Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)
This review/essay originally appeared as part of the King For A Year project, and appears here in its original form, by permission.
…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.
Like many people of my generation – I was born about two months after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot – my first exposure to Stephen King’s vampire story was through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 mini-series adaptation, a series that still, almost forty years later, gives me the willies when I happen upon it while channel-surfing. I first read the book in my early teens, and have read it maybe half a dozen times since, and I am happy to report that it is still as fresh – and as bone-chillingly frightening – as it was that first time.
Late summer 1975: Benjaman Mears, a successful author recently widowed in a terrible accident, has returned to the Southern Maine town where he grew up to write a new novel. ‘Salem’s Lot, a town of some 1300 souls, hasn’t changed much in the almost thirty years of his absence, but that won’t be the case for long. Ben meets Susan in the town’s park – she is reading his book – and love blossoms quickly. But the disappearance of a young boy – Ralphie Glick – and the sudden death of his older brother, Danny, plunge the town into a unique kind of hell, and as the body count grows, Ben and Susan find themselves aligned with a small group of like-minded people – high-school teacher Matt Burke, Doctor Jimmy Cody, Father Donald Callaghan and young Mark Petrie – who are convinced that the town has fallen victim to a vampire, one of the new residents of the storied Marsten House which looms over the town from its high perch.
Like many of King’s earlier novels, ‘Salem’s Lot seems to have entered the global consciousness as a kind of byword for vampire infestation. Even those of us who haven’t read the book have probably seen David Soul’s turn as Ben Mears and James Mason’s masterful Straker, and have some idea of the direction the story takes. The book is a slow-moving, atmospheric behemoth, very different from King’s previous – first – novel, the slimline and spare Carrie.
The story unfolds over the course of September and early October 1975, beginning with the arrival of Ben and the mysterious new residents of the old Marsten House. Told from multiple viewpoints, this is King doing what he has always done best: the dynamics of small-town America, the relationships and petty intrigues that define every small town not just in America, but across the developed world. The town has a long and sometimes unsavoury history, and King spends time building the bigger picture – the great fire of 1951; the tragedy that surrounded Hubie Marsten and his family – the deviation from the main storyline to touch on this history, and to do a “flyover” of the town, are devices designed to put the reader in the centre of the action, in ‘Salem’s Lot itself.
When the horror begins, it comes as a shock, and the early targets of Messrs Barlow and Straker are designed to hit the reader hardest: Irwin Purinton’s dog hung from the town cemetery’s gates; the disappearance of young Ralphie Glick closely followed by the death of his older brother Danny. King’s strength here is in the power of suggestion: very little of the horror happens within the pages of the novel, and is often left to the imagination of the reader; subtle noises from the next room, or the slow pan of the metaphorical camera away from the action at the critical moment are used to astounding effect, forcing the reader to create the scene in their own head, and come to their own conclusions.
There are scenes that stick with the reader (and, to be honest, many of them play over in my own head as the corresponding scenes from the television series): the delivery of the large crate (presumably containing Barlow in his coffin) to the Marsten House by Hank Peters and Royal Snow, a beautifully-constructed piece of suspense that sums up much of the book in its cold-sweat inducing narrative, and the closing exchange between the two protagonists.
“What was down there?” Royal asked. “What did you see?”
“Nothin’,” Hank Peters said, and the word came out in sections divided by his clicking teeth. “I didn’t see nothin’ and I never want to see it again.”
The other image is that of young Danny Glick knocking on Mark Petrie’s bedroom window, a scene made all the more frightening by the seeming innocence of the source of evil. Given the choice between Barlow and Danny Glick, this reader would run screaming to the ancient creature that started it all.
King uses the story to examine the question of faith, and the symbols that we use to show our religious affiliations. Without straying from the accepted lore – sunlight, crucifix, garlic, holy water – the author uses Matt Burke and Jimmy Cody to provide logical explanations for these weapons against the vampire and, famously, Donald Callaghan to examine the difference between the religious symbol and the power that it possesses. What makes ‘Salem’s Lot special, makes it one of the defining works of modern vampire fiction, is its grounding in reality, the characters’ understanding that what is happening is ridiculous, unreal, something that should not happen to normal people in the normal world.
“…If you’re locked up, that will serve his purpose well. And if you haven’t considered it, you might do well to consider it now: There is every possibility that some of us or all of us may live and triumph only to stand trial for murder.”
It’s easy to say now that ‘Salem’s Lot is a classic of the genre, one of perhaps three books that epitomise the modern vampire novel (to my mind George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst come a close second and third), but take a moment to consider: ‘Salem’s Lot is the sophomore effort of a young writer who was, as yet, unproven beyond that slim first novel. Already there are signs of the writer King will become, many of the recurring themes in his work beginning in this blood-curdling masterpiece. And if it didn’t exist in the shadow of the great Dark Tower when it was first published in 1975, King made sure to bring it into the fold by re-introducing Donald Callaghan into his world over 25 years after the book’s publication.
In large part, I feel I’m preaching to the choir, but there are many who will have absorbed the basic points of ‘Salem’s Lot through some strange form of osmosis, and “know” it in much the same way that they “know” Dracula or Frankenstein without ever having read the original work. There is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than that creepy kid at the bedroom window, or the shuffling noises coming from the back of the truck; there is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than an ancient vampire and the havoc he wreaks on a small New England town. This is one of the finest works in King’s forty-year career, a book to be savoured again and again, safe in the knowledge that you will take something new away on each reading. And, in case you’re wondering: nothing sparkles here; this is horror fiction as it should be: dark, atmospheric and, best of all, frightening.