The recent paperback release of ‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s second published novel, is a wonderful old-school vampire story, where the vampires aren’t sparkly, or romantic, or James Dean cool — they are rampant, foul-smelling, and very, very evil. ‘Salem’s Lot is also a vampire novel where the vampires aren’t exactly secondary, but a symptom of what King poses is going wrong in the world.
[Right: The Nosferatu-influenced Kurt Barlow, from the 1979 television miniseriesdirected by Tobe Hooper, based on King's novel.]
The town of Jerusalem’s Lot, or ‘Salem’s Lot, for short, is, by its isolated nature, the perfect breeding-ground for evil. King asks the reader, can a place draw evil, due to its own moral corruption? In an interview with Highway Patrolman magazine, King said, “In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism … I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!”
King takes his time sketching out the town’s geography, inhabitants, and history, until the reader has as much invested in ‘Salem’s Lot as protagonist Ben Mears. Ben is a novelist who lived in ‘Salem’s Lot as a child. He has come back to town to exorcise a childhood memory of a frightening supernatural experience at the local haunted house, the Marsten House. He hopes to turn his bad memories into a best-selling novel.
Ben quickly gets sidetracked when he meets and falls in love with local girl Susan Norton, but also when he starts to notice that something very wrong is going on in the town — and that all roads lead back to the house of his nightmares, the Marsten House. Two young brothers, Ralphie and Danny Glick, have disappeared. It at first seems like there may be a child-murderer in the area. Ben and Susan team up with young Mark Petrie, a schoolboy friend of the Glicks with an encyclopedic knowledge of movie monsters; high school teacher Matt Burke; doctor Jimmy Cody; and local Catholic priest Father Callahan to investigate the growing number of deaths — and disappearing corpses.
King does his usual wonderful job of quick-sketching memorable characters. The eccentric, laid-back, and sometimes cantankerous people who live in the Lot come easily to life. Unfortunately for them, and thanks to the other newcomers to the Lot, the mysterious Mr. Straker and his unseen partner Mr. Barlow, they are also as easily dispatched.
King’s take on contemporary (1975) politics, like Watergate and the gas crisis, which he believes have eroded people’s values, is an undercurrent throughout the novel. The mysterious and possibly infused-with evil Marsten House, which physically presides over the town, provides another level of corruption. He also explores the exponential possibilities of vampire creation. Their ranks keep growing, and growing and growing …
‘Salem’s Lot is a time capsule of sorts. So many of the main characters are working in the dark from one another. King could never have written the novel in the age of cell phones. Clearly a product of the ’70s, it is no less a scary read today. ‘Salem’s Lot packs the same punch, the same apprehension, whether read late at night or in the clear light of day. As scary as it is, there is also something incredibly sad about the novel. King pulls ‘Salem’s Lot apart piece by piece. We watch the town disappear. The horror the reader experiences, the inevitability of the story and the characters’ fates, is in exact correlation to Ben and his friends’ dread at their eventual confrontation with Kurt Barlow.
King spares no one. The elderly, children, animals, and even main characters are all up for grabs where the vampire is concerned. There are thrilling scenes, but the true horror takes place between the lines, with the reader imagining the worst — which usually proves to be true. Before settling down with ‘Salem’s Lot, you might want to check your windows to see if they are securely locked, and look through your jewel box for a cross or religious medal to keep on hand while you are reading. Just in case.