Friday, October 29, 2010

Stephen King - 'Salem's Lot

Being in the town is a daily act of utter intercourse, so complete that it makes what you and your wife do in the squeaky bed look like a handshake. Being in the town is prosaic, sensuous, alcoholic. And in the dark, the town is yours and you are the town’s, and together you sleep like the dead, like the very stones in your north field. There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take. (p. 315)

Published in 1975, 631 pages long, King’s second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, is often considered the best vampire novel ever written, as the back so proudly states. Does it live up to its reputation as one of King’s best novels? Yes, though not quite on the level of his very finest works.

Stephen King debuted with Carrie. Carrie showed King’s strengths at both characterization and horror, as the guilt of Sue Snell and Margaret White rose in tandem. What the book did not show was King’s skills at working with people as a group, with manipulating and personifying an entire social set at once. Besides the principle characters, the cast of Carrie was fairly shallow and underdeveloped. (That’s not to say that Carrie is a bad book, mind you, merely a different book.)

‘Salem’s Lot, by contrast, is the first time that King unleashes his full powers on a large scale. The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is, in many ways, the center of the story. King builds up the people of the town, the town’s backstory and idiosyncrasies, and the relationships that define it. King’s characters are a varied bunch, most of them being pushed to the edges of their lifestyles and personalities. ‘Salme’s Lot is a town of myriad small evils, from adultery to abuse to things darker still. Each of those binds the town closer together rather than damaging it. The Lot is home to an inbred web of ties that, while occasionally dark, make it what it is. It’s a place of comforts and gossips, competent preachers and small scale alcoholics, happy couples and betraying spouses.

King establishes the main characters with care, Ben Mears and Susie Norton each growing and changing over the course of the book. Around them, he gives the Lot life. People seen in the periphery of the main story are given chapters or scenes of their own, exposing their changes and stagnations to the world. These glimpses are generally brief, but they’re both memorable due to the vividness of what’s described and because of their proximity to what’s already been created. The characterization of the Lot soon starts to snowball, with each shred of information shedding light on a dozen other lives.

In the same way that he brings a character’s quirks to light through their everyday qualities, King’s prose uses down to earth diction and comparisons to the most basic of terms to illuminate his world. It’s a style so mundane as to be almost simplistic, and yet it feels anything but, taking familiar images and morphing them into new forms, taking your routines and twisting them into unfamiliar and discomforting shapes:

The fellow in question had driven up to Crockett’s office on a shimmering July afternoon just over a year ago. He got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk for a moment before coming inside, a tall man dressed in a sober three-piece suit in spite of the day’s heat. He was as bald as a cueball and as sweatless as same. His eyebrows were a straight black slash, and the eye sockets shelved away below them to dark holes that might have been carved into the angular surface of his face with drill bits. (p. 89)

Central to the Lot is the feeling that it is, despite being one of many small towns in Maine, all there is. People commute to and from it, yes, but in relatively small numbers, but they soon either assimilate to the general culture or remain forever outside, looking in. Every change in the Lot is a major one, every new arrival a potential crisis. We see the interaction between Ben and the town in great detail. He adapts to it as it adapts, ever so slightly, to him, and he makes his own path through its customs. And then something, in the form of two more arrivals, comes along to shatter the Lot as it is.

The arrival of the vampire and his assistant, Barlow and Straker, destroys the town’s equilibrium. The disturbances are first subtle and all the more terrifying because of it. The even vaguely astute reader will connect the two sinister newcomers with the vampire threat advocated on the book’s back, but the change wrought by their coming spreads with almost agonizing slowness. It starts with a moment of quickly building and climaxing tension, but then relents for a time, content to spread slowly and let the town grieve and the reader simmer.

When events finally kick into motion – and King is in anything but a hurry to reach that point – what makes them so horrific is the speed with which they happen. Like a plague, vampirism spreads through the town in an instant, a wildfire that sweeps over whole streets in a matter of scant seconds. The reader and characters are left vainly trying to understand the opening salvos long into the endgame, the hero’s actions seeming laughably trite in the light of what they face.

The dissolution and destruction of the carefully crafted ties that King spent the whole novel making is what makes ‘Salem’s Lot such an engrossing work. Relationships are torn apart and character after character isolated, rendering the book’s middle section a constant quagmire of change. And then, in the end, everything settles again into a configuration disturbingly reminiscent of the town’s isolated spirit in the beginning.

‘Salem’s Lot is the first novel of King’s golden age – where he seemed able to master theme, atmosphere and plot with the ease that most of us can only muster when it comes to the most rote of tasks – but it is still not King at his peak, and the work is marked with the occasional tinges of amateurism.

When, a quarter of the way through the book, workers are hired to move a suspicious looking package into the basement of the vampire’s house, the scene’s mood is subtly and powerfully built up. All of that is mangled, however, when the movers see a shirt in the villain’s house. Leaving the victim’s belongings in plain sight when you’ve just invited innocents to come in and take a look? Sorry, but no, that’s behavior as laughable for eon old vampires as it is for genius serial killers and preschoolers alike.

The more serious issue facing ‘Salem’s Lot, preventing it from going to a very good work to a great one, is that the evil is not a human evil. In his great works, such as The Shining, King used tragedy, both natural and supernatural, to evolve and transform his character’s relationships. In ‘Salem’s Lot, on the other hand, the great evil signifies an end to the subtleties that the rest of the book is built from, a simplification from the multifaceted world of the Lot to the good and evil domain of monster and monster hunter, stalker and victim.

Father Callahan describes the world in terms of big and small evils. The first portion of ‘Salem’s Lot is filled with small and big evils both, contrasting against each other to build a nuanced picture of the world. As the tale progresses, however, all of those intricacies are ironed out. The abuser and the abused both become vampires side by side, the cheater and the cheated upon united once the final bite’s sunken in. Using the title of Evil, King is able to shirk away from ever really defining his villains, leaving the vampires and Marstens of his world comparatively shallow and almost generic at times.

Coming along with Father Callahan is King’s treatment of religion in ‘Salem’s Lot. In most of his works, King is highly critical of the church, but ‘Salem’s Lot sees a more complimentary side of the man, where, though the father certainly has problems, Callahan can be a good man as a result of his beliefs and convictions. Still, this viewpoint is not developed. In the same way that we never get a real understanding of the forces of darkness, we’re never really sure why crosses are successful at repelling vampire. Some characters are made into avengers by their faith, then crippled by the loss of it, while others scrape by without being so much as a practicing Christian and yet receive almost the same benefits.

But none of those are real problems. No, ‘Salem’s Lot is not quite a masterpiece; King wouldn’t reach those heights for another year still. It is, however, an exemplary horror story. ‘Salem’s Lot is still a giant of the field and an essential read for anyone interested in reading King or modern horror in general.

And the vampires don’t sparkle.


  1. It's difficult for me to be objective about this particular novel b/c it so helped shaped my head and heart of horror. But yes, King was still young so there might be some immaturity here but overall, I agree 100% with your final line.

  2. This one shaped my taste for Horror too, no doubt about it. King was the first Horror writer I read, and, though this wasn't the first book of his I read, I loved it then and loved it upon reread for the review. King is one of those strange writers who I have many, many problems with and love regardless.

  3. Excellent points. I believe that the Father Callahan angle was wrapped up nicely. I too asked how Ben and Mark benefited from the faith unwaiveringly while the Father's faith crumbled. I think the answer would lie in some of the words of the bible itself. "They came to him as babes," so to speak. While the Father's profession was the faith and he obviously spent a lot of time in it, it was already exposed as being weak and cracked. This new purpose was able to solidify him, but when straker put doubt into his mind it went into the cracks in his faith like water into cracks in the pavement and froze shattering his faith for good. Ben and Mark had complete faith in the effectiveness of their implements and didn't have the theological background question it. Their faith was new and simple instead of old and brittle.