1st edition of “‘Salem’s Lot” by Doubleday (1975)
Ben Mears is a moderately successful author who harbors some unresolved guilt after the death of his wife in a motorcycle accident in which he was involved. To get to the heart of his fears, he has decided to return to the site of a dreadful fright he experienced years before, as a child, during his temporary stay at his aunt Cindy’s house in ‘Salem’s Lot. As a rite of initiation into a local boys club, he had gone on a dare to enter the local haunted house: the home of former gangster Hubie Marsten, of whom it was rumored in the town, was responsible for the disappearances of some local children during the Great Depression. According to local legend, the mailman discovered the corpse of Hubie’s wife, Birdie Marsten, in the kitchen with half of her head blown off. The mailman then went back into town and fetched the local law, who later discovered the corpse of Hubie Marsten hanging from a rafter in the upstairs bedroom. The house itself was said to be a virtual rat’s nest of junk, books, and periodicals, with deadly traps set all around the house to ward off, or perhaps just kill, intruders.
Hubie Marsten, by David Loew.
When young Ben enters the house, he is confronted by the specter of Mister Marsten, hanging by a noose in the main bedroom, replete with a green face and puffy eyes, which open to look down upon master Mears. Frightened out of his wits, he runs away from the house, but is haunted ever since by his experience there. Twenty-five years later, now-author Ben Mears wants to purchase the Marsten house so he can face his demons and purge them by writing a book about his experience there. Unfortunately, someone has beat him to it, and that someone is shortly going to bring a pall down upon his world that will make the specter of Hubie Marsten look like Casper the friendly ghost.
Original artwork for CBS’s 1979 “Salem’s Lot” mini series.
1982 mass-market paperback edition of “Danse Macabre” by Berkley Books.
In his 1981 treatise on the horror genre, “Danse Macabre”, Stephen King says of “’Salem’s Lot”: “When I conceived of the vampire novel which became ‘Salem’s Lot, I decided I wanted to try to use the book partially as a form of literary homage”…”So my novel bears an intentional similarity to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and after awhile it began to seem to me what I was doing was playing an interesting—to me, at least—game of literary racquet ball: ‘Salem’s Lot itself was the ball and Dracula was the wall I kept hitting it against, watching to see where it would bounce, so I could hit it again. As a matter of fact, it took some pretty interesting bounces, and I ascribe this mostly to the fact that, while my ball existed in the twentieth century, my wall was very much a product of the nineteenth. At the same time, because the vampire story was so much a staple of the E.C. comics I grew up with, I decided that I would also try to bring in that aspect of the horror story.” [“Danse Macabre” Berkley Books 1987, pg 25]
Haunt of Fear #15 by E.C. Comics.
As far as the EC influence goes, most of King’s fiction reflects the EC ethic of bringing the supernatural and the horrific into the mundane modern world, as in the scene where the mean school bus driver gets his comeuppance through a late-night visit from some of his former charges. King himself sites this as a perfect example in this footnote from “Danse Macabre”:
“The scene in ‘Salem’s Lot which works best in the E.C. tradition–at lest as far as I’m concerned–is when the bus driver, Charlie Rhodes (who is a typical E.C. -type rotter in the best Herbie Satten tradition), awakes at midnight and hears someone blowing the horn of his bus. He discovers, after the bus doors have swung forever behind him, that his bus is loaded with children, as if for a school run…but they’re all vampires. Charlie begins to scream, and perhaps the reader wonders why; after all, they only stopped by for a drink. Heh, heh.” [“Danse Macabre” Berkley Books 1987, pg 25, footnote]
In fine, he did succeed in bringing all of these relatable, yet distinct takes on the vampire story together to create a classic horror story in the modern vernacular. Kurt Barlow is in essence Dracula under a different moniker; he is supernaturally powerful and dreadful, yet urbane and almost charming in the way a smart sociopath can be. He even starts off as an older man and appears more youthful as he feeds, and like Dracula, he is a foreigner who has come to this wholesome New England town to infect it with his transoceanic bric-a-brac and his vampire taint.
He even hits the hero in the heart by taking his ladylove, but unlike Mina Harker of Dracula, Susan Norton does not survive her contact with Barlow. Perhaps in this way she is more like Lucy Westenra, Mina’s friend who is turned by Dracula into the “bloofer lady” who feeds on the local children before Van Helsing has her fiancee put her down; in fact, in ‘Salem’s Lot, Susan does attempt to seduce Mark Petrie into letting her into his bedroom window, but he denies her leave to enter. The scene where Ben Mears has to stake Susan is also very similar to the corresponding scene in Dracula where Van Helsing convinces Arthur Holmwood that he is the most fitting amongst them to deliver the blow that will save his beloved’s soul from eternal damnation.
1976 mass-market edition of “‘Salem’s Lot” by Signet. Original copies were all black with the drop of blood being the only other item of color on the cover.
Speaking of damnation, much hoopla is made in the book of the powers of Good versus the powers of Evil. The Marsten House is described as being a sort of repository for evil energy, like a hell-mouth, which draws wicked men to its threshold. This is shown time and again by the tenants that choose to reside there and use it as a home base from which they spread their evil into the surrounding town; like Straker & Balow, the Marstens, and as we shall later see, in earlier times, the Boone family.
The power of Good is championed by Ben Mears and his company of ragtag vampire hunters, but the power itself seems to come from inside the respective individuals. On the surface one might chalk it up to a discovery of a new-found faith in the power of Good through the use of holy relics (like their use of holy water or homemade crosses), but whenever their faith wavers, the efficacy of said talismans ceases, as in the scene where Father Callahan wards off Barlow in the Petrie’s kitchen until his gets scared and doubts his ability to defeat his foe. Initially, he feels the power of the cross reverberating in his arm as it emits bright light across the darkened kitchen but as his confidence diminishes, the cross becomes a mere trinket and Barlow mocks him before snatching it out of his hand; “Sad to see a man’s faith fail. Ah well…” [“‘Salem’s Lot” Illustrated Edition, Doubleday 2005, pg 397]
The irony in all this is that Callahn had always had a hankering to fight EVIL, like a warrior of God…
“He wanted to lead a division in the army of–who? God, right, goodness, they were names for the same thing–into battle against EVIL with its cerements of deception cast aside, with every feature of its visage clear.”[“‘Salem’s Lot” Illustrated Edition, Doubleday 2005, pg 176]
…so when he quails and fails at his first real encounter he runs away in shame…only to pop up again in the Dark Tower series to fight the good fight for real.
It is interesting as well to note that the only type of relics which seem to have any effect are Catholic ones. When Ben’s friend, school teacher Matt Burke, asks him to procure a holy cross to protect him from the revenant of Mike Ryerson, no one in town seems to have one. Eva Miller even rebukes Matt Burke saying to Ben “He should have known better than that. (…) All his people were Lutherans.”[“‘Salem’s Lot” Illustrated Edition, Doubleday 2005, pg 215]
In the prologue of the book, which takes place after the events in the novel, Mark Petrie even decides to join the church at a little Catholic sanctuary in Los Zapatos, Mexico. Perhaps the Catholic rituals resonate more because they are still steeped in a mysticism and ritual that the Reformation dismissed in Martin Luther’s time. They still take communion, hold confession, pray to saints, perform exorcisms (albeit quietly) and still acknowledge the Darkness which grasps at men’s souls.
I first read “’Salem’s Lot” in the summer of 1986. I had just gotten out of high school and was staying at my maternal grandparents’ little house in Phoenix. My cousin Jason was staying there as well and he loaned me his dog-eared paperback (a “mass-market” paperback, as is known in the book trade) and I devoured it with gusto, although there were a few minor hiccups along the way, mostly King’s penchant for supplying his readers with an excessive amount of personal information on minor characters that has no real bearing on the story, which still bothers me to this day.
Even so, the story stuck with me and even though the details blurred with time, the overall emotion did not. In the intervening years, I saw and learned to love the original CBS mini-series adaptation with David Soul as hero Ben Mears, James Mason as Richard Straker, watcher and henchman for vampire Kurt Barlow, wordlessly portrayed by veteran horror actor Reggie Nalder in an iconic blue-faced Nosferatu-like make-up job that still sends shivers down my spine whenever I see it; Bonnie Bedelia as the hero’s love interest, Susan Norton, and a host of other 70’s character actors making cameos as some of the myriad townsfolk.
1979 TV Guide ad for the original CBS mini series.
This was my reference on the story for years until I recently sat through the 2004 remake, which varies on many different points, and wondered which one of the adaptations was closer to the original?
So, I pulled my 1st edition copy of the book club version of “’Salem’s Lot” and began to re-read the tale of Ben Mears and company for the first time in 27 years. As it turns out, they’re both fairly close to the book, but emphasize different aspects and scenes, which makes them seem divergent at times. The adaptation with the most changes however, is the 2004 version, in which the screenwriter felt the need to update the story by having characters referencing rap tunes, or modern political topics (Ben Mears is a journalist here instead of a novelist, who wrote some unflattering books about the US Military handling of the Gulf War; early on in the show there is a scene where he has a heated discussion with a local about a particular story he ran which caused some soldiers to get in trouble), Doctor Jim Cody is made into a philanderer and other minor characters are given more screen-time than necessary. The biggest offense however was the opening scene with Ben Mears confronting a vampire-tainted Father Callahan in a New York homeless shelter. This never happens in the book and Father Callahan actually pops up in the Dark Tower series as a good guy, so this interpretation messes with the character all together.
Father Callahan as he appears in the Dark Tower series.
Other than that though, most of the differences were how they chose to combine characters from the book to get in relevant scenes without confusing matters with an enormous cast.
One minor addition, which is not in the book, but piqued my interest, was a scene from the remake in which Eva Miller (renamed Eva Prunier) visits Barlow and Straker’s antique store where she discovers a graphically illustrated book that contains what appears to be some satanic rituals. As she examines the book with growing horror, Straker approaches her and surreptitiously harasses her telling her that he wishes he knew her when she was a young girl when she used to dabble in the occult and apparently wrote some letters to Barlow inviting him to visit ‘Salem’s Lot. As a coup de grace to his creepy harangue, he lolls his tongue at her and makes a face that causes him to look like a mad satyr. None of this is in the original novel, where the only one who corresponded with Barlow was Hubie Marsten.
Straker harasses Eva Prunier (Miller) in the 2004 adaptation.
James Mason’s portrayal of Straker is a lot more subtle, and thus creepier. His death scene—he is shot several times whilst descending the Marsten House stairwell with a piece of the banister raised over his head in an attempt to club Ben Mears—always seemed a bit lacking to me though. This is one instance where the remake got it right. It is actually young master Petrie who overtakes Straker when he is not looking and Barlow later strings him up to drain him of his blood in a fit of pique. Barlow resents Mark for essentially forcing him to take the life of his favorite servant as is shown in the mocking letter he leaves for the men when they come looking for him in his former lair. In said letter, he addresses each one of the would-be vampire hunters personally, exhibiting his cleverness not only by escaping them, but by correctly assessing who would ultimately comprise such a group. In he section addressed to the youngest member he says:
“Master Petrie, you have robbed me of the most faithful and resourceful servant I have ever known. You have caused me, in an indirect fashion, to take part in his ruination, have caused my own appetites to betray me. You sneaked up behind him, doubtless. I am going to enjoy dealing with you. Your parents first, I think. Tonight…or tomorrow night…or the next. And then you. But you shall enter my church as choirboy castratum.” [“‘Salem’s Lot” Illustrated Edition, Doubleday 2005, pg 376]
Kurt Barlow holds Mark Petrie as Richard Straker negotiates with Father Callahan in the 1979 CBS mini series.
In the deleted scenes section of the “’Salem’s Lot: Illustrated Edition” (Doubleday 2005) this scene is not only extended, but has some interesting changes. First off, it is not a letter he leaves for the men, but rather a tape recording, which almost smacks of Dracula again where the some of the narrative journal entries are recorded on cylinders. And in a nasty turn, which is quite effective, Barlow has the vampiric Susan taunt her lover with a salacious harangue:
“The tape spooled on vacantly for a sheaf of moments and then another voice spoke—Susan’s voice. The cool, clear accents were the same, complete to the Maine accent of slurred r’s. Yet for all that, it was a travesty, a husk, a bad imitation, a talking doll speaking in Susan’s voice.
‘Come to me, Ben. Let me fuck you. Wait until dark and I’ll fuck you. Fuck-fuck-fuck. Father Callahan, too. Would you like a piece of it Father? Let me slip my hand under that black robe and start to—‘“ [“‘Salem’s Lot” Illustrated Edition, Doubleday 2005, pp 569-570]
Ben then grabs the player, and destroys it before she can continue. The staking scene which follows is so heartbreaking and emotional in the book, but both film adaptations chose to change it for some inexplicable reason and both the emotional impact and the implied Dracula reference are lost in the respective rewrites.
A vampiric Susan visits Ben in his post-‘Salem’s Lot hideout in Guatemala in the 1979 CBS mini series.
The scene in which Mark and Father Callahan are confronted by Barlow in the Petrie family kitchen has a completely different ending which, although interesting, would have had significant effect on King’s later output. In this version, Father Callahan takes his own life rather than become a vampire. His mutilated and decapitated body is later found by his peers nailed to the Petrie kitchen door.
Most of the other deleted scenes are extensions of scenes already featured in the original novel. Some of the extra information is interesting, some of it is superfluous. Even so, if you come across the illustrated edition someday used, it might behoove you to pick it up if you’re a fan, as it is currently out of print. My only complaint is that the touted “illustrations” are actually photographs by Jerry Uelsmann which, although artful, aren’t really depictive of anything delineated in the story. Even so, the new introduction by King and the aforementioned outtakes are worth the price of admission to the devoted fan and students of the oeuvre of this modern master of American Horror fiction.
To complete this macabre package, two related short stories have been included which were originally featured in King’s 1978 short story collection, “Night Shift”. The first story, “Jerusalem’s Lot” deals with the original owners of what came to be known as the Marsten House. Written in an epistolary style, through journal entries and letters (again referencing Dracula), “Jerusalem’s Lot” is the tale of an aristocrat, Charles Boone who travels to Chapelwaite, the neglected estate of his estranged cousin Stephen. Charles finds that the housekeeping staff are none too happy about being on the grounds and the townsfolk treat both he and his footman, Calvin, as pariahs.
The real culprits responsible for the scratching sounds in the walls. One of Glenn Chadbourne’s illustrations for “Jerusalem’s Lot” in the “Secretary of Dreams” anthology.
Charles soon realizes that his estranged cousin and his branch of the family were into some dark dealings and upon further investigation, the duo find secret passageways and an arcane map to a deserted village nearby named Jerusalem’s Lot. He and Calvin go to check it out and find a ghost town with a church which has been converted into a Satanic meeting house. They also discover the black grimoire, “De Vermis Mysteriis”, “The Mysteries of the Worm”, which figures prominently in Robert Bloch’s Lovecraftian Mythos stories. Of course, things just go downhill for everybody concerned from here on in.
“Jerusalem’s Lot” almost reads like a Mythos tale with its black books, archaic language, old tainted family lines, backwards untrusting townsfolk and even makes vague references to other Lovecraftiana like “The Rats in the Walls”. It is a very good tale and has even been anthologized by Arkham House (bearers of the H.P. Lovecraft Legacy) in a collection entitled “Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos” (1990) alongside many of the classic tales in the genre.
The next bonus tale is “One for the Road”, which really feels like just that—one more little fright before he lets you go. Gerard Lumley is a desperate New Jersey man who has left his wife and little girl stranded in their car in a fierce blizzard on the outskirts of ‘Salem’s Lot so he could find help. He bursts into a local bar where he collapses, but is brought back to consciousness by two old timers who reluctantly agree to help him retrieve his family only if his they are still inside the car when they get there, for they know that if the freezing temperatures don’t get them, something else will.
Mr. Lumley finds his family in “One for the Road”. This illustration can be found in the “Secretary of Dreams” volume two.
“One for the Road” is a well told tale, but nothing new is said here. It really does feel like a superfluous scene that didn’t make its way into the original novel, just tacked on at the end. That being said, it is both entertaining in its depiction of the eccentric Maine natives as well as the delineation of the thrilling climactic scenes in the blizzard.
Note, both of these bonus tales appear in “Night Shift” as well as in “The Secretary of Dreams” compilations by Cemetery Dance. “Jerusalem’s Lot” appears in Volume 1 and “One for the Road” appears in Volume 2, both illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne.
Re-reading “’Salem’s Lot” was an enlightening and enjoyable experience, from which I learned a lot about King’s legacy and his craft. I believe that I shall return to this world again someday after I read some more of his fiction both things I have read in the past (I hope to re-read “The Shining” before the sequel “Doctor Sleep” comes out this year) as well as newer things, which I have not (like the “Dark Tower” series), and as I do so, I shall keep you all informed of my progress ; )