‘Salem’s Lot… a Lot

I read ‘Salem’s Lot in 1977. It was the first Stephen King book I ever read. I might have sampled some stories in Night Shift prior, but he only had a few titles back then, and it was definitely the first novel of his that I took on. My mother had read it and I became intrigued when I witnessed her shriek and hurl the paperback across the room (I later found out that she was at the part when Marjorie Glick sits up on the morgue table). Thus began my longest affair with any writer ever. 

I’m not sure how many times I have perused the book since. I used to think revisiting novels was a waste of time, but now I do it not only for research into the mechanics but for pure pleasure as well. I’ve compared great horror—novels and film—to comfort food, and ‘Salem’s Lot is no exception. Rereading the book, to me, is like slipping into a favorite recliner, or a warm fireplace on a rainy Autumn day, or having a delicious piece of cake… maybe red velvet.

I’m sure I’ve read the novel at least five times—once for every decade I’ve been alive—maybe more, though it’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons for its magnetism. It was by no means the first book I ever completed. Perhaps it was the first that I ever thoroughly enjoyed. I relish the nostalgia of the small-town setting, in a decade long before technology kept everyone connected. King himself has described the book as Dracula comes to Peyton Place. Maybe its draw is similar to the addiction people have with soap operas, a voyeuristic peek into the secret lives of middle America (or in this case New England).

Several chapters have become nothing short of iconic (some enhanced by Tobe Hooper’s television miniseries of 1979). Who could forget:

Mike Ryerson’s in the open grave of Danny Glick (“Stop staring at me.”).

Danny Glick at Mark Petrie’s window (“Let me in.”).

Ryerson returning to Matt Burke’s bedroom (“You’ll sleep with the dead, teacher.”).

Marjorie Glick sitting up on the morgue table (“Danny, are you there?…”).

And the list goes on. I don’t know why these scenes stay with me. King was young when he wrote them—good, but nowhere near the writer he has matured into. Yet this is the book that immediately comes to my mind when he’s mentioned. It’s magic.

After rereading the novel last month, I decided to watch both television adaptions again—the Tobe Hooper version from 1979, and the 2004 version starring Rob Lowe (skipping the unofficial, un-watchable Cohen sequel, A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987). Neither of these two versions capture the overall magic, but both have their charms. 

Hooper’s Lot does a good job creating the close-knit feel of the community but sacrifices substance for scares by turning Barlow into an unintelligible knockoff of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The Rob Lowe version has an excellent cast (Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, Samantha Mathis, Andre Braugher), exposes more of the darker underbelly of the community, but manages somehow to mangle the story through modernization—as if the writer is saying, the book is great, but I can do better by changing it—a ridiculous Hollywood paradox (territorial pissing is what I call it—a term I borrow from the late, great Kurt Cobain).

Horrible movie adaptions and Stephen King are in most cases synonymous, and when inevitably admonished by a reader that a movie version has “ruined his book,” King simply answers—and I paraphrase:

No, it didn’t. See. There they all are, lined up on the shelf.

And so, as always, I return to the book because the essence remains unchanged within the binding. And with this recent reading—coupling, again, his lush prose with my mind’s eye, I found the answer: 

The magic is in the collaboration.


This piece is reprinted from a previous blog in response to hearing the news of a new adaption by James Wan and Gary Dauberman.

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