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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Stephen King's "'Salem's Lot"

Author: Stephen King
Title: Salem’s Lot
Plot Type: Horror
Ratings: V5; S2; H2
Publisher: Anchor Reprint (2011) (First published in 1975 and available new and used in a variety of print and audio editions as well as in e-book formand at your local library)

     Salem’s Lot is one of the six finalists that the Horror Writers Association has selected for consideration as the Bram Stoker Vampire Book of the Century. Click HERE to go to my blog entry listing the other nominees.

     Salem’s Lot was the first vampire novel and the first horror novel that I read back in the day, and it had a spine-tingling effect on my then-young psyche. To this day, it's still one of my four favorite King novels (the others being Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand). And don't miss his early book of short stories: Night Shift. Some of the images from those stories still appear in my nightmares!

     Using traditional vampire mythology (a la Bram Stoker's Dracula), King tells the story of the downfall of a sleepy Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot, or ’salem’s Lot, as the natives call it. (I had forgotten that the Lot was named after an errant pig named Jerusalem.) The primary symbol of horror in the story is the Marston House, a decrepit, dismal mansion set on a hill overlooking the town. Decades ago, Hubie Marston murdered his wife and committed suicide there, and the ghastly house has been uninhabited ever since, except for the ghosts, that is. In the late summer of 1975, two visitors arrive in the Lot, each of whom has a connection with the Marston House. Ben Mears, a 30-something successful writer who spent four childhood years in the Lot, had a nightmarish experience in the Marston House that still haunts him so much that he has returned to write a book about it. Richard Straker, a mysterious European gentleman, buys the Marston House and opens an antiques store with his always-absent partner, Kurt Barlow.

     Life continues to flow as smoothly as it ever does until a fateful night when two young brothers have a bloodcurdling encounter in the nighttime woods, and the action is on. Gradually, people begin acting strangely: roaming at night but staying indoors during the day, covering up to keep out of the sun, and showing aggression towards their friends and neighbors. Slowly we realize that monsters are loose in ’salem’s Lot.

     The beginning of the book is reminiscent of the way David Lynch began his horror film, Blue Velvet, a few years later—with a lengthy but misleading image of an idyllic American town. Birds sing, townsfolk go about their mundane business, and life appears to be good. The opening chapters mimic the narration in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with detailed descriptions of daily life among the people in the Lot. There’s even a character named Grover, just to underline the connection. Soon, though, we begin to see some cracks and imperfections, and we realize that the citizens are more like the flawed folk in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with their bitter loneliness and feelings of isolation. Gradually, the sins of the residents are revealed—drunkenness, gluttony, uncontrolled rage, dishonesty, mean-spiritedness—everyone seems to be afflicted with terrible weaknesses, some more horrible than others.

     Once Ben realizes exactly what is going on in the Lot, he gathers together a team of fellow believers to help him defeat Straker and Barlow: Susan (his girlfriend), Matt (a high school teacher), Jimmy (a doctor), Mark (a young friend of the first two boys to encounter the vampire), and Father Callahan (the local priest). As they research vampire mythology and make their plans, Barstow has plans of his own, and they don’t include getting caught. The final chapters culminate in true horror perfection. As William Butler Yeats says, “…things fall apart…the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

     Published in 1975, the book now feels like a period piece, almost historical in fact, with its home delivery milkmen, telephone party lines, references to Ironside and Johnny Carson, pre-EPA town dump burnings, and $3 fill-ups at the gas station, but the story itself still works its dark magic, as evil gradually insinuates itself through a town filled with people who might live in any small town even today. King is masterful in his ability to create a sense of place, both physically and emotionally. He can run a shiver down a reader’s spine with just a handful of well-chosen words. A sunset appears to be “infected, until it glares an angry inflamed orange.” Trees form “gaunt mean shadows that bite the ground like teeth.” An open cellar door’s “tongue of darkness seemed to lick hungrily at the kitchen, waiting for night to come so it could swallow it whole.” And everyone, no matter how good or bad, is eventually robbed of all dignity by the horror that insidiously swallows them up.

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