The Stephen King Project – ‘Salem’s Lot (1975)
About the project: I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published. You can read more about the project here.
‘Salem’s Lot is the second published novel by Stephen King, brought out by Doubleday in 1975. The book was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1976 and I can see why.
Writer Ben Mears returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where he had spent some time as a child, to write a book. Around the same time, two strangers arrive in town, Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow, who are ostensibly there to open a high-end furniture shop. Not long after these three men arrive in town, Ralphie Glick goes missing, soon to be followed by the death of his brother, Danny.
The book that Ben is writing is about the Marsten House, the location of a frightening experience he had as a boy that has haunted him ever since. It’s also the home of Barlow and Straker.
What follows is a mix of classic vampire story and the pulp horror stories that King loved to read as a boy.
The characters are richly drawn and convincing, from Ben himself to Matt Burke, the high school teacher who first realises that there are vampires loose in ‘Salem’s Lot, to Mark Petrie, the young boy who resists the hypnotism of Danny Glick and avoids becoming a vampire himself, instead joining the fight against them. Sue Norton is very convincing in her straining against an overbearing mother and her instant attraction to Ben.
Most of the time, King’s words fall away so that you don’t notice them as they shape the story and drag you through hell, but every now and then a beautifully-crafted sentence jumps out at you, I especially liked this, from Sue Norton:
“In the end you always crashed against the unspoken barricades of their love, like the walls of a padded cell.”
In writing circles, you will inevitably find discussion of the comparative merits of various points of view from which to tell your story. King uses the much maligned third-person-omniscient, which means that the story is told by an omniscient narrator. King uses this to great effect – showing us events as they unfold all over town, popping into various characters’ lives for a scene, giving us insight into the state of the whole community. This is a tool that he uses in several of his novels and I think ‘Salem’s Lot is a great example of this done well.
One of the themes that carries through King’s work (indeed, we saw it in Carrie) is the sense of a whole town caught up in the events of the story, the comfort of small town life often turned against the protagonist and made into a weapon and ‘Salem’s Lot is no different in this regard. The vampires spread through Jerusalem’s Lot as they could only achieve in a small town – indeed, King acknowledges this himself in the foreword when he states that he wondered what it would be like if Dracula showed up in 20th century America and his wife said that he’d probably be knocked down by a cab. The events of the book simply could not occur in a city, where there is far less darkness to work in and fewer people are likely to open their doors – or windows – at night.
I was tickled when I realised that this story had characters named Ben, Bill and Richie, three names that are reused as main characters in IT, perhaps my favourite stand-alone by King. There were a few links to other works that I spotted and possibly more than I missed. We are told that Albie Crane killed his wife by throwing her down the well – perhaps Dolores Claiborne heard the story and was inspired by it (Dolores Claiborne, 1992). Also, the M.E. in town is an amateur geologist; we are told that since it’s the weekend, he’s likely to be out in the woods somewhere with a rock hammer – a tool that Andy Dufresne is very familiar with (Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, 1982).
In some ways, the story shows its age, but I think it has weathered the 43 years since it was first published beautifully. This wasn’t the first time that I read ‘Salem’s Lot and I’m sure it won’t be the last.