Monday, October 14, 2019

THE HISTORY OF ‘SALEM’S LOT By Bethany Ruthven

Bethany Ruthven
Good evening, darlings, and thank you for reading. Halloween time is here again, and welcome to The MonsterGrrls’ Thir13en For Halloween, where we are doing Tales Of Unease as our theme. Today I am examining an interesting vampire tale conceived by the world’s foremost horror author, Stephen King. The tale is ‘Salem’s Lot, and while it is certainly a vampire tale, its origins are actually from a short story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” which was first published in King’s 1978 collection of short stories, Night Shift.

“Jerusalem’s Lot” is an epistolary tale, composed of letters and 
diary entries from one Charles Boone to an old friend, “Bones,” and the occasional narration from Boone’s manservant Calvin McCann. The tale describes the arrival of Boone and McCann to the neglected ancestral home of an estranged cousin, which is decried by local townsfolk as a “bad house” with a history of tragic events, mysterious disappearances, and strange noises attributed by Boone to “rats in the walls.” Obviously, anyone who has ever read a certain H.P. Lovecraft story knows that this won’t end well, but when Boone and McCann find an old map of a deserted village called Jerusalem’s Lot, which they decide to explore despite warnings from the townsfolk. Thus, the scene is set for the discovery of blasphemous Satanic rites, ancient tomes of evil, secret occult practices, family secrets, and of course the requisite nosferatu, or undead. The story was written by King while in college, but it did not see formal publication until after his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, was published, which is also set in the same town.

The book
The plot for ‘Salem’s Lot occurred to King while teaching a high school course on fantasy and science fiction at Hampden Academy in Maine. One of the books covered in the class was Dracula by Bram Stoker, and King wondered what would happen if Dracula returned to twentieth-century America. His wife suggested that Big D would probably get run over by a taxicab, but King kept mulling the idea over, and finally hit on a small-town setting for his story. The eventual novel was described by King himself as “Peyton Place meets Dracula,” but was successful, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1976, and the Locus Award for All-Time Best Fantasy Novel in 1987.

The story of the novel has Ben Mears, a writer who lived in Jerusalem’s Lot long ago, returning after a twenty-five-year absence. Mears has been haunted for most of his life by a bad experience he had in the Marsten House, an old house on a hill that overlooks the town, and was once the former home of Depression-era gangster Hubie Marsten. Ben has come back to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book about the Marsten House, and hopes to stay in it, but discovers that the house had purchased by an Austrian immigrant named Kurt Barlow, who has arrived in the Lot to open an antiques store. Barlow, according to his business partner, Richard Straker (the only one of the two ever seen in public) is on an “extended buying trip.” Undaunted, Mears takes a room in a boarding house and begins work, striking up a friendship with high school teacher Matt Burke and a romance with Susan Norton, the town librarian.

Soon after Barlow “arrives,” a young boy named Ralphie Glick disappears, and Glick’s brother Danny dies, becoming the first vampire. Danny infects a number of locals in the town, including his own mother, but fails to infect Mark Petrie, a friend of the Glick boys who resists Danny with the aid of a plastic cross from a monster model kit (nice touch). Before long, Ben, Matt, Susan, and local doctor Jimmy Cody are all drawn into the battle against Barlow for ‘Salem’s Lot.


The 1979 mini-series
Warner Bros. acquired the rights to ‘Salem’s Lot and set about trying to turn it into a feature film, but after several false starts at a proper screenplay for King’s 400-page novel, the project was turned over to their Television division, and producer Richard Kobritz decided it would work much better as a television mini-series. After a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, director Tobe Hooper was selected for the series, which came to television in 1979.

While the resulting miniseries is regarded as a classic of the genre, with wonderful performances by several luminaries including David Soul (Ben Mears), James Mason (Richard Straker), Lance Kerwin (Mark Petrie), Reggie Nalder (Kurt Barlow) and legendary character actor Geoffrey Lewis (Mike Rykerson), the minseries takes liberties with King’s work. Some characters have been combined or simply removed, and Barlow, rather than being perceived as human, is a bald, hissing Nosferatu vampire in the mold of Max Schreck, with Straker serving as a superhuman version of Renfield. Due to the series being shown on television, graphic depictions of blood or violence were abhorred, forcing Tobe Hooper to rely on atmosphere and mood, which actually works in the production’s favor.
Better than A Return To 'Salem's Lot, by far

In 1987, Larry Cohen directed a feature film called A Return To ‘Salem’s Lot, a “sequel” to the series  that is rightfully described as a godawful mess of a film, and my darlings, you are advised to avoid it at all costs. A better substitute is TNT Television’s 2004 miniseries adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot, starring Rob Lowe as Ben Mears, Samantha Mathis as Susan, Donald Sutherland as Straker, and Rutger Hauer as Barlow. Though still not perfect, this adaptation has its merits and is closer to King’s original novel, and will do you just fine if you cannot find the original for your Halloween viewing.

And there we are. Do return to us soon for our next round of chilling horrors here at The MonsterGrrls’ Thir13en For Halloween, and if you hear a scratching at the window and something asking to be let in... just tape a cross to the glass. Then move the next day.

Regards,
Bethany Ruthven

MAD DOCTOR’S NOTE: All forms of ‘Salem’s Lot are available for purchase (or rental if you have Amazon Prime) here at Amazon. But do avoid A Return To ‘Salem’s Lot. Even our Monster Shop werewolf Towser won’t touch it.