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.

GLOW: trashing the 1980s?

‘GLOW’ shines a less flattering light on life during the 1980s

Brian Lowry of CNN is delighted that a Netflix series, GLOW, examines the dark side of the decade of Ronald Reagan and hair bands:

The series, about a female wrestling program, has already dealt with sexual harassment, blatantly objectifying women and dismissing them in workplace settings. The new season proceeds along those paths while also tackling homophobia, the AIDS crisis, bulimia, fear of coming out as LGBT and the packaging of xenophobia and racism as entertainment.

CNN

I try to maintain some objectivity here. I am admittedly nostalgic for the 1980s; but the 1980s are also a decade that I remember fondly, for personal reasons that have little to do with broader societal trends. I was a teenager throughout most of that decade, and I lived in the self-absorbed bubble that all teenagers inhabit. 

I’m sure that if you were LGBT in 1985, you did feel a lot more constrained than you would in 2019. There were plenty of openly gay people in Hollywood by then; but yes, being gay was somewhat controversial in environments like suburban Ohio (where I grew up).

There was a fairly obvious, fairly openly gay member of my high school class. He was never physically attacked or outright bullied (so far as I know); but he was very much made to feel like an outsider. He was occasionally teased about his orientation. He has not returned to a single class reunion since we graduated in 1986….One need not wonder why.

On a more immediately personal note: I remember my mom coming home from work, circa 1983, irate and in tears, because her boss had said, “women belong in the kitchen or the bedroom”.  

Her boss had said this jokingly, matter-of-factly, but it nevertheless stung. I often wonder if her life (she passed away in 2015) would have been happier if “political correctness” had come to the workplace a few decades sooner. 

No decade is perfect–including this one. Societal failures, moreover, are not uniformly failures to be sufficiently progressive. Because of lax sexual mores (among other factors),  an unprecedented percentage of children now grow up in single-mother households, with all of the challenges that entails.

Neither my childhood, nor my parents, were perfect. But I benefited from having two married, committed parents, living under the same roof with me. Many children today grow up without that advantage. 

I get what Brian Lowry is saying, but we must always remain vigilant for the bias of presentism: There is a natural tendency to assume that the present age is more advanced, and more “correct” than previous ones, in every imaginable way. History often proves that assumption wrong. 

The Who in 2019

One of my Facebook friends (a former high school classmate) recently posted a photo of herself and her husband at a Who concert.

When you think about it, there is a certain irony there. The Who formed in London in 1964. That was when Lyndon Baines Johnson was President of the United States, and the U.S. had not yet fully committed to the Vietnam War. 

The irony of all this was not lost on my friend, who noted:

“Attending a concert where the band has been around longer than I’ve been alive.”

My classmate, I should note (just like yours truly) is now fifty-one years old. We were born in 1968. So The Who had already been a going concern for about four years when we were born.

And the band is still doing live concerts. Wow.

The Who was never one of my favorite bands, but they were always on my radar. Another irony here: By the time I started high school—way back in the early 1980s—the band’s real heyday was already behind it. The Who’s tenth studio album, It’s Hard, appeared in September 1982, in the fall of my freshman year. Whenever I hear the song “Athena”, I’m instantly transported back to that time. 

I like a lot of individual Who songs. But my hands-down favorite is from the album Face Dances: “You Better You Bet”.

Enjoy the video below, and consider picking up the whole album, if you’re so inclined.

The best rock albums of the 1980s (Ed’s list)

Oh, like this one won’t cause any controversy…I would be better off writing another political post if I wanted to avoid hate mail.

I was very much into rock music during the 1980s (especially the first half of the decade). I turned twelve in 1980, so you might as well say that the 1980s were my “coming-of-age years”. And it is during this time that we are most into youth culture—especially music.

The list that follows is unabashedly and unapologetically a personal list.

I don’t think you’ll find any albums here that are too far off the beaten path. Even if they’re forgotten today (though some of them aren’t) they all had significant followings at the time.

That said, I’ve left off some albums that were popular, but not for me.

For example, you won’t find any Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, or Michael Jackson on the list below. I had nothing against these artists (and I liked a few of their songs) but I was never one of their fans.

Oh, one other thing: I did not include any “greatest hits” or live albums on this list. I wanted to focus on music that was being heard for the first time between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989.

Escape (Journey): Yes, I know: There is nothing especially original about this choice. Released in 1981, this album continues to have a footprint in the 21st century. “Don’t Stop Believing” was featured in the final scene of The Sopranos. I heard the song in a recent episode of MacGyver, too.

Foreigner 4: This is the only truly memorable album Foreigner ever put out, in terms of every song being a good one. But they hit a home run with Foreigner 4.


Back in Black (AC/DC): This album came out in December 1980. I still hear the title track in my mind sometimes at the most unexpected moments.

This is a great album to play when you’re working out!

For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (AC/DC): A year after Back in Black, another great album from those Australian guys.

Third Stage (Boston): Boston spent most of the 1980s on hiatus. Third Stage came out in the summer of 1986, and the songs were on the radio constantly throughout the rest of that year.

There were many good ones—especially “Amanda”.

1984 (Van Halen): The year 1984 was significant because of the association with George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel set in that year.

Van Halen released 1984 early in 1984.

I especially liked “Jump” and “Hot for Teacher”. (I am guessing that the latter song would be considered politically incorrect, or triggering—or something—in these more sensitive times.)

5150 (Van Halen): This was the first Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar in the lead vocal role (instead of David Lee Roth).

Perhaps because of that, 5150 had a different vibe from previous Van Halen albums. More polished…and kind of mystic.

Does anyone know what the lyrics of “Love Walks In” mean? I’ve been wondering about that one for more than 30 years.

Reckless (Bryan Adams): There were a lot of great songs on this one. But it would make the list for “Summer of ’69” alone.

Scarecrow (John Mellencamp): From back in the days when John Mellencamp focused on making great music, and kept his political views to himself.

Permanent Vacation (Aerosmith): At the beginning of the 1980s, everyone thought that this band had left their best days behind them. They proved everyone wrong with this album in 1987. Aerosmith is still going strong today.

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Moving Pictures (Rush): “Tom Sawyer”, “Limelight” and “Red Barchetta” are among the great songs on Moving Pictures.

Signals (Rush): “Subdivisions”, “New World Man” and “Losing It” were among the songs that showcased Neil Peart’s lyrical skills—which were then at their peak (1982). Also, this is probably the only rock album in history that features a song about the space shuttle launch!

Piece of Mind (Iron Maiden): Dark and deep, but still very accessible, this is my favorite Iron Maiden album…and I like most of them.

Eliminator (ZZ Top): Some great MTV videos came out of this album..back when MTV still played music videos, that is.

Pyromania (Def Leppard): One of my all-time favorites, still sounds good after more than 35 years. The album that put Def Leppard on the map.

Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits): I like the politically incorrect, uncensored version of “Money for Nothing”…though it’s hard to find nowadays. Oh, how the finger-wagging do-gooders have ruined popular culture.

Invisible Touch (Genesis): The only Genesis album I ever really liked. But I liked this one.


This is my list. Which albums do you remember fondly from the 1980s (or wish you remembered fondly, if you weren’t around then)? Let me know on Facebook.

Vous Vitamin

Stairway to Heaven: the ‘Heart’ version

I was poking around on YouTube and I found this cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ by Heart–a band I remember fondly from the 1980s.

I’ll admit when I clicked on this, I had my doubts: I mean, Heart…’Stairway to Heaven’?…Really?

To my surprise, however, Heart might actually have improved on the original. (Yes, I know this will seem like pure blasphemy to some of you. But give it a listen before you judge.)

The meaning…if there is one…of the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ have been debated for years. I won’t delve into the occult controversy for now. Suffice it to say that the lyrics of this song sounded a lot more profound to me thirty-five years ago, when I heard them at the age of fifteen.  But a lot of things aren’t as good or as deep as we remember them, thirty or forty years later.

‘Stairway to Heaven’ is still a great song, part of the soundtrack of my (and many other people’s) youth. I’ll always like it.

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