I co-host a weekly film appreciation podcast with my buddy, Max, called Measuring Flicks, where I am able to watch and chat about all kinds of movies. From highbrow French art pieces like Le Samouraï, to schlocky horror flicks like Halloween 4, and all the fun in between. We cover it all! I have had a sincere fondness for movies my entire life, and the Vampire sub-genre has always been one of my favorites. (Go listen to our conversation on Vampire’s Kiss starring Nick Cage, available on ITunes and Spotify) From the beautifully haunted and perfect vampires of Interview with a Vampire, to Santa Carla’s boardwalk biking bloodsuckers of The Lost Boys, oh my how I love them all so! I have watched “The Two Coreys” duke it out with Kiefer Sutherland on at least a hundred occasions, with each viewing filling me with pure joy and delight. Naturally, my love for these movies eventually led me to the world of vampires in literature. I had already fallen in love with Bella Lugosi and his portrayal of Dracula, so Stoker’s original novel was ready and primed to seduce me. I was thrilled to find that Interview with a Vampire was only the first in a series of books to become deeply obsessed with. Somehow, even with all of this deep diving into the world of vampires, I never dipped my toe into Salem’s Lot. Not until now. How the hell is that even possible?
Not all vampires are created equal. I don’t care for those that sparkle, and I am terrified of the one who stands at my window, floating there, just barely visible in the moonlight, whispering to me through blood soaked fangs as my eyes fight to stay open, “No sleep yet, boy. Not until you let me in.” Fuck that Nosferatu looking piece of sun bleached dog shit! That one has been scaring me into pee soaked sheets since before I can remember. That one makes me wake up in the middle of the night to find my body locked in sleep paralysis with the floating images of my most recent nightmare projected onto my bedroom wall. It is that type of type of window lurking, paralyzing, nightmare inducing vampire that King has welcomed into his small town of Salem’s Lot. That is why I have avoided this book for so many years. But, when I made up my mind to walk through the world of King’s writings for a fun little side project, I would eventually find myself dancing with the devil. I feel like I need a friendly hand to hold for todays little adventure, but the only one currently being offered belongs to The Boogyman.
Another small town on fire. This sleepy little town feels so much different than the one I last visited in Carrie. I was introduced to so many more unique residents here in Jerusalem’s Lot, and grew fond and familiar (with most of them) in only of few pages. King proves to be a master of both horror and world building. I don’t think I can actually refer to what he does as “world building”. With King it always feels closer to something like “small town familiarization”, or “nostalgia fabrication”. In either case, I got to know the residents of this now familiar town right down to the exact kind of sludge that grows under their toenails.
Salem’s Lot begins by introducing the only two survivors as they are on the run and in hiding, having escaped something horrific, but as of yet unknown to the reader. Tired, hungry, and terrified, they decide to return home after learning that what they left unfinished has caught up with them. This is a very curious opening to the story, giving me just enough information about what will happen to make the re-telling of events all the more stressful to my delicate constitution. Questions are constantly popping into my head as I read. Questions like, “Well this old lady seems nice, but she wasn’t with the two survivors I read about at the beginning…so what the fuck happens to her?” and “is this Bed and Breakfast going to become a Dead and Breakfast?” (Dad jokes are free of charge) Dropping the reader in with this kind of limited information is incredibly clever, and keeps the tension humming along even when we don’t realize it is there. If we ever do forget about the tension, King is right there to remind us of its presence. It’s like relaxing on a calm summers evening and suddenly realizing the crickets are no longer chirping. What made them stop? How long has it been silent? Is someone there? That’s when the pee comes out.
Once we are plopped back down at the proper beginning of the story, we learn that one of our future survivors is an author who has returned home to write his next novel. His new book heavily features the old Marsten residence, the haunted old house on the hill that tormented him when he was a child. He has words to write and demons to face. We have a sleepy little town, a haunted house on a hill, a prodigal son returning home with a troubled soul…what could possibly go wrong?
A creepy house on a hill. Small towns require it in their bylaws that there is to be at least one such hilltop residence within the city limits. My home town of Big Rapids certainly met this requirement, with one on a hill next to the old Middle School, and one right up the street from my parents house . I had the pleasure of taking my weekly piano lessons at the one on the hill. No shit! The haunted house on the hill in Big Rapids was home to my dearly departed piano teacher, Betty, and her husband, Norman. Every inch of their house felt like you were walking through a Maytag full of wool socks and no dryer sheet. Their house smelled like baked dust and old danishes, and always gave me the feeling that it was leaning ever so slightly towards the center of town. Norm was famous for having a Gomez Adams style train set in his attic and he loved to show it off to Betty’s students. He asked me dozens of times if I wanted to see it, but I could never manage the courage to make it up to the attic. I tried many times to climb those stairs, but as soon as my foot would hit that first step up to Norm’s land of miniature trees and park benches, my legs would forget how to work and that old stairwell would yawn it’s hungry mouth wide open for me, revealing itself to be dark and endless. Vacant save for the anticipation of something terrible inside. David Lynch’s lingering shots of closed doors and open ended hallways owe much to Norm’s stairwell. Norm’s trains were jaw dropping in their detail and a magnificent site to behold, according to those that braved the stairs to see them. I never would.
Creepy houses on the hill are not always evil. Sometimes they can be playful and offer a chance to learn as they thin the veil between worlds. Some are more like the Marsten house, full of the kind of evil that turns healthy blood into sugar-free Kool Aid. There is another house, much like the Marsten’s, that sits not even a block away from where I grew up, and where my parents still live. Aside from that poop of a stairwell, Norm and Betty’s house never really bothered me as it generally felt more harmless and playful. The house up the street from my parent’s served as our towns Asylum until it was converted to a private residence in the late 1950’s. On two occasions I got to personally experience what it is like to be worked over by unkind spirits in that house. The first incident occurred during an overnight birthday party, with me waking up in a “slightly different” location than the one I fell asleep in. The second happened just after steeling a first kiss from one of the girls that lived there. (I am saving the details of those little nuggets for when we romp through that whacky hotel in the mountains) Having grown up around a couple of haunted houses and experiencing their behavior allowed me to immediately understand what the Marsten house represents and what it feels like to have it stare into my soul. King is so delightfully grim in the way he breathes life into that creepy old house that I imagine even those readers who may not have grown up with their own personal “house on a hill”, will be able to understand what that would have been like and learn to fear its constant gaze.
We get introduced to the residents of Salem’s Lot as King walks us through an entire day of business, chores, and interactions beginning at 4:30 in the morning with the milkman’s daily deliveries, and concluding at 11:59 as the old day rolls over into new with King’s incredible sentence, “the day trembled on the edge of extinction.” A lot happens during this first day. We meet most of our main players and a host of tertiary characters. All of them are important. All of them are a functioning part of life in Salem’s Lot. All of them are super fucked and don’t know it! This way of introducing us to the town and her residents as the hours roll by, is absolutely brilliant. It feels like we are reading the journal of an entire city’s population at once, with standard introductions giving way to insight and familiarity. Instead of spending heaps of pages digging into each and every character here (which would be super easy to do given the amount of depth King has given to even the most minor of town folk) I will be taking a snapshot look at our good guys, The Scoobies, (thank you Buffy) and our bad guys, Straker and Barlow. The day long journal entry has been kind to us and has provided names for our Scoobies, with Ben, the writer, Matt, the teacher, Father Callahan, the priest, Mark, the student, and Susan, the lover. Our baddies are Barlow, the vampire and Straker, his human familiar. Straker we get a clear introduction for, while Barlow stays hidden in the shadows until his dark influence is required.
When I reflected on Carrie, I wrote about how she was one of my favorite characters in the King-averse, as she gave me hope when dealing with bullies. As you know, I came to Salem’s Lot late, with this being my first ever read of the book. Had young Karl been brave enough to face the vampires of Salem’s Lot, he would have had the distinct pleasure of meeting a young man named Mark Petrie. Mark shows us a much better (and healthier) example of how to handle a bully. It is crazy how much Mark and I have in common. We are both avid readers, we are thespians and writers, model builders and painters, and we both have a history of being harassed by bullies. But THIS kid does NOT take any shit! He uses his smarts and cunning to outwit and outmaneuver his schoolyard nemesis and succeeds at putting his dick in the dirt. Forty-two year old me let out a very loud cheer of, “Oh fuck yah, kid!” from my reading chair…at 5:30 in the morning…on a Sunday, upon reading of Mark’s successful fending off of his bully. I was overjoyed by the way Mark was able to analyze the situation and methodically take down his opponent. Decades before Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Mark Petrie is pre-visualizing, calculating all possible outcomes, and kicking ass in slow-motion. I fucking LOVE this kid!
As the sun sets on this first day of our visit to Salem’s Lot, two brothers, Ralphie and Danny Glick will walk through the woods to hang out with our new BFF, Mark. These brothers will never make it to Mark’s house and will become our first two human victims. (a dog gets gutted and hung from a gate earlier in the day) “No kids. No Dogs” Two taboos are crossed off the list in the first hundred pages!
It is damn near impossible for me to not draw some sort of correlation between vampires spreading through a town and the spread of an infectious disease. Danny Glick is our patient zero. He spreads his vampirism laced cold to his brother, Ralphie, who will in turn pass it on to the rest of his friends and family. Like a killer virus, the vampire flu starts very small, but quickly gains unstoppable momentum. The town of Salem’s Lot is a body, her population are the cells that flow through her veins. Vampirism is the cancer that spreads unbounded, taking the once vibrant life of its host and turning it into something sick and pleading. Even here in the early days of his career, I can see the bigger wheels turning in King’s mind. A house on the hill where evil stirs will become a hotel shaped monster in the mountains, and the spread of death through a small town will earn the rank of Captain before burying the world. For now, here in Salem’s Lot, he starts small. Here we will only have to deal with killing our neighbors, our lovers, our friends, and our families, while our enemies mock us from beyond the grave.
Not all is lost, though, our Scooby gang is here! Too bad they are 76 kinds of worthless and have less than a common clue between them. They get their asses handed to them time and again. They make horrible choices. They LOVE to split up when they should be sticking together and they are constantly having to squirm around local law enforcement while trying desperately to deal with their little vampire situation. It is a capital “S” Shit Show from day zero with these chuckle heads. Matt suffers a heart attack and gets hospitalized. Ben gets the snot kicked out of him and gets parked in the same hospital. That is TWO of our heroes nearly taken out before anything significant has even happened! (Well, there was the gutted dog and the two Glick kids, and a few other cases of vampire sickness…it just feels super early in the game for this kind of tomfuckery) Our “A” team is barely competent, acting and reacting to this crazy situation the only way they know how, but are constantly failing. This sounds like a complaint, but oddly enough, it isn’t! This freaking WORKS! It shows us a reflection of ourselves and how we may behave in the same situation. It feels real…and painfully so. The Scoobies take their instruction from an old teacher as he sifts through every book he can find available on the subject of vampires. They grab the nearest priest and hope that a lifetime of seeing the worst in mankind hasn’t shaken his faith into a million pieces. Father Callahan joins hands with the rest of the gang for a time, until that faith problem inevitably surfaces and we bid him farewell in one of the most pathetic “leaving town on a bus” scenes I have ever read. Don’t worry. I have a feeling we will be seeing him again on our long walk. (The Tower beckons, even now.)
While our Scoobies are figuring out their next move, let’s take a moment to chat a bit more about vampires. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, I am a huge fan of vampires in fiction, and dig on most of them. They get pretty silly in My Best Friend is a Vampire, and super rowdy in Fright Night, but I love them both equally! There are so many styles and flavors to choose from. Hip and sexy, dark and brooding, hideous and hungry, or pale and sparkling. They all have a place at the table in the private dining room of my heart. (yes, even the sparkly ones. They are just not my favorite. That’s why they are seated at the kids table) Our head vampire in Salem’s Lot is very much a Nosferatu clone. Tall, pale, thin, hideous, and straight out of the nightmares you thought were forgotten. There are no tea parties or weeping at operas for this gent. Nope! He has just arrived in a box full of earth from the old country and is here to steal the sun from your days and forever fuck up your nights! His army will continue to grow as he sends his crossbreeds to our windows for us to willingly open for them. No matter the type or style of vampire, this seems to be a constant rule. They must be invited in. This fact has always chilled my blood below nominal drinking temperature. Yes, they may have some power or influence over us when they ask for admittance, but we crack open the door. We pull up the window. We LET THEM in!
Vampires often need a human or two around to help with their dirty work, and Straker is here to provide that service. Straker freaks me out, for what he lacks in vampirish hideousness, he more than makes up for with his unyielding cruelty and undying willingness to do anything for his master. Barlow is powerful, strategic, cunning and wise, but needs Straker’s skill and his ability to walk in the daylight in order to succeed. Straker will enlist other humans to unknowingly assist in his master’s plans. If it weren’t for the greedy and nefarious nature of a handful of the Lot’s human residents, Barlow’s plans may have been halted, or at the very least slowed. Once again, King blurs the line between being a human and being a monster. Cut me again, Mick!
Now, back to the Scoobies, they should have things just about figured out by n…oh, Jesus Christ. Mark has been captured. Our new friend, The Doc, has been bitten, and Susan has been turned into a vampire. Good. Good job, gang. Thank heavens for Mark. He was at least able to be somewhat effective as he managed to not only escape his capture in the Marsten house, but put some serious hurt on Straker with a rusty bed leg until he died from it. I fucking LOVE this kid!
Susan is totally fucked and has to be staked. Father Callahan has wet himself after an encounter with Barlow and is buying the next bus ticket out of town. Matt, our resident Van Helsing, has suffered a second and fatal heart attack. The Doc has taken a bit of a bad step and has died in the very cellar where Barlow sleeps. Most of the town has developed an aversion to sunlight and has taken to sleeping in. Ok. Just…wow. It’s like watching a horse fall off a bicycle with these people.
We get down to our last couple of good guys, Mark and Ben, pretty quickly once Barlow is on the prowl. It seems so sudden and jarring to be left with only these two, like taking a crazy Ivan right into a lamp post. But, somehow Mark and Ben are able to pull themselves together long enough to find Barlow’s lair and drive a stake through his heart. This is my only real issue with the book. Once the crisis is in full swing and the shit is happily spinning in the fan, we get to the final showdown in Eva’s cellar without a lot of effort. True, we have lost most of our good-guy squad and only a handful of humans remain, but there is something about how they discover Barlow’s hiding place and their final battle with him that is a bit anticlimactic. Like thinking you have built up a room clearing tuba blast of a fart but only managing to push out a sad little squeaker. With the master vampires heart finally staked, our heroes high tale it out of the Lot, leaving the rest of the town to suffer.
Salem’s Lot does give us a satisfying and somewhat open ended epilogue as our two heroes return home to finish the task of clearing out the remaining vampires. That is where we leave them, with unspeakable acts to perform, and no end in sight. Even after turning the final page of Salem’s Lot and moving on to more lighter fare with the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and the latest Star Wars novel, I can still see them. Forever hunting. Forever kicking in doors. Forever introducing the hearts of their neighbors to the pointy end of a stick.
What a blast this book was to finally read! It felt incredibly satisfying to finally have the balls to face my vampire at the window. Once this long walk with the King project has come to an end, I see myself revisiting Salem’s Lot to visit old friends and high-five that kick ass kid, Mark, one more time. For anyone wanting a decent film adaptation, there is a made for television movie that Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, made that is widely available. Hooper manages to keep the vampires SUPER creepy looking and keeps most of the story elements and characters intact. There are only a few moments that really scream, “made for television”, but ultimately adds to its 70’s charm.
This brief stop in Salem’s Lot has come to an end and it is time for me to lace up my walking shoes and continue on down the road. A mile down the path and I have come to crossroads. Well this is interesting, there are street signs in the middle of a haunted forest and they look to be brand new. They even shine as if highly polished by caring hands. The path I currently walk down continues on towards that hotel in the mountains. “King Street” is stamped on it’s sign. This new road that crosses it and winds down towards an old High School is stamped “Bachman Boulevard”. According to this map I found in Eva’s Boarding House, these two roads will continue to intersect each other every few miles or so. Well shit then, that means I can take my first stroll down “Bachman Boulevard” and not worry about getting lost on my way to the Overlook Hotel! Looks like I’m headed back to High School. Dammit, the first bell is ringing. I’m going to be late for class!
Karl Hartley – 2/21/2020
2 thoughts on “Salem’s Lot”
Great writing, Karl! I enjoyed this piece. I immediately thought of the movie “Us”. Creepy! Your story reminded me of my dad buying an old house at the edge of Monticello, Illinois, back around 1942. I was around six and my brother four. We had gone down next to a creek that ran through our back yard. Suddenly, out of the bushes, flew a screaming old woman dressed in black! “Get back, get back, get back.” She was waving a broom! Jesus H. Christ!!!! We ran crying back to house, and chose not to go there again. We found out she was our Aunt Levina, who lived next door. She was afraid we might fall in the creek. Dad decided to sell the house (and creek), and bought a house in a not-so-scary neighborhood.
Thank you, Joe! I would have sold the house (and creek) too. Holy smokes!! I still need to watch “Us”, keep hearing it is incredible.