The plot of Rob Zombie’s new novel is quite straightforward. A coven of witches is discovered in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Two civic leaders, the Reverend John Hawthorne and Justice Samuel Mather, assisted by the Magnus brothers, take it upon themselves to capture, try and convict, and execute the coven, headed by Margaret Morgen. She and her followers are summarily tortured and condemned to excruciating — and lovingly described — torments before released by death. With her final words, Morgan curses the witchfinders, the town of Salem, and their progeny, declaring that their descendants will be used, willingly or not, to bring about the return of their Master.
Cut to Salem, present day. We are introduced to Heide Hawthorne, a descendent of John Hawthorne (apparently through her father). She is a DJ for the local rock station and, as part of her job, plays a mysterious black-metal recording sent to her office by a group that calls itself “The Lords of Salem.” She unwittingly participates in fulfilling the long-forgotten curse as she plays the record on the air, triggering a clamorous and wildly positive feedback from female listeners (males uniformly hate the music) and — without her realizing it — truly horrific responses from several women … not coincidentally descendants of Mather and the Magnuses.
At the same time, Heide’s life takes a number of alarming turns, including dreams that may or may not be real; hideous experiences — or perhaps hallucinations — in an empty apartment down the hall; growing inability to control her need for drugs to help her make sense of what is happening; and a curiously ominous growing relationship with her landlady Lacy and Lacy’s two sisters … reminders, perhaps, of Shakespeare’s three weird sisters at the beginning of Macbeth (a 17th-century response to the witchcraft scare), with just a touch of Ruth Gordon’s Minnie Castevet from Rosemary’s Baby.
The supporting cast — primarily Heide’s co-workers at the radio station and an antiquarian expert on the original witchcraft trials — are either ciphers or innocents … at least as far as the curse on Salem is concerned. They are essentially present to suggest how far removed from human community Heide becomes as a result of her experiences and how little anyone can do to forestall what is happening. As Lacy says when confronting the dying antiquarian, no matter what notes he or anyone else takes, what efforts he makes to connect the dots and discover the truth, he is, and has been from the beginning, powerless.
On a readerly level, The Lords of Salem is solidly written. I don’t know how much B.K. Everson contributed to the actual text, but the result of the collaboration in general succeeds. There is a bit of an anachronistic moment on the first page when the witch’s intended victim wonders fleeting if she were drunk, then remembers that she has been abstaining out of fear of alcohol’s effects on her unborn baby — this, in 1692, when drinking was standard for almost everyone since the water was usually more immediately harmful than beer. Otherwise, there is nothing exceptionable in the text; readers coming to experience Rob Zombie’s cinematic imagination reproduced in prose will find blood and gore aplenty, with generous helpings of mayhem and murder.
Which leads to one of two concerns about the novel, both conceptual rather than directly literary.
First, The Lords of Salem is a film tie-in; the movie will be released shortly after the book, but presumably it is in its near-final form. What results, a film-into-novel, is a mode of presentation that, particularly for horror, makes it difficult to recreate the suspense of film. The linear nature of written words gives advance warning of impending horrors, whereas a film can abruptly present them, sustained by lighting, music, camera angles, all perceived within a fraction of a second. The book must, as it were, stop the action and describe, in as much detail as possible. The first chapter is devoted to killing a pregnant woman (told from her point of view). The second spends even more time invoking the Dark Lord and, again in great detail, witnessing the destruction of the newborn. As a result, when the book tries to reproduce the same effects that readers anticipate in a film, it seems to drag.
Second, the novel falls into a logical trap almost endemic to horror tales concerning witches, vampires, and demons. In the late 17th-century, Sir Thomas Browne, one of the last supporters of witch hunting, defended his belief in witchcraft with what has become the apothegm “No witches, no God.” That is, if there were no witches, the avatars of all things evil, then there would be no need for God. Since the former exist, he argued, so must the latter.
By removing half of Browne’s equation — reducing it to simple “no God” — many contemporary horror writers inadvertently undercut the power of their stories. In The Lords of Satan, there is in fact no true opposition to the witches’ plans, simple the incremental exploitation of evil. They recite cant phrasing from stereotypical Satan-worship, but without the existence (at least in the novel) of a God-figure, the words become meaningless. There is no threat to them for blaspheming; therefore there is neither strength nor courage in their apparent defiance. In the opening books of Paradise Lost, one of the most influential works of the latter 17th century, Satan’s rebellion and his vaunting words challenging and repudiating God only work if readers believe that Satan believes in such a being and that He is capable of inflicting far worse that Satan already suffers. Remove God, and Satan’s magnificent words epitomize empty rhetoric.
The Lords of Salem is well enough written and is probably faithful to the essence of the film to come. For me, however, it remains curiously flat and unconvincing.