Rereading ‘Salem’s Lot’ after 35 years

The original hardcover, published in 1975

I recently decided to reread Stephen King’s vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. This seemed reasonable enough, as I had first read the book in 1984. (After thirty-five years, just about any novel or film will seem fresh again.)

I have a lot of nostalgia associated with this novel, as I tend to have a lot of nostalgia associated with a lot of things. This was the book that birthed my adult interest in reading and writing.

In February of 1984, I was a sophomore in high school. During my free period, I worked behind the counter of the school library. That’s right: I was a librarian.

But I wasn’t a big reader. Not at that time, at least. I had been a very avid reader during my childhood years, devouring series like John Dennis Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

Once I hit puberty, though, I developed other interests: football and rock music, specifically.

I did play high school football for a while—if you can dignify what I did with that description. (I was a third-string right tackle, or something like that.) And I messed around with a few garage bands. I can still play the basic chords on a guitar. (But I was always much more interested in lyrics than in music.)

One day, when things were slow in the school library, I picked up a dogeared paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot on a whim, and started reading it.

I was immediately hooked. I checked the book out, and read the entire thing in less than a week.

After that, I read the rest of Stephen King’s oeuvre, as it existed in 1984. Stephen King fans tend to divide themselves between those who prefer his newer style—long, rambling books like Duma Key and 11/22/63, and those who prefer the tightly plotted, shorter novels of his earlier years. Put me solidly in the latter camp. The Stephen King books I most love: The Stand, Pet Sematary, Christine, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cujo, and ’Salem’s Lot were already available in 1984. (’Salem’s Lot, in fact, had already been out for a decade in 1984, and had already been adapted into a made-for-TV movie, starring David Soul as Ben Mears.)

 

There is much about ‘Salem’s Lot to love. Let’s start with the way Stephen King pulls you into the small-town New England setting. I have spent most of my life in Ohio, and I’ve never been within a hundred miles of Maine. But when I read ‘Salem’s Lot, I had a deep, palpable feeling of small-town Maine life in the mid-1970s, when the story takes place.

The horror element of the story builds slowly, and is an organic part of the setting. The horror is embedded in the history of the town, and Ben Mears’s terrifying childhood experience in the Marsten House. When the supernatural phenomena begin to occur, they are believable precisely because Stephen King has already made you believe in this world of ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town in rural Maine.

It starts with the very prosaic, quite mundane details, as seen through the eyes of Ben Mears. It begins as Mears, still haunted by the death of his wife, is driving into the town where he had spent a few happy summers of his childhood:

…and he could see Schoolyard Hill through the slash in the trees where the Central Maine Power pylons ran on a northwest to southeast line. The Griffen farm was still there, although the barn had been enlarged. He wondered if they still bottled and sold their own milk. The logo had been a smiling cow under the name brand: “Sunshine Milk from Griffen Farms!” He smiled. He had splashed a lot of that milk on his cornflakes at Aunt Cindy’s house.

That, you see, is how a master horror writer like Stephen King suspends your disbelief. He begins by investing you in the characters and the settings. Then he introduces the paranormal—the scary stuff.

 

The vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot are old-school vampires. They are spiritually foul, evil creatures who pose a threat to your immortal soul. The best horror fiction involves the threat of death—either spiritual death or physical death. ‘Salem’s Lot involves both.

I will confess a love of the old-school vampires, done in the Bram Stoker mode. I moderately enjoyed Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, but it was a lightweight vampire novel compared to ’Salem’s Lot. A virus-created vampire is not a proper vampire. A proper vampire must be a supernatural, reanimated being. It must recoil from crucifixes, and be burned by holy water. A vampire is not a scientific accident, or a misunderstood antihero (more on that abomination shortly).

 

Stephen King maintains a pretty tight pace throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Like I said, I read it the first time in less than a week; and I read it the second time at a similarly brisk pace.

Nevertheless, the book was originally published in 1975. Since then, much as changed. The reading public has become accustomed to 200+ channels on cable television, Jame Patterson-style minimalist thrillers, and…of course, the Internet, cell phones, and all the distractions of digital life. Attention spans are much short than they were in 1975, or even 1984.

I would like to declare that I haven’t been personally influenced by any of this, but I know better. As much as I admire Stephen King’s “world-building” in ‘Salem’s Lot, there were a few passages in which he spends a bit too many words going in-depth about the foibles and petty hypocrisies of small-town life.

Also, I was fifteen when I read the book for the first time. I was fifty when I reread it. In the intervening years, I have read many novels, and consumed countless television dramas, movies, etc. Perhaps my standards are more exacting than they were in 1984.

 

There is a feeling of pathos that the reader gets from ‘Salem’s Lot, and I believe that this is one of the book’s under-appreciated aspects. Much of the best horror fiction does leave us slightly sad and reflective. After reading a good horror novel, you should be like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “a sadder and a wiser man” (or woman).

Ben Mears comes to ‘Salem’s Lot in order to recover from an existential tragedy, the death of his wife, Miranda, in an accident. What he encounters there, however, is yet another tragedy—this one even more profound and disturbing.

On a personal level, he briefly finds love again, in his budding relationship with Susan Norton. But that (spoiler alert) is not to last. His loss of Susan, moreover, will be closely tied to the vampire outbreak, culminating in a scene that is reminiscent of a scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

I love ‘Salem’s Lot, as this post probably makes clear. My own personal attachment to the book aside, I sincerely believe that it is a great novel, and probably the best novel of the vampire genre yet written.

I despise what Stephanie Meyer and her many imitators have done to the vampire genre. The vampire should be dark and terrifying. Twilight—and the many Twilight knock-offs—have transformed the vampire into a teenage girl’s romantic fantasy. (Search for “vampire novel” on Amazon, and most of the results will be YA romance novels. Gag me.)

But we still have ‘Salem’s Lot. If you like the idea of a real vampire novel, then you should definitely read this one, if you haven’t done so already.

Goodbye, Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren is twisting herself in rhetorical knots, as she tries to talk her way out of this one:

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic contender for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, was facing new fallout Wednesday after the Washington Post reported that on a 1986 registration card for the State Bar of Texas she identified as “American Indian.”

The revelation prompted yet another apology from Warren, who told the Post she “can’t go back,” and change her decision but that she is “sorry for furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship and harm that resulted.”

During a gaggle with reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Warren apologized further for “not being more sensitive to tribal citizenship and tribal sovereignty.”

“I really want to underline tribes and only tribes determine tribal citizenship. It’s an issue of tribal sovereignty,” she said.

Asked why she listed herself as “American Indian” on the form, to begin with, Warren explained “this is our family story” and did not rule out that there may be other similar documents.

“When I was growing up in Oklahoma, I learned about my family the same way most people do. My brothers and I learned from our mom and our dad and our brothers and our sisters. They were family stories,” she said. “But that said, there really is an important distinction of tribal citizenship. I’m not a member of a tribe. I have apologized for not being more sensitive to that. It’s an important thing.”

In the context of 1986 (when people were far less touchy about this sort of thing), this isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

There are many basically white Americans who have been told that they have a Native American great-great-great grandparent back there in the gene pool.  For some white Americans, there is clearly a bit of romanticism attached to distant Native American ancestry. I don’t doubt that Warren heard such “family stories” while growing up.

That said, my great-great-grandmother’s origins in County Cork, Ireland don’t make me eligible for Irish citizenship. Even if Warren does genuinely have long-ago Native American roots (or believes she does), they are a tiny  part of her DNA.  She isn’t a Native American to any significant degree.

This was obviously a cynical attempt to stretch the truth in order to qualify as a minority, and thereby take advantage of various programs designed for real minorities.

Again, this is something that people used to do all the time. One of my college friends was about 1/8th Cherokee. He listed his ethnicity as “Native American” when applying for graduate school in 1990. No one batted an eye.

In 1986, Elizabeth Warren likely didn’t know that she was going to have presidential aspirations more than three decades hence. Nor did Ralph Northam likely imagine that he would one day be Governor of Virginia, when he posed for that ridiculous photo back in 1984. (Or, as he now says, when he darkened his skin for a Michael Jackson dance contest.)

But these are different times, and there is zero tolerance for any deviation from accepted narratives and orthodoxies regarding the politics of race, sexuality, and gender.

This is true even if you’re a Democrat who wants to soak the rich (like Elizabeth Warren), or make abortion legal until a kid graduates from high school (like Ralph Northam).

Warren and Northam probably won’t be the last two politicians to get bitten by the less uptight 1980s, as we approach the election season of the very uptight year of 2020.

Drinking and me: a brief personal history

Happy New Year, everyone! And welcome to 2019!

As I begin typing these words, it is 5:57 a.m. in my part of the world. I’m fifty years old, and I’m feeling great.

Before I started this entry, I rode 40 minutes on my stationary bike, as I do almost every morning

If you spent last night celebrating New Year’s Eve in the traditional way, you almost certainly aren’t awake yet. In fact, you won’t be awake for hours.

And when you do wake up, you might not feel so good.

Been there, done that.

 

 

I was an early adopter of alcohol, age-wise. I started experimenting with alcohol when I was in the eighth grade.

Even in the early 1980s, it wasn’t that easy for a thirteen year-old to acquire alcoholic beverages. This inspired some creative solutions, which led to some embarrassing misadventures. On one occasion, my friend and I used a pilfered key to invade a neighbor’s liquor cabinet. The neighbors surprised us as we were in the act (they were supposed to be gone for the day), and all manner of bad things ensued. (The friend who collaborated with me on this petty crime became an officer in the Cincinnati Police Department, having learned about crime from the bottom up.)

 

 

I was never a heavy, habitual drinker, but I liked the idea of doing something that was forbidden. In the mid-1980s, the legal drinking age changed from 18 to 21. This was technically a state law, but the impetus was the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which withheld federal funding from all states that allowed alcohol sales to anyone under twenty-one years of age.

The law was implemented unevenly, according to when your birthday fell. The result was that among the cohort of kids who came of age during the mid-1980s, some were able to legally buy and consume alcohol at 18, whereas others (often only a few months younger) had to wait until the age of 21.

My birthday, August 9, 1968, fell after the cutoff date, so that I had to wait until I turned 21 in order to drink. Legally, that is.

I recall one outing, in November of 1985. I was a senior in high school. A friend of mine (he was nineteen, and legally able to purchase alcohol) and I went to a family-owned Italian restaurant/bar in an old Cincinnati neighborhood. He bought us two pitchers of beer, which we consumed on the spot with a large pizza.

During the trip home, he began driving erratically. Very erratically. A police officer in the Cincinnati enclave of Norwood stopped us. He made my friend exit the vehicle and attempt to walk a straight line. Suffice it to say that this didn’t go well.

Oh, this is it, I thought. From within the depths of my own inebriated state, I had images of the two of us being hauled to jail. My parents would be summoned to come and pick me up. Not a good scene.

To my surprise, however, my friend managed to talk his way out of it. His mother’s house was only a few blocks away, he assured the officer. And the officer let him off.

Such were the free and easy 1980s, that an underage youth could openly drink in a bar, and a police officer would let two obviously drunken teenagers continue on their way, in a rolling lethal weapon.

(I should note that I never drove while intoxicated myself. But I did ride with someone who was drunk that one time. It was a stupid, jackass, immature thing to do. I don’t excuse myself for that behavior. I am only grateful that no one was hurt.)

 

 

But even by that point, drinking was losing its fun appeal. I was a modestly impressive athlete (I went to the state championships in cross country that year), and I knew that heavy drinking and a high level of fitness were incompatible in the same body.

Moreover, I couldn’t take the hangovers. When I drank to excess, I felt really, really bad the next morning.

On New Year’s Eve, 1986, I attended a party at the home of the girl I’d gone to senior homecoming with in high school. I drank, and drank. And drank. Mostly wine, as I recall.

(Keep in mind: I was still unable to drink legally.)

The next morning, my head felt like a horse had just stomped on it. I went for a run on New Year’s Day, 1987, and that helped the headache and logy feeling a little. But my stomach was still in awful shape.

I was still living with my parents at the time. We went for a New Year’s breakfast, but I was having none of it. My mother, bless her, ordered a full platter of scrambled eggs, home fries, sausage, and gravy. The very smell of the food made me want to retch.

I sat there at the breakfast table, eighteen years old, and thought: Why am I putting myself through this?

I couldn’t think of a good reason. So I then made a decision: I am never going to do this again.  

 

 

Thirty-two years later, I still haven’t. Since December 31, 1986, I have rarely consumed alcoholic beverages at all.

I haven’t been a complete teetotaler; but you could easily fit all the alcoholic beverages I’ve consumed between 1/1/87 and the present in a trunk of a compact car. (To the best of my knowledge, the last time I drank an alcoholic beverage of any kind was in 2002. I was in Detroit on business, stuck waiting for my colleagues at a bar, and I decided to try a craft beer on a whim. I drank one bottle.)

I haven’t missed alcoholic beverages. And it wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve consumed my last one, ever.

There is an irony here, of course: I consumed far more alcohol before I could legally do so, than I ever have since I turned legal, on August 9, 1989.

For me it was never really about the alcohol, I guess. It was about not being told what to do.

The rebooted Magnum PI: mini-review

If you’ve been watching CBS in recent years, you’ll have noticed that many of the network’s top programs are reboots of shows from the 1970s and 1980s: MacGyver, S.W.A.T., Hawaii Five-O.

Now you can add a new one to the list: Magnum PI.

I’ll admit: I was a skeptic. The 1980s coincided with my high school and college years. I didn’t watch much television during that decade. But I did make time for Magnum PI. The original Magnum, starring Tom Selleck, is one of my favorite television programs from my youth.

I was sure that CBS would make a mess of the remake.

I was wrong. The new Magnum PI is just as fun and entertaining as the original.

I’m a conservative, and all conservatives are naturally nostalgic. We tend to believe that things were better in the old days, that previous versions of things were better than the new and updated ones. In this vein, there was a part of me that would have loved to have seen Tom Selleck star in the 21st-century reboot of Magnum. (Selleck presently stars in Blue Bloods, another  CBS staple, as the patriarch of an NYPD family.)




 

But another part of me knows that would have been ridiculous. Tom Selleck is very fit for his age, but he’s now in his seventies. The starring role in Magnum PI is one for an actor in early middle age: 35 to 45.

CBS has cast Jay Hernandez as Thomas Sullivan Magnum. And while Hernandez brings his own style and interpretation to the role, he pulls it off with as much flair as Selleck did before him.

The new show more or less ports the characters and the basic premise over from the original: with some necessary changes. In the original show, Magnum and his sidekicks (TC and Rick), were Vietnam War vets. In the 2018 reboot,  they’re veterans of the wars in the Middle East.

There is one fairly major character change: In the 1980s version, Higgins, the majordomo of the Hawaiian estate where Magnum lives (off the largess of the never seen Robin Masters) was played by British actor John Hillerman. In the reboot, Higgins is still British, but Higgins is a woman (Perdita Weeks).

Conservatives like me are supposed to hate it when rebooted shows arbitrarily change the genders of characters. I don’t necessarily hate this practice in a knee-jerk sort of way, but I’m always skeptical of it, often with good reason. (The reimagining of Boomer and Starbuck as female characters in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica produced uneven results.)  But in the case of Magnum PI, the distaff version of Higgins works perfectly. I think–sorry, Mr. Hillerman–that I even like the Perdita Weeks interpretation of Higgins better.

The show includes lots of fun details that were crucial to the 1980s Magnum, like the dogs Zeus and Apollo, and Magnum’s habit of thinking aloud to the audience. TC and Rick (Stephen Hill and Zachary Knighton) don’t get much character development. But then, they were little more than affable sidekicks in the original version.

The Magnum PI reboot is as good as any purist could have asked for, 38 years after the start of the original series (and 30 years after it went off the air).

Sometimes the networks botch things, but sometimes they hit home runs, too. The new Magnum PI is a home run