Review: “If It Bleeds” by Stephen King

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Synopsis:

From #1 New York Times bestselling author, legendary storyteller, and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary collection of four new and compelling novellas —Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, Rat, and the title story If It Bleeds— each pulling readers into intriguing and frightening places.

A collection of four uniquely wonderful long stories, including a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestseller The Outsider.

News people have a saying: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’. And a bomb at Albert Macready Middle School is guaranteed to lead any bulletin.

Holly Gibney of the Finders Keepers detective agency is working on the case of a missing dog – and on her own need to be more assertive – when she sees the footage on TV. But when she tunes in again, to the late-night report, she realizes there is something not quite right about the correspondent who was first on the scene. So begins ‘If It Bleeds’ , a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestselling The Outsider featuring the incomparable Holly on her first solo case – and also the riveting title story in Stephen King’s brilliant new collection.

Dancing alongside are three more wonderful long stories from this ‘formidably versatile author’ (The Sunday Times) – ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’, ‘The Life of Chuck’ and ‘Rat’ . All four display the richness of King’s storytelling with grace, humor, horror and breathtaking suspense. A fascinating Author’s Note gives us a wonderful insight into the origin of each story and the writer’s unparalleled imagination.

The novella is a form King has returned to over and over again in the course of his amazing career, and many have been made into iconic films, If It Bleeds is a uniquely satisfying collection of longer short fiction by an incomparably gifted writer.

Review:

People love Stephen King. They love the older stuff because he was such a good storyteller and he can scare the pants off of the readers. They love the middle of his career because it shows that not everything that you do will be perfect but you have to believe in your craft. They love the newer stuff because it is familiar and comforting. The four novellas in If It Bleeds do not reinvent the wheel, do not bring many new ideas to Stephen King’s realm, and they really don’t hit very hard. But there is something about them, something soothing that is like your grandma’s peach cobbler or a late night radio DJs silky voice. We follow him because he is now the age of many of his readers’ fathers or grandfathers, and he writes like they would tell tales. This comfort in an unsettling time has brought many people back to King and many people that have never left to praise his works even more.

“Mr Harrigan’s Phone”

In the opening story, a boy befriends the eccentric old man down the street, helping him around his house and becoming his friend. There is an innocence to the friendship, which turns a little more deviant once the boy buys Mr. Harrigan a phone. This friendship between a boy and an older man has been done by King quite a few times (Apt Pupil, ‘Salem’s Lot, Needful Things and Hearts in Atlantis come to mind immediately), but it’s still a good dynamic, still a good trope. This is a strong opening story, and maybe the one I enjoyed the most. 

“The Life of Chuck”

This is broken into three different sections. The first section is a climate-horror story where the entire world is falling apart, yet these billboards start popping up that say, “39 Great Years! Thanks Chuck!” with a photo of a guy nobody recognizes. This is probably the strongest section in the entire book. I was sucked into the story so the next two parts were kind of a let down. This is King where a story that he is writing becomes too much. The ending is sloppy and unsatisfying. The first part is fantastic though. 

“If It Bleeds” 

The biggest novella in the group, this follows Holly Gibney, the Finder’s Keepers detective, with her own stand alone case. If you have not read the Bill Hodges Trilogy or The Outsider, be prepared to have all of them spoiled for you. King spends a great deal of time going through all of the cases that he has written her into as ways for her to have information on the current case, like the four King novels that she is in previously are the limit of her knowledge on how to be a detective. I think this is a pretty good sequel to The Outsider and I would almost bet money that this was written as a second season of The Outsider series on HBO. There is the same mystery and the same vibe between the two works. 

“Rat”

A man wants to finally write his Great American Novel so he goes up to a cabin, gets a severe fever, and has a rat tell him that he’ll strike him a deal if he wants help finishing his novel. This whole writer in a cabin story has been done by King a few times, and this lands squarely in a fairy tale kind of realm more than a horror story. 

All of the stories are decent, but they all also seem like there is not much effort being placed. These plots have been used, sometimes repeatedly, in King’s work, and this makes these novellas feel familiar and comfortable. I listened to someone talking about King’s writing, and the person said that King has this style of writing, kind of a folksy, down-home, grandpa spinning a yarn kind of quality to his writing, and now I notice it in every paragraph. I don’t feel like I will stop reading King in the future, but this collection is proof that many of his new stories are the same as his old stories and that there are other horror writers that are telling newer, more interesting horror stories.

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Q&A with Jessica Guess, author of “Cirque Berserk”

Author Pic

After I read Cirque Berserk, I reached out to Jessica Guess on Twitter and asked if she would be interested in a little bit of a Q&A for my blog. I cannot recommend Cirque Berserk enough. She has been more than gracious, and it has been a pleasure to talk to her more in depth about her novella and her website, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. Check it out.

 

Me: Cirque Berserk starts out as nine teenagers going to an old circus/amusement park that is supposed to be haunted. You mention a few times that this is a bad horror movie trope and [the main character] Rochelle’s least favorite trope. What is your least favorite horror trope? Like what novels or movies will you skip completely because you’re sick of it?

JG: I really hate the “black person dies first or needlessly” trope. It’s ridiculous that that one is still being used. Like the 2020 movie, Underwater? Sorry for the spoiler, but that happens in there and it took me out of it. I was kind of over it once I saw that. Also, I love The Shining, but in Kubrick’s version, when Dick Hallorann dies in that stupid and needless way, it felt insulting.

Me: This is one of those stories that is definitely a slasher, with a pretty high body count, but can also be seen as a sweet love story. There are also many instances of important social commentary (including diversity in horror, male entitlement, and the truths of long term partnerships). If you could pick how every reader sees “Cirque Berserk”, what would you choose? 

JG: Is there such a thing as a horror-romance? Not erotic horror like Anne Rice, but just like a genre that is as romantic as it is horrifying? I think Danny sums it up pretty well in the first chapter when he says he wants to bask in the blood and the love. It’s what I did while writing it. I loved the carnage, but love was just as important. That’s what I want people to take from it. And not just romantic love, but familial love, love between friends, and all of that. I know that those two things seem like they’re so far away from each other, love and horror, but not to me. That is, they don’t have to be.

Me: One of my favorite parts is the relationship between Rochelle and Brian, particularly the fact that Brian’s advances are thwarted, and he is frustrated about it. At one point, toward the end, Rochelle says, 

“You thought you deserved me. A person isn’t something you deserve. That’s just what guys tell themselves when they think they’re doing something to earn a girl’s attention but getting nowhere.” Rochelle puffed out her chest and deepened her voice. “Hey, I tell her she’s pretty and buy her Coca-Cola! She should give me a chance even though she explicitly told me no because I’m nice and I deserve it.” (p.144)

This is a very honest and blaming the other person for not being into you is a staple of our culture. I appreciate you writing this commentary into your book. Do you have any thoughts on why we have this belief that rejections can be reversed with tokens and flattering words? 

 

JG: I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, it probably comes from this archaic belief that women are prizes to be won and that sex is something that is owed. Like, if I do this, this, and this then I deserve the girl, or I deserve sex. That’s not how any of it works but yet that’s how we get these weird notions about nice guys finishing last and friend zones. There is this sense of entitlement that some men have when it comes to women they desire and it’s pretty scary that a lot of them don’t even realize the insanity of it. It’s just drilled in. The truth is that a person does not owe you any kind of relationship be it romantic or otherwise.

 Me: I notice that the title of the novel changed from “Cirque Berzerk” on your Twitter account header to “Cirque Berserk” on the final product. Was the original title with a Z instead of an S? 

JG: I love this question. So, early on when I was drafting Cirque Berserk, I needed a name for the carnival and the first thing I thought of was my favorite anime/manga, Berserk. It’s super bloody and a really fucked up (can I curse? If not “messed”) story. It was perfect for a working title and I thought I would come up with something better, but then the title just seemed right when it was all done, so I kept it. Then when the publisher sent me a draft of the cover art, he spelled it with a “Z” instead of an “S” and I didn’t notice until he caught it and fixed it. When I realized, I was like, “Oh man, I kinda like the Z better.” It looked cooler to me. Z’s are cool, right? That’s probably why I didn’t think of it. Anyway, it was too late to change everything, and it was such a minor detail that I didn’t bother even bringing it up, but I still liked the Z, so I kept it as my header art. It feels like the Z version is just for me.

Me: You have a website, Black Girl’s Guide to Horror. The website points out the lack of diversity in horror. Do you think we are starting to do better with recognizing this gap or do you think that it is more of the same? And also do you have any recommendations of authors and filmmakers of color that we should be paying attention to? 

JG: I think it’s a little better. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it seems like it’s opening up a bit. There are more people noticing the absence of people of color from this genre whereas, for a long time, I don’t think too many people questioned it. People of color are asking more questions, or maybe it’s just that these questions are finally being seen/heard because of social media. Where are the black final girls? Where are the Latino vampires? Are there any Asian shapeshifters? We want to see ourselves in the genre we love.

For authors I recommend, I’d say, V. Castro (she has a Rewind or Die book out too), Tananarive Due, Zin E. Rocklyn, and Stephen Graham Jones. All of them have amazing stuff and if you want to talk about prolific, Stephen Graham Jones has like, 20-something novels and a bunch of short stories. For filmmakers, I think we all know to pay attention to Jordan Peele, but there’s also Issa López, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Nia DaCosta, and J.D Dillard. I wrote about Dillard’s movie, Sweetheart, for the website. I loved that movie a lot.

Me: One more question. What are you working on for your next project? 

JG: I’m working on a screenplay about a haunted childhood home. It’s in the really early stages. I’m still plotting.

 

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Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality. Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and MusedBellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. Check out my review here.

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Review: Cirque Berserk by Jessica Guess

 

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 Rewind-or-Die #4, 111 pages
Published February 20th 2020 by Unnerving
ASIN
B0832BF6MQ
Edition Language
English
Buy it here:

Synopsis:

The summer of 1989 brought terror to the town of Shadows Creek, Florida in the form of a massacre at the local carnival, Cirque Berserk. One fateful night, a group of teens killed a dozen people then disappeared into thin air. No one knows why they did it, where they went, or even how many of them there were, but legend has it they still roam the abandoned carnival, looking for blood to spill.

Thirty years later, best friends, Sam and Rochelle, are in the midst of a boring senior trip when they learn about the infamous Cirque Berserk. Seeking one last adventure, they and their friends journey to the nearby Shadows Creek to see if the urban legends about Cirque Berserk are true. But waiting for them beyond the carnival gates is a night of brutality, bloodshed, and betrayal.

Will they make they make it out alive, or will the carnival’s past demons extinguish their futures?

Book 4 in the Rewind-or-Die series: imagine your local movie rental store back in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, remember all those fantastic covers. Remember taking those movies home and watching in awe as the stories unfolded in nasty rainbows of gore, remember the atmosphere and textures. Remember the blood.

 

Review:

The debut novella by Jessica Guess is a perfect one sitting book. The premise is nine teenagers break into an abandoned amusement park, where there was a mass murder in 1989, because it is supposed to be haunted. The book runs two timelines, one in the present (with the nine kids breaking in), and one that explained the events leading up to the 1989 murders. For a novella that is only 111 pages long, there is a ton of story and a ton of characters. When I saw the wide scope this novel was bringing, I was fully prepared to be disappointed in the characters, the clarity, and the resolutions. The truth is that Cirque Berserk is done in such a skillful way that there is a great deal of satisfaction in the entire story arc and the ending. The structure is alternating chapters between characters and timelines, but somehow, the novella is clear, coherent, and compelling.

 

Cirque Berserk on the surface is a fun haunted amusement park horror story. There are multiple bloody slaying, and it has the great slasher vibe from teenage 80s horror films. Beneath the surface, there is a great love story between Rochelle and Daniel, where the nature of long term relationships and commitment to a partnership are explored. Their relationship is almost sweet in a way that juxtaposes all of the violence surrounding them. Another interesting aspect is the social commentary through the relationship between Rochelle and Brian. After Brian is rejected by her, he continues to try to win her affection with trinkets and nice words. The whole idea of being a rejected male being mad at the girl for not liking him is a story that runs deep in society and the history of civilization. Guess portrays Brian’s response to her rejection as a typical male response ingrained in most men, that if you get rejected, you can reverse it. I love how Guess handles this situation, and we need to be aware that Brian’s behavior should not longer be accepted. Cirque Berserk also brings up race in horror, where the characters of color are stereotyped as sacrificial. Rochelle, the main character of all of the characters,  is a black woman, and without spoiling anything, she does make it to the final showdown. This is a great addition to the canon of horror that is starting to break the tropes that need to be broken. Besides being such a good story and good horror novel, I give it five stars for the emotional and social consciousness as well. 

 

This is a novella I recommend everyone to read. There is something great for everyone, and Guess’s skills and talents shines to the point where she had the potential to be one of the leading writers in horror. I cannot recommend Cirque Berserk enough.

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Review: Stirring the Sheets by Chad Lutzke

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  • Paperback: 130 pages
  • Publisher: Bloodshot Books (April 13, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1947522086
  • ISBN-13: 978-1947522084

Buy it here:

Amazon

Synopsis:

An elderly funeral home worker, struggling with the loss of his wife, finds an unnatural attraction to a corpse at work resembling his late bride in her younger years.

A story of desperation, loneliness and letting go.

 

Review:

I had not read any of Chad Lutzke’s works before I read, “Stirring the Sheets.” He was introduced to me through a podcast, “Books in the Freezer” that named “Stirring the Sheets” the best novella of the year. The premise is intriguing. A widower who works at a funeral home gets a body that reminds him of his dead wife. So he takes her home. This seems to be such a great horror novel premise, but the direction that Lutzke takes is so genuine and heartbreaking that I classify this more as a love story than a horror story. I cannot recommend this enough.

 

I do not want to get into too many spoilers so I will discuss the title. “Stirring the Sheets.” Emmett, the main character, loses his wife after 50 years of marriage. He is barely functioning and has not touched the bed since his wife last slept there. He then lays the corpse that he brings home on the sheets, thus changing everything. The body that Emmett steals represents so much in Emmett’s life and healing. She has become the bridge that he needs to move forward with his life. “Stirring the Sheets” not only is the physical changing of the sheets that have now been moved due to his lying the body on the bed but the emotional changing that happens inside of Emmett due to this event. 

 

Lutzke uses the body as a metaphor and as help. It reminds me of the movie “Lars and the Real Girl” where the title character, Lars, gets a sex doll to be his girlfriend. Not that they have the same issues (Lars is driven by a disorder whereas Emmett is directed by grief) but the unexpected wholesomeness of the relationships are reflective of one another. I enjoyed both, and “Stirring the Sheets” is a novella I would recommend to anyone, even those who do not like horror at all. The way that Lutzke writes this story is impressive and motivates me to seek out his other works and read them all. 

 

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Review: The Girl in the Video by Michael David Wilson

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Paperback, 108 pages
Published April 28th 2020 by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
ISBN
1943720436 (ISBN13: 9781943720439)
Edition Language
English

buy direct from the publisher or support your local bookshop

Synopsis:

 

FROM THE CREATOR OF THIS IS HORROR, COMES A NEW NIGHTMARE FOR THE DIGITAL AGE.

TELL ME WHAT YOU LIKE.

After a teacher receives a weirdly arousing video, his life descends into paranoia and obsession. More videos follow—each containing information no stranger could possibly know. But who’s sending them? And what do they want? The answers may destroy everything and everyone he loves.

THE GIRL IN THE VIDEO is THE RING meets FATAL ATTRACTION for the iPhone generation.

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Review:

Michael David Wilson is the founder of This is Horror: a website, publisher, and podcast that focuses on all of the greatest horror writing, reading, and reviewing that any horror fan can dream of. He is the host of the podcast with the same name, and if you are not familiar with the podcast, at least listen long enough for the way that he says, “This is Horror”, because he is from England so his pronunciation of “horror” is gorgeous. Also while listening to the podcast, I picture a thin guy with a beard or goatee, a bald head, and piercing eyes. These are all true, and if I lived near him, I would try to be his drinking buddy.

But alas, I’m not. We barely exist on the same plane. He has a strong reputation after years and years of working in the horror community, to the point where I heard more than one person be shocked that “The Girl in the Video” is his first novella. “The Girl in the Video” is getting a great deal of notice because of the reputation of Wilson but also because it is a damn good little novella. Published by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, “The Girl in the Video” is something you can read in one sitting and want to devour because the story moves so seamlessly. The novella opens with the main character, Freddie, receiving a video through his Instagram account of a girl wearing a Hello Kitty mask. The video changes him, and as more videos appear, Freddie gets sucked into the mystery that quickly becomes a horror. The pace moves swiftly, but there are no moments where the reader loses the plot (which can happen easily in novellas this short). I like all of the characters, and I really like how Freddy includes his wife in the things that are going on with him. It feels like there are many books where the plot is the husband (or wife) hiding the outside drama from his partner, but in this novel, there is none of that. Rachel is his ally from the moment he tells her about it all, and this makes for an ending that is a team against the girl in the video instead of a man against the girl in the video against having his partner knowing what is going on. Fiction in general is filled with marital strife, and it is refreshing to read a story that does not use this as a plot point.

I probably would have never read this if Michael David Wilson was not on the Bizzong! podcast with Mr. Frank. Listening to him talk about his career and the way this book came about was really intriguing. If it was not for him talking about this, I would have passed on “The Girl in the Video.” There are so many titles with “girl” in the title that involve some sort of violence toward that said girl that I have lost interest in this type of story. However. This is not the case. The “Girl in the Video” is a fun, tense, pop culture filled ride that I’m ready to take again. I do not hesitate to recommend this or to pre-order his next work. Or buy him a beer if I ever run into him.

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Review: The Atrocities by Jeremy C. Shipp

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104 pages
Published April 17th 2018 by Tor.com
Original Title
The Atrocities
ASIN
B0756HW2LB
Edition Language
English

 

Buy here:

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or go to their twitter @jeremycshipp and buy a signed copy directly from the author

Synopsis:

Jeremy Shipp brings you The Atrocities, a haunting gothic fantasy of a young ghost’s education

When Isabella died, her parents were determined to ensure her education wouldn’t suffer.

But Isabella’s parents had not informed her new governess of Isabella’s… condition, and when Ms Valdez arrives at the estate, having forced herself through a surreal nightmare maze of twisted human-like statues, she discovers that there is no girl to tutor.

Or is there…?

 

Review:

Jeremy C. Shipp has a talent that does not come along very often. They are able to build a scene and a story in a way that is a mixture of grotesque and beauty. I was first introduced to their work with “Sheep and Wolves,” a short story collection that I read aloud to my then girlfriend. She loved some of the stories but also made me skip some because they were too much for her. I feel like this is how Shipp’s writing works. They are either hitting you with a beautiful but creepy story or are just so graphic that the squeamish skip parts. Honestly a decade has passed since I last read any of their writing, but once I started “The Atrocities,” I quickly remembered that the things that I loved about their previous work and how I was wrong to not be keeping up with their career.

“The Atrocitites” is a novella, only 100ish pages, about Ms. Valdez, a new governess hired to educate the daughter of the Ever’s family, even though Isabella is dead. Her mother thinks that her daughter haunts the large estate and needs to keep up on her studies. What unfolds with Ms. Valdez accepting the job and starting her life at the Stockton House, a Gothic mansion with gruesome statues and stained glass windows, and the mystery of the family and the house quickly form. There is not any room for Shipp to drag their feet with the movement of the plot, so the pace is swift, and even though the story moves fast, I still feel like we get a good sense of the characters.

I spend a great deal of my time thinking that novellas should be a little longer, to move help build the characters or make the arc feel more natural, but in this case, there are no flaws in the writing. Technically this is one of the best novellas that I have read in a while. The way that they use phrases and character traits to signal things happening in the plot makes the jarring aspects of the writing, the flashbacks and dreamlike state and character definitions, much easier to follow. This could be a complicated and confusing plot with all of the switching and moving and shifting, but the skill with which it progresses is perfect.

I don’t understand why Jeremy C. Shipp is not a more popular author. Everything I have read by them is masterful, and I wonder why there is not more buzz around their work. “The Atrocities” is actually a perfect story to be adapted into a HBO series, and I wish that I had the connections to make this happen. I would be the first in line to watch it every week. And I will be catching up on the rest of the Shipp back catalog.

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Review: ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

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Paperback, 17th Impression, 483 pages
Published 1991 by New English Library (first published October 17th 1975)
Original Title
‘Salem’s Lot
ISBN
0450031063 (ISBN13: 9780450031069)
Buy it here:
Synopsis:
Thousands of miles away from the small township of ‘Salem’s Lot, two terrified people, a man and a boy, still share the secrets of those clapboard houses and tree-lined streets. They must return to ‘Salem’s Lot for a final confrontation with the unspeakable evil that lives on in the town.
Review:

My first Stephen King books were borrowed from the library when I was twelve or thirteen. I went through Christine, Thinner, Cujo, and maybe Firestarter before I read ‘Salem’s Lot. These previous books were good, and I was getting into horror novels and movies, watching them nonstop and not being scared by any of them. I mean I enjoyed them, but watching Jason and Freddy and a killer car did nothing to keep me up at night. I could separate the fantasy from reality pretty easily. ‘Salem’s Lot was an entirely different experience for me. I read this the first time back in middle school, maybe my freshman year of high school, so this was the early nineties. There was not a great deal of vampire material floating around besides Dracula and some Anne Rice. There was no True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Twilight, or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nothing as great as Let the Right One In or Thirst existed. So the vampire story in ‘Salem’s Lot was built on more of the classics, like Dracula and Nosferatu. The market was not saturated with vampires, and so when I read ‘Salem’s Lot, I was experiencing something that was not everywhere.

‘Salem’s Lot is built around a mysterious pair that enter town at roughly the same time. One is the writer Benjamin Mears, a local kid who is having trouble with his next novel. The other is Richard Straker and his “business” partner, Kurt Barlow. They open an antiques shop while people in town start to disappear…then reappear. This novel is forty years old, and the plot is pretty simple. ‘Salem’s Lot gets overrun by vampires, and Ben Mears is trying to stop it. What works in this novel is the way the town slowly falls apart. Each day there are more and more people who are no longer out because the sun hurts them. Each night becomes more dangerous. 

I liked this aspect of it the most on the reread–how the town itself was effected. The way that every day, fewer and fewer people were out doing their daily business. King uses the town as the main character, how the disease spread through and killed it off. To reread this during a quarantine makes me believe that this is a prime example of what would happen if there was no authority trying to do the right thing to keep people from getting affected. If there was some sort of public announcement that said, “Stay indoors and don’t invite anyone who is floating at your window into your bedroom,” would ‘Salem’s Lot have been saved? Probably not. The end of the novel is as expected in a town that is overran by vampires; there is no real end. The conclusion is just to run from the problem because fighting would be too much.

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This novel was the first piece of horror that terrified me. When I read this the first time, I could not sleep because I was in a second floor bedroom and I was waiting to hear a tapping on the window, a vampire kid asking me to let them in. After I watched the miniseries adaptation, I was even more frightened. I had celluloid images to go with my imagination. I remember watching the miniseries and asking my dad to watch it with me because I was so frightened. The dread of living in a small town like Jerusalem’s Lot, living in a large two story house, and having a cemetery behind the house, made this novel so effective at the time. 

Rereading this twenty-five years later is a different experience. I enjoyed it, but it did not have the teeth (or fangs) that it did when I was younger. I do not know if it is because that market for vampire stories has changed or if I have read and seen some much better vampire stories. Either way I can appreciate how much I used to be frightened of this, and I think that the rating that I give it now is more on the nostalgia factor than from the story itself. 

 

 

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