August 27, 2011


The books we simply won't allow you to borrow.

Salem's Lot
by Stephen King
498 pages, New English Library

Ghastly McNasty: Pat Black

Tell you a funny story.

I was on nightshift, during a quiet spell very early on a Saturday morning. I had time to channel-surf, and chanced upon the Tobe Hooper-directed Salem's Lot TV miniseries from the 1970s. A nightowl friend of mine was watching it, too. We texted "Boo!" to each other at the scary bits.

Of which there were a few.

I went out to get a cup of water from the dispenser in the corridor outside. Bear in mind that there was no-one else in the building apart from the security guy who was down the stairs and behind a set of double doors, about fifty yards away. Plus it was the middle of the night, and my office is two storeys off the ground.

I turned to head back into the office, and there, at the window directly in front of me, was a pale face, peering in.

I read Stephen King's Salem's Lot when I was 12. I got my copy during a school holiday, after I had been roped into a shopping trip with my parents. We popped into a shopping mall which had a bookshop run by a kindly old lady. Possibly guilt-tripped by this blessed old dear's impassioned pleas over the importance of reading in young people's lives, my dad offered to buy me something. On the shelves was Salem's Lot, with lots of gurning vampires on the cover, drooling blood.

Sold, to the young ghoul at the front.

And that was all well and good... until the sun went down. I didn't expect Salem's Lot to scare me quite as badly as it did. I had thought myself a horror veteran by that point, having already devoured James Herbert's gory (and, looking back on it, extremely sleazy) animals-hate-you classic, The Rats. That book was gruesome, but I can't say I was especially frightened by it. Salem's Lot was a different proposition.

Reading it by torchlight in bed as a kid was a breakthrough experience, like the first kiss. I doubt I'll ever be as freaked out by fiction again.

King's second novel is a rather naughty retelling of Dracula (he's honest enough to admit this), placing vampires in small-town mid-1970s America. We follow Ben Mears, an author recovering from the death of his wife, who returns to his home town of Jerusalem's Lot in Maine. He plans to face some of his personal bogeymen as part of a new writing project, based around the local haunted house, the scene of a murder-suicide where he is sure he had a supernatural experience after breaking in as a young scamp.

Mears even has designs on renting out the shunned, boarded-up property, except that someone else has gotten there first: a mysterious businessman from Europe who intends to do a little dance, drink a little blood, and get down tonight.

Things begin to get weird. Mears hooks up with his old teacher and mentor, a local doctor, an eleven-year-old boy obsessed with classic Universal monsters, a drunken Irish priest and his love interest to do battle with the undead, once they start nibbling necks in the neighbourhood. Monsters aside, King captures a small town atmosphere very well, from nosey old bats to drunkards to hapless adulterers and spineless school bullies. And in the town becoming a wasteland, perhaps there was a metaphor for a country going badly wrong (the Watergate hearings were taking place while King wrote this novel).

There's no rational explanation for why the dead should come back to life for a spot of iron enrichment in this book, none of the kind of valiant science fiction myth-making that novels like I Am Legend attempted. It's simply an ancient horror visited upon a small town. No jacket required.

And it's monumentally creepy. We're well into the willies zone - so deep into it that we might have to spend the night. The young Glick boy's kidnapping - nothing to do with the supernatural, to begin with - gave me the willies. The dead woman sitting upright in the morgue while Ben and Jimmy keep watch, gave me the willies. Mark being left tied to a chair by Straker, watching the fading sunlight’s deathwatch creep across the wall, gave me the willies. The gravedigger seized by a strange compulsion to break open the casket of the person he's just helped to bury, gave me the willies. The amazing climax, where Ben confronts the creature who destroyed the town, gave me the willies.

And one female vampire's promise to young Mark: "I'll kiss you. I'll kiss you like your mother never did," well, that gave me a different kind of willies. But let's move on.

I keep meaning to re-read it, to see if it still has the same power, two decades on. The problem is, I know it won't. The experience cannot be the same, and I fear disappointment might tarnish the memory. But Salem's Lot left puncture wounds. It had a sincerity to it, and a firm narrative drive, as well as a succession of belting, shit-scary scenes. Even the white-faced ghouls on the front cover of the edition I have are bloody scary. If I do re-read it, I fancy I'll be forced to turn it over onto its face before I click the light out.

It's curious that once we experience the terrors - and the drudgery - of real life, we grow nostalgic for the things of fantasy that made us sleep with the lights on, way back when. They have a kind of innocence about them.

That's why I can't let you borrow my Salem's Lot. Back, ye foul creature of the night! Oh by the way - the face at the window I was talking about?

My own reflection. D'oh!

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