Andrew Pyper remembers being scared by "Salem's Lot"

Author Andrew Pyper appears at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival this week. (Heidi Pyper)

Andrew Pyper writes scary novels.

Six are best sellers, the most recent one being The Demonologist. Three of his books, including his latest, are being developed for feature films.

Pyper is in Winnipeg as part of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.

SCENE asked him to recommend a scary book from his past.

I read a paperback tie-in edition of Stephen King's Salem's Lot at the same time the TV mini-series first aired - a double-decker, multimedia horror sandwich - in 1979, when I was eleven years old. It left me a nervous wreck and prompted my mother's first of many futile book bans after she had to watch me jump every time the doorbell rang or the dog barked for a week or two.

It also, along with another book of a different sort written a hundred years earlier, formed the inspiration for the kind of novels I write today: books that aspire to combine scares with heart, suspense with brains.

Today, as far as monsters go, I can take or leave vampires, though I understand their metaphorical versatility. They are parasites who believe themselves superior to nature (like us!), they have chosen immortality over God's will (they're embodiments of temptation!), they yearn for the pleasure of flesh but will never feel love (they're romantic anti-heroes!).  

If anything, there's too much baggage that vampires have to carry around that prevents them from feeling fresh today (though there's always a way to find new points of entry to tell old stories).

Yet when I read Salem's Lot as a kid - prior to Stoker's Dracula, prior even to seeing the corny Bela Lugosi performances, never mind Murnau's magnificently haunting Nosferatu - it struck me as pretty damned original. And the TV show felt groundbreaking too.

At the time - pre-cable, pre-"edgy," pre-blood-and-boobs prime time - watching a scene with a kid not much older than me being awakened by an undead friend scratching at his window in the middle of the night, asking to be let in, felt like a transgression.  

At school, the kids whose parents let them watch the show (or the ones who had shadowy rec rooms where parents rarely ventured or cared to) compared Salem's Lot notes every day. Could you believe they did that?  And what about the thing with the stake?

What struck me was how exciting it all was. How a shared chord had been struck, an experience of the fantastic that we, kids who lived in a small town not unlike the one fed upon by King's ghouls, went to some deeper part of our minds than merely being afraid. In the scene with the two boys at the window - one mortal and afraid, one immortal and hungry - we identified with the beings on both sides of the glass.

I wouldn't have described it in such terms then, but now I think what left the deepest impression on me was how our experience of fear is at once individual and shared, a community of idiosyncrasies. The reasons why one image or event frightens us more than another is as personal and revealing as sexuality - and often just as troubling and seemingly inexplicable. Horror offered psychological insights that went beyond scaring us. It could do things with character that other, more conventional narratives simply couldn't.

When I was eleven, I probably would have only said what all my friends were saying about Salem's Lot out in the schoolyard:  So cool!

Truth is, I feel the same way today.

(P.S.  That other book that sealed my fate?  Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  But that's a blog for another day...)

Catch Andrew Pyper on September 27 and  Saturday September 28 at Winnipeg International Writers Festival.