After reading The Stand, I think the second book I read by Stephen King was The Shinning followed by ‘Salem’s Lot (it would be a while before I ever read Carrie, his first book though). But while I’ve re-read both The Stand and The Shinning several times over the last three decades, for some reason, I’ve never took up ‘Salem’s Lot.
This tale of vampires set in a small rural town in Maine was King’s second novel. What strikes me now is how fully formed a writer King seemed to be at this early stage of his career. Yes, the book is not perfect, it takes a bit to get going, the exposition too obvious and too detailed, but this would become a hallmark of King’s works as well –the slow build up of terror; the plain-spoken people of the small towns he does in his world building mode, people who very obviously choose to ignore the malice and the utter dysfunction that simmers on low just below the surface of the town. It is also here, I think, that King begins carting out a lot of the same ideas he would reuse in later novels, in particular I see the foundations for both Needful Things and IT (he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts) running through this novel. There is also the character of Father Callahan, a ruin of a Catholic priest who vanishes from the Lot after drinking the blood of Barlow the vampire only to reappear decades later in King’s Dark Tower novel The Wolves of Calla. While I can’t be sure, but I think when King wrote this book he had no idea he would reuse this character in those later year; and one can be cynical and say the writers attempt to connect all his books to his DT is a huge bit of retconning, but like all artists, you can never really second guess their motives for doing this. It can be called clever or just an attempt to get people to buy other tales. Also, Barlow is described in the DT novels as a shape-shifting level one vampire.
The 1979 miniseries version of the book is excellent, generally following the same story as the novel, but it was forced to take some liberties. As with most of King’s long books, some characters are deleted, while others are combined; some subplots have been excised as well; scenes are also rearranged and Barlow is based on the classic German expressionist film Nosferatu than the suave, handsome Eastern European creature King creates in the book (which is an improvement. This version of Barlow is probably, as well, the last time on screen a vampire was truly presented as evil, and not some creature of the night who looked like a male model). Also, a lot of the violence and many graphic scenes were curbed –or dropped (the scene where Sandy McDougall discovers the body of her baby boy Randy is fairly gruesome for 1975 [“The small body, still clad in wash-faded Dr. Dentons, had been flung into the corner like a piece of garbage. One leg stuck up grotesquely, like an inverted exclamation point”] and still gruesome in 1979 and even 2017) - due to broadcast restrictions of the period. Still, that version, directed by Tobe Hooper (who eerily passed away the day after I began re-reading this book) creates an atmospheric, almost old-style Gothic horror film of the book which works just as well (in many ways, it’s a cousin to the classic soap opera Dark Shadows). Of note is the scenes involving Ralphie Glick (who is the first preteen vampire ever presented on screen, a character that predates Anne Rice’s Claudia in 1976’s Interview With a Vampire as well as that novels screen adaptation in 1994), the first person taken and then killed by Barlow. Hooper is able to capture the spookiness of the scenes in the novel, as Ralphie floats outside the bedroom window of his brother Danny, trying to lure him into "letting him in" to be bitten. It was chilling in the novel and even creepier on screen. Those scenes alone became hallmarks, immortalized in several other media enterprises, including a segment of The Treehouse of Horror on the long-running animated series The Simpsons
Much like motion picture version of The Dead Zone, this TV movie (which was remade in 2004) seems underappreciated by many for whatever reason. The acting is fine, with David Soul playing the befuddled writer Ben Mears that is light-years away from his role on Starsky & Hutch. Then there is the legendary James Mason, who is wonderfully sublime as Straker, the thrall of the vampire Barlow.
The book, despite the 1970s pop culture references, still holds up in 2017. It may be hard to believe in this day and age of Google mapping and 24 hour news cycle, a town like Jerusalem’s Lot, haunted by evil, could go unnoticed, but there are many ghost towns not only here in the US, but across the world. Who knows, maybe somewhere deep in the woods of Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, and even Maine, there can be a town that holds back time. A town where people only come out a night for some fine dining on anyone curious enough to step across the line between light and darkness.