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.

Carmilla, and other spooky writings, by J S Le Fanu

“At the same time a light unexpectedly sprang up, and I saw Carmilla, standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.”

Best Ghost Stories of J S Le FanuThis, from J S Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (first published in 1872), is the image that launched a thousand horror films. It’s a characteristic moment for Le Fanu, whose scenes of supernatural horror often burst into view with the force of a jump-cut or a lightning flash, defying reason and rationality — as when, for instance, Justice Harbottle (in the 1872 tale of the same name) looks out from his coach window to see the sudden vision of a gigantic three-branched gallows complete with a hangman whose nose, lips and chin “were pendulous and loose”; or when Schalken the Painter (again, from the tale of the same name) is led into a crypt by the ghost of his former love, Rose Velderkaust, and suddenly shown “the livid and demoniac form” of her undead husband.

Although not his weirdest or most inventive, “Carmilla” is probably Le Fanu’s best-written and best-plotted tale, one of many of his in which a person is tied to a supernatural or fantastic double which they fear but cannot escape, and which becomes a baleful influence draining away their life (the leering monkey-thing in “Green Tea” has an almost Kafkaesque purity in this respect).

Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla in Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla in Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (1970)

“Carmilla” is a vampire story. Published a quarter of a century before Dracula, its suspense nevertheless relies on its reader understanding the nature of the villain well before the narrator does — knowing, for instance, just what Carmilla’s nighttime absence from her locked-from-the-inside bedroom must mean. But calling Carmilla a villain is wrong. In Le Fanu’s tale, Carmilla is not characterised as evil so much as of a different (and predatory) nature. When the father of her prime victim sits there self-satisfyingly saying that God will protect them from the “plague” of deaths currently affecting the local peasantry, Carmilla (unbeknownst to them the cause of it all) bursts out with:

“Creator! Nature! … And this disease that invades the country is natural. Nature. All things proceed from Nature—don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth…”

Later, one character wonders why “Heaven should tolerate so monstrous an indulgence of the lusts and malignity of hell.” But it’s because this is not a good-versus-evil world, and Carmilla is not “malignant” — she’s merely driven by the dictates of her own “nature”, as much prey to her own longings, both emotional and physical, as any human being:

“The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. It will never desist until it has satiated its passion, and drained the very life of its coveted victim. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. In ordinary ones it goes direct to its object, overpowers with violence, and strangles and exhausts often at a single feast.”

Le Fanu’s best moments are those where the supernatural makes itself suddenly known. He combines this with the casual delivery of strangely specific details, details which are not necessarily explicit or horrific, but which worry you, make you think, make you imagine, and ultimately convince you they must be real. It’s this two-pronged attack of surreal details delivered with a cool detachment that allows his spooky images to creep in through the back door of your mind, often by way of your spine’s tingle nerve. Another scene of Carmilla appearing by her victim’s bedside at night is just as cinematic as the one I quoted at the start, but this one makes me think of a different generation of horror films — the weird collage-like video of Sadako in the Japanese version of Ring:

“I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little to the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.”

The effect is weird, and so specific, yet unreasoned, as to command a great deal of confidence that what the author is describing is real, precisely because it seems so odd.

J S Le Fanu, drawn by his son Brinsley Lefanu, 1916

J S Le Fanu, drawn by his son Brinsley Lefanu

The best bit of spooky writing from Le Fanu, though, comes in his “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House” (1861), which mixes utterly believable human behaviour with a sudden flash of tersely-described horror:

“But the worst of all was poor Kitty Halpin, the young woman that died of what she seen. Her mother said it was how she was kept awake all the night with the walking about of someone in the next room, tumbling about boxes and pulling open drawers and talking and sighing to himself, and she, poor thing, wishing to go to sleep and wondering who it could be, when in he comes, a fine man, in a sort of loose silk morning-dress an’ no wig, but a velvet cap on, and to the windy with him quiet and aisy, and she makes a turn in the bed to let him know there was someone there, thinking he’d go away, but instead of that, over he comes to the side of the bed, looking very bad, and says something to her — but his speech was thick and queer, like a dummy’s that id be trying to spake — and she grew very frightened, and says she, ‘I ask your honour’s pardon, sir, but I can’t hear you right,’ and with that he stretches up his neck high out of his cravat, turning his face up towards the ceiling, and — grace between us and harm! — his throat was cut across like another mouth, wide open, laughing at her; she seen no more, but dropped in a dead faint in the bed…”

40th Birthday Giveaway!

To celebrate my 40th birthday, I’m doing a bit of a giveaway. I’m producing 40 booklets of a Poe-esque gothic mellodrama poem I wrote sometime last year, called My Vampire Bride.

Yes, I know vampires have been over-popular of late, but when the undead pay you a visit, you can’t ignore them! My Vampire Bride isn’t a vampire of the Twilight sort, nor even of the reconstructed Anne Rice variety, but goes back to something far more Hammer Horror-ish, all wispy flowing nighties and misty nighttime graveyards. But enough excuses. Nosferatu don’t make no steenkin’ excuses!

The booklet is A6, with card covers and eight internal pages. You can request a free copy, sent anywhere in the world by bat-wing courier, by filling out this form. As I say, I’m only making 40 available; once all 40 have been requested, the form will disappear like a vampire at sunrise!