I’m a diehard, card-carrying, flag-waving, T-shirt-sporting fan of Stephen King. I’ve been a fan since I sprouted breasts, which may explain a few things that I don’t care to elaborate. Anyway, I own and have read all of his books, and my favorite book of all time is IT, read in 3 blistering, manic days when I was but a girl of 15. This man has had the biggest, most hugest influence on my life as an author. I absolutely adore him and that’s the black bottom line.
In 1981, Mr. King wrote a nonfiction book titled Danse Macabre, which is a series of essays on the history, nature, quality, and substance of horror in media from 1950 to 1980 (and it is in need of a SERIOUS update, Mr. King). He references novels, TV shows, and radio programs that he recalls from his early years and their place in our pop culture collective unconscious. The book is heavily cited, and considering the influences the citations had on hiswork, I eagerly backtracked to get my hands on as many of the stories, books, and shows he referenced. Thank God for the internet.
One of the shows he referenced fondly is called Thriller, and it starred the great Boris Karloff as the host and sometime actor. Thrillerhad 67 episodes that aired during 1960-1962, and it was a blend of crime shows and supernatural horror. I found it on eBay for a cool $40 back in 2005. It is, to date, one of the BEST investments I’ve ever made. Every few weeks, I get out the boxed set and watch my favorite episodes. They’re mostly the horror/supernatural ones (which should be of no surprise; I’m not the Mistress of the Dark because I write at night). And considering the nature of NBC’s Standards & Practices in the 1960s, I am amazed that Karloff & Co. got away with as much as they did.
These episodes tackled devil worship, witchcraft, sorcery, voodoo, necromancy, and all sorts of dark themes, all on a shoestring budget (especially by today’s standards). Some of them were extremely effective, others not so much. But I was so impressed that they actually went there. You see demons and/or gods (Astaroth, Baphomet, Damballah), pentagrams, pentacles, witches and warlocks at work, a (G-rated) Witches’ Sabbat, hear elaborate hexes and curses, see witches hanged and burned at the stake and skeletons on fire…definitely not things you’d see on TV today.
And I am here for every single bit of it.1 What the director, writers, and production staff knew how to do (with at least 2/3 of the eps) was tell an effective story with solid, sometimes offbeat actors. I was so taken with a few of the episodes that, like a good researcher does, I backtracked further to find their origin stories. Most of them come from Weird Tales, which was a pulp magazine dedicated to…well, weird tales that encompassed dark fantasy, horror, supernatural, and other strange subjects. Weird Tales was first published in 1923 and featured authors such as Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, & Edgar Allan Poe, among countless others. Most of these stories pulled absolutely zero punches.
*Side note: They’ve been compiled into volumes available on Kindle…and it didn’t take but a hot second for me to download those babies…all 10 of them. Praise Cthulhu!
Of course, many of these stories don’t translate well to the small screen, but the good folks at the helm of Thriller did a good job with what they had available. I have studied my favorite episodes carefully, and those that I found origin stories for have been studied just as carefully. They have influenced my own writing, especially with what I’m working on now with Nightingales, and with some anthologies I have planned for the future.
The cherry on top of this mostly magnificent series is the hosting by the great Boris Karloff. Karloff is one of the gods of the early silver screen (along with Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, Jr.) The few episodes he was in, he elevated those around him, and I ate them up like Ghirardelli chocolate.
We are not done with Mr. King’s Danse Macabre as a point of reference. This is the beginning of a multi-part homage to my horror/supernatural/sci-fi/ fantasy roots. Join me for the ride, if you’re so inclined.