Revisiting Danse Macabre by Hank Wagner
First, let me say that I agree with the estimable Mr. Chizmar that Danse Macabre is truly one of Stephen King’s most underrated books. Of all of King’s canon, it’s the one book I have read, and reread, with the most pleasure over the ensuing decades. I always take something new away from it, whether it be a renewed interest in an old favorite story, a new book to pursue and add to my hoard, or just a simple human insight.
Danse Macabre came to me at an opportune time; given the vantage point I now have, it feels almost inevitable that I would stumble across it. I had just come off the most difficult summer of my young life, having been hospitalized in April of 1981 with what was later diagnosed as compartment syndrome, in my right calf. I had internal bleeding, and my calf was filling up like a balloon with deoxygenated blood, threatening to suffocate my muscles. After emergency surgery, I spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, recovering. I emerged battered, but still able to walk. I spent the summer rehabbing and reading, ravenously devouring whatever I could score from my local library. I remember, among other books, reading Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, and Dad, by William Wharton. Mostly “literature,” not the genre stuff that I enjoyed so much as a kid.
I kept haunting the libraries, and managed to keep pretty current, but somehow missed Danse Macabre for several months after it was first published in April. Remember, this was way before the Interwebs, and way before I knew to look in sources like Locus for forthcoming books.
Then, in the fall, I returned to college, and, of course, found myself in need of textbooks, prompting a trip across the quad to Notre Dame’s Hammes Bookstore.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was heading towards a life changing moment.
I didn’t see it right away, because I was almost strictly a buyer of paperbacks. But it somehow caught my eye, even though it was shelved spine out, almost as if it had called out to me (book lovers know what I’m talking about).
What? A King book I had not yet read? I had to have it, in spite of its lofty hardcover price of $13.95. It was pretty substantial, and it had deckled edges! Deckled edges, fergodssake!
I’d tell my folks it was a required text.
I went back to the dorm and started to read. And kept reading, much to the dismay of my then roommate, into the wee hours of the morning.
Think Saul on the road to Damascus. Think Victor Frankenstein shouting, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Think Bruce Wayne exclaiming, “I shall become a bat!”
Well maybe not as dramatic as all that, but I did have something close to a Joycean epiphany that evening. King’s voice, that compelling voice, heard primarily through fiction up to that point (amazingly, a mere seven books were listed in the “By the Same Author” page at that juncture) got into my head from the first page, cementing me as one of his Constant Readers forever. Here was my teacher, appearing when I was ready, talking in depth and with great affection about the kind of books and movies I had come to love over my first twenty-one years. He proffered keys to the proverbial fictional kingdom, reassuring me that my favorites (among them Harlan Ellison’s short stories, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story and Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes) were the classics I thought they were, then proceeding to turn me on to a plethora of product that I would spend the next five years or so consuming, with delight. Read The Nightwalker, he said. Read The Fog, he said. Read The House Next Door, he said. Don’t be afraid to take pleasure in movies like The Blob, or television shows like The Night Stalker, he said. They all have worth, he said.
Thank you, sensei.
Danse Macabre heightened my consciousness, and opened my eyes to a wide world of fiction and film, changing the way I thought about horror films and horror literature, forever.
Danse Macabre was at once a guide, a bible, a concordance, and a self-help book. It legitimized something that I held dear, and allowed me to fly my geek flag a little more assertively, a little more proudly.
Danse Macabre taught me that one could have a sustained, intelligent, and thoughtful conversation about horror, of all things.
Danse Macabre healed my bum leg…no wait, that didn’t really happen.
But it did have a profound effect on me. Reading it for the first time was an experience I will never forget, and always treasure.
So Mr. King, another three decades have gone by, so, when’s the sequel coming? I for one am ready for another dance.
The complete list of the books to be read 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.
Hank Wagner is a respected critic and journalist. Among the many publications in which his work regularly appears are Cemetery Dance and Mystery Scene.