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Danse Macabre  
First edition cover
Author Stephen King
Country USA
Language English
Genre(s) Horror fiction
Publisher Everest House
Publication date April 1981
Media type Hardcover
Pages 400
ISBN 978-0425181607
Followed by Nightmares in the Sky

Danse Macabre (1981) is a non-fiction book by Stephen King, about horror fiction in print, radio, film and comics, and the genre's influence on United States popular culture. It was republished on February 23, 2010 with an additional new essay entitled "What's Scary."

Danse Macabre examines the various influences on King's own writing, and important genre texts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Danse Macabre explores the history of the genre as far back as the Victorian era, but primarily focuses on the 1950s to the 1970s (roughly the era covering King's own life). King peppers his book with informal academic insight, discussing archetypes, important authors, common narrative devices, "the psychology of terror", and his key theory of "Dionysian horror."

Stephen King´s novel The Stand was translated to Spanish language as "La Danza de la Muerte" (which means "Danse Macabre") generating confusion between the two books.


In the introduction, King credits Bill Thompson, the editor of his first five published novels, and later editor at Doubleday, as being the inspiration for its creation.

...Bill called me and said, 'Why don't you do a book about the entire horror phenomenon as you see it?' Books, movies, radio, TV, the whole thing. We'll do it together, if you want.'

The concept intrigued and frightened me at the same time.

Thompson ultimately convinced King that if he wrote such a genre survey, he would no longer have to answer tedious, repetitive interview questions on the topic.


Despite using King's college teaching notes as the backbone of the text, Danse Macabre has a casual, non-linear writing style.

King begins by explaining why he wrote the book, and then creates a template for descriptions of his macabre subject, a template which he calls “Tales of the Tarot.” The chapter actually has nothing to do with the familiar tarot card deck. Rather, King borrows the term to describe his observations about major archetypal characters of the horror genre, which he posits come from two British novels,one Irish: the vampire (from Dracula), the werewolf (from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and The Thing Without A Name (from Frankenstein). It should be noted that King does not mistake Mr. Hyde for a "traditional" werewolf, but rather sees the character as the origin of the modern archetype defined by werewolves; the evil werewolf archetype, argues King, stems from the base and violent side of humanity.

These major archetypes are then reviewed in their historical context, ranging from their original appearances to their modern-day equivalents, up to and including cartoon breakfast cereal characters such as Frankenberry and Count Chocula.

The chapter “An Annoying Autobiographical Pause” begins with a brief family history, discusses his childhood in rural eastern Maine, and then explains King's childhood fixation with the imagery of terror and horror that he has been able to capitalize on so successfully as an adult. King makes an interesting comparison of his grandfather successfully dowsing for water using the bough of an apple branch with the sudden realization of what he wanted to do for a living. While browsing through an attic with his elder brother, King uncovered a paperback version of an H.P. Lovecraft collection of short stories that had belonged to his long since departed father. The cover art—an illustration of a monster hiding within the recesses of a hell-like cavern beneath a tombstone—was, he writes,

“the moment of my life when the dowsing rod suddenly went down hard . . . as far as I was concerned, I was on my way.”

King then resumes his discussion of the horror genre by making detailed commentary of horror in all forms of media, beginning with radio, then proceeding to a highly critical review of television horror (referring to it as “the glass teat”), two separate chapters on horror in the motion pictures, and finally concluding with an examination of horror fiction.

His critique of radio examines such American programs as Suspense, Inner Sanctum, and Boris Karloff, and praises Arch Oboler’s Lights Out. King ultimately concludes that, as a medium for horror, radio is superior to television and films, since radio's nature requires a more active use of imagination.

King then turns to his two separate chapters of horror in the motion pictures, "The Modern American Horror Movie", in which he reviews classic horror films such as Curse of the Demon, The Amityville Horror, and The Exorcist. In the following chapter, "The Horror Movie as Junk Food" King reviews the "Bug-Eyed Monster" films and black and white science-fiction giant bug features of the 1950s with equal aplomb.

King then turns his most weighty criticism toward television, borrowing Harlan Ellison's description of television as “The Glass Teat,” and subtitling the chapter, “This Monster is Brought to You by Gainesburgers.” He reviews horror anthology programs such as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows, and Night Gallery, concluding that television is “simply too boring and unimaginative to handle real horror."

In the "Horror Fiction" chapter, King describes and reviews a number of horror novels written within a few decades of Danse Macabre, including Peter Straub's Ghost Story, Anne Rivers Siddons's The House Next Door, Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and several others. His primary context is defining what impact they have had on the horror genre, and how significantly they have contributed to the popular culture.

Additionally, King classifies the genre into three well-defined, descending levels; 1) terror, 2) horror, and 3) revulsion. He describes terror as “the finest element” of the three, and the one he strives hardest to maintain in his own writing. Citing many examples, he defines “terror” as the suspenseful moment in horror before the actual monster is revealed. “Horror,” King writes, is that moment at which one sees the creature/aberration that causes the terror or suspense, a "shock value". King finally compares “revulsion” with the gag-reflex, a bottom-level, cheap gimmick which he admits he often resorts to in his own fiction if necessary, confessing:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.”



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Danse Macabre (1981) is a nonfiction book by Stephen King on horror fiction and United States pop culture.

  • The purpose of horror fiction is not only to explore taboo lands but to confirm our own good feelings about the status quo by showing us extravagant visions of what the alternative might be.
  • The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of—as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out, The Stranger makes us nervous... but we love to try on his face in secret.
  • I recognize terror as the finest emotion (used to almost quintessential effect in Robert Wise's film The Haunting, where, as in The Monkey's Paw, we are never allowed to see what is behind the door), 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.
  • We may only feel really comfortable with horror as long as we can see the zipper running up the monster's back, when we understand that we are not playing for keepsies.
  • ...the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.
  • Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force.
  • Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us. We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings...and let me further suggest that it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but rather the lack of order which these aberrations seem to imply.
  • ...but talent is a dreadfully cheap commodity, cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work and study; a constant process of honing. Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force...
  • It may be that nothing in the world is so hard to comprehend as a terror whose time has come and gone - which may be why parents can scold their children for their fear of the boogeyman, when as children themselves they had to cope with exactly the same fears (and the same sympathetic but uncomprehending parents). That may be why one generation's nightmare becomes the next generation's sociology, and even those who have walked through the fire have trouble remembering exactly what those burning coals felt like.
  • If we are all insane, then all insanity becomes a matter of degree. If your insanity leads you to carve up women like Jack the Ripper or the Cleveland Torso Murderer, we clap you away in the funny farm (except neither of those two amateur-night surgeons were ever caught, heh-heh-heh); if, on the other hand, your insanity leads you only to talk to yourself when you're under stress or to pick your nose on your morning bus, then you are left alone to go about your business...although it's doubtful that you will ever be invited to the best parties.
  • The danse macabre is a waltz with death. This is a truth we cannot afford to shy away from. Like the rides in the amusement park which mimic violent death, the tale of horror is a chance to examine what's going on behind doors which we usually keep double-locked. Yet the human imagination is not content with locked doors. Somewhere there is another dancing partner, the imagination whispers in the night - a partner in a rotting ball gown, a partner with empty eyesockets, green mold growing on her elbow-length gloves, maggots squirming in the thin remains of her hair. To hold such a creature in our arms? Who, you ask me, would be so mad? Well...?
  • Perhaps we go to the forbidden door or window willingly because we understand that a time comes when we must go whether we want to or not...and not just to look, but to be pushed through. Forever.
  • We fall from womb to tomb, from one blackness and toward another, remembering little of the one and knowing nothing of the other...except through faith.

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