It’s depressing to write this review, as I honestly (though naively) thought there was a chance Lords of Salem wouldn’t be terrible. B.K. Evenson is a talented, entertaining writer, much better than is evident in this book. I thought with him to rein in and organize Rob Zombie’s concept they could pull together something fun. For a good corollary, think of Caroline Thompson’s screenplays for Tim Burton. She was able to take Burton’s visual storytelling and wrestle it into a text that actors and the other craftspeople involved in films like Edward Scissorhands could work with. Thompson served as a translator for Burton, forming his vision into something tangible and coherent. Instead, what Evenson and Zombie end up with is an adaptation that reads like a distillation of Zombie’s script and treatment, without any of the dynamics that could have made this more interesting.
Throughout, we read details of the set design, descriptions of the various objects and setups that might look disconcerting or disturbing on film. On the page, though, these details are distracting. Set dressing works visually because it keys right in to our unconscious need to find patterns and meaning. We see symbols and objects and try to fit them into the jigsaw puzzle laid out in front of us. This lets a visual artist like Rob Zombie misdirect and manipulate the audience. Add in audio and you can disorient your viewers and really take them for a ride.
In a novel you’re working with fewer tools; your goal is to get the reader to create that space in their imagination, but you don’t have the soundtrack or visuals to guide them. For example, to evoke the 70’s grindhouse atmosphere intended, you get descriptions of leisure suits where in the movie you’d simply costume the character. The suit doesn’t drive the plot, it’s an atmospheric detail to evoke kitsch. A character in a leisure suit works in a movie because the second you see him, you know something about his personality. Costuming is a poor shortcut to character in a book, though. It takes up time establishing a look that could and should be better spent establishing behavior. The same problem afflicts the action, as well. Because portions read more like shot setups, the violence described becomes almost clinical. Instead of invoking fear or horror, it felt removed. Add to that the two dimensional nature of many of the characters and I found myself struggling to care.
I don’t watch them as often as I did a few years back, but I still really enjoy horror films. I like being scared in the safe and controlled environment of my home, and really enjoy being in a theater where others around me reacting to what we’re watching together feeds every jolt and scare. I don’t watch it as often now because too much of what I enjoy about the genre is missing. There are too many flat, two dimensional characters instead of people the audience can care about. I could tolerate that, if there was more of the anarchic madness many classic horror movies indulged in. Rob Zombie, as a director, has invoked that chaotic spirit in some of his movies, and perhaps in the film version of this story he’ll find the same 70’s schlock groove he’s ridden so well in the past. This novelization doesn’t give me much hope that’ll happen, and burned me enough it’s going to take serious positive buzz to make me give it a shot.