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“They’ll get hold of you,” Mrs. Carmody said, showing us her bloody palm. The trickle of blood was now running down one of the wrinkles from her mouth to her chin like a droplet of rain down a gutter. “Not today, maybe. Tonight. Tonight when the dark comes. They’ll come with the night and take someone else. With the night they’ll come. You’ll hear them coming, creeping and crawling. And when they come, you’ll beg for Mother Carmody to show you what to do.”
I have not had a great history with Stephen King. His books tend to leave me cold, sometimes even bored, which is fatal for a horror suspense novel. Yet for my entire life he has been lauded as this amazing storyteller, whereas generally he leaves me nonplussed (and I am pleased to see I am not alone on this score – although the Nostalgia Critic irritates some people as much as King does myself, so a mixed result there).
Still I persist in reading King, because there has to be some reason for his success and the affection he inspires in many readers. Here’s the thing – I like a lot of the movies and Frank Darabont in particular has proven to be a wonderful collaborator. Apparently he has even convinced the writer to submit scripts for The Walking Dead television series, which should prove interesting.
The story opens with husband and father David Drayton narrating to us the events of July 19th, when an unusual storm hit the community of Bridgton, Maine (of course!). With his house damaged and the family in need of supplies, Drayton takes his son Billy, as well as neighbour Brent Norton with whom he has endured long-standing acrimony, to the town centre to buy supplies.
At the local supermarket Drayton encounters the rest of the cast, including store employee Ollie Weeks, the elderly town gossip Mrs Carmody and an attractive out-of-towner Amanda Dunfries. Feeling an unusual premonition, Drayton has an urge to drop everything and rush home to his wife Stephanie. Then a fog bank swoops down over the town, similar to the one Drayton saw nearby his own home earlier that morning, eerily still and white. A man bursts into the supermarket yelling about things moving about inside the fog, claiming that he heard people screaming. Some customers grab what they can, infuriating the store manager when they do not pay, and run outside to get home. The rest are swayed by talk of something unusual happening in the mist and trust to the safety of the supermarket.
The cause of the unusual phenomenon is never explained, but when night falls the supermarket is falls under siege by a multitude of horrifying, insect-like creatures and tentacled monstrosities. The people within manage to mount a basic defense against the invasion, but it becomes clear that should one of the larger entities outside attack the store they will all be killed. The strain mounts, with some committing suicide and others turning for comfort to Mrs Carmody, transformed into a prophet of doom by the event, demanding a human sacrifice to appease the creatures. Drayton attempts to plot an escape with other sympathetic folks, but the dangers inside and out of the store increase with each passing night.
I was surprised with how much I enjoyed this story. For one, given that I already knew most of the plot from Darabont’s film adaptation, it was pleasing to still be surprised by some of the tricks King pulls here. It is a tight, fast-paced yarn, which owes a lot to traditional suspense stories, where for the most part the nature of the eldritch threat outside the supermarket is left to the reader’s imagination.
I think the main reason I enjoyed the story was because it is far less bloated than other King books I have read. He excels as a writer of shorts, too overly fond of extraneous detail in his longer novels. I suspect the reason for this is the evident influence of more visual horror tales, such as EC Comics and the films of his youth. As a horror writer he carries with him a precursor to the OCD-like insistence on jump-cut gore that today’s fiction demonstrates. Consider the modern game Dead Space – whose film adaptation I reviewed here – which sets out to be a traditional spine-chiller, but is just as twitch-happy and insistent in its gore as any brain-dead horror yarn.
When King sticks to the shorts, he’s far more convincing.
‘Mark…I finally came, Mark. Please…’
Of course. You have to invite them inside. He knew that from his monster magazines, the ones his mother was afraid might damage or warp him in some way.
Back in ’94 our art teacher in school had an unusual idea. He would take his class of teenage boys and fashion them into a mini-movie studio. To inspire us he showed us a series of clips from various horror movies, pointing out how simplistic tricks could be used to shock audiences. This collage of films included John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and finally the adaptation of Stephen King‘s ‘Salem’s Lot, by Tobe Hooper. Specifically this scene. I am pretty sure that afternoon, spent in a classroom with the blinds down, probably scarred me for life.
Last night I could not sleep, so I picked up my trusty Kindle, wandered into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and finally got round to reading ‘Salem’s Lot.
Ben Mears is a writer with three novels under his belt that failed to impress newspaper critics, but has managed to earn him a living:
Well, that was critics for you. Plot was out, masturbation in.
He returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, a small village on the road to Portland that has not changed much since the briefs years he spent there as a child living with his aunt. Ever since he left he has been obsessed with the troubled history of the Marsten House. He hopes to acquire a lease to the long-abandoned building and exorcise his fears of what happened to him there as a child with a novel. Instead he discovers two European antique dealers, Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow, have bought the building. Ben meets Susan Norton and the two of them quickly fall in love. She has dreams of living ‘Salem’s Lot for an artistic career in New York. He also makes a friend in high school English teacher Matt Burke, a quick mutual respect developing between the two men of letters. Ben, despite his troubled feelings over the Marsten House, begins to remember how much he enjoyed living in this quiet community.
Shortly after his arrival, a boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing. His brother Danny reports that just before he vanished, Ralphie described what he thought was a ghost staring at him. Shortly afterwards his parents are sent into even greater distress when he drops dead in hospital. After the funeral Matt encounters gravedigger Mike Ryerson in the local bar, delirious and weak, with a strange story about having passed out while burying the Glick boy’s body. The night Ralphie disappeared, the two brothers had been travelling to Mark Petrie’s house, to see his collection of models and horror film memorabilia. Even as Matt, Ben and a several other co-conspirators come to the conclusion that the strange events in town have been caused by an infestation of vampires – after hours of debate and argument – Mark has already identified the cause and set off alone to face the mysterious new residents of the Marsten House.
If you have seen the tv miniseries, or read the book, maybe you have noticed what I have done above – place the emphasis on Mark instead of Ben, who is yet another self-insert character in King’s fiction. That is because firstly I am quite tired of this tendency of the author’s; secondly I cannot help imagining what this book would have been like if it focused exclusively on Mark. It could have been To Kill A Mockingbird, but with vampires! As it is there is a huge cast in this book, with many voices overlapping during passages, as well as our old friend ‘the omniscient narrator’, weighing in to let us know how the vampire infiltration of the town is proceeding.
Of course this is all part and parcel of King’s project, which is to describe the damning of an entire community. The arrival of the vampires is in fact a judgement on the town of ‘Salem for their sins. There is barely a single sympathetic resident in the town.
In fact for me the most horrific scene in the book does not feature monsters, but a mother punching her own baby.
I find King to be heavy-handed, with a tin-ear for dialogue and yet – I sat and read this book throughout the entire day. That counts for something.
He took another step forward as if hypnotized. The cabin door banged against the support post, a sound as loud as a gunshot. He swung the light on it again, caught a part of a window.
And something else, grinning back at him through the dirty glass.
American horror is dominated by the legacy of Stephen King. Any upcoming writer looking to introduce a plot involving the supernatural is measured against his incredibly popular body of work. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for scientifically reliant horror thrillers like Patient Zero which I reviewed yesterday. It is a different niche for the writer to explore, without the risk of having to measure up to the King of horror.
Nate Kenyon’s Bloodstone throws caution to the wind by letting us know from the opening pages we are taking another trip into the mystical hinterland of American horror. The story begins with the abduction of a Miami drug addicted prostitute named Angel. Her kidnapper, Billy Smith, convinces her that he is being compelled to bring her with him to some unknown destination due to a series of dreams. Angel reveals that she too has being experiencing vivid nightmares of loved ones returning from beyond the grave, but now twisted and evil. The two quickly bond due to this unusual connection between them and soon they find themselves in the town of White Falls, where they believe they will find an answer for the frightening premonitions they have witnessed.
There a disturbed young man named Jeb Taylor is losing whatever loose grip he already had on reality. Having survived the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of his father, Jeb has already lived a lifetime of abuse at the hands of the community for being the son of a deranged killer. Then he is told his father has died behind bars. The prison leaves him what few possessions his dad had, all contained within a single trunk. Jeb’s grandmother begs him to throw away the trunk. She has a dark suspicion as to what caused her son to commit the heinous crime he did. Despite her best efforts, history soon begins to fall into a familiar pattern.
What Billy and Angel discover in White Falls is a town teetering on decades of buried history. The dark tale related in the letters of settler Frederick Thomas who founded the community in the 18th century hint at the true nature of the horror waiting for the town’s inhabitants.
Kenyon embraces the tropes of supernatural horror – a community torn apart by secrets, pagan cults, possession, witchcraft – even the Necronomicon makes an appearance. Actually I found this book more enjoyable than Stephen King books I have read. I make the comparison as many of the reviews quoted on the book jacket mention that Kenyon’s writing resembles ‘early Stephen King’. I imagine this comparison can also be made due to Jeb and Billy’s addiction to alcohol, which even leads to a hallucination in a pub that is not unlike Jack Torrance’s encounter at the hotel bar in the Overlook Hotel.
What is more the characters are realized quite well and while some of the elements of the plot might seem familiar, it is executed with aplomb. Furthermore there is a disturbingly perverse undercurrent to the proceedings. The sexual guilt experienced by Jeb becomes the catalyst for his downfall and the discovered diaries of Frederick Thomas hint at incest and satanic rituals. Then there is the growing paranoia of the inhabitants of White Falls, with each of them slowly becoming aware of the sense of being watched by someone. The town itself sits on a bruise on the permeable membrane between this world and the next.
Plus it is actually scary. Finally a book for this Halloween season that actually manages to creep me out. A bewitching debut.