‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
originally published 1975
Signet, 25th printing, 1982
Genre: Horror, vampires
Synopsis & Review: With the intent of writing a book, novelist Ben Mears returns to the little town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where he once spent several years living with his Aunt Cindy. The book he has in mind involves the Marsten House, a house abandoned since the hot afternoon when Hubie Marsten, a man with possible connexions to organized crime, killed first his wife and then himself. Also new in town is Mark Petrie, a thoughtful eleven-year-old boy with a penchant for horror movies and comics, and two mysterious businessmen, Straker and Barlow. When Ben attempts to purchase the Marsten House, he discovers that the still unseen Straker and his associate Barlow have purchased it. Ben continues writing his book, meditating on the Marstens and the nature of evil, while striking up a romance with Susan Norton, a local girl.
The first to die is a cocker spaniel, nailed up over the cemetery gates. More deaths soon follow, beginning with the disappearance of little Ralphie Glick, and then the death of his older brother Danny. As people all over the Lot slowly start dying and vanishing, others falling ill and bodies disappearing form the morgue, Ben and local teacher Matt Burke slowly and reluctantly realize that Evil has come to the Lot, Evil with a capital E. Mark is more easily convinced, recognizing vampires for what they are when one comes for him at night, but it is not until Ben and Dr Jimmy Cody sit up with one of the victims that they finally, really believe that vampires have come to the Lot–and that they’ll soon outnumber the living.
You can never go home again, they say, and in ‘Salem’s Lot, Ben et alia discover the truth of that aphorism. I think it’s largely agreed that horror (good stuff, at least) tends to reflect cultural zeitgeist, in which anxieties coalesce into a recognizable—and most importantly—tangible evil. ‘Salem’s Lot is a post-Vietnam novel that confronts a changing America. When characters wish to return to their roots, to a small town that nurtured them as children, they discover that it’s dying, both literally and figuratively. If you’ve ever driven beyond the limits of cities and suburbia, you’ve seen small towns, and you’ve undoubtedly seen some dwindling. If they’re not close enough to sub/urban centers to be enveloped in sprawl or convert to bedroom communities, many small towns simply vanish. Jobs move overseas, local resources (timber, mines) are played out, and with the loss of employment, young people move on and don’t return, till all that’s left are the aging; it’s the same history we see in ghost towns all over the West. When people in ‘Salem’s Lot come home (or don’t leave when they ought), they come home to die.
In ‘Salem’s Lot, we find two main types of people: those who are dynamic, open, and thoughtful, and those who are static, hidebound, or narrow-minded. King is careful to not delineate the two by age, or education, or even roots (though Ben, Matt, Mark, and Father Callahan are outsiders, Susan and Jimmy Cody are both natives of the Lot). All of the main characters are educated (Matt is a high school English teacher, Father Callahan a priest, Ben a writer, Susan a BA, Jimmy Cody a doctor, and even young Mark is an avid reader and undoubtedly college-bound), but education may also prove a weakness; when a dynamic person like Susan makes the mistake of closing her mind or examining the problem of vampires in the light of her liberal arts education and sensibilities, she suffers for it. In contrast, though quiet and prone to pithy remarks, Parkins Gillespie recognizes the danger to the Lot without any fuss or denial. In small, this highlights the two evils discussed by Father Callahan, Evil with a capital E, personal and personified, versus petty evils of banality and stupidity, the evils that play out in every day life. Forgetting the great Evil he had become a priest to battle, Father Callahan’s loss of faith mirrors culture’s coming to view evil as a social problem rather than a spiritual one, a problem echoed by Susan’s own refusal to believe. Too much education, too much thought and consideration, can prove your undoing.
Perhaps it’s my fascination with small towns, but parts of ‘Salem’s Lot that truly shine include the interludes entitled “The Lot,” of which there are four. They usually begin in the dark, pre-dawn hours, beginning with the early chores of milking and milk delivery, breakfast and the squalling of hungry infants, and follow various residents of the Lot through the day in brief episodes. These sections encapsulate daily life, capturing perfectly and without pretension the details and prosaicness of the every day, from the venal and vulgar, to the pleasant. It is the fabric of daily life and mundanity, shot through with threads of acute sorrow and happiness. ‘Salem’s Lot features the best example of this skill of King’s, which would occasionally appear in later books, but never with such life (in The Tommyknockers especially, he goes overboard attempting to recapture this). These sections are also superduper creepy and horrifying, and the town sloooooowly succumbs to Barlow and his evil. Watching the Lot’s slow death may be the most horrifying part of the novel, how easily and quickly it is accomplished.
Just barely pre-dating Anne Rice’s foo-foo pretty boys (Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976), ‘Salem’s Lot was one of the last gasps of the monstrous vampire for sometime; his vampires are occasionally seductive, but more often bestial and grotesque. It’s refreshing to re-read after such a long period of romanticization, culminating in Twilight. These creatures are closer to Dracula or Nosferatu than the Cullens or Lestat. When the characters you know succumb to them, you mourn them, for they have not gone on to any better, more sensuous world, but have lost their humanity and capacity for happiness.
I’m not sure when I first read ‘Salem’s Lot, probably in high or intermediate school, but I do recall not being overly impressed at first. It took a re-read or two before I really began to appreciate the novel, not simply as a ripping terror tale, but for its many strengths. This is classic King, from the bright, young protagonist (Mark Petrie) to the minutiae of small-town life, and lest we forget, the unspeakable horror. Unlike most of his other early novels (Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Cujo), ‘Salem’s Lot has a large cast of characters, and is chock-full of excellent small walk-on parts that would become cliché in later books. (My favorite in ‘Salem’s Lot is Parkins Gillespie, the laconic town sheriff. He’s a gas.) Though occasionally clunky, for the most part ‘Salem’s Lot moves along at a good clip, a fast, engrossing read, replete with all the vitality of King’s early works.
Read also: Carrie, Firestarter, The Shining, Cujo, The Dead Zone, “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road” (both in Night Shift, they bookend the novel very nicely)—all by Stephen King, Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Cover: I’ve never liked this one; the face is ugly, not creepy (not really creepy, at least). I like the movie poster that channeling Nosferatu much better.
Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting–not for the first time–on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can’t get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. There is no group therapy or psychiatry or community services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.
01 December – 06 December