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.

 

 

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