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.

 

 

“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.

 

The Scariest Stories Ever

A recent episode of the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured a very interesting topic for genre fans: the panelists discussed their own (as well as their audience’s) choices for “The Scariest Short Stories Ever Written.”

To be sure, such an endeavor is inevitably subjective, contingent on individual trigger points and stylistic preferences (realistic or supernatural horror, quiet or splatterpunk), and influenced by the personal mood and cultural moment in which the tale is first encountered. Accordingly, any citations should be taken in the vein of nomination, not prescription.

With that being said, I’d like to add my own two cents to the discussion with the belated addition of the pair of titles I would choose:

1. The Mist by Stephen King: Yes, I realize that technically this is a novella and not a short story. It is also one harrowing narrative–an environmental disaster turned Lovecraftian apocalypse. King gothicized a seemingly safe space (until that point, the supermarket had been the place to which I happily ventured with my mom to gather weekly treats), besieging it with carnivorous monsters from another dimension, to say nothing of the human fanatics the protagonists find themselves trapped with inside the store. I can remember lying on my bed with my copy of Skeleton Crew as a young teenager, utterly engrossed by the story, when a housefly happened to buzz past my ear. I jumped so high and so hard, I almost dented the ceiling.

2. “Darkness Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller: This transgressive, technophobic tale–which reads like a combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Philip K. Dick–is aptly placed in Nightmare magazine. It concerns an especially nasty piece of malware that is driving people to commit hate crimes and acts of mind-boggling violence. The story is rife with disturbing images (one character threatens to feed a bag of spiders to a captive one by one). The subject matter seems even more insidious based on the piece’s (mid-pandemic) time of publication, when social distancing has driven everyone towards social media. Miller’s account of Americans’ descent into insane incivility perfectly captures the frightful divisiveness gripping the country during the Trump presidency. As a constant reader of horror, I am not easily moved, but have to admit that this one struck a nerve and stuck with me long after.

 

But why stop at two? Here’s a listing of further contenders for the title of “Scariest Story.” I make no claim of exhaustiveness; hundreds of other selections no doubt could be added here. Consider this a starter set of recommended reads rather than the be-all and end-all of superlative horror narratives.

“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s unflinching depiction of a lynching sears its way into the reader’s consciousness, and proves that “haunting” is not limited to restless ghosts and remote mansions.

“Rawhead Rex” by Clive Barker: This rampaging-monster/folk-horror tale used unrelenting terror to secure the #1 spot on my recent Books of Blood Countdown.

“Old Virginia” by Laird Barron: The explanation given here for the disappearance of the Roanoke colonists is more terrifying than any real-world theory ever postulated.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood: Don’t be mislead by the innocuous title–this is outdoor horror (and cosmic encroachment) at its finest.

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury: A late-night journey through a dark ravine surely isn’t a great idea when a serial killer is on the loose. Creepy atmosphere builds towards a shocking clincher.

“The Waxwork” by A.M. Burrage: Uncanniness unparalleled, as a freelance journalist attempts to spend the night in a wax museum’s “Murderers’ Den.”

“Mackintosh Willy” by Ramsey Campbell: Ever since reading this eerie tale, I’ve never been able to enter a park shelter without fear brushing its fingers against my thoughts.

“The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter: Carter’s feminist revision of the Beauty and the Beast narrative also works as a quintessential spreader of Gothic terror.

“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison: The unforgettable title forewarns of the unspeakable horrors in store in this classic tale that takes the technology-run-amok theme to the extreme.

“Home” by Charles L. Grant: The master of quiet, atmospheric horror makes even a simple sandbox and set of swings the stuff of nightmares.

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill: Hill makes a strong bid for his father’s genre crown with this early–and completely unnerving–story.

“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” by Glen Hirshberg: A gut-punch of a ghost story, set at the most sinister Halloween attraction since Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs: Never has a a knock on the door been more unwelcome than in this ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative.

“The Darkest Part” by Stephen Graham Jones: The supernatural, pederastic clown haunting the pages of this story (which packs enough nightmare fuel to power an epic novel) leaves the reader almost pining for Pennywise.

“Gone” by Jack Ketchum: A legend of no-holds-barred horror, Ketchum demonstrates that he can chill just as easily with a more restrained approach, in this Halloween tale of devastating parental grief.

“God of the Razor” by Joe R. Lansdale: Jack the Ripper seems like Jack Tripper compared to the supernatural slasher that Lansdale imagines here.

“Gas Station Carnivals” by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti’s mesmerizing prose freezes the reader with fear in this tale that stages a dreadful revelation.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft: For my money, the narrator’s attempt to escape from the Gilman House (and from the clutches of the monstrosities haunting the hotel) constitutes the most harrowing sequence in the entire Lovecraft canon.

“The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen: The granddaddy of weird tales, replete with human iniquity and terrible incursion by the otherworldly.

“Prey” by Richard Matheson: The written exploits of the bloodthirsty Zuni-warrior doll are arguably even more horrifying than what appears in the Trilogy of Terror film adaptation.

“Yellow Jacket Summer” by Robert R. McCammon: This Southern Gothic take on “It’s a Good Life” did absolutely nothing to alleviate my wasp phobia.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell: Morrell’s is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of cosmic horror, but the author produces an eye-popping example of it here.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor: A family excursion (humorously narrated) takes a sharp left into the macabre, when the murderous Misfit arrives at the scene of a car accident.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Oates builds narrative suspense to an almost unbearable level, as the reader suspects that there is more than the mere seduction of a teenage girl at stake.

“Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s notorious, unabashedly grotesque story of onanism gone wrong ultimately haunts because its extreme scenes of body horror are all too plausible.

“Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge: A hard-boiled, post-apocalyptic take on Lovecraft, featuring eldritch wretches born from the bellies of human corpses.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe: Poe’s colorful plague tale painfully reminds the reader that bloody demise can be the fate of anyone.

“The Autopsy” by Michael Shea: Shea frays the reader’s every last nerve here with surgical precision. I can’t believe this graphic shockfest (first published in 1980) has yet to be adapted as a cinematic feature.

“Iverson’s Pits” by Dan Simmons: A Gettysburg-commemorating ceremony becomes the site of supernatural events that make the horrors of the Civil War seem positively quaint by comparison.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: If you didn’t know what a lich was prior to reading this unsettling sylvan tale, you certainly will (never be able to forget) afterward.

“The Walker in the Cemetery” by Ian Watson: “The Mist” meets “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” as a group of tourists in Genoa are preyed upon by a human-sized iteration of Cthulhu (in the role of sadistic slasher/wrathful god).

 

Vintage Creepshow

Stephen King’s and George Romero’s Creepshow was a determinedly referential endeavor–a concerted effort to recreate the horror sensibility of E.C.-style comics. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Shudder spin-off series, which faithfully adheres to the aesthetic of the original movie, also nods knowingly at horror history. Nowhere is this more evident than in Creepshow‘s second-season premiere.

“Monster Kid,” the episode’s opening segment, is a love letter to utter monstrophilia. Joe Aurora is a Dracula-dressing, Bela-Lugosi-quoting, model-kit-obsessed horror hound. His bedroom is a treasure trove of monster memorabilia. The segment (which begins with a black-and-white scene fantasized by Joe) invokes the Universal monsters in the form of the Gill-Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster (at one point, Joe also watches Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). There’s a clip of a horror host addressing “boils and ghouls”–a pun that surely resonates with fans of Tales from the Crypt. With its voodoo-doll plot element, “Monster Kid” even recalls the frame story of the Creepshow film. Despite striking a sweet note in its invocation of Monster Culture, the segment does not shy away from the typical dramatization of grim comeuppance, as Kevin Dillon’s obnoxious character ultimately gets transformed into Johnny Trauma.

Substituting the satiric for the nostalgic, the second segment (“Public Television of the Damned”) is a gonzo homage to the Evil Dead franchise coupled with a send-up of public television programming. All hell threatens to break loose when Ted Raimi shows up on “The Appraiser’s Road Trip” with a copy of the Necronomicon; a PBS-esque pledge drive turns into a demonic demand for a pledge of human souls to the book. Gleefully over-the-top (a Bob Ross knockoff forms a badass hero here), the adult-humored segment features scenes of wild violence that would make Sam Raimi proud. The marvelously macabre makeup (courtesy of Creepshow producer Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX Group) also expertly evokes the Evil Dead.

With its commitment to vintage horror, the season 2 premiere forms a modern classic. If the same level of reverent retrospection is maintained throughout, viewers have a lot to look forward to this season.

 

Fright Manual: Five Great Hand-Themed Horror Stories

Hands have figured prominently throughout the cinematic history of the horror film, but what about in horror fiction? Here’s a handful of short stories likely to leave readers with sweaty palms. (A few disclaimers: the list is confined to human hands–hence no raising of “The Monkey’s Paw”–and leaves out Clive Barker’s superlative story “The Body Politic,” only because I have already addressed that piece in a recent Countdown post.)

 

1. “The Flayed Hand” by Guy de Maupassant (1875)

Not the first horror story focused on a Hand of Glory, and certainly not the last, but no doubt one of the most frightful ever penned. The character Pierre is way too flippant about the morbid relic he has obtained from the effects of a recently deceased sorcerer, laughingly hanging the titular appendage as the handle of his door-bell. Naturally, Pierre comes to regret his error, as he’s subjected to some heavy-handed supernatural vengeance.

 

2. “Hands” by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This quietly haunting story–the first in Anderson’s “Book of the Grotesque” that comprises Winesburg, Ohio–veers toward the American Gothic rather than outright horror. The eccentric Wing Biddlebaum, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,” is noted throughout Winesburg for his nervous hand gestures. He also has a fear of physically contacting others with his hands, and when the cause for Wing’s strange behavior is at last revealed, the end result is a tale of an angry mob’s rush to judgement and the warping effects of frustrated self-expression.

 

3. “Survivor Type” by Stephen King (1982)

Richard Pine, a heroin-smuggling ex-surgeon who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island, goes to the most extreme lengths to survive: wounded and wracked by hunger, he resorts to amputation and auto-cannibalism. Pine’s journal entries continually emphasize the need to take care of his hands (integral to his professional life, and now his means of keeping himself alive via grim surgery), but desperation and madness drive him to bite the hand that feeds him. The ghoulish final line of this gory piece is worthy of the cackling Crypt-Keeper.

 

4. “Minutes” by Norman Partridge (1994)

This short-short is long on creepiness: a terrified wife awakens at midnight to the repeating sequence of a booming slam, a scream, and squelching against the bedroom windowpane. The climactic reveal furnishes a natural and psychologically-plausible answer to the mystery, and forms a cringe-worthy instance of hand trauma. Partridge has written deftly about hands elsewhere (“Red Right Hand,” “Dead Man’s Hand”), but the dreadful imagery/incident here has stayed with me for many years.

 

5. “City in Aspic” by Conrad Williams (2001)

While Williams claims the classic horror film Don’t Look Now as a primary inspiration, de Maupassant’s story cited above can also be detected as an influence here. An off-season hotel security guard keeps finding lost gloves during his sojourns through wintry Venice. The discoveries coincide with a series of vicious murders in which the victim has been left with a skinned left hand. Veteran ghost-story readers will likely anticipate the climactic plot twist, but the fun resides in getting there, thanks to Williams’s chillingly atmospheric prose.

 

Later: A Review of Stephen King’s Latest

Stephen King’s publications with Hard Case Crime have been a mixed effort. The first novel, 2005’s The Colorado Kid, proved frustratingly inconclusive (and not very hard-boiled). 2013’s Joyland, a coming-of-age-type narrative involving ghostly apparitions and murder at a summertime amusement park, made for a much more representative King showing. The author’s third Hard Case novel, though, stands as an instant classic.

Later is narrated by Jamie Conklin, a 22-year-old reflecting back on incidents from his youth. Jamie was born with a very special ability to see dead people, but not in any facile, Sixth Sense type of way. The dead appear to him more solid-looking than spectral (sporting the clothes they died in, and sometimes the fatal wounds they incurred), and can hold conversations with him. This paranormal gift is both a blessing and a curse, helping Jamie and his single-mom Tia solve problems but also leading to dire predicaments. Part of the fun of the novel is the way King carefully establishes the rules of interaction with the dead, then complicates them significantly when one particularly menacing revenant refuses to fade into the hereafter.

The novel presents a seamless mix of crime and the supernatural. A serial bomber, a sadistic drug lord, and a femme fatale in the form of a crooked cop number amongst the cast. From the outset, Jamie insists that he is telling a horror story, and the subsequent narrative gives zero reason to doubt him. There are deadly images here (both natural and supernatural) guaranteed to haunt the reader just as they have Jamie.

King reinforces his reign as America’s consummate storyteller (his mastery allows a complex narrative to unfold fluidly and realistically). The retrospective nature of the tale (foregrounded by the title and reiterated by Jamie) enables King to trail precisely-placed breadcrumbs of suspense throughout. Featuring engaging characters and a compelling premise, the book is a quintessential page-turner. There’s an added intimacy (not to mention a succinctness) when King writes fiction in the first person, and this novel draws readers in with its narrative magic as easily as do The Body, The Mist, and Dolores Claiborne.

Not surprisingly for a novel in which one of the characters (Jamie’s mom) is a literary agent, Later makes plentiful references to other books and authors. Ghost stories by M.R. James and Charles Dickens are invoked, as is Bram Stoker’s vampire opus Dracula. But the greatest treat for Constant Readers is the intertextual connection (as the back cover copy alerts) that King weaves with his own classic work It.

Reminiscent of recent publications like The Outsider and the title novella of If It Bleeds, this book will greatly appeal to those who enjoy dark crime that shades off into horror. Later is a novel that King fans can’t pick up soon enough.

 

 

The Night Stalker at 49

On this date in 1972, The Night Stalker premiered as the ABC Movie of the Week (garnering the highest ratings for any made-for-TV film up to that time). The movie introduced the world to that bloodhound of an investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak, here tracking the story of a series of killings in Las Vegas in which the female victims have been drained of vital fluids via a bite to the neck. Nearly a half-century now after the initial airing, it’s no terrible plot spoiler to note that the perpetrator proves to be not some psychopath with a Dracula kink, but the real supernatural deal.

The Night Stalker forms an indisputable landmark of televisual American Gothic. With Darren McGavin playing a wisecracking, working class Van Helsing, the film imports Bram Stoker’s classic vampire narrative, reworks it and roots it in a modern urban setting. Stephen King has praised the film in his study Danse Macabre (poignantly dubbing Kolchak “more Lew Archer than Clark Kent”), and The Night Stalker can be detected as an influence on the author’ own fiction (e.g., Salem’s Lot, “The Night Flier”). This hard-boiled/horror hybrid has also proven seminal to the paranormal-investigation subgenre, most notably in the case of The X-Files.

With its fine pedigree (Richard Matheson furnished the script for producer Dan Curtis), The Night Stalker unsurprisingly became an instant hit with audiences. The film also holds up remarkably well to a 2021 viewing. Barry Atwater is a frightful, and decidedly physical, menace as the vampiric antagonist Janos Skorzeny. The film’s protracted climax, in which Kolchak searches the vampire’s Gothic household lair (where Skorzeny’s latest victim is held captive as his personal blood bank), is the quintessence of thrilling suspense.

Thanks to the success of the film, the Kolchak character would develop into a pop cultural icon, appearing in a subsequent made-for-TV movie, a short-running but long-revered TV series, and countless works of fiction. Forty-nine years later, though, it is still The Night Stalker that represents the height of Kolchak’s story-hunting, monster-encountering glory.

 

Trains of Thought

The subject of this week’s Lore episode has got me thinking: what are the most unnerving trains to appear in the horror genre throughout history? In terms of fiction, these works immediately come to mind: Robert Aickman’s “The Trains,” Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train,” Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass (featuring that riddle-loving pain, Blaine the Mono), and Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.”  Aside from the film adaptation of that Books of Blood story, there’s also Terror Train and Train to Busan in the cinematic realm. But the most memorable engine of terror might be the locomotive that delivers Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show to Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sounds of that funeral train’s whistle are not soon forgotten:

 The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests  of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, bursting over the earth!

The carnival’s late-night arrival also forms a signature scene in the 1983 film version:

 

Any great train narratives in the horror genre that I failed to track here? Let me know in the comments section below.

Frightfully Timely

An invisible scourge that originates in Asia before spreading devastation across the U.S….

Civilization brought to an abrupt standstill…

Sheltering at home to limit exposure to the dreaded threat…

Face coverings as a new way of (helping to save one’s) life…

No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rereading Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel Bird Box this weekend (in anticipation of the July 21st release of the sequel, Malorie), I was struck by just how relevant the book feels to the crisis currently gripping the country. Bird Box doesn’t deal with the spread of a terribly infectious disease per se, but Malerman’s clever variation on the post-apocalyptic novel (willful blindfolding becomes the permanent norm after the arrival of mysterious creatures whose merest glimpsing induces madness, homicidal violence and spectacular suicide in people) captures the panic and paranoia (but also the resilience and heroism) that have marked the past three-plus months. It dramatizes the need to adapt, and the struggle to survive in a world that is suddenly drastically different from the one people had grown up in (and accustomed to).

The novel affords the modern reader the opportunity to address fears (for the health and safety of one’s family, for example) that our present reality has made quite prominent. Bird Box forms a testament to the psychological import of horror fiction (make no mistake, the novel has the thoughtful extrapolation of science fiction, and all the suspense of a thriller, but is ultimately a work of horror featuring some unforgettably harrowing set-pieces). It exemplifies Stephen King’s notion (stated in the foreword to Night Shift) that “the horror story is not so different from the Welsh sineater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed’s food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in–at least for a time.”

Malerman’s forthcoming novel Malorie was completed prior to the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic, but it will still be interesting to see just how much the Bird Box sequel speaks to this uneasy moment that Americans are enduring.

 

Countdown: The Top 10 Stephen King Novellas

In honor of today’s release of Stephen King’s latest novella collection, If It Bleeds, here is my list of the top 10 novellas King has written to date. (Note: works that strain the “novella” label with their page length and really form novels–Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Low Men in Yellow Coats–have been excluded from consideration).

 

10. “Ur” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)

King has a unique knack for making the wackiest premise seem plausible, as seen in this 2015 (revised) novella involving an uncanny Kindle that can download books from alternate realities and newspaper reports from the future. A fun, Twilight Zone-like read that is made even more enjoyable by the tie-ins to the Dark Tower series.

 

9. “Hearts in Atlantis” (Hearts in Atlantis)

The titular novella from King’s 1999 linked collection is perhaps longer than it needs to be (and goes into too much detail about the rules of the card game called Hearts). But this slow-burning narrative eventually ignites in a moving climax. King perfectly captures the late 60’s (counter)cultural scene and its uneasy legacy.

 

8. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” (Everything’s Eventual)

This 1998 prequel-style novella came as a real treat for fans in the agonizing interim between Dark Tower novels. The “slow mutants” in the opening scene form daunting–and haunting–antagonists for the gunslinger Roland, but are soon trumped by a group of Gothic, unearthly nuns and a swarm of hungry bugs. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” works as a stand-alone read as well as a piece of the greater Dark Tower narrative puzzle.

 

7. “Big Driver” (Full Dark, No Stars)

King took a risk with this 2010 work by delving into the rape-revenge subgenre, but he handles the horrifying subject matter as tactfully and non-pruriently as possible. The writer-protagonists’s full awareness of genre conventions helps steer the novella clear of the cliched and formulaic. King’s skills regarding characterization and plot development are on full display in this tale of Tessa Jean’s grueling transformation into a new woman.

 

6. “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (Four Past Midnight)

This 1990 novella concerning a pair of authors caught in a deadly rivalry forms a shorter but no less rewarding riff on King’s novel The Dark Half. The sense of dread mounts relentlessly here as King builds to a killer plot twist. I just wish he’d stopped there and hadn’t added an epilogue that takes the narrative out of dark crime territory and opens the door to supernatural explanation.

 

5. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons)

While it no doubt has been overshadowed by the stellar film adaptation, this 1982 leadoff to Different Seasons is a knockout in its own right. the entire novella (versus select moments of Morgan Freeman voiceover in the film) is presented as the narrative record of the character Red, who suspensefully relates a variation on a locked-room mystery. The perils of prison life prove even more terrifying on the printed page, but King’s message of hope is also all-the-more poignant.

 

4. “N.” (Just After Sunset)

This 2008 novella is at once a fine hommage to classic works (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”) and a clever and original variation on the tale of cosmic horror. Obsessive-compulsive disorder combines here with the threatening influx of titanic entities from a world lurking just beyond our own (dark gods stunningly depicted by King’s sublime prose). “N.” is an indisputable masterpiece of sinister imminence.

 

3. “1922” (Full Dark, No Stars)

It was a very bad year for the characters in the narrative, but an exquisite thrill for King’s legion of Constant Readers. King updates Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of murder and madness and gives them a thorough American Gothic sensibility (the action here is set on a creepy farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska). This 2010 novella also features arguably the most horrifying scenes ever written about rats.

 

2. “The Mist” (Skeleton Crew)

Ordinary people thrust together amidst an extraordinary situation: it’s a narrative paradigm that King has employed repeatedly over the years, but this 1980 novella furnishes one of the earliest and best examples. The narrative (in which the main characters are trapped within a supermarket as a meteorological/monstrous apocalypse unfolds outside) channels the claustrophobia of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also has all the action and grand scale of a 1950’s style Big Bug film. King assembles a varied cast of Lovecraftian nasties destined to star in readers’ nightmares. (For fuller discussion, check out my previous post on “The Mist.”)

 

1. “The Body” (Different Seasons)

This quasi-autobiographical 1982 novella features many of the key themes of King’s work: the formation of childhood bonds (as good friends face off against bad bullies), coming of age, and coming to terms with the mystery of death. More than any other work in the groundbreaking collection Different Seasons, “The Body” provides evidence of the enormity of King’s talent and the diversity of his imagination. The narrative proves that King does not need to rely on bloody horror or supernatural mayhem to engage and entertain his readers. This Castle-Rock-set piece should land on the short list of King’s greatest works, of any length.