In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Stephen King’s early non-fiction book about horror
In 1999, the prolific author Stephen King had his own dance with death. One afternoon, he was walking on the shoulder of a road near his home in the US state of Maine, when a van collided with King, badly injuring him. As he lay recovering from his brush with mortality, King penned a book that has gone on to become one of the most popular non-fiction books about the craft of writing. The paradox of Stephen King has always been that he made writing fiction look like something anyone could do, which is not something any writer could have done. As the old sports commentator’s line has it, his talent lies in making it look effortless – easy, even.
On Writing has become well-known even to people who don’t usually read King’s work: it was one of the first books of his I read, after The Gunslinger, the first novel in his Dark Tower sequence (and I read that because I’m an incurable fantasy nerd). But it wasn’t the first non-fiction book about writing which King wrote: before On Writing there was Danse Macabre, a 1981 book written relatively early on in his career, and focusing on the genre of horror. Although it’s not a work about writing in quite the same way as On Writing, Danse Macabre does explore what makes a good horror novel or film (or TV show – cult classics such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone get generous treatment) as well as charting the genre’s evolution since the middle of the twentieth century, and so shines a light on King’s own writing as well as the horror genre more widely.
The result is an engaging trawl through much popular culture – popular culture centred on horror, anyway – written in King’s familiar and affable way. The emphasis is largely on what King feels really works and offers something valuable to the genre, although along the way he does point out where he feels works of horror fiction and cinema don’t succeed. He writes off William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist for being too preachy. Occasionally, he is inconsistent: at one point he claims that the only good writing Robert E. Howard did was his stories about Conan the Cimmerian, but elsewhere in the book he calls Howard’s non-Conan story ‘Pigeons from Hell’ one of the finest horror stories of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, such moments aside, Danse Macabre offers a clear and compelling ‘theory’ of horror, even if ‘theory’ here needs to be encased in a rather heavy pair of quotation marks (or ‘scare quotes’, I should say).
Following Nietzsche’s lead in The Birth of Tragedy, King sees horror as essentially about a struggle between Apollonian (rational, orderly) and Dionysian (impulsive, chaotic) forces; but in his long conclusion, King acknowledges that any straightforward one-size-fits-all approach to something as wide-ranging and protean as horror may be reductive. Having suggested that horror is essentially a conservative medium – bad things happen, but the point is that order is usually restored at the end, and the audience or reader is reminded that things could always be worse if they changed – King then considers the mischief-making properties of horror, and the ways in which horror writers cannot be said to conform to this get-back-in-your-box attitude. As King points out, many writers of horror fiction retain a distinctively childlike appearance, even into late middle age, and the spirit of Puck is often never far away from some of the greatest purveyors of literary horror.
What King offers in Danse Macabre, then, is less a thesis than a series of reflections and meditations, refusing to reduce ‘horror’ to a simplistic narrative or explanation. Given the author’s own fluid approach to questions of genre – something borne out here by his reading of Richard Matheson’s masterpiece, The Shrinking Man, which he identifies as ‘fantasy’ rather than SF – this should come as little surprise. Even when I didn’t agree with King, and when some of his views now appear outdated (he has few kind words about Richard Laymon’s early splatterpunk novel The Cellar, but after Danse Macabre was published King praised Laymon’s work), he is never less than entertaining and provocative.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.