Salem’s Lot, the 1979 TV mini-series

I remember being terrified by this when I was a kid. Not the mini-series itself — I never saw it at the time — but the trailer. The trailer was all I needed. The thing that scared me most was a very brief glimpse of this ugly chap, Nosferatu in a blue mood:

Straker from Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

He continued to scare me whenever I was home alone. I’d be about to move from one room to another when I’d suddenly think, “What if I opened the door and saw that standing there?” and instantly found myself making excuses to stay where I was till someone else came home. As a result, the first horror novel I read was King’s Salem’s Lot, perhaps in a (forlorn) attempt to quell the fear — forlorn because it immediately proceeded to scare me even more with its opening tale of Ben Mears’ childhood visit to the Marsten House, and what he saw there.

Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

So, recently I decided to try and lay this particular ghost by getting the Salem’s Lot mini-series out on rental from LoveFILM. I expected to be disappointed, but wasn’t. The basic story (Dracula in small-town America) was handled well, the acting was good (a lot of competent character actors, including Kenneth McMillan as the town constable — who I mostly know as the pustulant Vladimir Harkonnen from David Lynch’s Dune — and of course David Soul and James Mason in the lead roles), but best of all it managed some nicely suspenseful, even spooky, moments. Perhaps because of the limitations of what was then allowed on TV, the gore count is low (to be measured in drops rather than modern-day bucketfuls), and there are very few of those tiresome false jumps every horror film or TV series feels duty bound to serve up at regular intervals (something which lost its appeal for me after a totally silly and irrelevant jump from an aggravated squirrel in Species, back in 1995). The Marsten House interior is an effective set (though it has its silly/surreal moment, when young Mark Petrie opens a drawer to find it full of glass eyes and a couple of live rats — why does he open the drawer in the first place? he’s looking for a vampire, not a pair of socks), and the ending has enough references to Psycho to assure you there’s someone who knows his horror films at the helm (Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist). A particularly good moment of the subtler sort of scare is when old schoolteacher Jason Burke hears an odd sound from upstairs, goes to investigate, and finds the corpse of recently-deceased Mike Ryerson gently rocking in a rocking chair. He stays like that for what seems an age before finally looking up with his scarily gleaming vampires eyes.

Mike Ryerson - Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini series)

I wrote in an earlier post (“What’s the point of Renfield?”) that Renfield, in Dracula, is perhaps a necessary counterpart to the suave count. Where Count Dracula is cool, elegant, eloquent and scary, Renfield is disgusting, mad, pathetic and drivelling, and together the pair complete a portrait of a real vampire as both coldly reasoning and psychotic, cool on the exterior but wallowing in blood and filth in his mad moments. The TV mini-series of Salem’s Lot reverses the relationship. The mortal half of its villainous duo, Mr Straker (James Mason), is ultra-calm, drily witty, cultured, neatly dressed and surrounded by beautiful antiques; the vampire, Kurt Barlow, looks like a dead rat gone blue-skinned and hairless with rot, can’t speak, and is 100% monster.

James Mason - Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

But there are, as in Dracula, other vampires. In Stoker’s novel, these are women; in the mini-series of King’s novel, (at first, anyway, till the whole town goes vampirous) these are children. And this was the second most scary thing about the mini-series: those kids floating up to your bedroom window at night to scratch at the pane and ask to be let in, surrounded by reverse-motion smoke. Which is another way I used to spook myself when I was younger. If I woke up late at night, I’d find myself wondering what I’d do if I heard someone scratching at the window. Well, obviously not open it like these kids do. But simply seeing such a thing would have been bad enough.

Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

It’s been a long time since I read King’s novel, so I can’t say how faithful to the book the mini-series is, but it was certainly faithful enough to remind me of reading the book a good 25-or-so years ago. Granted, it looks like a 70s TV mini-series, but I think that adds to its charm when seen nowadays — just like the HPLHS‘s old-style renderings of H P Lovecraft in their Call of Cthulhu and Whisperer in Darkness films, this is an authentically 70s-styled rendering of a 70s novel, and I’m glad I finally got to see it.

Straker in his coffin - Salem's Lot (1979)

And, I have to admit, that though I started watching the first part (it’s in two hour-and-a-half parts) just before 9 o’clock at night, I had to watch an hour of normal TV afterwards before I felt unspooked enough for bed. And I watched the second part at 11 o’clock the next morning.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

Dracula wasn’t the first Victorian vampire novel. In Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), the court of Chancery, tangled nest of claims and counterclaims that it is, sucks the life out of all those who place their hopes in it (and isn’t Miss Flite’s collection of caged birds, to be released “on the day of judgement”, a little too much like Renfield’s menagerie?). In George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), though, the vampire is literature itself, with the three-decker novel of the day being described as “A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.”

Gissing isn’t talking about the likes of Dickens, but those jobbing writers trying to make a living in a conventionally-minded market where the power lies with the lending libraries first, the publishers second, and the writers last of all. Or, worse, he’s talking about those poor idealistic writers whose ideals don’t conform to the market, but persist with them all the same. Among the former is Edwin Reardon, whose one success as a novelist has led him into a too-hasty marriage with a woman a little too expectant of better things, after which the demand to write another, and another triple-decker, better or at least equal to his one good effort, destroys his finances, his marriage, his hopes and his health. Among the latter is Harold Biffen, whose devotion to a literary ideal (his long-worked-on novel, Mr Bailey, Grocer, takes as its subject “the ignobly decent” — i.e., the trade- and working-classes, unromanticised, and so made entirely unpalatable for the genteel-minded lending-library readership) leads him to live a life of constant borderline starvation, barely able to scrape together enough for a meal without pawning his coat. He nevertheless loves nothing more than to go round Edwin Reardon’s of a Sunday afternoon to spend an hour discussing a line or two of Euripides.

There’s a peculiar scene in Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker cuts the Count with a kukri knife, only to have pound notes and gold coins pour out. The effect is surreal, more like a political cartoon than a moment from a horror novel, but it may get to the heart of it. The vampire in Victorian fiction is, ultimately, money, or rather, the peculiar Victorian attitude to money: that it is far better to inherit a fortune (unearned) than to stoop to the horror of actually working for it. It’s the need to present a genteel front, to pretend to be of the moneyed classes rather than the working classes, which causes so much suffering in so many Victorian novels.

George GissingI first read New Grub Street in search of one of those immersive reading experiences only a Victorian blockbuster can give, and was in no way disappointed. Gissing based a lot of the plot on firsthand experience of his life as a jobbing writer (exaggerated a little, perhaps, to better express his own disappointments and frustrations). He somewhat bitterly lays down the rules of being a writer. Success, for all but the genuine genius (“Oh, if you can be a George Eliot, begin at the earliest opportunity”), is nothing to do with literary ability; it’s to do with money. For money wins you connections, connections get you not just work but reputation, and it’s reputation — social as much as literary — that assures you an income. Because of this, Gissing (who was expelled from university and imprisoned for stealing, which he did to keep a woman he later married — and who later died from drink — from prostituting herself) says a writer must endeavour to remain unmarried till his success is assured. For, as a bachelor, he can accept invites to important, connection-making dinners without being expected to repay the compliment with dinners of his own, something that requires not just a presentable wife, but a presentable home — which all comes down, once more, to needing money in order to make money. If he must marry before that, Gissing says, he should marry a good-natured working class girl, who will have no expectations of living in style while her writer husband hacks away to earn his paltry living. But by doing so, he will of course sacrifice his future success, for a working-class wife will never be presentable, should the writer progress to the stage of having to give dinners.

Cover to Gissing’s New Grub Street by Mervyn Peake

My favourite moral tangle from the novel — and moral tangles are a thing Victorian novels do so well — centres on Marian Yule, the daughter of a fading man of letters, Mr Yule. Mr Yule’s worsening eyesight and diminished reputation causes him to hit on a last-gasp plan to launch his own literary magazine, at the exact same time (amazingly enough) that his daughter stands to inherit a small sum of money — small, but large enough to fund a literary magazine. Or enough to allow Marian to marry the man she loves, Jasper Milvain, the Steerpike of Gissing’s novel, whose cool judgement of the literary market fits into a perfect five-year plan to see him ensconced at the top, by providing what it demands, flattering those who will further his career, and reminding himself, with a cold practicality, not to get carried away with awkward distractions like love. The trouble is, Jasper can’t help proposing to Marian, particularly when he hears of her small inheritance. To make things that little bit worse, Marian’s father thinks Jasper wrote a bad review of one of his works, and already hates him. It’s a perfect little moral dilemma, throwing love, family and money into the same pot, then adding a twist at the right moment to ensure it all gets that little bit worse, and then worse again.

Gissing is brilliant at depicting the Gormengastian gloom of literary London (“the valley of the shadow of books” is his term for the fog-swathed British Library, the centre of literary production), a world of bruised egos, thwarted ambitions, disappointed ideals, and subtle betrayals, all in the name of oh-so-Victorian practicality. He can spin an entire chapter out of one extended exchange full of muted sarcasm and wounded loyalty, subtly shifting power relationships (that between Marian and the father she does all the literary drudge work for being one of the best), and emotional manipulation, along with a little wallowing in pessimism in the name of realism.

It’s dark, despairing, and just that little bit stern — as a Victorian novel should be. But also, so very readable.

Count Dracula (1977)

I thought I’d round off what has been a vaguely vampire-flavoured month at Mewsings with a look at my favourite adaptation of Dracula. I first saw it at school, bizarrely enough, shown over a couple of English lessons, though I don’t know what work we did in association with it. (This puts it in the same category as The Man Who Would Be King, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and a play-for-today adaptation of Z for Zachariah — which, along with a frankly gratuitous school viewing of Threads, served to convince me that the next winter was most likely to be a nuclear one).

So what makes it the best, for me?

Firstly, it’s understated. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was visually interesting in hallucinogenic moments, but so overblown (not to mention unintentionally comic in the awful stiffness of some of its British accents), it’s better treated as an overlong pop video than an attempt to tell a story. This 1977 adaptation, though, is horror done as a BBC costume drama. The fantastic elements are secondary to the characters, and the actors aren’t doing melodrama, they’re doing serious drama. Mina (Judi Bowker) is a perfect English rose; Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) a wildflower of a brasher, brighter, ultimately less hardy variety; the Count (Louis Jordan) is darkly foreign, charming, mysterious and coldly commanding — very believable as the supremely suave sociopath that Dracula is. The English reticence so vital to the novel is here entirely believable (as it isn’t in Coppola’s superheated lay-it-all-bare version). So, Jonathan Harker notices the Count’s hairy palms, but is too polite to comment on them; and Lucy’s fangs, when they start to emerge, are obvious for all to see, but no-one mentions them, either, because why would they? No-one expects her to be turning into a vampire, and besides, it would simply be impolite. The result is so much more convincing as a human drama, and therefore as a horror story.

Secondly, I like its visual style. I have a Doctor Who-grown fondness for the look of 70s BBC drama anyway, with its muted colours, murky videoed interiors and grainily-filmed exteriors (in actual English settings — Whitby, here, is the real Whitby, where of course Stoker went on holiday prior to writing the novel). The few visual effects are mostly used to create a mood than convince you you’re seeing something fantastic — so we have a blood-red and silver shot of the Count when the hunger’s on him, and Lucy dancing in her nightgown in one corner of the screen while the rest shows her being quietly vamped (perhaps representing how one sane corner of her mind has cut itself off from what’s happening to her body). There are some “convince them it’s real” visual effects, and it’s true these have not only dated, but probably never worked in the first place (I’m thinking of one particularly pathetic bat-on-a-string), but they are minor & brief, and can be forgotten (in the way you train yourself to do if you love watching old Doctor Whos — even Genesis of the Daleks has its giant clam scene).

Perhaps all this is possible because it’s a TV mini-series, and so has a chance to linger on character moments in a way that a film, being shorter, can’t. All the same, I can’t imagine a similar mini-series being made today, when usually the slightest hint of fantasy or horror is enough to unleash every make-you-jump cliché and make explicit every possible level of erotic interpretation, however much its power in the original relies on restraint. In the novel, the Count is only as successful as he is in England because people keep all their dreams and fears to themselves; in a sense, it’s only when Mina initiates a free-for-all bout of reading each others private diaries and journals — sharing everyone’s secrets like a touchy-feely vampire hunter’s support group — that the Count loses so much of his power, and is ultimately defeated.

Count Dracula is available on DVD, where it’s divided into two parts. I usually can’t help myself but watch both in one sitting.