Hell Is For Children: The Unspeakable Horrors of ‘Salem’s Lot
“If a fear cannot be articulated, it can’t be conquered. And the fears locked in small brains are much too large to pass through the orifice of the mouth.”
For those who love Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, who have read it numerous times, and who delight in seeing the finer, frequently overlooked details within its frightening pages brought to life in various TV and movie adaptations, Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is for you.
The author admits that devising a way for Dracula to exist in contemporary times – in this case, 1975 – was part of his inspiration for the novel, and it’s obvious in his prose that he loves Stoker’s original text. That feeling of dread (in the truest definition of the word, i.e., “terror and apprehension”) is omnipresent when reading Dracula and it is evoked in nearly every page of ‘Salem’s Lot.
The sick feeling you get when you know something bad is going to happen but you read it anyway, the sensation of mild nausea and heart palpitations when the words on the page can only hint at the real horrors of what is being described and your imagination fills in the rest, that is what suffuses the entirety of ‘Salem’s Lot. It’s not just the threat of Straker or Barlow (who is the actual vampire); it’s the way that everything in the town shifts seismically, yet with such awful subtlety. Nothing is what is appears to be and what it truly is defies belief. Believing only means it’s too late.
My dread of ‘Salem’s Lot began over a decade ago, in one of those pre-Buzzfeed listicles about the scariest scenes in horror (and other) movies. The image of young, pajama-clad, vampiric Danny Glick, scratching on a second-story bedroom window filled me with an overwhelming fear and it was the kind of thing I would think about late at night. Still, I never watched the TV movies or read the book.
My hesitation hearkened back to a fear I had as a child. I lived in a camel-back house, where two bedrooms were attached to the back of the house by a stairwell. Underneath me there was a den and half bathroom, well beyond the first-floor bedroom where my parents slept. My older stepsister occupied one of the second-story bedrooms for a few years but when she left, I was faced with the awful task of passing the empty room, the giant mirror on my mother’s old dresser facing the door, potentially revealing things behind me that I didn’t want to see.
My terrible insomnia ensured that I couldn’t sleep with my back facing my windows and that I definitely could not sleep if the curtains on those windows were open. What if someone or something was looking at me through those windows? ‘Salem’s Lot was published when I was four and the miniseries came out in 1979. At eight years old, I didn’t know either existed. Thank the gods.
Having only seen (and just last year) the Tobe Hooper TV adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot, I then became curious as to how it reflected King’s text. I’d read Stephen King novels in high school – specifically, Misery and The Shining – and they both scared the hell out of me, the latter so much so that I slept with my lights on and my back to the wall for at least a week. ‘Salem’s Lot didn’t elicit that same kind of fear; this was more of that sickening dread, that all-encompassing feeling that something was very, very wrong in the world of ‘Salem’s Lot and that it would never again be right, and that something like this could so easily happen now and be neither noticed nor believed.
Blowing through the novel in just a few days, I was shocked at how afterwards I once again had that creeping sensation on the back of my neck when I turned away from my bedroom window, once again on the second floor. Having lived alone in single-story, ground floor houses in my twenties and thirties, I was happy to live in a place where no one could break a window and climb in, pick a lock and creep across the living room towards my bedroom, where every sound might have been a prowler and not just an errant raccoon or curious neighborhood cat.
Now I live in a building with a security guard and which requires a fob to enter the lobby. Better still I’m at the end of the hallway and I have a dog who would bark like crazy if anyone tried to enter uninvited. Nothing can get to me now. Except maybe Danny Glick.
“They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hopes of perfect understanding but another child. There is no group therapy or psychiatry or community social services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.”