Revisiting ‘Salem’s Lot…
Back in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties the release of a new book from Stephen King was something of an event for me. It would have been on a par with a new movie from Sam Peckinpah or David Cronenberg. Yet as the sheer weight of his output grew to include such diverse forms as cinema, television and even comic books, I drifted away whilst still managing to pretty much keep up with what he was doing.
Then a few weeks ago a little light bulb went on over my head and I wondered what it would be like to read all of his work in chronological order. (As it happens, I turn out not to be the first—or even the second—to have had this ambitious idea.) Well, so far I’ve reread the first two; but given that this author is now a one-man industry I’ll probably manage the original ten or so titles before my enthusiasm wanes. Still, I’m off to a good start.
His 1974 debut novel Carrie is a real surprise. For a start, I had forgotten the unusual style in which it is written, blending as it does pseudo-scientific texts, fictional magazine articles and fake autobiographies in with a stripped- down story that is absolutely riveting. It is surprisingly short compared to what was to follow; and the big revelation is that it was actually a science-fiction story. It details the events leading up to the virtual wiping out of a small New England town by a girl with newly-discovered telekinetic abilities; and it is set in an unspecified future.
Once the reader has managed to suppress the images from director Brian de Palma’s fine film adaptation it stands as a good introduction to many of the themes that would interest King throughout the rest of his career.
For me, however, Stephen King really took off with his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, published in 1975. This is a lovely big epic of a town where Evil with a capital E has arrived to play havoc with the inhabitants.
In an exquisitely slow—but never boring—first hundred or so pages, we are introduced to the town and its people. We learn of its brief history, a history that could be that of a hundred small American towns; and, as has been noted elsewhere, from the wealth of detail King gives us it would be easy to draw up your own map.
I don’t understand reviewers who find the characters one-dimensional. Nor do I think that King necessarily dwells on their worst aspects. In the town of ‘Salem’s Lot we have people of all shades—just like in any other community.
The main character is the writer Ben Mears, who has newly returned to the Lot, the only place that he has ever considered a home, even though he left it at the age of seven. He is also intending to set his new book there, in the notorious Marsten House where he had such a traumatic childhood experience. I liked Ben and when he meets Susan Norton, whose mild dose of hero-worship quickly turn to love, I wanted them to be happy. But this is a Stephen King novel so that wasn’t really on the cards.
Coinciding with Ben’s arrival is that of two other strangers, Straker (Stoker?) and Barlow, these characters harbouring much more malicious intentions. On the pretext of opening an antiques shop in the village they have bought the long-deserted Marsten House and it soon becomes apparent that it is from there that they will unleash a wave of vampirism on the town.
Did this come as a surprise to readers in 1975? Certainly, at this point it wasn’t clear that King would go on to become synonymous with the horror genre; and in the ‘seventies we didn’t have the absolute overdosing on vampires that we have today, courtesy of Twilight and its ghastly clones. In any case, it remains very effective when all hell breaks loose about half-way through the novel.
King isn’t shy about referencing Bram Stoker’s Dracula; and in one scene Matt, the schoolteacher that Ben has become friendly with, is compared specifically to Van Helsing. Also amongst the less than fearless vampire hunters is Father Donald Callahan. Now, on the surface Callahan should be an annoying stereotype of the Irish priest who is struggling both with his faith and the bottle. Yet he emerges as an interesting character. And his ultimate fate is perhaps the most poignant of all. Did King have the story of the Wandering Jew in mind when he wrote this? I wonder. Most likely it was the tale of Cain and Abel, but I like to play around with the irony of the other notion.
King has always been terrific at writing children, presenting them in a more realistic manner than Ray Bradbury and yet making them just as appealing. And here is where we are introduced to twelve-year-old Mark Petrie, the kind of kid that I would have hung out with at school. I had a bit of a lump in my throat here, because just like Mark, I had the complete collection of Aurora monster models in my room. The scene where Mark is putting together the Frankenstein creature lumbering past the plastic gravestone hit me with a punch from forty years ago. Jesus, where did those years go to?
In ‘Salem’s Lot Stephen King takes bits and pieces from hither and yon, as any young writer will. There is a nod to Lovecraft (as there was in Carrie); but here his real inspiration seems to have come from Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House as much as from Dracula. And without a doubt his love of the old EC Horror comics shines through. In particular there is one terrific scene concerning a child-hating school bus driver that springs right out of their pages. Oh, and if you are under 50, scratching your head and wondering what the bejeezus EC Comics were…well, you don’t know what you were missing.
I’ll leave aside talking about the obvious metaphor here for the destruction of small-town America, since it has been noted more than once. I will simply add that the vampire as all-consuming virus is as effective in the destruction of the Lot as the use of the telekinetic holocaust of Chamberlain was in Carrie.
If you visited the Lot in earlier years, try a return visit. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.