Book Review Friday!

Danse Macabre
Stephen King
Berkley (Everest House).  1981.  $5.95 (paperback).  437 pages.

Up until now, Book Review Friday has stuck to works of fiction.  Mostly current works of fiction.  I’m on a Stephen King kick, however, so today we’re going to look at one of his first non-fiction efforts.

My hero-worship of Stephen King (you have to say his full name or it doesn’t have the same effect) began after reading On Writing.  I think this is natural; several people to whom I’ve spoken agree that it is the best handbook for new and/or improved writers out there.  I got all warm and fuzzy when he started talking about Strunk and White and I vowed to stick to his strict writing regime (so far, not so good.  But that’s what nanowrimo is for, right?).  It was the moments when he wrote about his genre, horror, that really got me.  This guy really knows what he’s talking about, I thought, so I went to a used bookstore to pick up Danse Macabre and The Shining.  Because who doesn’t love a good haunted house?

I still think Stephen King really knows what he’s talking about, but I want to respectfully disagree with some of his vents against academia.  Perhaps this isn’t really fair; after all, I laughed out loud when he writes of the “fantasy/sf dichotomy” that “it is really a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and not really interesting unless those involved in the discussion are drunk or graduate students – two states of roughly similar incompetence” (16).  And I laughed even harder when my nerd friends (who are not graduate students) began debating the subject earnestly.  Okay, so we get that Stephen King isn’t a fan of the Phids.  Fine.  I probably wouldn’t be either if people mocked my life’s work in the pages of PMLA (don’t know if that actually happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did).  But seeing how graduate school is paying my bills (inadequately), I stand in defense of all drunk graduate students everywhere (and yes, I just conflated his two subjects).

Horror, like everything else, returns to Romanticism.

In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth includes two companion poems, “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned; An Evening Scene, on the Same Subject.”  Go read them.  I’ll be right here.  Done?  Good.  You may remember the famous quote from “Tables Turned”: “Sweet is the lore which nature brings; / Our meddling instinct / Misshapes the beauteous forms of things; / – We murder to dissect.”  Like all good Romantic poets, Wordsworth says that to truly understand, well, anything, we should go into nature, alone, with a pen and paper, and learn from the world.  Broad brush strokes here, bear with me.  Literary critics are especially criticized because we don’t want to just enjoy a beautiful poem, we want to rip it open and tear it apart to figure out how it ticks.  That bothers a lot of people; perhaps Wordsworth, definitely Stephen King.

And The Husband.  And probably a lot of other people.  I get that.  But some works of art are harder to understand than others, and some need more explaining than others.  That’s what we literary critics call “teaching.”  All that ripping and destroying and meddling and deconstruction and psychoanalysis?  It’s to figure out what it’s all about.  Book clubs do this too, but on a much smaller scale.  No, our classes do not just consist of long discussions with wine and cigars, talking about “affect” and “feeling.”  But we too are susceptible to the siren song of literature; only, we aren’t content to let our heart strings be plucked at will.  We want to Figure It Out.

When Stephen Kings rants about graduate students, he’s probably thinking of the boring jargon we publish in long books called “The Imagination of Thinking” (I just made that up).  Yeah, I get annoyed about that too, mostly because I’m reading a lot of it for comps.  But isn’t Figuring It Out what Danse Macabre is all about?  SK refers us to The Monster, The Vampire, and The Werewolf as the main motifs of Horror; he too is deconstructing the books, only he’s not using vocabulary like “sign” and “signifier.”  He’s doing the same thing as us.  Only he gets to make fun of us because he’s writing in layman’s terms and we’re not. 

So, an assessment.  While Danse Macabre works as a non-fiction work of literary criticism, his polemics could use some work.  He’s got the material down pat, clearly.  But I don’t see how putting down one group of book lovers is useful in a text that celebrates “the text.”