Before vampires were teenage heartthrobs and tortured, woe-is-me lost souls wandering the Earth seeking redemption, they were just plain bloodsucking monsters. I think ‘Salem’s Lot may be one of the best 20th century examples of this after the 19th century gave us Polidori’s The Vampyre and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The story begins with a prologue about “the man” and “the boy” (it isn’t hard to figure out who they are, but I played along) hiding out in a Mexican border town, then moves into Chapter One and Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, where Benjamin Mears comes home to a small town and to perhaps face an old fear head on. He meets Susan Norton, sparks up a romance, and we are slowly introduced to the rest of the town as something sinister creeps its way into the tale. Up until the point Mike Ryerson’s dog is found hanging on a cemetery fence and terror strikes two young brothers in the woods, it’s like a piece of small-town Americana where everybody knows everybody, and the sidewalks roll up after dark.
I love a story where the supernatural or the ‘terror element’ seeps in sloowwwwlyyy. It’s like a novice swimmer who’s partially afraid of the deep water and at the same time enjoys the thrill. You tiptoe in from the banks, go a little at a time, and before you realize it, you’re to the point where you either sink or swim. To me, that’s what makes a good horror story. Don’t give away all the cookies out the gate. Dangle a few here or there and give them away as the reader goes. Kind of a thank-you for sticking with it. Take someone along on the little ride and slowly immerse them into the deep dark lagoon before they’re too wise to figure out it’s swim time.
I felt the only weak points of the story came in the second half where Matt Burke is laid up in a hospital bed consulting texts and fiction (carted in from the local library) to help Ben, Mark Petrie, and Father Callahan battle the evil at the Marsten House. At times it felt like a more adult version of Scooby Doo, but the rest of the novel is so strong and powerful, I was hooked and couldn’t not play along.
The other thing I wanted but didn’t (quite) get was a more brutal comeuppance for baby-beating teen mom Sandy McDougall. Outside of my gripes in these last two paragraphs, it’s early Stephen King at his finest.
Again, this is only King’s second published novel, and even though he was more than established by 1975 (the year this was written), fans of his latter works will note he was just a smidge less refined here than what he’s gone on to in a prolific career.
Anyone who’s a fan of the 1979 TV miniseries and hasn’t read the book MUST read the book. You’ll probably like the movie just a little less when you realize how watered-down it is compared to the novel. There is Ben Mears portrayed by blond Starsky & Hutch heartthrob of his day David Soul (Ben has black hair in the book). Mark Petrie is played by 1970s teen heartthrob and Tiger Beat coverboy Lance Kerwin (Mark is a bespectacled, scrawny-but-lithe-and-quick middle schooler in the book; Kerwin, according to iMDb, was pushing twenty when he took on the role, though he did look younger—but older than the Mark of the novel).
I think that covers heartthrobs of past eras. Susan Norton is played by a brunette Bonnie Bedelia (Susan was a blonde in the book. Mismatched hair colors in book-to-movie adaptations always bug me, don’t ask me why—I just picture them all one way and am let down when I watch the film versions).
The enormous cast of the novel is pared down considerably for the movie, which is understandable for time and consistency. Some of the characters are even consolidated. Susan Norton’s father is the doctor who helps fight the vampires in the movie (it’s Dr. Jimmy Cody in the book). It’s local real estate tycoon Larry Crockett (more of Fred Willard than you’ll ever want to see again) who’s messing around with married Bonnie Sawyer, not telephone repairman Corey Bryant. And so on. Thankfully, we are spared the baby-beating Sandy, who epitomizes trailer trash excellently in the novel. She wouldn’t work well in a movie, for obvious reasons.
Perhaps worst of all, the bloodthirsty antagonist himself, Kurt Barlow, is seen here as a cartoonish ghoul with the worst case of ‘70s monster teeth I’ve ever sunk mine into. I can see how this must have terrified TV movie-of-the-week audiences four decades ago. Maybe just a little less today.
I understand there was a ‘Salem’s Lot remake in 2004, with Rob Lowe in the role of Ben Mears. I think I will skip that one!