Book Review: Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I have a very strong love/hate relationship with the writing of Stephen King. When he is on point, it's hard to find his equal in contemporary horror and horror criticism. When he's off, he epitomizes the worst of horror cliches that give the genre a bad name. I prefer my King in small digestible bites--articles, short stories, essays, and book forwards/afterwards. Danse MacabreBefore I even got past the newest introduction to his treatise on horror cinema Danse Macabre, I knew I was in for a bumpy read. King listed what he believes to be the three most important horror films in recent memory. He starts with The Blair Witch Project, a film I did not care for at all. Then he jumps to the Dawn of the Dead remake, a film I did not care for at all, but focuses on the strong opening sequence and stabs at Romero-esque political/social commentary. Then he writes about the controversial Last House on the Left remake, doing an updated take on the common feminist reading that is dismissed by so many because rape, that's why. We started and ended this introduction on the same page.

The challenge with a book like Danse Macabre is teetering on the line between an objective/historical look at horror films and a subjective reading of which films are the most important. No one critic is ever going to line up 100% with your views on film. It's impossible. The whole medium of film is so subjective that no two people will even see a film the exact same way. Now do that with thirty years of horror history and see how the fans respond to your work.

To Stephen King's immense credit, he shows his work in Danse Macabre. He breaks down the source of his opinions in great detail. It's not enough for him to make a bold statement that amounts to "Mary Shelley sucks; Bram Stoker rocks." King actually takes the time to explain why he has that opinion. You might not agree with him (I sure didn't), but you can at least respect his reasoning.

Danse Macabre is not a book you'll be able to read straight through. King crams so much information (and so many little digs at films he doesn't like) into the book that you need to pace yourself. It's a dense text of sincere horror criticism that, remarkably, reads like a casual conversation about the genre.

The only real downside to Danse Macabre is how readily available this information is elsewhere. With IMDb, Wikipedia, and horror communities all over the web, the search for that perfect early slasher film is a few clicks away. There are also countless texts that focus exclusively on the content King squeezed into forty pages of prose. If you're researching horror, Danse Macabre is the equivalent of a specialized encyclopedia entry, not a compendium of heavy research material. King's information has not been updated since the second printing of the book. There are stories about films that don't tell the whole story as we know it today. No one is expecting him to constantly update the text, but the availability of this information has far exceeded the scope of a single book.

If you have an interest in horror but haven't spent much time examining the genre, Danse Macabre is a good standing point. The book also works as a memoir, of sorts, of King the horror fan. Aside from the personal anecdotes about encountering films throughout his life, his views on horror have so radically changed in the past thirty years that this book serves as a gateway to a King who no longer exists.

Let me put it another way. Did you ever think the man who said the made for TV The Shining is better than the Kubrick film ever had anything nice to say about the latter? He sings its praises over 400 pages in Danse Macabre. It's the level of interesting inconsistencies that made me keep reading.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

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The Link Rally: 22 February 2012