I am standing up in the water's edge in my dream
I cannot make a single sound as you scream
It can't be that cold, the ground is still warm to touch
We touch, this place is so quiet sensing the storm
Red rain is coming down
Red rain is pouring down
Pouring down all over me
Imagine yourself reading late at night. Maybe it is storming outside, maybe it is merely still and humid, and dark with no moon and obscured starlight. And let's say you are either alone or whoever you are with is sleeping in another room, or another part of the bed. And what you are reading is a tale of horror. A really, really well written one; a tale that sets the atmosphere just right, that paces itself perfectly and that springs a horror on you at just the right time. Something you always found scary. Perhaps something that haunted your dreams from a way back when you were a child and very susceptible to the terrors that came in the night.
Suddenly the familiar creaking of your house doesn't sound so familiar anymore. Adult though you are, the shadows seem more menacing, the comfort of well worn possessions go away, and the unexpected noises startle more than they usually do. It is hard to avoid nervously glancing around; not that you think the monster has really come out of the pages, no, but what if it might have come. There is that little chill down the back of the neck, like rubbing alcohol dripped there with an eyedropper. Then the book becomes very hard indeed to put down, no matter how frightening it is - the monster has to be read to its conclusion.
And then, if the book is really good, you remember that feeling, in a deep down way. In a way such that you can re-read the story, and no matter what the setting still remember that inner feeling. That chill, even if you are walking around in the middle of a hot spring day in bright sunlight, still is there. Or its ghost is. The hot day, the park and the people recede and some part of your mind is back reading your horror tale and utterly absorbed, being a little scared and part of your mind enjoying being scared that way.
Come below the fold with me, if you dare. . .
The above image is the cover, as faithfully as I can reproduce it using my very limited computer graphic skills, of the edition of 'Salem's Lot' by Stephen King, that I first encountered shortly after it came out when I was a teenager. In a way, the image doesn't do justice to the impact of the cover which is meant to be totally black except for the drop of very red blood coming from Susan's lip. And it is Susan Norton on the cover, of that I have no doubt; the doomed heroine and girlfriend of the main character, Ben Mears. . . who encounters Barlow the Vampire in the darkness of the cellar of the haunted Marsten House.
But before I get into the novel, I have to relate why I am diaring this, especially as it is near-Summer, Memorial day, and we should all be thinking of picnics, and grills, and jumping in a lake (we all love our lovely lakes, just like Mitt Romney tells us we should). Well, aside from my contrarian nature which really couldn't care less about all that, I had first read the novel as a teenager, as I said, and then went onto other things. . .although I never forgot it. But I lost the paperback some time ago, and now here I am, a middle aged dude, having seen a few real-life horrors in my time, wandering around a community fair in a park on a bright sunny day not too long ago. In the park was a pavilion and in one part of it, the Capitol Area District Library was giving away old books; really, just giving them away. And on top of a stack I spied, yes, the same paperback version of "Salem's Lot" that I remembered reading. Well I picked it up and starting walking around and reading from the middle; next thing I know, the park, the sun, the people and the lovely Mitt Romney lake had vanished and I was back in the creepy small town of The Lot reading in amazingly pleasureable horror as the vampire comes.
That is the definition of a gripping read: it pulls you in and makes you finish. That is especially the definition of a good horror novel. It should frighten you. Especially when young; it should scare the snot out of you. And Stephen King does have that ability as an author to write really good horror. Yes, there is "The Shining" "The Stand" "Pet Semetary" and "It" - masterful creepers all - but if pressed, I think my favorite is 'Salem's Lot'. If pressed, Stephen King says it is his favorite too: In 1987 he told Phil Konstantin in "The Highway Patrolman" magazine: "In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!" That Mr King could write such a novel (his second one, btw) at the ripe old ages of 25 to 28 only impresses one further and tells us that King possesses both the ferocious talent of a great writer - one who kind of made popular literary fiction 'grow up' as it were - and a deep connection to the wellhead of primal terror buried in all of us, like the bottom of a deep black well in the basement of our mental house.
Here is King, again, on one of the novel's inspirations, from his masterful work on the entire field of horror Danse Macabre.
"Not that the past doesn't supply grist for the writer's mill;of course it does. One example: The most vivd dream I can recall came to me when I was about 8. In this dream I saw the body of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a scaffold on a hill. Rooks perched on the shoulders of the corpse, and behind it was a noxious green sky, boiling with clouds. This corpse bore a sign: ROBERT BURNS. But when the wind caused the corpse to turn in the air, I saw that it was my face - rotted and picked by birds, but obviously mine. And then the corpse opened its eyes and looked at me. I woke up screaming, sure that the dead face would be leaning over me in the dark. Sixteen years later I was able to use that dream as one of the central images in my novel 'Salem's Lot'. I just changed the name of the corpse to Hubert Marsten."I can tell you that the image is a terrifying one in the book, and although the novel is not primarily a haunted house novel, you can see from that wherein lies the germ of The Shining which was. In fact, in The Shining there is a very scary scene of a character confronting the corpse of a long dead woman, lying in the bathtub where she killed herself years before. He not only shudders at the memory of the horror when he sees the ghost; he quickly represses the memory of the terror when the dead lady gets up and starts coming after him.
Which leads us to my preferences and thoughts about the vampire genre in general: It can be freighted with all sorts of themes, adaptable to many timeless aspects of human existence, particularly sexual ones. This was a feature not only of Dracula, the prototypical vampire tale (and also of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Carmilla' which preceded and influenced the tale). But they don't really do much for me, and as a rule, I don't like them. You can get off on the teenage sex of the 'Twilight' series or the "Vampire Diaries if that sort of thing appeals to you, or the nihilism of 'The Lost Boys' if you wish; Vampires have even become cartoon children's characters, like on Sesame Street and selling breakfast cereal. There is even a cartoon of one in my daughter's Clifford the Big Red Dog Reading Book. I however, prefer my vampires the old fashion way: their function is to scare you, like any good undead creature should.
OK, even for me there are exceptions But lets keep focused here and concentrate on the most satisfying frightening aspects of the vampire legend: that they come from the grave, that they hypnotize you and make you invite them in, that they will make you one of them, and they can become as dust and go through small openings, and levitate at will. They are, properly, creatures of the devil, coming from a time before electric light banished the shadows from all.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust
The Waste Land
So let's get to Salem's Lot, Stephen King's contribution to the Vampire Novel, in my view the best and most frightening one out there, the best because it is the scariest. It is sort of a modern retelling of Dracula, set in a rural town in Southern Maine - and here's where I have to pause and praise King, because the novel feels like rural Maine. The characters talk like rural Maine, even if their individual stories sound a bit like Peyton Place. But it doesn't matter, the inhabitants of Jerusalem's Lot (for that is the name of the town) sound right, and it is the fact that the characters are fleshed out as people that gives the horror of what will befall them such punch. Into this town comes the protagonist, Ben Mears, a writer who briefly lived in the Lot as a boy - and has the experience in the Marsten house that King described: seeing the ghost of the dead man hanged and come alive when trespassing in the abandoned house that the dead man owned. But he is not the only one who arrives that fall: The Vampire does as well, although first we only see his creepy familiar, Straker [a familiar is a mortal that assists a supernatural being] who prepares the town for the coming of the Vampire, named Barlow.
This familiar, Straker, charms the villagers, of course, so they do not seem to suspect him when a small child goes missing. His disappearance is written in a way that will resonate with anyone who has ever walked through the woods at night as a child. And soon after that his older brother dies of a very mysterious anemia. And then others in the town start coming down with what feels like daytime flu and fatigue, and evil dreams in the night, and then start disappearing.
Naturally one person in the village learns of the vampire, an old schoolteacher named Matt Burke who is the Van Helsing of the novel. How does he realize the Vampire has come? Because he hears it. He has invited a former student of his, Mike Ryerson, home after noticing him in a bar looking very wan and pale:
He was bled almost whiteLet's have a visual
No sound from up the hall, Matt thought: He is sleeping like the stones himself. Well, why not? Why had he invited Mike Ryerson back to the house, if not for a good night's sleep?, uninterrupted by. . .bad dreams? He got out of bed and turned on the lamp and went to the window. From here one could just see the roof tree of the Marsten House, frosted in the moonlight
But it was worse than that; he was dead scared. His mind ran over the old protections for an unmentionable disease: garlic, holy wafer and water, crucifix, rose, running water. He had none of those holy things. He was a nonpracticing Methodist. . .
The only religious object in the house was -
Softly yet clearly in the silent house the words came, spoken in Mike Ryerson's voice, spoken in the dead accents of sleep:
"Yes. Come in."
Matt's breath stopped, then whistled out in a soundless scream. He felt faint with fear. His belly seemed to have turned to lead. His testicles had drawn up. What in God's name had been invited into his house?
Stealthily, the sound of the hasp on the guest-room window being turned back. Then the grind of wood against wood as the window was forced up.
He could go downstairs. Run, get the bible from the dresser in the dining room. Run back up, jerk open the door to the guest room, hold the bible high: In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost I command you to be gone--
But who was in there?
Call me in the night if you want anything
But I can't Mike. I'm an old man. I'm afraid
Night invaded his brain and made a circus of terrifying images which danced in and out of the shadows. Clown-white faces, huge eyes, sharp teeth, forms that slipped from the shadows with long white hands that reached for. . .for. . .
A shuddering groan escaped him, and he put his hands over his face
I can't. I am afraid.
He could not have risen even if the brass knob on his own door had begun to turn. He was paralysed with fear and wished crazily he had never gone out to Dell's that night.
I am afraid
And in the awful heavy silence of the house, as he sat impotently on his bed with his face in his hands, he heard the the high, sweet, evil laugh of a child -
-and then the sucking sounds.
Heh heh, thought I'd do that. As I said earlier in, I like my vampires scary. Notice the creepy atmosphere, the timing, the description of what terror really feels like; that;s how you write a horror novel.
Anyhow, Matt convinces the writer, Ben Mears of the reality of the Vampire; they manage to convince one or two others and then, again, Dracula-like, this little band forms a counterforce combatting a very real evil that is preying on the town, as the inhabitants keep on disappearing. One of the members of the group is a boy who is there because he manages to survive an attack from the child vampire who had earlier attacked Matt Burke's houseguest. And keep his sanity; how would you take it if you were woken up by the eerie voice of what used to be your friend, floating outside your window, dressed in the casements of the grave and calling for you to join him in his dark embrace for all eternity?
But there is not a complete resemblance to the Bram Stoker novel. No, King is too good for that (good artists borrow, great ones steal, says Picasso and damn right he was). I'll not spoil the novel for those who haven't read it (and I hope everyone reading this does), but let's just say that they don't fare, perhaps, quite as well as the protagonists in Dracula. There are things that cannot be saved, as in any good horror story. And what I will say is, rural towns in Maine are not quite as resilient as central London, even during the nineteenth century.
The dream of reason brings forth monsters
Francisco de Goya
What are the real life implications of fear? If someone asked me what was the purpose of warping my brain with stuff like Stephen King, and Tales From the Crypt, and the Original Dracula (of course) and 'The Night of the Living Dead'? Especially now that I am older myself and when watching modern cartoons with my daughter I have actually been known to say - So help me God, this is true; I hope she'll forgive me - "This bizarre stuff is going to warp your brain, you watch too much of it".
Well, I do believe it differs in a child and an adult. In a child, the sense of fear can be salutory. It opens the mind and I think nourishes the imagination. It provides the child with a rudimentary moral compass, and I think a healthy skepticism (it is generally not as well remarked as it should be that a staple of horror tales everywhere are adults and authority figures not believing the horror until it is too late). It gives a bit of self-empowerment, even if only noting at the end of the scary movie or TV show that you have come out of it intact.
But in adults, the same fear can be corrosive. It can dull the mind and blunt the skeptical facilities. It can paralyse action, and, if it devolves into blind panic, can often cause one to do exactly the wrong thing. And, as events from the Salem Witch Trials (get the resonance?) to the modern Tea Party demonstrate, fear, like viruses, is contagious. It can even make one a follower of the modern day Vampire. I think it significant, incidentally, that the way the familiar in 'Salem's Lot first gets into the town is by bribing the local unscrupulous businessman with a title to a rich land deal. Such is the way in which the Devil tempts his way into the society of humanity
And that is scary. It should scare you and every person in the U.S who still remains human. That someone with the soul-less thirst of a vampire actually has the chance to become President of the strongest nation on earth, complete with nuclear triggers, predator drones, and an army of the brainwashed who will do his bidding. Brrr, shiver.
Sleep well, kiddies