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Rob Zombie ‘Lords of Salem’ is trashy fun

Admit it. You sneered a bit when Rob Zombie, the colorfully named, rather scary looking frontman-founder of ’90s alt-metal monsters White Zombie, began the metamorphosis into a filmmaker. It’s OK; I did, too.

But a funny thing happened since the end of the last century: Rob Zombie, director, flourished. His first film, “House of 1,000 Corpses,” was sloppy but occasionally effective, but it was his second cinematic effort, the lovably sadistic sequel “The Devil’s Rejects,” that proved he was here to stay.

OK, he took two steps back with a so-so remake of “Halloween” and the dreary “Halloween II,” but his latest, a witch-fest titled “The Lords of Salem,” drew positive buzz at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. (It opened in area theaters nine days ago).

I certainly never expected Zombie would eventually write a book, yet here comes a brutally entertaining novelization of “Salem” with co-author B.K. Evenson released in time to tie in with the film.

I’ve yet to see the big-screen “Salem” (starring Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie), but as a horror novel, it works just fine. In fact, it’s a fast-paced, occasionally daffy, but always readable piece of trashy fun.

It is not, of course, for the faint of heart, and cheers to Zombie and Evenson for opening with a truly unsettling line-in-the-sand prologue. It is September 1692, and a woman awakens in Salem, Mass., in a bloody haze:

“She struggled against the ropes and screamed once, then again. The knife rose and fell and she felt a line of fire slicing into her side and through it and there was a dull wet sound that it took her a moment to realize was the sound of her own flesh being cut.”

It gets worse:

“The last sounds she heard were the cries of a child. Her child, she dimly realized. What would they do to him? she wondered. And then she died.”

Well, it was nice knowing her. The sequence that follows is difficult to read – and, watch, I imagine – ending with the newborn in flames, pulled in by a horned “demonic presence.” Gruesome? Without question. But also written with blood-curdling efficiency.

After a bit more time in the grim Salem of the past, we leap to the Salem of today, and meet our protagonist, an ex-addict-turned-radio DJ named Heidi Hawthorne. Heidi, it transpires, is the distant relation of Reverend Hawthorne, a man who wiped out the witches while threats of “Satan’s everlasting plague!” were shouted his way.

Heidi is a wonderfully flawed character, and a likable one, to boot, who has the misfortune to unleash the music of a band called the Lords, whose record seems to unleash … bad things.

If it all sounds a bit silly, it is, but it is also black-licorice tasty, with a touch of satire amid the nightmare scenarios.

It closes, appropriately, with another visit from – spoiler alert – Satan himself, and if he’s not quite as creepy as De Niro in “Angel Heart” or as hoo-ha joyful as Pacino in “The Devil’s Advocate,” his brief cameo is more disturbingly sinister than either of those scene-chompers. The character never says a word, and that makes him even more effective.

So Rob Zombie continues to evolve and surprise, much like fellow ’90s icon Trent Reznor, who won an Academy Award, for goodness sakes, for the soundtrack to “The Social Network.” Zombie may never find his name called on Oscar night, but he has succeeded in concocting a viciously pleasurable novel with “The Lords of Salem.”

Plus, it’s sequel-ready, which proves Zombie is not just a smart artist, but a wise businessman, too – which makes him even scarier.

The Lords of Salem

By Rob Zombie with B.K. Evenson

Grand Central

336 pages, $26.99

Christopher Schobert is a frequent contributing book and film critic in The News.