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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

'Salem's Lot

At last, we finally come to the first full-length novel on this blog.

I love this book. Really, it's among my top ten King novels. It might fall, considering there are novels of his I have yet to read, but I somehow doubt it.

This novel shows just how much King grew as a writer between Carrie and this one. It didn't hurt, I'm sure, that he had also written a shit-ton of short stories and four full novels that had yet to see publication. Carrie felt like King but was missing something hard to define. Whatever it was, it's very present in this book.

Known here and there as Stephen King Does Vampires, this book is, as all things King tend to be, more than it seems. Jeffrey Deaver called it "Dracula meets Peyton Place", and that's pretty on the nose. This story is about a small town and all the skeletons in its closet; skeletons that come out to play when a vampire moves in next door.

Ben Mears is a young writer (35 in the novel) who lived in the Lot for a few years as a child. While there, he had a traumatic, possibly supernatural, experience in the old Marsten House, an old, dilapidated building that sits on a hill overlooking the town and has quite the storied history. It was owned by a criminal named Hubert Marsten, who was hip-deep in all sorts of nasty shit, a sort of jack-of-all-evil-trades. He killed his wife and hung himself in the end, and ever since then, the Marsten House has stood empty. Ben's goal is to put his past demons to rest and perhaps get a novel out of it in the process. What he finds is far more than he bargained for.

The Marsten House isn't empty any longer, you see. A mysterious man named Straker and his forever-unseen partner Barlow have bought it, and while they seem to be in town for the mundane reason of opening up a fine furniture store, there's something definitely off about Straker. Soon after his (and Ben's) arrival, two little boys go missing, and one dies shortly after being found. Then others start to mysteriously ail and die...

'Salem's Lot is not just the first full-length novel I'm blogging about, it's also the first on this blog to have already been adapted. Twice, in fact. So, why do I feel that it needs a third adaptation? I'm glad you asked.

First, this novel isn't all that long (439 pages in hardcover), and yet both adaptations were TV mini-series. I don't get it. The first mini-series, which aired in 1979, is three hours long while the second, from 2004, is a bit shorter, but I don't see why no one's tried to turn this into a big-screen production yet. It's far shorter than The Shining, Christine, Needful Things and Dreamcatcher, each of which were adapted as feature films. You wouldn't need to prune much to make it fit a feature running time. Heck, both mini-series seemed to add subplots (or expand existing ones) that weren't really necessary. This isn't to say they were bad (almost needless to say, the first one was better) but both were longer than strictly necessary and both made alterations to the story that would make them impossible to fit into a shared cinematic universe like the kind I'm trying to build.

By the way, before we continue, I've got to share this cover with you. It was the cover used on the edition I bought the first time I read it, years ago. I paid two dollars at a thrift store for it. The cover photo was raised, but otherwise colorless, having been worn black from years of handling. It was suitably creepy and I loved it.
It might lose a little something in transference.

Now, when I started reading this time around, I thought about directors who had made movies about small towns where bad things happened. That's a long list but for some reason I seized on Ben Affleck. I told you there would be some controversy to this post!

Hardly any name out there dredges up more nerdrage than Ben Affleck. I sorta understand why (Daredevil, Pearl Harbor, Gigli) but I think a lot of it is undeserved. The man's a good actor and a fucking amazing director. He has yet to make a bad film, and they're not even hurt by him taking the lead role. Watch The Town and Argo if you don't believe me. I'm also excited about his upcoming drama Live By Night. Fitting title considering what we're talking about here.

His first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, is what inspired me to choose him to direct, and yes, to star, in the film version of 'Salem's Lot. Now, he's mostly done crime dramas up until now, but I am sure he'd be amenable to this, considering he was for a while signed to write and direct a version of The Stand. That didn't happen, but this work is smaller in scope and a very tight script, so it's more up his alley.

Yes, he's older than Ben is supposed to be, but Ben comes off as having more life experience than most at age 35, and I just couldn't think of an actor that young who could pull off the role. When David Soul played this role he was 36, but that was the 70's, when actors looked older in their twenties than actors today look in their fifties. Rob Lowe was 41 when he played Ben in the 2004 series. Affleck is 43 but could pass for five years younger. This is one of those times when I agree the character should be aged up.
Billed second in my version is our Van Helsing-esque character (the novel even points this out), teacher Matt Burke. Matt is a lifelong resident of Jerusalem's Lot (the town's actual name) and has been teaching high school English for thirty years (the fact that he's taught a lot of the younger adults in town is a kind of a running gag). He's very learned, very open-minded and his mind is opened wide when he becomes the first man in town to encounter an honest-to-god vampire. He and Ben become friends, bonding over their mutual love of literature, and the fact that his intelligence and sound mind are unimpeachable is pretty much what convinces Ben that he's not crazy or making up stories.

The character is described as being about 61 in the novel, but in the 1979 series he was played by Lew Ayers, who was a decade older than that, and by Andre Braugher in the 2004 series, who was a whole 42 at the time. I'm always happy to see Andre Braugher in anything, so I can forgive it, but I'm going older still than either of them.

This is the role I'm giving to Morgan Freeman. I said I'd be saving him for something better, and something better has arrived. Now, I almost didn't cast him, because Freeman is nearly 80, and unless someone decides to film this thing in the next couple of years, he'll be over 80. That said, I'm sticking with him because for a man that age, he's in excellent health, still very active, and this isn't a very taxing role, physically. Plus, it makes what happens to the character a bit more believable.

Matt is wise, scholarly, fatherly and the man everyone instantly defers to the minute he's in the room. That's Freeman all over the place, and we all know it.
Does he look 80 to you?
Now for the villains. Richard Throckett Straker is the most visible villain, at least for the earlier parts of the novel. He's the thrall of master vampire Barlow, human, but with some unnatural abilities, mostly in the case of his enhanced strength.

The first two adaptations really upped his role and made him the central antagonist, including (SPOILER ALERT) having him live much longer. In both cases they changed him pretty dramatically from the character in the book. The '79 series cast James Mason, who pretty much played him as James Mason, while Donald Sutherland played him in the '04 series as a bearded, obviously insane man.

Straker is tall, thin, completely bald and speaks with an inflectionless accent that might come from a number of places. He's charming to ladies, creepy to men, and moves lithely, like a dancer. Now, never accuse me of being afraid to type-cast, where I think it will work, and here, I'm sure it will. I chose John Malkovich.
Then there's Kurt Barlow, the master vampire. I confess, this one threw me. Barlow appears in about two scenes before the climax, and both times he's described a bit different, because he's a bit of a shape-shifter and because it appears he's getting younger as he grows more powerful. He's of western European descent, so the entire time I was thinking of Germanic or Scandinavian actors, but none seemed to fit very well.

The series versions were no help because both decided to play with the character; in the '79 version put Reggie Nalder in blue Count Orlock make-up and decided to portray him as non-verbal, communicating entirely through Straker while the only thing Nalder needed to do was hiss and scream. I'm guessing they were trying to get away from the Dracula stereotype, but in the age of the sparkly sexy vampire, an erudite, gentlemanly vampire who is still every inch the monster would be a nice shake-up. The '04 version had him played by Rutger Hauer who played him as Rutger Hauer. But then it hit me; a Germanic expatriate who spent most of his recent years in England, having a very Baltic appearance with high cheekbones but a mixed accent from living all over...

...Michael Fassbender. A German-born actor raised in Ireland? Perfect. Simply put him in a Lucius Malfoy wig and add a few lines to his face to start off with, then remove them until he looks young, handsome and virile. Perfect.
The last of the major adult roles is Love Interest, I mean Fan Service, I mean Susan Norton. I'll admit, this is the one aspect of the book I find a little weak. I don't hate the character, don't get me wrong, but the way her relationship with Ben is written is highly unrealistic. Ben is in the Lot for a month all told, and he meets her on his first full day there, and there's an instant attraction. That's fine. Then they're going to see a movie that very evening. A little fast, but still fine. Then she's talking about having him over for dinner to meet her parents. Umm... Then we learn that, in fact, she has a boyfriend that she's getting a bit sour on, but hasn't officially broken up with. What? Then she's telling Ben she loves him, even sleeping with him and...hang on a second!

See, Susan isn't written like a fluttery high-schooler in most of her scenes. She's actually pretty smart, artsy (she likes to paint), well-read and the only main character to reject out of hand that vampires could be real because hey, she's an adult. She's 24 years old, and pretty mature, except she doesn't have a job and still lives with her parents (both TV series change this), but she's ready to leave the Lot and find her way in the world even before she meets Ben. But then, all her interactions with Ben are all on the level of a high school kid who meets a handsome guy at summer camp. Suddenly she's in love with him, and he with her. Suddenly she's willing to be his, and this is all before she even mentions to her boyfriend that they're over.

Obviously the role is going to need to be written a bit different. Maybe imply that Ben's been around town for several months, instead of one, and write in many more scenes of them simply talking and getting to know each other before they sleep together and he meets her parents. This does happen in the book, but later, well after she's fallen hard for him and done things with him she can't just take back. This approach won't fix all the problems, but the rest can be helped by casting a woman of appropriate age (a tad older than 24) who conducts herself like an adult and is a very good actress. I chose Emma Stone.
There is one more very large role, and that's the role of Mark Petrie. I'm not casting him, though, for the same reason I'm not casting the first vampire victim, Danny Glick; because Mark is preteen, though I wouldn't have a problem aging this character up to about 15 or so. Simply put, Mark is a badass little boy who also still manages to seem like a realistically written 12-year-old. He's one of the first true believers about their being vampires in town, and a nice juxtaposition to Susan, who refuses to really believe until it's entirely undeniable. It will take a very good actor to make Mark convincing, and not either overly whiny or overly Wesley-Crusher-esque. If I was going to cast the role, I'd go with Thomas Barbusca, a young actor with an impressive range, but in all likelihood to have aged out of the role by the time anyone gets around to filming it.

The other roles are fairly minor, but I'm casting them anyway because without them this story loses its flavor. We want to feel like we know Jerusalem's Lot, as if we live there. And that will be greatly helped by putting names to faces. There are too many to do them all, so I'm sticking with the larger and/or most memorable characters.

First, there's Dr. Jimmy Cody, a boyish young physician who was once Matt's student. Jimmy is kinda nondescript, but ends up playing a pretty large role in the story, which I won't spoil. In the '79 series they merge his character with Susan's dad (which oddly worked), and hired a random actor to play him in 2004. I was just thinking about boyish-faced actors and for some reason Donald Glover popped into my head. He's mostly known for comedy, but I think he could play Jimmy interestingly. He certainly worked in my head as I read the character.

Father Donald Callahan is a pretty major character when it comes to his impact on King's universe as well as his contributions here. He's a priest who's losing his faith, not in God, necessarily, but definitely in the church. He's taken to drinking too much and doesn't think of himself as much of a priest. But he knows evil when he sees it. The '79 series all but wrote him out, while the '04 series dramatically changed the way his character is handled. James Cromwell played him, and was a bit older than the character is described (mid to late 50's) but honestly, he could be played anywhere between the ages of 55 and 70. I picked 68-year-old Alan Dale.
I chose John Carroll Lynch and Jayne Brook for Susan's parents, Bill and Ann, but to be honest, they could be played by almost anyone. Bill is described as being a large-framed working man who likes Ben just fine, while Ann is practically a harpy who hates Ben on sight. In fact, the only thing more unreasonable than her utter dislike for Ben is Susan's love-at-first-sight for him. I imagine that neither character is going to get a ton of screentime, but I cast them anyway.
Town Constable, Parkins Gillespie, isn't a huge role, but he does have some significant impact on the earlier parts of the story, plus I love his confrontation with Ben. This sad-eyed, laconic old cop would be a perfect role for Ben Affleck's regular collaborator, Titus Welliver.
Gillespie's colleague and polar opposite, Deputy Nolly Gardner, would be a nice comic-relief character in a movie that could use some levity. I cast James Ransone as this small-town peace officer who thinks he's Dirty Harry.
Ed "Weasel" Craig doesn't have much more character than "town drunk" but he adds a lot of local flavor. Elisha Cook, Jr. certainly made him memorable in 1979, and I think Cooper Huckabee could as well.
Mike Ryerson is a young man who works for the local undertaker, driving the hearse, digging graves and becoming the first adult victim of the vampire's kiss. It's not a large role but it's quite memorable. I wanted a man who looked like a somewhat handsome, but lower-class working man who looks believable in a set of coveralls, but would also look bloody terrifying as a vampire. I went with Sons of Anarchy's Niko Nicoterra.
Eva Miller, owner of the boarding house where Ben and Weasel live, is also a small but memorable role. I chose CCH Pounder but really any older woman could play this part.
The role of Larry Crockett, the unscrupulous Realtor who sells the Marsten House to Barlow and Straker, is another that's rather small but one hundred percent necessary. The first series even expanded his role and had Fred Willard playing him. The second one extended his influence on the story, implying he was sexually abusing his daughter. I'm not sure we need to go that far; he's unscrupulous and willingly aids Straker's getting into town. As for an actor, David Fierro would work well.
Floyd Tibbets is Susan's erstwhile boyfriend, a working-class northern redneck who we don't really get to know before he gets turned. However, in the mini-series his role is merged with another very minor character who gets a memorable scene, and he probably should be here, too. The way he's described made me think of Brad Carter.
Finally there's the role of Mabel Wertz, a sort-of non-character who's talked about way more than she's seen. But somehow the image of an old, fat woman spying on everything and spreading gossip made me thing of True Blood's Dale Raoul.
So that's the major cast, with a director to boot. I think it will make a solid film, but if there's anything else I worry about it's the values dissonance that would come from trying to move the setting up to a modern time. I'd be okay with doing that (and it would certainly make it work a bit better with some later works) but the character of Susan, and her mother in particular, are rooted in the 70's, what with her mother assuming she's going to marry Floyd for no other reason than that they slept together and he's got a job, plus her assumptions about Ben based on the fact that he's a writer, and even just the fact that Susan is 24 years old yet lives with her parents and doesn't have a job (she was a teacher in the first series, a waitress in the second, and there's no reason she couldn't be something else in the this one). Not to mention there are many scenes that revolve around characters not being able to get ahold of each other because they're not near a phone. In the age of cell phones, that's going to be harder to do.

I've also noticed that in King's early works, nearly everyone smokes. That can be easily gotten around, I just thought I'd mention it.

Anyway, the long wait is over; 'Salem's Lot has been cast. In the next little while I'll be holed up with The Shining. I did read The Ledge and I Know What You Need, two short stories that were published between 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, but I'm not sure if I'll be blogging about them. The Ledge was adapted as a segment of the anthology film Cat's Eye, and honestly, that's probably the only way it should have been adapted. I don't think it needs another. But the second one might, maybe, work as a dark romantic drama. I'll think harder on that and update later.


  1. I love that paperback cover. I should find a copy of that!

    This would be a heck of a cast. I like the idea of Affleck as Ben, and I LOVE the idea of Fassbender as Barlow. Donald Glover is a good shout, too.

    As for John Carroll Lynch, he should be in everything!

  2. Thanks. What did you think of Freeman as Matt?

    I'm working on my post for The Shining. I have a lot of thoughts about it and the existing film versions. I should be finished with it by tomorrow.

    1. I mean, you can't go wrong with Morgan Freeman, can you? ("Dreamcatcher" being a possible exception to that rule.)

    2. Freeman did what he could with that character. I'm not sure any actor could really have played him well.

      The Shining post is up.

  3. I just finished reading this book for the first time. I think you've got some good ideas. I tend to imagine faces and voices of either actors or people I know, at least for the major characters. For Matt Burke, I pictured Wilson from Home Improvement because of the professorial and kindly manner. Obviously, that poses some major problems, because Earl Hindman has been dead for over a decade, and doing your casting based on a 20-year-old sitcom where the running gag is that you never see the guy's face. Anyway, I think you're onto something with Morgan Freeman. Somehow, he could probably still pass for early-to-mid sixties. Loved the ideas of Fassbender, Malkovich, Glover, and Affleck (at least as director). Not sure about Emma Stone, or John Carroll Lynch, but that one might just be that I associate him mostly with Zodiac (which I think was the picture you used, too). I think both Matt and Dr. Cody would work with black actors, but I'm not convinced that Eva Miller would, especially if you keep the 70's setting.

    My two cents on a couple of the minor characters: Margo Martindale as Mabel, and since we're on a Wire kick, Michael Kostroff could work well as Larry Crockett, who coincidentally looks a lot like the actor you chose. Ransone would be a brilliant Nolly, by the way. Most of The Wire's cast has remained pretty anonymous, so I didn't know the actor's name, but I thought, "that looks an awful lot like Ziggy". Anyway, well done.

    1. Yeah, Kostroff would be equally good as Crockett, no question. I'm sure I'll use him as another slimy character down the line somewhere. I lol'd a bit when you said you thought my Nolly actor looked like Ziggy. To be honest, I pictured Nolly as being Ziggy if Ziggy was a cop.

      I don't think the 70's setting is all that important here, which is one reason I was okay with Eva being black. Also, Margo Martindale is a great choice for Mabel, but she's such a good actress that I want her for a larger role down the line.

    2. Yeah, she's kind of come into her own in her sixties, winning an Emmy for Justified, then a large role on The Americans, and the truth is, she's brought a lot to anything she's been in for years. I can't think of an immediate spot for her, but King's universe is big, and I've read probably less than a third of his bibliography (although The Stand and Needful Things were both whoppers).

    3. There's much I also have yet to read. That's one of the reasons I decided to read or re-read everything of his, both for this blog and just for me.

      I'm sure there's a role for her in there somewhere.

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  5. Some more great picks! Love this book too. That window scene curdled my guts!

    Would also love to see a followup - book or movie - about Ben Mears and Mark Petrie out in the world vamp hunting.

  6. Funny side reference -- Hauer apparently caused some real problems while filming the 2004 remake. He showed up without having memorized his lines, which was mostly workable, but, worse even than that, he had rehearsed his own Barlow-staked-in-the-coffin soliloquy, about how he "used to be a cowboy." Big fight erupted, and Rutger was, eventually, begrudgingly, convinced to speak the lines as originally scripted. Rob Lowe had cue-cards either on his shoulder or behind his head. They eventually made it work; Lowe retells the tale in his biography, and his tone pretty clearly suggests it was the worst/least-professional thing he ever encountered.