“Danse Macabre”


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Stephen King’s non-fiction look at horror from the 1950s to 1980s, published in 1981. I read my much-loved and worn 1983 Berkley paperback.

5 out of 5 stars.

A four-hundred-page bull session with Stephen King about horror in film, television, radio and literature with some dashes of autobiography.

I read Danse Macabre every couple of years and I can thank it for pointing me in life-altering directions: Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury when I was thirteen, Richard Matheson at sixteen, Ira Levin at twenty, Harlan Ellison at twenty-five, Jack Finney at twenty-eight…

I’m going to cover a handful of recommended titles from this book over the next few months. We’ll see what sticks for me at thirty-one.


All short histories are great histories.


[2] Vocabulary:

The landing space travelers look a great deal like gyrenes storming up the beach at Saipan or Tarawa.




noun – (slang) – a United States marine.


I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams.



So: terror on top, horror below it, and lowest of all, the gag reflex of revulsion. My own philosophy as a sometime writer of horror fiction is to recognize these distinctions because they are sometimes useful, but to avoid any preference for one over the other on the grounds that one effect is somehow better than another (…) I recognize terror as the finest emotion (…), and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.



Nor is it an accident that the horror story ends so often with an O. Henry twist that leads straight down a mine shaft. When we turn to the creepy movie or the crawly book, we are not wearing our “Everything works out for the best” hats. We’re waiting to be told what we so often expect – that everything is turning to shit.


[6] Fact Check:

Branwell Bronte was in fact so ambidextrous that he could write two different letters to two different people at the same time.



Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817 – 1848) was an English painter and writer (and brother of the writers Charlotte, Emily and Anne).

Bronte’s Wikipedia entry has no mention of ambidexterity. Apparently, Daphne Du Maurier’s book The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte (1960) describes Bronte as ambidextrous (according to this review of the book; I couldn’t find further references. Even on this site, the wording is: “He would sit and write in either hand for hours at time,” which suggests an ability to write with each hand, not an ability to write two letters at the same time as King so enthusiastically puts it).

The book Writing Double: Women’s Literary Partnerships (1999; Bette Lynn London) has this passage:

Similarly, Branwell displays a capacity, shared by many mediums, for performative or ambidextrous writing; as Gerin notes, he could write “equally fluently with both hands – at times with both hands at once, and in moments of bravado in Greek with his right and Latin with his left.”

(Writing Double, p.60)

London is quoting from Branwell Bronte (1961) by Winifred Gerin. I can’t get further down the rabbit-hole to figure out where Gerin’s information came from, but she was a respected biographer of the Bronte family. (It’s interesting that Du Maurier’s book was published around the same time.)

I’m assuming Branwell was ambidextrous but the ability to write two separate letters/languages at the same time (!) has the smell of urban legend.

[7] References:

I can’t imagine (…) anyone trying to scratch out a subsistence-level existence for himself, his wife, and his eight kids giving much of a toot about Werner Erhard’s est course or Rolfing.



Werner Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg, 1935) is an American critical thinker and author of transformational models and applications for individuals, groups and organizations. He was originally known for creating The est Training (“est” being short for Erhard Seminars Training). Est is an outgrowth of the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s/1970s.

Erhard’s training seminars sound intense and borderline-damaging and he has been called everything from genius to fraud.

Rolfing is a form of alternative medicine originally developed by Ida P. Rolf (1896 – 1979) under the label of Structural Integration. It is typically delivered as a series of ten hands-on physical manipulation sessions, originally based on Rolf’s ideas about how the human body’s “energy field” can benefit when aligned with the Earth’s gravitation field. There is no good evidence Rolfing is effective for the treatment of any health condition. It is recognized as a pseudoscience, and has been characterized as quackery.


All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will – a conscious decision to do evil – and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.



The most obvious psychological pressure point is the fact of our own mortality. Certainly it is the most universal. But in a society that sets such a great store by physical beauty (…) and sexual potency, a deep-seated uneasiness and ambivalence about sex becomes another natural pressure point.


[10] King misses an opportunity to acknowledge women as horror fans who have a very different sort of fear of the sexual/submissive angle in the genre:

Most fourteen-year-old boys who have only recently discovered their own sexual potential feel capable of dominating only the centerfold in Playboy with total success. Sex makes young adolescent boys feel many things, but one of them, quite frankly, is scared. The horror film in general and the Vampire film in particular confirms the feeling. Yes, it says; sex is scary. Sex is dangerous.


King is explaining how boys/men fear sex because they may fail. Girls/women fear sex because it may be forced on them (or, even when consenting, it may be painful); that terror that deserves at least a nod in this conversation.

[11] References:

[In Jekyll and Hyde] we hear echoes of every nasty murder to hit the tabloids in our time: Richard Speck and the student nurses, Juan Corona, even the unfortunate Dr. Herman Tarnower.



Juan Corona (b.1934) is a Mexican American serial killer who was convicted in 1973 of the murders of 25 migrant farm workers in California. He is currently serving a life sentence.

Herman Tarnower (1910 – 1980) was an American cardiologist and co-author of the bestselling diet book The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. He was shot to death by Jean Harris, who he had formerly been in a relationship with.


A novel in which there is no story becomes nothing but a curiosity, a little mental game.


[13] Reference:

During [Stoker’s Dracula] we are rewarded – if that’s the right word – with scenes and images worthy of Dore.



Gustave Dore (1832 – 1883) was a French artist, printmaker, illustrator and sculptor. Dore worked primarily with wood engraving. Some of his work included illustrations for Poe’s “The Raven,” Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.


Readers who find themselves inclining toward some genre on a regular basis – western, private-eye stories (…) – seem rarely to feel the same desire to psychoanalyze their favorite writers’ interests (and their own) as do the readers of horror fiction. Secretly or otherwise, there is a feeling that the taste for horror fiction is an abnormal one.



Shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology.



We all have our bad dreams, and we all use them as best we can. Yet it is one thing to use the dream and quite another to suggest the dream is the cause in and of itself.



I’ve read enough since then to believe that dowsing really does work, at least at some times and for some people and for some crazy reason of its own.


Randomly, you mean. You’re saying dowsing “works” randomly. (See James Randi’s Flim-Flam for a great examination of dowsing.)

[18] This footnote contains one of the clumsiest sentences I’ve ever seen King put down:

Speaking of the pioneering director of silents, Georges Melies, in his fine book Caligari’s Children, S.S. Prawer makes the same observation.


If I didn’t go into that sentence knowing that Melies was the director being spoken of, I would have assumed Caligari’s Children was his “fine book” and been confused how Prawer fit into it all. Any sentence that must be read more than twice to be parsed is a bad one – but often impossible for the author, who knows exactly what s/he’s saying, to catch. Careful second readers and editors are gods among men.


The mind, although obedient (…) is curiously pessimistic, and more often than not, downright morbid.


[20] Vocabulary:

These canards really miss the point.




noun – (1) an unfounded rumor or story.

(2) a small winglike projection attached to an aircraft forward of the main wing to provide extra stability or control, sometimes replacing the tail.


Simplicity may not always make great artistic sense, but it often makes the greatest impacts on minds which have little imaginative capacity or upon minds in which the imaginative capacity has been little exercised. The Amityville Horror is the primal haunted house story… and haunted houses are a concept which even the dullest mind has surely turned over at one time or another.



The reason [The Amityville Horror] works as well as it does: the picture’s subtext is one of economic unease. (…)

The Bad House’s most obvious effect – and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially.

(p.142 – 43)

[23] Reference:

It was impossible to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear, but Rosenberg at least manages to give us Qiana, and the main reason that people went to see it, I think is that The Amityville Horror, beneath its ghost-story exterior, is really a financial demolition derby.



A silky nylon fiber developed in 1962 at the DuPont Experimental Station. Initially intended for high-end fashions, it became a popular material in the 1970s for faux-silk men’s shirts, displaying bold patterns.


It may be that nothing in the world is so hard to comprehend as a terror whose time has come and gone.



The reader will not feed forever on innuendo and vapors; sooner or later even the great H.P. Lovecraft had to produce whatever was lurking in the crypt of in the steeple.


[26] Vocabulary:

Shades of that old Richard Carlson meller.



noun – (theater slang) – melodrama.

[27] Reference:

[Jonathan Frid’s] celebrity, unfortunately, was every bit as lasting as Vaughan [sic] Meader’s (and if you don’t remember Vaughan Meader, send me a stamped, self-addressed postcard and I will enlighten you).



Vaughn Meader (1936 – 2004) was an American comedian, impersonator, musician, and film actor. He found fame in the early 1960s after the release of the 1962 comedy record The First Family. The album spoofed President Kennedy – who was played by Meader – and went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963. Meader’s career came to an abrupt end after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. (Lenny Bruce, performing on November 22, supposedly opened with the line: “Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked.”)

[28] A great description; this man is immediately alive in my mind:

Curtis himself is a remarkable, almost hypnotic man, friendly in a brusque, almost abrasive way, apt to hog the credit for his enterprises, but in such an engaging way that nobody really seems to mind.


[29] Reference:

[The Boys From Brazil] vibrates with its own nervous wit and seems to parody those Martin-Bormann-is-alive-and-well-and-living-in-Paraguay books that are apparently going to be with us even unto the end of the world.



Martin Bormann (1900 – 1945) was a prominent official in Nazi Germany as head of the Nazi Party Chancellery. He gained immense power within the Third Reich by using his position as Hitler’s private secretary to control the flow of information and access to Hitler. After Hitler committed suicide, Bormann and others attempted to flee Berlin to avoid capture by the Soviets. Bormann probably committed suicide on a bridge near Lehrter station. The body was buried nearby on May 8, 1945, but not found and confirmed as genuine until 1972.


My own belief about fiction, long and deeply held, is that story must be paramount over all other considerations in fiction; that story defines fiction, and that all other considerations – theme, mood, tone, symbol, style, even characterization – are expendable.



Story values are determined by the mind through which they are filtered, and (…) the mind of any writer is a product of his outer world and inner temper.



Either way or neither way, [The Body Snatchers] is a book about conspiracy with strong paranoid overtones… in other words, exactly the sort of story to be claimed as political allegory by political loonies of every stripe.


[33] Reference:

I did and do believe that the death of Fred Hampton was a case of police manslaughter at the very least.



Fred Hampton (1948 – 1969) was an American activist and revolutionary, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and deputy chairman of the national BPP. Hampton was assassinated while sleeping at his apartment during a raid by a tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December 1969. It sounds like he was drugged by a member of the FBI in the hours leading up to the raid, to ensure he would be unconscious while it happened.


I’ve tried to suggest that the horror story is in many ways an optimistic, upbeat experience; that it is often the touch mind’s way of coping with terrible problems which may not be supernatural at all but perfectly real. Paranoia may be the last and strongest bastion of such an optimistic view – it is the mind crying out, “Something rational and understandable is going on here! These things do not just happen!

So we look at a shadow and say there was a man on the grassy knoll at Dallas; we say that James Earl Ray was in the pay of certain big Southern business interests, or maybe the CIA (…)

It would be wrong of me to leave you with any impression that I am inviting the two of us to have a good laugh at these things together. I am not. These things are not the beliefs of madmen but the beliefs of sane men and women trying desperately, not to preserve the status quo, but just to find the fucking thing.



All fantasy fiction is essentially about the concept of power; great fantasy fiction is about people who find it at a great cost or lose it tragically; mediocre fantasy fiction is about people who have it and never lose it but simply wield it.



“Children were playing ball against the church,” [Ramsey] Campbell writes. “Christ held up His arms for a catch.” It is a small line, understated and almost thrown away (…), but this sort of thing is cumulative, and at least suggests Campbell’s commitment to the idea that horror exists in point of view as well as in incident.



Any writer who only produces a book every seven years is not thinking Deep Thoughts; even a long book takes at most three years to think and write. No, a writer who only produces one book every seven years is simply dicking off.


[38] Reference:

Loring AFB in my own state scrambled bombers and fighters ready to head over the pole toward Russia as the result of an amusing little computer foulup which suggested that the Russians had launched their missiles and the Big Hot One was on.



Loring Air Force Base was a US Air Force installation in northeastern Maine, near Limestone and Caribou. The base was closed in September 1994 after over forty years of service.

I can’t find a reference to a computer mistake causing the base to prepare a Russian attack (not saying it didn’t happen, just can’t find the info).

[39] Reference:

Let us have our Fortian [sic] rains of frogs and people who have mysteriously burned to death while sitting at home in their easy chairs.



Charles Hoy Fort (1874 – 1932) was an American writer and researcher who specialized in anomalous phenomena. The terms Fortean and Forteana are sometimes used to characterize such phenomena. Fort suggested that there is a Super-Sargasso Sea into which all lost things go. As to whether Fort believed this theory, or any of his other proposals, he himself noted, “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”

[40] Reference:

Harlan Ellison, in spite of his rapid jive-talking shoot-from-the-hip Nervous-Norvus mode of conversation (…) has those eyes.



Nervous Norvus was the performing name of Jimmy Drake (1912 – 1968). His novelty song “Transfusion” was a Top 20 hit in 1956. A second song, “Ape Call,” released later that year, also charted and peaked at #28.

Transfusion” is one bizarre but catchy oddity.

Danse Macabre is recommended to anyone who enjoys King’s Forwards and Afterwards in his fiction and writers of any stripe of fantasy. I’ve always hoped King would write a sequel covering 1980 to the present, but I’m not seeing it coming down the pipeline…

I want to ask you for recommendations. I love books like this. Histories of horror films, horror as sociology, horror encyclopedias, high-brow, low-brow, whatever. If you’ve read a good one, please pass the title to me.

Next week, a recommendation from Danse Macabre: I’m finally reading Watership Down.


7 thoughts on ““Danse Macabre”

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