Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s study of the horror genre from 1950-1980 is one of my all time favorite books. It is nothing so much like carrying a conversation with your favorite author wherever you go and believe me, for a long chunk of time I carried that book around with me more or less where ever I went. I’ve longed for King to write a sequel and now that thirty years have passed leaving a neatly mirrored chunk of time it seems the perfect time to do so.
Unfortunately as King seemingly has no inclination to do so (though as the excellent essay published in front of the new edition of Danse attests he has not run out of interesting things to say about the genre), the only way I will get to read such a book is if I write it myself.
Like it’s forefather Son Of Danse Macabre will attempt to articulate what I find so appealing about the horror genre, a predilection that most outsiders seem to consider a minor form of sociopathy at best, with a particular focus on the past thirty years. Right where Danse Macabre left off to today. Like Danse Macabre the focus will be on American Horror. Not out of disrespect or ignorance, simply because the net is wide enough as is. As a result foreign horror will only be discussed so far as the effect it has on American Horror, such as The J Horrror boom in the early aughts. This book will follow all of Danse Macabre’s nine part structure as closely as possible; with the exception of the chapter about horror on the radio for obvious reasons. I won’t be posting a chapter at a time, as that would be wildly unpractical at best. But the posts will be long, you probably won’t see one under 2,000 words. As a result there won’t be a post here every day like I try to have on my other blog Things That Don’t Suck. However, at the very least there should be something here a couple of times a week.
Two question remains. Why than call it Son Of Danse Macabre instead of something much less cease and desisty? (and just for the record I can only hope that this will be seen in the spirit of a very ambitious dollar baby) And if I am planning on turning this blog into a workable manuscript (unsolicited natch so if you’re interested drop me an email firstname.lastname@example.org) than why do it out in the open instead of writing it in private?
Lets tackle the second question first. The answer is that I want this to be, to a certain extent a collaboration. The horror blogging community is one of the most enthusiastic and I want to take advantage of that. I have an outline of things prepared to write about, but it’s hardly the end all be all. If you think something is important to the horror genre tell me so. And If you think I’m wrong about something then tell me that too.
To answer the first question, its simple, if I didn’t attempt to consciously play off of Danse Macabre any attempt I made would be dominated by it. I will be dealing with themes and ideas that King articulated in his text, and which I can’t remove from my frame of reference in considering the genre. By dealing with said ideas directly I hope to avoid simply parroting them.
But to be even more direct it was King’s book that first encouraged me to think seriously about genre fiction (before I even realized such encouragement was needed). To not just take the ghettoization of genre fiction as a given. In that sense I truly am the son of Danse Macabre.
I hear the musicians tuning their instruments and the lights are dimming. Won’t you join me for this dance? I’d like to show you some moves that my father taught me.
But I haven’t introduced myself. Which is necessary since though I am many things I am no Stephen King. Forty Years, four decades of frame of reference, and several million dollars separate us. King begins Danse Macabre with his story of his first encounter with real fear. That seems as good a place as any to get to know one another.
My first scare is also the first movie I can remember seeing. It came courtesy of The Bride Of Frankenstein and Boris Karloff. There is a shot early in the film, where a the old villager whose daughter was accidentally killed by the monster in the infamous flower scene has falls down into the quarry below the old windmill where the monster has supposedly perished. Leaving the old man treading helplessly in the water we cut to a low blind wall, from which a horrible hand reaches out from. Then the rest of the monster appears. That beautiful Jack Pierce makeup, the sunken haunted eyes beneath the jutting brow.
I screamed. Whatever was about to happen to that farmer was bad news and I left him to his fate. Running for my bedroom and hiding under my bed. Feeling an adrenaline rush I would end up chasing my entire life. It’s the type of moment that makes you not just a genre fan for life but a film fan for life.
Ah but that’s not what King was talking about. He wrote about the announcement of Sputnik brought horror out from the safe place on the screen and changed his role in it from that of voyeur to a participant.
Well I remember that one as well.
But first I feel a little more background is involved. After all when King wrote Macabre (and I promise that soon I will stop referencing him every other line. This is just to get the ball rolling) he was already a nationally known celebrity. I’m still the guy trying to teach your granny to suck eggs. And it’ll be to both of our benefits if we know whom the guy teaching the egg sucking is.
On the surface there’s not a lot of clues to why I would develop an affinity for the horror genre. But one thing that’s important to note is that the affinity has been with me for as long as I can remember. I had two somewhat overprotective parents, and I suppose the easy answer is that I desired horror because it was forbidden to me. But of course it wouldn’t have been forbidden to me if I hadn’t desired it. One important difference between me and most horror fans, is that film wasn’t really my gateway drug. As I said, my parents were watchdogs and the only horror films I could rent with impunity before I was sixteen were The Wolfman and The Blob both of which I watched ad nauseum. (I was able to sneak in a few others, Scream was a memorable one, as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing thanks to my father’s Kurt Russell fandom), I would pour over the boxes at the horror section of the video store and two books which somehow ended up in the children’s section of the library. I can’t remember their titles, though I would give anything to know them. They were two pictorial histories of the horror genre. One dealing with classic horror films, the other other then modern day ones like Nightmare On Elm Street and The Exorcist. They gave detailed synopsis and big glossy pictures, and before I ever saw any of the films listed within they played out in my imagination and dreams.
It was the library, which eventually allowed me to start exploring my horror jones. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and to my parent’s credit having no desire to curb this attribute they gave me a bit of a freer hand choosing material as long as it was in printed form. On screen I had to sustain myself on Lon Chaney having a bad hair day and Steve McQueen fighting a jello mold in his hot rod. On the page I could get the real stuff. Uncut and pure.
It will surprise no one that the first name I latched onto was King’s. I snuck into the adult section of the library on a fourth grade field trip, picked up The Dead Zone and never looked back. I can still see the book, a musty old hardcover, with a face on the cover. Half of it in shadow half of it obliterated by a terrible carnival wheel. That was a book that promised dark things. And it delivered. Over the next four years I would slightly broaden my circle. I read some of Dean Koontz, though he disappointed me by rarely writing supernatural horror. (Later he would disappoint me for other reasons. Hi-ho!). I took my first curious sniffs of Lovecraft, Poe and James.
This was all warm up, making nice fertile mulch for the seeds of my horror fandom to grow in. The first real sprout happened in seventh grade. It’s a moment I think is important to me not just in terms of my horror fandom, but in who I am as a critic and to a certain extent as a person.
It was in English class and we had just livened up what was a fairly prosaic class with a reading of the old chestnut The Tell Tale Heart. The teacher was lecturing, “So as you can see class, the man’s guilt, drives him crazy. He’s so tortured that he begins to believe he hears the sound of the heart beating beneath the floorboards and-” (This was Catholic school they where big on guilt) Well wait a minute. That didn’t sound right. I raised my hand. “Yes.” The teacher said, somewhat exasperated.
“Well what do you mean?” I asked “That was the old man’s ghost coming back to haunt him. Making the sound of the beating heart for the narrator to hear.”
The Teacher looked at me over her glasses summoning the disdain that only a seventh grade English teacher can command. “Really Bryce? Really? You think the chopped up dead man’s heart started beating? Does that sound… likely?” The class started to giggle. Now would have been the time to turn beat red, sink down into my desk chair and mutter that “No ma’am that didn’t sound likely at all.”
Instead I said, “I still think it was the ghost.” Which got another round of laughter from the class and had the teacher scurrying on to get the conversation on a different track as soon as possible. But you know what, having gone back and read it as an adult, I still think it’s was the ghost. That unpleasant one eyed man back from the grave to give the murdering bastard who killed him a good sweat. I don’t care if some middle school English teacher finds it unlikely. As we will see as we go on, there are plenty of unlikely things that happen most every day. A great deal many of them just as unpleasant as the still beating heart of a corpse. As The Cowardly Lion so eloquently put, “I do believe in spooks I do believe in spooks.”
I was born into a lower (though firmly) middle class family, did most of my growing up in one of the most stable times in American history (and the rest of it in one of the most unstable though that is a different story). I had about as normal of a childhood as you can get. Siblings, dog, Catholic School for elementary, public school for highschool, parents stayed together. No traumas, save the usual ones. Not a lot of luxury but never any real want either. In short I was (and am) a middle class, educated, Catholic, white kid, living in America. If you look up the norm in the dictionary you’ll probably find a picture of me.
Except normal was never a word anyone used to describe me.
Not to put too melodramatic a point on it. But I have spent a great deal of my life; very alienated from the majority of people I meet. I say this not as a ploy to gain sympathy, I have no delusions about my own character, and part of growing up for me was realizing the variety of ways I have been off putting to various people and taking responsibility for my own mental state. But the fact that it was not always unmotivated does not change the fact that it was very much real. It should be pointed out that very little of this, for lack of a better term lets call it bullying, was physical (though some of it was), you couldn’t even call it verbal (though some of it was). Let’s roughly estimate that each of those was responsible for about ten percent, the rest was simply neglect. An inability to connect with other people, who might as well be closed circuits. Know me this much, but no more. Come to me this close. But no closer. Simply put I was and am an outsider.
It’s important to clarify that at this point I didn’t become a punk or a goth, or even a theater nerd as so many of the disenfranchised do in adolescence. These people are of course not outsiders at all. Just different types of insiders. I stood outside the fringe just as completely as I stood outside the mainstream. I was to all intents and purposes a good normal kid except that I wasn’t.
Which was fine. Lonely, but fine. Until the line between being an outsider and being a monster was blurred on the national stage. And suddenly being an outsider was very bad news indeed.
We were talking about the day that fear walked in weren’t we?
April 20th, 1999. That was the day fear walked in. When two kids wearing black trenchcoats came to school and murdered thirteen people.
Doesn’t sound very likely does it?
Klebold and Harris, Klebold and Harris. Those stupid, selfish, craven monsters. It scares me a bit just how completely the culture has both assimilated and forgotten by the culture. On one hand you can buy them as part of the most acclaimed True Crime novel in years. Tuck them safely away on your shelf, like pocket daemons, another bit of sociology to ponder over. On the other hand, there is my little sister, an intelligent woman, just six years younger than I, who asked when I made casual reference to Columbine in a conversation “What was that?”
What it was was some scary shit, particularly if you were a kid who was seen as crazy enough to pull such a stunt. Which as it so happened yours truly was. The highschool, always a dreadfully efficient system for watching for thy mutant went into overdrive. A kind of Autoimmune disease swept through the nations hallways. I looked like bad news to the white blood cells. And the worst part was I wasn’t sure that they were wrong.
Let me clarify. I am in no way condoning the sick acts that occurred on that day. Nor am I excusing. I am not, nor ever have been a violent person. I’ve been in two fist fights, the first on my own volition, the second I was pressured into an consider one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. What’s more I didn’t want to feel alienated, I didn’t want to rebel. I wanted to be a good kid. But I could understand. I could understand the deep reservoirs of anger that those two had drawn on. I could understand it too well.
I’d seen a monster and it had been wearing a face that looked very much like my own. Which was not a new idea to me, after all what is Original Sin except a very detailed explanation about why the monster is us?
This is all my very roundabout way of saying that different things scare me than scare King. His generation had the campus experience that verged on a moment of mass conscienceness. Mine grew up in an era ever more fractured by digitalization. He grew up afraid of Sputnik and The Evil Empire. I grew up scared of kids with semi autos opening up at school and cavemen with boxcutters flying airplanes into buildings (How’s that for unlikely Teach?) King grew up scared of being disintegrated by The Bomb. Physical death holds very little horror for me. It’s the death of free will and the disintegration of Identity that keep me up pacing at night.
Yet underneath the masks (or if you prefer it masques) of time culture and experience, the face of fear is the same. It is that bedrock immutability that makes horror so inescapable. So primal.
No matter what clothes he has on our dancing partner is always the same. Lets take a closer look at him shall we?