‘Salem’s Lot

January 9, 2010 at 2:49 am (Horror) (, )

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
originally published 1975
Signet, 25th printing, 1982
427 pages
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

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11 Comments

  1. Challenge Wrap-Up: 100+ Reading Challenge « the stacks my destination said,

    […] The Morland Dynasty: The Maiden, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles 115. The Boyfriend School, Sarah Bird 116. ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King 117. Rhett Butler’s People, Donald Craig 118. The Man Who Invented Christmas: How […]

  2. Miss Moppet said,

    I read this last year and liked it so much better than more recent vampire books. It scared me, but I couldn’t stop reading – I was even reading it while I was cooking.

    • Schatzi said,

      Yeah, when he is good, he is very, very good!

  3. Jenny said,

    I’ve been unable to bring myself to read Stephen King because I scare so easily! I expect I’d enjoy some of his books, but I don’t know which ones, and I’m terrified to find out. 😛

    • Schatzi said,

      Well, you could always start with The Eyes of the Dragon, which is his fairy tale; my mother gave it to me to read in fourth grade, and I loved it–still do, in fact!

  4. LDP said,

    I’d been wanting to read this for such a long time, because One for the Road is one of my favorite short stories. I always put it off though, waiting for a special occasion. Then you, me and Ines just read it. not sure how that happened, but I’m glad it did.

    First, I have to mention the disappearance of that Glick boy. I live for those passages that are just so scary you feel the need to physically run away, as if you’re not reading, but actually in danger. That boy’s disappearance, like Danny crawling from the playhouse in The Shining, or the Innsmouth townsfolk trying to open the hotel room door in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, is definitely one of those moments. I love it!

    I loved quite a bit more, too. I love that the vampires really are monsters and not effeminate superheroes. I love that King doesn’t try to science them up, keeping them vulnerable to strong faith and allowing them to be insubstantial at times. So much scarier than a lot of more contemporary vamps. And, like you, I loved the Lot chapters. Not so much for the slice of small town life, but for the sense of creeping dread they give you. Those chapters are like a big portrait of ‘Salem’s Lot and as your eyes move over it, you slowly zoom in, becoming more and more aware of the growing entropy and decay just out of sight until, by the end, you see just how rotten, how dead and dangerous, the Lot has gotten, even if, to the casual glance, it still looks like a normal small town. I was already afraid of small towns. This certainly didn’t help me with that.

    And I love Mark Petrie. Him and Parkins are characters I can really relate to.

    I feel kind of dumb for not just going ahead and reading this sooner. Why didn’t you make me read it years ago?

    Now, a personal anecdote from my teen years that I couldn’t help but think of a few times while reading.

    Many years back, a couple girls that I knew moved out to a small suburb towards the outer boundaries of the Cleveland metro area. It’s one of those places that teeter just on the edge between urban and rural. It’s just far enough from the city proper that night time there is a hell of a lot different from night time here. No one is out after dusk. No traffic. Street lights a far between if you’re even in an area where there are any. Night is REALLY night.

    Me and a couple friends had a ride one evening and we hadn’t seen these girls since they moved, so we thought we’d drive out. We called them, got an address and told them we were coming.

    We found the town easy, but, once there, couldn’t locate their street. After driving around in circles in the dark for awhile, we got lucky and saw a guy taking out trash. We asked for and he nervously gave us directions before rushing back inside. His directions lead us to the next town over. We drove back in, looking for their street and were pretty quickly pulled over by what must’ve been their only cop car (and the only other car on the roads). We told him we were looking for our friends’ house and asked for and again received directions. Once again the directions (from a cop!) lead us to the next town over. We were fools, but we decided on one more try. We stopped at a gas station just outside of the township, in their larger, slightly more densely populated neighbor, and ask the girl at the counter if she knows how to get to Cove Beach. She says sure and gives us some pretty simple directions then adds, “But you can’t go there.” When asked why not, she leaned in, like she was telling us a secret and answered, “Because it’s dark out.”

    I was pretty freaked out by all of that, but we followed her directions, dark or not, and made it to our friends’ house and had a good time. No one got eaten, but still… That is one weird place. Those girls moved away from there a year or two after that, back to their old house in the city. Now that I’m older and have a sense of my own mortality, you could not pay me enough to drive into that crazy little ‘burb after dark, just in case. Especially not after reading ‘Salems’ Lot.

    • LDP said,

      Hmmm. I talk too much.

      • Schatzi said,

        Shut up, you.

  5. Schatzi said,

    Cove Beach = Crouch End? (I think you told me that before, once.)

    But … YES to one of the amazing things about The Lot chapters is that sense of implacable, creeping menace. I did not articulate that well. And this insight:
    Those chapters are like a big portrait of ‘Salem’s Lot and as your eyes move over it, you slowly zoom in, becoming more and more aware of the growing entropy and decay just out of sight until, by the end, you see just how rotten, how dead and dangerous, the Lot has gotten, even if, to the casual glance, it still looks like a normal small town. I was already afraid of small towns. This certainly didn’t help me with that.
    is great.

    There terrorizing of the Glicks is definitely one of his finer passages of unadulterated horror. And coming fairly early in the story, followed by a bit of a lull before things begin to slowly happen, makes it even more effective.

    I also really dug the newspaper article about ‘Salem’s Lot and the Vermont town; it adds verisimilitude, and also recalls the epistolary nature of Carrie. (I even went and looked up that Vermont town, I was so convinced it was real.)

    • LDP said,

      Oh crap! I forgot all about that! I wanted to look it up! It was phony? No modern day Roanoke?

  6. Kylie said,

    Ah, early Stephen King – so much better than his later stuff in my opinion. I love Salems Lot – it’s one of the few books I have never been able to read at night! May have to add it to my reread list. Great review.

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