Grim . . . grisly . . . grotesque. These are the calling cards of horror merchant Rob Zombie, who launched his career as a provocative rock-metal singer before becoming a film director of such ghoulish classics as “The Devil’s Rejects,” “Halloween,” and “Halloween 2.”
He is now expanding his scope with his first novel, “The Lords of Salem,” with help from B.K. Evenson, a celebrated horror writer. But Zombie, who grew up in the Boston exurb of Haverhill, is the driving force behind this perversely imaginative but well-written suspense tale. It’s about the supposed Salem witches of 1692 who come back to terrorize modern-day descendants of the town fathers who put them to death.
Surreal, tormented visions drip from these pages as Zombie is quite clever in transposing the witches to contemporary times, using the backdrop of a rock radio station in Salem. They come back to especially haunt Heidi Hawthorne, a 37-year-old disc jockey descended from Reverend John Hawthorne (the moral force behind the 17th-century witch hunt), and Maise Mather, whose family tree includes Justice Samuel Mather, who also helped preside over the mass execution of the witch coven known as the Lords of Salem. (Zombie uses some historical facts, though loosely, as he did in changing the name of Hathorne to Hawthorne.)
Along the way, Zombie makes some sarcastic remarks about today’s witch museums and tours in Salem. The DJ, Heidi, doesn’t believe in witches “but being on-air at a radio station in Salem meant that she had to play along with the witch business in the same way that so many of the businesses around here did.”
Heidi is the quintessential rock DJ and drug-rehab survivor. She wears a tattered Ramones shirt and frayed blue jeans to work. Her record collection even includes the first Velvet Underground album. Zombie gets to show off a little rock snobbery — and he’s good at it.
Zombie, who has another music album due soon, also pokes fun at the death-metal genre. The Salem radio station is visited by a band called Leviathan and the Fleeing Serpent, fronted by two Norwegian “black-metal ghouls” in Count Gorgann and Dr. Butcher. But the story really accelerates when Heidi gets a mysterious delivery of an antique wooden box with a vinyl record from the Lords. Heidi and her DJ partners, Herman and Whitey (collectively known as “The Big H” team), air the music and it causes a sensation around town with its discordant, off-key noise with a tribal beat.
The music sets off a string of ritualistic murders of listeners. It’s all part of the witches’ revenge, led by the over-the-top savagery of coven leader Margaret Morgan, whose haunting violin returns from a 1692 bonfire in which a mother and child were killed. She and two of her “sisters” end up kidnapping Heidi and taking her down the hallway of her building to the dreaded “apartment 5,” where all manner of torture awaits. Zombie is really working overtime now. He even mentions that Heidi couldn’t leave because she was blocked by a “bricked-up doorway,’’ an apparent nod to horror auteur Edgar Allan Poe.
The writing throughout is graphic — definitely not for the squeamish — but the pace escalates compellingly. You end up being propelled into a climactic concert by the Lords of Salem in an old, dilapidated Salem theater that hasn’t been used in years. It’s the perfect dark setting for the frights to come.
“The Lords of Salem” novel is being followed by a movie depiction by Zombie in late April. The body count is reportedly lower in the film; and Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, stars as Heidi. One can only wonder what kind of dinner conversation the Zombies had about this story at home. Hopefully there weren’t any bricked-up doorways at the end of it.Steve Morse is a former Boston Globe staff critic who now teaches an online course in rock history at Berklee College of Music. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.