My Year of King, 'Salem's Lot (1975)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Eek! It's already the beginning of February and I am only on #2 of the many books of Stephen King that I want to re-read this year. I'm going to have to up my reading game if I hope to finish.

The second King book to come out was 'Salem's Lot, published in 1975. I first read it as a teenager in the 80s, and I remember being pretty terrified by the story. Reading it as an adult 30 years later, however, I found myself mildly disappointed that it didn't live up to my memory of it (a phenomenon I expect will encounter again as I revisit the King books I read as a young person). Don't get me wrong-'Salem's Lot is still an enjoyable, worthwhile read. It's just not quite as mind-blowingly scary to me as it once was.

That might have something to do with the subject-vampires. When King wrote 'Salem's Lot, vampire stories were mostly found in old-time horror films and pulp fiction. However, since the pop culture juggernaut that was the Twilight series, vampires have steadily been in books, movies, and television shows, in incarnations both classic and completely new (sparkly? really?). I think I've reached vampire overload at this point. King's vampires are decidedly of the classic variety. A super old vampire and his human familiar set up shop in a small Maine town, and slowly turn almost all of the people who live there into almost-mindless killing machines. All of the old vampire foils are at play-holy water, crucifixes, sunlight, etc...culminating in some fairly gross scenes involved stakes to the heart. As a vampire story, 'Salem's Lot is a perfectly respectable member of the genre, but it's really an updated, slightly different version of Dracula. I found myself glad that King generally stays away from movie monsters after this novel (with a few exceptions), and focuses on how evil doesn't always look like evil, and regular people can be monsters. The monsters King invents are way better than the old-fashioned kind.

There are definitely elements of the novel that become staples of King's work, and so far that's been the most interesting thing about this re-reading exercise for me. Reading his works in order is allowing me to trace the development of certain themes and literary devices he uses consistently in his books. 'Salem's Lot is the first place that King explores the idea that physical places, especially houses, soak up the psychic and emotional energy that is expended inside their walls. These houses (or hotels; The Shining is up next for me) become characters in their own right, emanating darkness and evil even when empty of (physical) inhabitants. The Marsten House looms over the town of 'Salem's Lot, sending off such powerful "here there be monsters" vibe that even the local teenagers avoid it most of the time.

King continues an idea that he started in Carrie, and which he probably develops most masterfully in the book It and the story "The Body"; namely, the idea that children are somehow inherently able to believe and confront things that the grown-up mind has trouble processing. His basic premise seems to be that children have not yet let go of the imagination and magical thinking that comes along with being a child, and therefore they can see, hear, feel, and do things that adults sometimes can't. In this case, the child is Mark Petrie, and while he eventually teams up with a group of grown-ups, he is the only character in the book who immediately understands the danger of the people in town who've gone missing.

"Salem's Lot is also King's first attempt at wholesale world building. Unlike sci-fi or fantasy writers, his creations are almost always normal, average small towns, the best known of which is the fictional Castle Rock. Much like the way that houses and other buildings become characters in their own right, the towns King creates, and the people who inhabit them, become as integral to the story as the main characters. I wouldn't say this first attempt is clumsy-King's writing is never that. I will say that I think he gets more efficient at it in later books. I think that 'Salem's Lot probably could have been about 100 pages shorter had King found a way to narrow his focus when it came to describing the town and its people. There are townspeople he spends a few paragraphs or pages on who end up not being that important to either the development of the town as a character or the plot, and he occasionally committed that author's sin of using more words that he needed to get the point across (which I will give him a pass on, because I also write sentences that are long and complex to get a point across that could probably have been stated more succinctly, like this one!). By the time King gets to some of his later books, he's got the world-making part down to an art, and his characterizations are some of the best in contemporary literature, in my opinion.

Given it was the 1970s, I suppose I get it, but his female characters (and really, there's only two who are truly important to the plot) are less developed as his male characters, and both of them meet tragic ends. That's not necessarily a criticism in itself, because pretty much everyone but the main characters Ben (a writer, another common element among King's protagonists) and Mark meet tragic ends, including a few babies, which had to seem almost sacreligious to readers in the 1970s, but still. His female characters in later books have more agency and are much better developed, and since Carrie was such a kick-ass, powerful character, I'm not too mad at him for the way he wrote Susan and Eva in 'Salem's Lot.

I changed my Goodreads review of this one from four to three stars when I finished it, but three stars means this is still worth the read. And now, on to The Shining. Which I hope, hope, hope I still think is creepy and moody and terrifying by the time I am done.


  1. I agree that King got better with saying more with less in his later works. Maybe it's just me because I read it for the first time, but certain parts did send a bit of a chill down my spine (i.e. Mark trying to untangle himself from the rope, Ben trying to get the strength to run the stake through Susan, and Ben and Jimmy trying to fight off Marjorie Glick). Everyone sees things differently in a Lit Circle though I suppose? I'm on to Carrie now. Let's see how it goes!

  2. I remember it being scary the first time I read it-I think I'm just on vampire overload. There were definitely some creepy and downright scary scenes. I really love the characters in this one too-better developed than in Carrie for sure.


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