Ginger Nuts of Horror
My first year at Junior High was when those girl books started showing up. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to them. The cover was some flowery business with a picture of a girl on it, the title was a girl’s name, and the only people I saw carrying it around were girls. Even the tag line on the cover talked about “a girl with a frightening power”. The author was a guy, I noted, but everything about the book screamed Not For Me.
Comic books were really my sort of thing. They were my primary outlet for horror stories at the time. Marvel was doing some great stuff with Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night, and over at DC I had the House of Mystery to keep me up at night. TV offered a few nuggets of quality terror here and there, but they were either short-lived series like the Night Stalker or NBC’s Ghost Story, or one-shot movies of the week like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or Trilogy of Terror. This was some top-drawer stuff, but it wasn’t nearly ubiquitous enough. If I wanted goosebumps in bulk, I had to turn to the classics: the Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, or the marathons of Universal monster movies our local independent station showed on Halloween.
As Junior High drew to a close, I saw that guy had come out with another one of those girl books. This one also had a girl’s face on the cover, though with an intriguing drop of blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. It had a weird title, but I knew that Salem was where all those witches lived, so once again it had to be for girls.
It wasn’t until I heard they were making a TV movie of it that I realized ‘Salem’s Lot was about vampires. I loved vampires. At least, I loved the idea of vampires. I’ve long been fascinated by those monsters who play by the rules. Demons and witches held no interest for me, because their capabilities and weaknesses were never well defined, and their motivations were inconsistent at best. With vampires you knew where you stood. They wanted to drink your blood, and if you weren’t on board with that, your only options were stakes, sunlight or decapitation. A vampire story was always a kind of game. How could you use their inability to cast a reflection against them? If some fool did invite one inside, was there a way to get it out again? The crystal clear delineation of what vampires could and could not do made me feel like I could write a book about them myself.
Alas, the 70s were not kind to vampires. The only new material I was exposed to on television were the Hammer films and Dark Shadows. These were plodding, talky exercises in frustration, where more time was spent cavorting in the English countryside than in the crypt. I still had the Universal films to fall back on, but these were dusty, creaking tales set in gloomy castles in countries that I wasn’t sure existed anymore. Even Kolchak fought his monsters in Las Vegas, which was far enough away from my suburban tract home that it may as well have been Transylvania. By my Freshman year of High School I was ready for a new take on the genre, and armed with assurances from my classmates that it was “pretty good, really,” I cracked the binding of a Stephen King book for the first time.
I wasn’t quite sure what was going on at first. There were no Romanian castles here; no English manor houses. Jerusalem’s Lot was just a town, kind of like the town I lived in. And there were no vampire hunters with their tweed hunting jackets and oversized medical bags full of holy water. The characters here were just the ordinary residents of a town like my own. Some of them were even kids, about my own age. They were nobody special.
It took me a good, long while to figure out why I had such a hard time closing this book at night. These nobody special characters in this nothing special town didn’t rob the story of its terror; they intensified it. The events in this story weren’t happening half a world away; these creatures could literally be right outside my window. King was introducing horror into a whole new world—my own. He was taking a drop of the extraordinary, mixing it into a cauldron of the mundane, and seeing what happened.
And then there were the sucking sounds! If the set-up of ‘Salem’s Lot was masterful, the execution was nothing short of genius. The monsters in this story are barbaric, animalistic fiends driven by bloodlust, not old-world sophisticates or lovestruck poseurs. They are terrifying in the simplicity of their desires, just as the language King employs is terrifying in its economy. I’ve been reading horror novels for over thirty years, and I’ve never seen any description of carnage and murder that chilled my bones more effectively than “and then the sucking sounds.”
‘Salem’s Lot was my entry point into the world of literary horror, and no book before or since has better encapsulated what defines a quality tale of terror for me. First, it needs to be accessible. A burial ground brings the dead back to life? Great, but put it in my backyard. Zombies are on the rampage? Awesome! Let them overrun the local mall. A house is haunted? Cool, but make it a suburban split-level, not some gloomy museum piece.
Second, I want a well-defined playing field. I want monsters that know what they want and stick to it. I want to know what they can do, and how to get rid of them. Maybe not right away, but early enough in the game that I can play along. More than anything else, I want my horror stories to be fun, and I rarely have fun when I don’t know the rules.
Stephen King was a godsend for horror fans. Not only has he produced enough material on his own to keep the most dedicated reader entertained for years, he’s led countless others like myself to rich veins of terror waiting to be mined—both from those he inspired and those from whom he drew inspiration. King led me to McCammon, who led me to Koontz, who led me to Barker. The dawn of the 21st century brought me to Christopher Moore, and by the time I had devoured his entire catalogue, I found myself wondering who would be next in the daisy chain.
It took a few years to realize that maybe it could be me.
That thing on the porch won’t go away.
I called the police, but I don’t think they’re coming. They've got their hands full with the Manhattan quarantine, so they can’t waste their time on a nothing little town like Otterkill.
That means it's up to me and the neighbors, and there are fewer of us every day. Fewer of us, and more of them. Every person we lose is one more monster to deal with. The Spiller family, the folks from the Retirement Center, even the Mathises' Rottweiler are now stalking the streets, waiting for someone to get too close. A single touch is all it takes.
I don’t know which of my neighbors became the thing on the porch, and I suppose it doesn't matter. I've got to get out of here, but the Tarbabies are already showing up in Albany, and Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. There’s nowhere left to run, and there’s no point in hiding. Not when the shadows themselves are after you.
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