Friday, October 21, 2011

The Halloween Tarot, Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE

In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, his 1981 history of the horror genre, there is a chapter entitled, "Tales of the Tarot."  King says that through movies (and other popular media), "Americans have created their own tarot deck, and most of us are familiar with the cards."

As Walker Percy's protagonist in The Moviegoer might say, our knowledge of reality is filtered through the images of film.  And some of our commonly held archetypes, King points out, have gone "book-into-film-into-myth," with a few of those becoming classics of the horror genre.

The werewolf on the moon card at the left is but one.
The three books of origin King cites and discusses at length in this chapter are Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

Regarding Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King says "What we're talking about here, at its most basic level, is the old conflict between the id and the superego."  But that is also a simplification, for in mythic terms it can also be described as the "split between the Apollonian (the creature of intellect, morality, and nobility) and the Dionysian (god of partying and physical gratification)...."

Even more simply, it is the divide between the mind-dominated and the body-dominated, King says, but I would amend that to mark the real split between the spiritually conscious and the materially bound.  King also sees the divide as between free will and determinism--and so do I.  The possibilities belong to the enlightened, the grasping materialist is still snared in the coils of mortal compulsions, a slave to his unquenchable animal appetites and fate.

"Bram Stoker's Dracula," King says, "humanizes the outside evil concept...Stoker achieves the effect to a large degree by keeping the evil literally outside for most of his long story.  The Count is onstage almost constantly during the first four chapters, dueling with Jonathan Harker, pressing him slowly to the wall."

"'Later there will be kisses for all of you,' Harker hears Dracula tell the three weird sisters...and then the Count disappears for most of the book's three-hundred or so remaining pages.  It is one of English literature's most remarkable and engaging tricks, a trompe l' oeil that has rarely been matched."

Both Dracula's vampire and the werewolf are sexual aggressors.  In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Lon Chaney, Jr., mournfully remarks to Costello, "You don't understand.  When the moon rises, I'll turn into a wolf."  Costello replies, " and about five million other guys."

King devotes much space to the sexual lure of Stoker's Dracula, and indeed, considering the now fashionable and prolific vampire romances,  his words seem prophetic.  King quotes Stoker's Harker, as one of the three weird sisters bends over him:

"There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth...There she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue...and could feel the hot breath on my neck....the soft, shivering touch of her lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat...I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited--waited with beating heart." 

King also gives high praise to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one of my favorites too.  I discussed it recently in relation to  David Eagleman's Tales of the Afterlives and my Frankenstein listmania at Amazon is at this link.

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