, I saw that it was my face–rotted and picked by the birds, but obviously mine. And then the corpse opened its eyes and looked at me. I woke up screaming, sure that the dead face would be leaning over me in the dark.
Reading King’s personal account still gives me chills, and knowing that his childhood nightmare turned into one of the most memorable — and frightening — images from ‘SALEM’S LOT just makes it that much cooler.
I started my publishing company, Cemetery Dance Publications, in the summer of 1988. I named it after the title of the second short story I had ever sold, a first-person account of a madman as he stumbles around a storm-tossed graveyard searching for the tombstone of his beloved. As the storm gains strength, the cemetery seems to come alive around him, the trees dancing their dark dance, brittle branches clacking together like skeletal fingers. Hence, the title: “Cemetery Dance”.
It was an original — and somewhat bizarre — title, and it seemed to resonate with readers, so when it came time to name my business, it felt like a wise choice. Did I mention it felt like an original choice, too?
But now I wonder…
At the close of Chapter One (titled “October 4, 1957 and an Invitation to Dance”), King has a little fun with his readers:
This book is only my ramble through that world, through all the worlds of fantasy and horror that have delighted and terrified me. It comes with very little plan or order, and if you are sometimes reminded of a hunting dog with a substandard nose casting back and forth and following any trace of interesting scent it happens to come across, that is fine with me.
But it’s not a hunt. It’s a dance. And sometimes they turn off the lights in this ballroom.
But we’ll dance anyway, you and I. Even in the dark. Especially in the dark.
May I have the pleasure?
Just typing those words makes me smile — and wonder.
Sometimes — not very often, but sometimes — the world works the way it’s supposed to.
There are dozens of quotable lines in this gem of a volume, but this one takes the cake for me:
For me, the terror — the real terror, as opposed to whatever demons and boogeys which might have been living in my own mind — began on an afternoon in October of 1957. I had just turned ten. And, as was only fitting, I was in a movie theater: the Stratford Theater in downtown Stratford, Connecticut.
Okay, three sentences. But well worth the cheat. Not only does this remind me of the opening of IT, we’re talking about a monumental moment here: a ten-year-old Stevie King plops down in a dark movie theater…and his life is never the same again. His path is set. C’mon, how cool is that?!?
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
I came very close to writing “Not a damn thing” in this space..until I remembered the discussion of Finney’s THE BODY SNATCHERS and the resulting movie adaptations. Those pod people still give me the willies, big time, so they win my most cringe-worthy moment in DANSE MACABRE.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Well, there are no actual characters since this is a non-fiction book, so I think I’ll just go with the big man himself: Stephen King. Think I’ll keep my eye on this guy and see where he takes me next.
START DATE – June 13, 2015
FINISH DATE – June 17, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
I haven’t read Dance Macabre since it was originally published so many years ago. I don’t even have it in my collection of Stephen King books. But, your insightful review has triggered my curiosity and desire to re-read it. So, this payday, I’m going to order a copy. Thank you for that little push!
I don’t think I’d call A Kiss Before Dying Levin’s best novel, but it’s probably his most interesting on a technical level. A very tricksy book — and a great read.
A checklist of what to read written by The King himself? Sign me up!
Hmm, I’d decided to omit this from the books I was going to re-read. I MIGHT change my mind.
of all your revisitings, i have been looking forward to your essay on DANSE MACABRE the most, as it has always been among my personal favorites. now that you have rekindled a passion for this book, will you consider a CD edition? huh? wouldja? pleeeeeeeeeeeeease
This is one of my favorite Stephen King books. He manages to be so conversational and intimate that it is easy to imagine that you have actually spent time with him, as Rich says. At the same time, he is deeply perceptive and thoughtful in his discussion of his topic. The intelligence of his analysis combined with the scarcity of this type of serious approach to this type of material make this a book that I return to again and again.
This was a great peek behind the curtain of the WordSlinger. We got glimpses of who King was with his book intros/afterwards but this was the first extended visit we were given – like a virtual getting together to have a coffee. Great book. Great horror resource.
I just read this book last year. I had it since the mid 80’s and had started it a couple of times, but because it was non-fiction I wasn’t too interested in it. After reading it I decided to order a couple of books from Amazon. I ordered:
1) The New Annotated Dracula (by Bram Stoker and annotated by Leslie S Klingler)
2) Ghost Story (by Peter Straub)
3) The Haunting of Hill House (by Shirley Jackson)
There were several others I considered, but I have so many unread books it seemed pointless for now.
I wonder how many sales of the books mentioned in Danse Macabre can be attributed to the book.
Anybody else buy/read any books based on Kings review in Danse Macabre. What about movies?
Danse Macabre was my companion on many searches through used bookstores, Mike! I found it in a great old one in Atlanta in the early 90s, same time I stumbled across this curious book called The Gunslinger. I devoured both! We also took it with us to Blockbuster (yeah, this is a long time ago) and rented many movies based on those fabulous lists. I need to go back and fill in the blanks we couldn’t find back then now that so many more things are available online.
Some of my favorite finds: The Haunting of Hill House and the wonderful original b & w movie, Audrey Rose book and movie, The Changeling, Ghost Story, and remembering how much The Creature From the Black Lagoon terrified me as a kid to name just a few. What a treasure and resource this book still is!
My experience with this book was very similar to Richard’s. I picked up Danse Macabre when I was a kid (and already mad for King’s fiction) but couldn’t get past page 30. I came back to it 10 or 15 years later, as an adult who had got a taste for King’s essay writing, and just devoured the thing.
I’ve read it again and again in the ensuing years and frequently find myself referencing it when writing my own articles about horror. Danse Macabre is easily his most underrated book, in my opinion, and one of the best books ever written on the subject.
This was the first time I ever read this book. Although I stumbled upon a battered copy of it at my high school library back when I was first discovering Mr. King. One thing I remember about it was the cover creeped the hell out of me. It was a distorted, drawn picture of Stephen King himself, beard and all simply looking at you and just daring you to pick up this book. Other than that, it made no impression on me. To be honest, this book never interested me much so I always pictured it being the very last King book I would read to complete my conquest of reading all of his books. It was one of the handful of books of his that I had never read before SK Revisited came along changed all that and it was the next on the list in the chronology to read, so I begrudgingly read it and it was a tough one to get through.
I have always considered myself a huge fan of horror going back to when I was a kid, but this book made me feel like I was a rookie on the subject. Most of the books and movies and especially radio programs he discusses I had either never heard of or had heard of but had never watched or read. So therefore my interest level waned throughout those passages. I loved it when he talked about the books Dracula and Frankenstein which I read in high school, I loved when he discussed the works of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson who are writers that I absolutely love, I also loved the chapter about a quarter of the way through the book which he calls “an annoying autobiographical pause” where he talks about his childhood and how he got into and came to love the horror genre, and I loved the final chapter where he discusses writing, his struggles and lead up to being a successful writer going from rags to riches, and finally his talk about how he got the idea for his book The Stand and his discussions of writing that particular book. I could listen to him talk about writing his books forever, but I mostly just breezed through this book just wanting to be done with it quite frankly. It drones on and on quite a bit and rambles quite often. It was just too long and just didn’t interest me much.
It’s very clear to me that King definitely knows his stuff and did heavy research on this book, but a lot of just reads like a school textbook. I almost felt like I was doing an assignment for school while reading this. This would be a great book to have for a college course studying the horror genre. Unlike the last King book I read, Roadwork, which I don’t think I will ever revisit again, I do believe I will revisit this book one day after I experience the work discussed in this book. Since King provides an index of movies and books discussed in this book with recommendations of his favorites to read and watch first that will definitely come in handy some day. So I do not regret reading this book at all for that reason. It did reignite and increase my interest in the genre and it is also a book that makes one proud to be a horror fan. I will revisit this book again one day.
Yes, as you say, a wonderful roadmap. For me too this book helped shape my reading life. Also, witthout DM I doubt I would have discovered Harlan Ellison. Certainly in the UK he doesn’t seem to be a known writer, and second only to SK, he is the one writer whose books I always try to buy on the day off publication.
Jon Malone (Tunbridge Wells, Kent UK)
A great book and a wonderful roadmap to reading by the amazing SK. Great history, Richard.
Once again, another of my Top Ten of King’s. What I love about this is I’ve seen the movies he’s talking about, I get the pop culture references of the time. Just a great read.
And, Richard, you speak about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It has one of the most frightening characters in a movie, The Child Catcher. Man! That dude was wicked scary. And the actor was superb in the role.
Whenever I get caught up in a conversation on scariest characters in movies, I always throw that guy in the mix.
Many thanks for this review of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. Oddly, I’m not a huge fan of King’s fiction–my tastes lean more toward science fiction and fantasy, although I like some supernatural stories that could be described as “horror”–but I’m a big fan of this book. I think it’s by far one of the best overviews of the fantasy/horror genres.