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 1980s (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."
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.
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 three British novels: 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 Autobiographic 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 Siddon'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.”