A grungy man with a stubbled face and lank hair enters a homeless shelter. Moments later he's locked in mortal combat with a priest, the pair hurtling through shattering glass.

At the start of TNT's adaptation of Stephen King's (search"Salem's Lot," (search) the priest's patrician profile is easily recognizable — actor James Cromwell.

But it might take a second glance to realize the grungy guy, Bob Mears, is the usually clean-cut Rob Lowe (search).

Mears, the protagonist of King's 1975 novel, is a writer driven to explore hidden horror in his small Maine hometown.

Back to his boyish self, Lowe has taken over a hotel suite to discuss the four-hour miniseries, which airs Sunday and Monday (8 p.m.).

He offers his view of horror shows: "I like 'em if they are smart. I hate them, hate them, if they're not. I don't like slasher movies. I don't like gore, but I love unrelenting, uncomfortable suspense and terror."

King books fall into the latter category for the actor.

"'Salem's Lot' was the first adult novel I read," he said. "I remember being really creeped out and unsettled by the fact that the vampires weren't in some ornate coffins, but they were like vermin, hiding in the crawl space of your basement, maybe in the attic, in that pile of leaves in that dark corner."

As a King fan, Lowe actively sought the role of Nick Andros in the 1994 TV adaptation of King's "The Stand."

This time TNT approached him, although co-executive producer Mark Wolper acknowledges he wasn't certain the 40-year-old actor would be ideal as Mears, willing to "scruff himself up."

But Lowe was immediately in sync with Wolper's concept of not looking at all like he did as smooth presidential aide Sam Seaborn on NBC's "The West Wing."

"He put his vanity aside. There's not much you can do to make him unattractive, but he was certainly willing to get down and dirty," says Wolper.

The miniseries was shot near Melbourne, Australia. The exterior of the ominous house on the hill, which seeps its evil over the town, was constructed in a sheep meadow.

When Lowe vacations this summer with wife Sheryl and their two young sons, "I'll lie on the beach, wrestle with my boys, and get ready for the war that is network television," he says.

On the new CBS fall series "dr. vegas," he plays Dr. William Grant, a Las Vegas physician with a "double nature" — "William when he's the doctor and Billy when he's out burning the candle at both ends."

The "provocative" milieu of Las Vegas provides an opportunity to tell "really cool stories in a really organic way," says Lowe.