I am no Constant Reader. Although I’ve always had great love for Stephen King, I grew up primarily experiencing him through film, not through his novels. King’s knack for high-concept horror has translated well to film, and he’s been a favorite of Hollywood for many full moons.
I did read some. His short stories in Different Seasons and Skeleton Crew gripped my young imagination. But for some reason, I never ventured into much of his longer-form work. Perhaps it was because the greatness of films like Carrie and The Dead Zone spoiled me. I would be carrying the baggage of those great experiences with me. The characters already cast. The ending already known. Last year, when I did finally get around to really reading The Shining, Kubrick came with me. And yet, the stuff that never made it to the screen shone through. The hedge maze was mesmerizing. The insight into Jack Torrance’s psyche was terrifying. Though Jack still looked like Nicholson to me, I knew so much more about his madness.
The Shining was the beginning. I realized I need to read the master. To remedy this sad state of affairs. And so I begin my binge of all things King with Salem’s Lot, the novel that King wrote following the smash success of Carrie.
Carrie was unique. Its high concept horror premise made it a must read in the 70s. It's still provocative today. A quiet young girl, outcast by her popular peers and abused at home, lashes out at her bullies with telekinetic rage. Anti-bullying campaigns are currently a cause célèbre, but Stephen King conquered that menace forty years ago: by giving an awkward girl the mental abilities to wield the world around her. And no, I haven’t read Carrie yet. I’m in the shower. You can start throwing tampons at me now.
In contrast, Salem's Lot struck me as a straightforward tale of Gothic horror. A retelling of Stoker’s Dracula set in a small American town. Though its premise is simple – a town battles a vampire menace – King explores that town with a thoroughness I've not experienced in some time. Salem's Lot contains striking imagery, but the real success of the novel is the sense of place that King has created. Jerusalem's Lot, where our protagonist Ben Mears was born, is a forgotten town in the Northeast, the setting of many King stories. We get to explore every nook and cranny of the stale place, learning about the few inhabitants it has left, and about the Marsten House, a place that King gives such presence that it becomes a character in its own right. Even as the most common circumstances play out on the page, I was constantly aware of what dangers may lurk just beyond, elevating scenes set in bedrooms and graveyards from simply dark to truly horrific.
When a lonely hunchbacked graveyard gravedigger buries a child, King describes the sun falling down around him. A sense of overwhelming dread held me throughout that passage. And when dread matures, and the real terrors do come, they hovered just outside the window, or take the form of a loved one. A loved one who's feeling a bit off but will soon become terror itself. The sheer amount of detail that King packs into Salem's Lot can be considered tedious at times, but behind the minutia there is always menace.
And that menace is Kurt Barlow.
Sporting a fabulous name and a mysterious backstory, Barlow exists only in the mouth of his business partner, Straker, for the beginning of the novel. When he eventually emerges, Barlow is every bit the cold elegant creature we expect. He is not Dracula, but might be his cousin from some other old country in the Caucasus. Though Barlow has many memorable scenes feeding on the townspeople of the Lot, his character arc is essentially the same as every other vampire in literature: sleep during the day, rise at night, and slay, slay, slay. That’s enough for me to recommend this book any day.
Salem’s Lot isn’t perfect. I’ve been clicking keyboards long enough myself to see that King was still growing as a writer and, specifically, as a novelist. He was working things out. Learning by doing. It’s the only way. As William Goldman famously said, “No one knows anything.” You’ve got to find your own way, and that’s what King was doing.
I still really like it, though. In a book filled with so many characters, the question that resonated with me throughout Salem’s Lot is this: “Who will confront evil?”
I love that question.
Some spoilery stuff below, so proceed with caution.
Father Callahan: There’s something gentle and endearing about this priest, who easily has more depth than any other character in this novel. He struggles with alcoholism and yet holds a reverence for the power of God. He wields that power when he leads the daylight assault on the Marsten House, only to discover Barlow isn’t there. Callahan carefully considers how he will confront the evil that is Barlow. But in a head-to-head confrontation with the vampire, he falters. Because there are evils in his own life that Callahan didn’t confront first. He’s a wonderfully complex character.
Straker: Richard Throckett Straker, Barlow’s business partner, has some of the most distinct dialogue in the book: short, smart and memorable. He functions as Barlow’s “familiar,” a human who has pledged his life to a vampire in exchange for some benefit. Since he is not himself a vampire, Straker can come and go as he pleases during daylight hours, preparing the way into ‘Salem’s Lot for his master. I found Straker one of the scariest characters in the book. He isn’t someone unwillingly enslaved by Barlow. He willingly serves. There’s something terrifying in that.
Mark Petrie: Mark is such an awesome kid. He has his immediate and pure ability to recognize evil. And he confronts it. When others doubt, Mark acts! When no one else believes, he goes to the Marsten House alone to kill Barlow. He’s a clear-thinking kid who stands up to the bully, stands up to the vampire, and will stand up to you if you’re up to no good.
Barlow v. Callahan: I love this scene. It’s the book’s most complex character vs. its most simple. It’s good vs. evil. It’s crucifix vs. vamp-hand. It’s everything. And evil wins! Even though Callahan lives, and Barlow is ultimately destroyed, he leaves Jerusalem’s Lot infested with new vampires. Without a leader. In the sequel that we never got, was Callahan meant to take his place as their leader?
Jimmy Cody v. Knives: Didn’t see that death coming and I loved it.
Man w/ Boy: I really liked the prologue and the epilogue. They were just a joy to read and added greatly to the book’s scope. They seem to be a spiritual father and son, a self and younger self. When they return to Salem’s Lot at the end of the book, it repeats the motif of a man revisiting something from his childhood.
Next week, I’m going to remedy another personal ill: I’ve never seen Tobe Hooper’s film adaptation of Salem’s Lot. You know the one. Everyone knows it.
Everyone’s seen it.
Except for me.