Sometime around 1980 a new paperback appeared in our household reading library (which conveniently doubled as our bathroom). This in itself was not an odd occurrence. Pretty much my entire reading universe at the time was comprised of whatever novels I happened to find in the bin next to the toilet.
Find out what I found, after the break.
OK, that was silly. If you read the title of this post, you know the book was ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King!
Anyway….what was notable was the cover of this particular book: a shadow shrouded mask of a girl, eyes black and empty, the only color a single crimson drop of blood hanging from lips that seemed ready to turn into a malignant grin at any moment.
The book cover alone terrified me, and I resisted cracking it open because if the artwork was scary enough to make me need to pee, how bad was the rest of the book? Eventually, I gave into temptation, and ended up reading it cover to cover over one sleepless night. After I finished, I lie awake, wondering what I would do if I heard a tap at the window and found one of my friends hanging there like a blood-sucking gecko.
Worse, I had no door in my room. One wall simply opened up onto the stairs. If my mom or step-dad were turned, they didn’t have to worry about that whole “invite me in” thing. They could just waltz right in and have a Jim Slurpee anytime they wanted. And I had no protection….I lived in a house of nonbelievers with no religious items anywhere!
Finally, with a stroke of inspiration, I fashioned a rough cross out of two pencils and a rubber band and returned to bed. I didn’t sleep that night, and only fitfully for about a week afterwards; and I kept the pencil-cross in my window until I moved out seven years later. You know, just in case.
Thirty-five years later, ‘Salem’s Lot is still the scariest book I have ever read. The fast moving plot is pretty straightforward. Young writer Ben Mears returns to the small town in which he spent several years as a boy, to seek inspiration as well as to work out some demons that he’s carried with him. At the same time, a darker force has moved in, an ancient fiend named Barlow, who proceeds to vampirize the local citizenry. As our hero and his allies – including an aging if inspired English teacher, a young boy genius, and girl-next-door, Susan – race the clock to defeat Barlow, we’re treated to pages of hope and horror and heartbreak. The scenes and imagery – from Ben’s childhood recollection of a horrifying ghost, to the truthful small town vibe that flows through the novel, to his chilling portrayal of the vampires, beings almost human but predatory and coldly cunning – are pitch perfect. And the characters! It’s really the first time the world saw Stephen King at the height of his powers, with the ability to develop a town full of characters that not only ring true with real-world faults and foibles, but that you really care about. I recently read the novel for maybe the fifth time in anticipation of this post, and I still tear up when a dark fate befalls certain characters.
King based ‘Salem’s Lot on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and if you’ve read both classics the similarities are obvious, especially in the second half of Stoker’s work when Dracula follows Harker to London. But King does more than simply update the 19th century piece with a cool 1970s sensibilities. He introduced to me horror elements that still resonate: the stupid, repetitive prevalence of evil, the lure of darkness, the power of faith, and the inevitable corruption of innocence. And of course, he reintroduced the vampire, not as a silly relic wearing a tuxedo and babbling in a nigh-incomprehensible European accent, but as your neighbors, your best friend, the pretty girl next door. And they were sexy! Two years before Anne Rice would introduce us to the angsty, androgynous Louis and Lestat, and three decades before anyone ever heard of Team Edward, Stephen King gave us vampires that seduced us into joining their ranks. And they were terrifying.
King would revisit “The Lot” a few more times. His short story “One for the Road,” which takes place a few years after the events of the novel, is perhaps my favorite short story ever. He gives us a sort of 18th century prequel to the town in “Jerusalem’s Lot.” Later, we find out more than we need to about vampire biology in “The Night Flier,” published in Douglas Winters’ excellent anthology Prime Evil. King also revisits one of ‘Salem’s Lot’s best characters, a priest named Father Callahan, with an important (if somewhat forced) role in his epic Gunslinger series.
Strangely, despite the fact it seems tailor-made for the screen, adaptations of ‘Salem’s Lot have been less-than stellar. There have been two mini-series made, including a 1979 effort directed by Tobe Hooper and starring David Soul and James Mason that substituted a Max Schreck-style Nosferatu for the urbane Kurt Barlow. While generally well received, it seemed more stilted than scary on the small screen. Twenty-five years later, they would try again, with a soulless TNT remake starring Rob Lowe and Donald Sutherland. I tried, but I couldn’t get beyond some of the plot changes, most notably a complete mutilation of Father Callahan’s role. “The Night Flier” had straight to DVD release staring Miguel Ferrer.
Beyond these, nothing for the big screen, though I still hold out hope that Frank Darabont will someday secure the rights and give us the ‘Salem’s Lot movie we deserve. And sucky video adaptations or not, ‘Salem’s Lot is a classic, one that, like it’s progenitor, will be read and studied for centuries. If you still haven’t read it, seriously, do it now. But keep a cross handy just in case.