Dracula Extrapolated: ’Salem’s Lot

Exploring various instances of the novel Dracula‘s undying afterlife, considering specific examples in literature and visual media of the rewriting (e.g. sequels, prequels, alternate histories, shifted narrative perspectives, supporting character foregroundings) and development (elaborations/variations on the vampiric-invasion “plot”) of Bram Stoker’s source text.

 

’’What if Dracula descended upon rural Maine?

In his biography of Bram Stoker, David J. Skal quotes writer Ralph Milne’s Farley’s claim that Stoker told him he “planned to bring Dracula over to America in a new story.” Skal continues: “Another reason to suspect Stoker considered a sequel is a press clipping, included with his notes, titled ‘Vampires in New England’ and dated 1896–too late to be of use in Dracula, but of great potential utility in a follow-up book set in America.” If Stoker was actually entertaining the idea of an American-set sequel to Dracula, he never did get around to dusting off the (only seemingly vanquished) Count for another bloodletting tour. The absence of such a narrative might be one of the most regrettable turns of genre history, if Stephen King hadn’t filled in this vampiric void with his 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot.

King, in his afterword to the 2005 Illustrated Edition of ’Salem’s Lot, cites Dracula as “the first fully satisfying novel I ever read, and I suppose it is no surprise that it marked me so early and so indelibly.” Nowhere is the mark of Stoker’s vampire novel more evident than in ’Salem’s Lot, an extended act of literary homage that lifts the central plot of Dracula: an undead predator from Eastern Europe decides to relocate to the Western world and seek out fresh blood, but is opposed by a gathering band of fearless vampire hunters (King’s heroes are clearly aware of Dracula, referencing the “Bram Stoker’s evil fairy-tale” repeatedly upon realization of the vampire epidemic spreading through their town). Major scenes from Stoker’s narrative are paralleled: the staking of Lucy Westenra/Susan Norton; the unholy communion of Mina Harker/Father Callahan, forced to drink the king vampire’s blood; the climactic race against sunset to locate the archnemesis’s coffin. King’s head vampire Kurt Barlow clearly hearkens back to Stoker’s Count Dracula. This isn’t “Bela Lugosi’s corny Valentino imitation” (as King writes of Universal’s Dracula in Danse Macabre); nor do we get a romantic/sympathetic vampire figure like Barnabas Collins of the Maine-based Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. No, Barlow is cruel and cunning, savage and utterly evil (e.g. his boasting threat that he not only intends to kill Mark Petrie’s parents but also to emasculate the adolescent prior to vamping him: “you shall enter my church as choirboy castratum“).

What distinguishes ’Salem’s Lot, though, is not so much its carryover from the 1897 precursor novel but rather its points of departure. King does not merely rehash Dracula; he re-maps it by setting it an American small town instead of the urban sprawl of London. This transplanting is crucial, since the rural and isolated situation of ’Salem’s Lot enables Barlow’s scheme of finding a new feeding pen/breeding ground to take root. Unlike in a big city, horror can propagate virtually undetected, as King’s protagonist Ben Mears notes; “A person from out of town could drive through the Lot and not know a thing was wrong. Just another one-horse town where they roll up the sidewalks at nine. But who knows what’s going on in the houses, behind drawn shades? People could be lying in their beds…or propped in closets like brooms…down in cellars…waiting for the sun to go down. And each sunrise, less and less people out on the streets. Less every day.” Barlow himself articulates the advantages of the Lot over the metropolitan:

“I might have bypassed a rustic community such as this,” the stranger said reflectively. “I might have gone to one of your great and teeming cities.  Bah!” He drew himself up suddenly and his eyes flashed. “What do I know of cities? I should be run over by a hansom crossing the street! I should choke on nasty air! I should come in contact with sleek, stupid dilettantes whose concerns are…what do you say? Inimical?…yes, inimical to me. How should a poor rustic like myself deal with the hollow sophistication of a great city…even an American city? No! And no and no! I spit on your cities!”

Count Dracula lacked such foresight, and unlived to regret it. In his introduction to the 2005 Illustrated Edition of Salem’s Lot, King writes: “Stoker was clearly fascinated by modern inventions and innovations, and the underlying thesis of his novel is clear: in a confrontation between a foreign child of the Dark Powers and a group of fine, upstanding Britishers equipped with all the mod cons, the powers of darkness don’t stand a chance.” By contrast, King (as he admits in the afterword to the 2005 edition) “wanted to tell a tale that inverted Dracula” and its Victorian optimism. Indeed, King’s original intention was to have Barlow “emerge completely triumphant over the puny representatives of the rational world arrayed against him.” Of course, the finished novel does not play out quite so direly. But while Barlow is ultimately destroyed just like Dracula, his nosferatu progeny continue to overrun the Lot, and their eradication is not guaranteed at book’s end (as Ben attempts to smoke them out and send them running by setting fire to the town).

This isn’t the only reason, though, that King’s novel forms a more ominous version of Dracula. For all its sexual suggestiveness, Stoker’s book is remarkably conservative: the dark stranger, the foreign invader, ends up forcibly expelled from the heart of the British Empire. King, meanwhile, suggests that the corruption in ’Salem’s Lot predates the vampire’s arrival. Rife with dirty secrets and sordid scandals, the “town knew about darkness. […] There is no life here but the slow death of days and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take.” Barlow acknowledges that it wasn’t just his correspondence decades earlier with local occultist Hubert Marsten that drew him to ’Salem’s Lot. He finds the town’s collective neck particularly ripe for the pricking: “The folk here are still rich and full-blooded, folk who are stuffed with the aggression and darkness so necessary to” a creature such as himself. In the highlighting of inherent darkness, embedded in ’Salem’s Lot long before something wicked that way came, King’s novel shows that it is no mere clone of Stoker’s, but also traces its literary lineage back through the American Gothic of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the Yoknapatawpha Saga of William Faulkner.

The final word here on this subject ought to go to Clive Barker, who (in his introduction to the 1991 Stephen King Collector’s Edition of ’Salem’s Lot) provides a perfect gloss of King’s novelistic endeavor:

It is not, finally, the vampires that kill ’Salem’s Lot, but rather a corruption in the town itself, or more accurately, in its people: a number of little sins that allow the greater villainy its hold upon the town’s soul. Perhaps it’s this, more than any other element, which so distinguishes the book for me: the sense that ’Salem’s Lot is complicit, by dint of its apathy and obtuseness, in its own destruction. The novel, after all, is not named after the vampire, but after the meat upon which the vampire feasts.

 

 

Lore Report: “Above the Law” (Episode 180)

Everyone loves a good outlaw story. From the bandits of the Wild West to the tricksters of modern adventure films, there’s something attractive about the bad characters. And our obsession with them has been going on for a lot longer than you might believe. So long, in fact, that many of the most legendary criminals throughout history have become archetypes of an entirely new type of folklore. Because some of them even became heroes.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast focuses on hero outlaws–rebels against oppression and foreign occupation who captured the hearts and minds of the masses. Host Aaron Mahnke invokes notable names such as Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Ned Kelly, as well as some lesser-known Irish figures who fit the description: daring deeds, clever escapes, and ultimate, untimely demises (often stemming from betrayal by an associate). A good portion of the narrative is devoted to the story of the English thief “Honest” Jack Sheppard, whose attempt to escape his execution by hanging fails in a most ironic manner (the incident also connects with a famous English writer). Mahnke shares a lot of colorful history here via his oral portraits of these larger-than-life outlaws whose renown only grew posthumously. But by Mahnke’s own admission, there’s a shortage of the dark lore that listeners have come to expect from this podcast. All told, a very entertaining yet somewhat atypical episode.

“Mums” Bumbled

Joe Hill has been intimately connected with Creepshow from the get-go. Long before he became a renowned writer in his own right, the son of Stephen King starred as the comics-loving monsterkid Billy in the frame story of the original film. So when Creepshow was turned into an anthology series on Shudder in 2019, it was only natural that the inaugural season would feature a segment based on one Hill’s stories–“By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain.” Now, the Creepshow series digs into Hill once again with the opening segment of Season 3, an adaptation (co-written by horror legend David J. Schow) of the author’s novelette “Mums.” First published Full Throttle, “Mums” forms a standout piece in Hill’s collection. It is a work that also seems tailor-made for a Creepshow adaptation: “rooted in tragedy, betrayal, and revenge” (as the Creep’s introductory headnote to the episode segment states), the story showcases a “grotesque garden of ghoulish gore.” And that is what makes it so disappointing to discover that the adaptation has been utterly flubbed.

No doubt part of the problem stems from the fact that Hill’s 45-page text has a lot of story to it; Creepshow severely condenses the narrative, stripping it in the process of its complexity and nuance. For starters, the protagonist Jack’s great-great-great grandmother “Meemaw”–a terrifically witchy figure central to Hill’s tale–is written right out of the adaptation, never appearing onscreen. The mystery of the fate of Jack’s mom Bloom is almost immediately resolved (and her demise attributed to a different character than in the novelette). Jack’s father Hank, whom Hill depicts as a powerful and quietly menacing leader of an  American separatist movement, here gets reduced to a one-note cliché (the abusive redneck). Any ambiguity that Hill originally inscribed (the question of whether the horrors are a product of mental illness or supernatural agency) is also lost. Even the monster effects, which one would expect Creepshow to nail, prove underwhelming, like something ordered up from the Little Shop of Horrors.

“Mums,” though, positively shines compared to the episode’s second segment, “Queen Bee”–a nonsensical story rife with cheesy effect (those green glowing eyes flashed by the hospital staff look like props bought at a Spirit Halloween store; the titular monster, however, is quite impressive). Overall, this episode represents a definite step down in quality from the Season 2 premiere (reviewed here). Fans will have to keep their fingerbones crossed that Creepshow issues more satisfying frights in the coming weeks.

 

Goblin (Book Review)

Reviewers of Josh Malerman’s Goblin: A Novel in Six Novellas (first published in 2017 as part of Earthling’s limited-edition Halloween book series; re-released as a Del Rey hardcover in 2021) have been quick to invoke Stephen King’s Derry. The comparison is no doubt apt–Malerman’s central locale (more Michigan city than small-town Maine enclave like Castle Rock) is rooted in/haunted by the otherworldly. There are also discernible echoes of Creepshow here, especially considering that the book’s opening frame story features a mysterious crate that seems to contain something monstrous. The reader, though, should not be led to expect simplistic, E.C.-style tales of garish comeuppance, as Malerman takes his horror narratives in various and unexpected directions.

The first novella, A Man in Slices, recalls Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. But the childhood friendship of Richard and the more mischievous Charles (Malerman’s answer to Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade) is extended here into adult life and grows increasingly troubled when Charles gets involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman requesting self-mutilating gestures of love that would make Van Gogh cringe. Matters shade off finely into mortuary darkness by narrative’s end, and the novella tantalizes with its introduction of the folklore of the typically-rainswept Goblin–a place where the sun sets a full minute before in neighboring towns; where people gather in “Perish Park” every winter to reenact a historic death-by-strangulation; where the off-limit North Woods are said to be the habitat not only of mythic owls but also a sinister witch whose whispering words can explode a person’s heart.

Kamp concerns a Goblin resident petrified of being scared to death, and who accordingly takes some drastic measures to ghost-proof his apartment. It’s a wonderfully offbeat premise, and since the eponymous protagonist is also a local-history buff, much more of Goblin’s shadowed history is revealed in the course of unsettling events. The tale deftly draws readers into Kamp’s dreadful fixation, demonstrating all the strengths of Malerman’s writing: original situations, filtered through the viewpoint of well-rounded, psychologically-complex characters.

The next novella, Happy Birthday, Hunter!, constitutes the book’s most satisfyingly shivery entry. The renowned big-game hunter, Neal Nash, decides to punctuate the night of his lavish birthday celebration by attempting to bag the missing piece from his trophy collection: one of Goblin’s Great Owls. Nash’s ill-advised adventure (with his colleagues) into the dark woods delivers white-knuckle tension. The plot is shot through with startling twists, and fortifies the bloodshed with a rich dose of irony.

Presto! conjures both Bradbury and Clive Barker (“The Last Illusion”), with its story of a Goblin child’s idolizing of a dark-carnivalesque figure whose magic act relies on more than just prestidigitation. But Roman Emperor is no standard villain–rather a tragic, Faustian character. A lot of the fiendish fun here comes from the discovery of the source of Emperor’s “dirty magic” and the macabre lengths the entertainer must go to to fulfill his end of the bargain.

A Mix-Up at the Zoo reads like Winesburg, Ohio by way of The Twilight Zone, in its focus on an obsessive, mentally-disintegrating “grotesque” of the Sherwood Anderson variety, a lonely young man feeling ground down by his dual positions at the Goblin zoo and slaughterhouse. Slow-moving and overlong (the shock ending is foretold by the very title), this is arguably the least successful of the book’s sextet of novellas. Nevertheless, the protagonist’s steady descent into nightmare is distinguished by a slew of disturbingly surreal images.

As a site of misdirection and twisting turn, the hedge maze in The Hedges forms a perfect symbol of Malerman’s narrative approach. When a precocious young girl is the first to solve the sculpted puzzle, she discovers something shocking hidden within the heart of the maze, but this MacGuffin (un-identified for much of the suspenseful novella) ultimately defies reader expectation. The action detours back into the North Woods, and includes a dogged pursuit by Goblin’s bizarre police force (who form a grim joke on the very notion of protecting and serving).

The book’s epilogue (which returns to the story of the strange crate) ties everything together, showing that the interconnections between the novellas involve more than the overlap of character- and place names. Reminiscent of Trick r’ Treat, Goblin‘s narrative folds back over itself: the events of the individual novellas all trace to a singular stormy night in town, where further grisly mayhem appears to be in store for the hapless residents at epilogue’s end. Malerman invokes some of the horror genre’s hoariest elements (cursed land; disgruntled/displaced Native Americans) yet still manages to produce an original work containing no shortage of surprise.

The (fictional) town of Goblin itself is not a nice place to visit, and you likely wouldn’t want to live–or die–there. But Malerman’s Goblin is an inviting haunted attraction, a creepy and darkly atmospheric novel/linked-collection that makes for a terrific read on a dreary autumn evening.

 

The Haunting, Season 3? Three Prospective Source Texts

In a recent conversation with Entertainment Weekly to promote his new Netflix series Midnight Mass, Mike Flanagan reiterated that (alas) there are no current plans for a third season of The Haunting. The EW piece, though, did shed some insight onto Flanagan’s criteria for selecting a ghost-centric literary property to bring to the small screen. If a third season of The Haunting ever is considered, here are three books that I think would make excellent candidates for adaptation.

 

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

Flanagan has proven himself a master of the Stephen King adaptation, so Simmons’s IT-inspired horror epic would be right up his dark alley. This novel about a haunted school spreading evil throughout the town of Elm Haven, Illinois, features both quiet dread (other-worldly voices intoning on a radio) and spectacular ghoulishness (you thought you had some awful teachers growing up!). Simmons’s sequel A Winter Haunting (which centers on the ghostly encounters of one of the protagonists from Summer of Night, who returns to Elm Haven as an adult) would also furnish material for a terrific coda to a stretch of episodes. A big-screen version has been long-rumored, but in the absence of such a film, Netflix could provide an ideal home for Summer of Night.

 

Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story by Clive Barker

This ambitious and arguably under-appreciated novel mixes dark fantasy (the Wild Hunt is brought to California) and supernatural horror (the predations by a former film vamp) into a biting satire of the modern movie industry. The secluded Old Hollywood mansion where much of the action takes place can loom sinisterly right alongside Shirley Jackson’s Hill House (Season 1 of The Haunting) and Henry James’s Bly Manor (Season 2). Barker’s specters here have a particularly carnal bent, which would bring a much edgier element and more carnivalesque air to the typical ghostly proceedings on The Haunting.

 

Haunted: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk’s unabashedly macabre novel/linked-collection riffs on (and references) the famous spook-story-telling sessions of Mary Shelley, her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati in 1816.  Here a group of aspiring modern-day artists discover that their writers’ retreat is actually a site of nightmarish entrapment (inside an abandoned theater). The book’s structure–characters’ recited works interpolated within the ongoing, ever-darkening captivity narrative–would lend itself perfectly to episodic televisual format. Yes, the ghosts that Palahniuk scares up might not be of the traditional variety, but as the novel’s title portends, there is plenty of haunting experience in store.

Lore Report: “Confidence” (Episode 179)

 

For as long as humans have been around, there have been people gullible enough to believe anything, and others who are willing to take advantage of that.  And while modern con artists tend to focus on fraud of some kind, their predecessors sometimes leaned heavily into a different world altogether.  A world where anything was possible, and an understanding of what made people tick included understanding what made them feel fear: the world of folklore.

The game’s afoot in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke travels the crossroads of con artistry and folklore. The bulk of the narrative is devoted to the story of Joseph Brown, a savvy, superstition-exploiting scammer in early 19th Century England who could have inspired countless Scooby-Doo villains. Mahnke also details Brown’s orchestration of schemes involving the practices of porch watching and fortune telling, but the tale steadily veers away from the folkloric into base criminality and legal-system machination. Matters pick up again in the closing segment, concerning the so-called “Yorkshire Witch” Mary Bateman, an opportunistic thief and fraud whose hoaxes included “The Prophet Hen of Leeds” (wait until you get a load of what this allegedly magic chicken lays). Mary’s eventual execution brings the narrative full circle, and ties the episode together nicely. While relatively light on folklore, “Confidence” is a bold foray into the sordid world of dark crime.

“Statuesque” (original poem)

A sword-and-sorcery fantasy poem (sporting an allegorical base):

 

Statuesque

By Joe Nazare

 

The barbarian’s regimen borders on the religious
In its tireless devotion to hypertrophy.
From morn to moonglow Arod tests his physical limits,
Adrenalized by an unrelenting hatred.

His muscles drawn taut as the towing rope,
Arod hauls uphill a massive marble pillar–
A scavenged memento from the sacked civilization of his people,
Who’d refused to be taxed by an avaricious despot.

Next he seizes and envelops the thick, yellowed skull
Once shouldered by notorious brawler Durrell the Obdurate,
Squeezing until his own cranium seems apt to shatter from the strain,
All the while imagining it’s King Giles subjected to such crushing grip.

He cuts wide crescents in the riverside silt with his broadsword,
A training maneuver that eventually manages to stir up a dragling.
Always ready to intensify, Arod impales the vermicular scourge,
Lofts and swings its writhing form in torso-scorching arcs.

Lining up before the stoutest tanium tree he can find,
He launches determined, alternating blows with his spiked club,
Chopping, chopping away, swelling the muscles of his arms
As well as the mound of woodchips at his feet.

With the audacity of a madman, he tracks down a ‘warebear
And baits the behemoth into hand-to-paw battle.
A gory victory over his grisly opponent achieved,
Arod feasts on its roasted, protein-rich flesh as reward.

His daily labors earn him a fantastic physique,
Make him the envy of every underdeveloped man,
Cause him to impurify the thoughts of the chastest maiden,
Yet incredibly, he deems his own gains insufficient.

In Arod’s embittered mind, such growth is still
Not enough to embody his prodigious wrath.
So he locates the cave of the banished court-sorcerer Anabola
And solicits the concoction of a special enhancement elixir.

When questioned about the results that can be expected,
Anabola promises the barbarian that he’ll become rock-hardened.
Though no doubt misleading, the wizard’s claim proves true:
Overnight, Arod turns absolutely–not positively–granitic.

A dozen guardsmen are then summoned to deliver his sculpted bulk
To Giles’s stronghold, to serve as a cautionary figure,
A stony trophy unceremoniously entered into
The king’s ever-growing Hall of Thwarted Warriors.