‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

“He refused to talk about the town of Jerusalem’s Lot…”

Salem's Lot by Stephen KingThis is the first book read from my list for this year’s RIPXVIII. I very rarely get a chance to read anything that might be considered genre so I’m a bit naive when it comes to the challenge of finding something suitably horror that still retains some semblance of literary talent. I had read Carrie years ago (King’s first published book that is both enjoyable and well-written) and dabbled in some of his shorter works–short stories, an essay, and a novella or two. So, when I decided to take up this year’s RIPXIII, I went straight to Stephen King.

In the supplementary introduction and afterword, King talks about his love for Dracula, a book he read as a child and subsequently taught when he was briefly a high school teacher. This book was the catalyst for writing Salem’s Lot. He “wanted to tell a tale that inverted Dracula.” Where the “optimism of Victorian England shines through everything like the newly invented electric light” in Dracula, the characters of Salem’s Lot, fought off the evil with weapons and know-how from folklore.

In Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel, he is at the top of his game. He has always been a writer that takes something so ordinary in our lives and makes it incredibly creepy and evil. Also, being richly influenced by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, King takes us on our way. The book opens with the information that a small town in Maine has become abandoned. It’s as if all of the residents just blew away.

Ben Mears, a semi-successful writer, returns to the Lot, a town where he spent some of his childhood. He visits the Marsten House, which has a murderous history of its own, and is intent on renting it. However, Ben soon finds out it has been purchased already by a pair of mysterious out-of-towners. What King does so well is to set up a perfectly average place and then slyly unravels it, revealing all of the nasty bits.

I am always fascinated by the concept of penning a truly frightening book. I am a big lover of The Haunting of Hill House (along with other works by Jackson) and I was so impressed how she made the house pulsate like it was its own character. King does the same thing. The scariest moments were when you didn’t see anything at all. When two workmen are hired to bring boxes into the cellar of the Marsten House, I felt all of the anxiety that those two characters felt.

“There are evil men in the world, truly evil men. Sometimes we hear of them, but more often they work in absolute darkness.”

By not complicating the “rules” and the “evil,” King has written a book that truly does go bump in the night. His vampires are hissing, bloodsucking villains of yesteryear. It seems, lately, that many vampires are sexy, glowing creatures with a slight moral code. Not these baddies. For a while now, I have had an interest in Slavic folklore concerning vampires. It was a pleasure to see the protagonists grabbing bulbs of garlic and negotiating who will be staking whom.

In our culture, we have an unfortunate divide between literary and commercial and in most case, never the two shall meet. I’m of the belief that there are schlocky works of literature and commercial fiction, as well as highly merited of both category. Also, sometimes the divide is correct but I’ve always thought of Stephen King as one of those writers who can combine both.

I also recommend Viy by Nikolai Gogol for those interested in a tale of a more Slavic folklore vain. The story is available for FREE through Project Gutenberg and you can watch the 1967 Russian film adaptation for free online through YouTube (with English subtitles; also you might have to watch it directly on YouTube’s website).

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6 comments

  1. I recently read Salem’s Lot, too, and, like you, I’m generally not a genre-reader. I had an entirely different reaction: as soon as I figured out that it was about vampires, I sighed and almost put it down without reading the rest – especially in light of King’s following The Shining with another vampire book. I think you’re right when you say that King can bridge the divide between literary and commercial, but I’m not sure this is a great example. The Shining is much better written, I think, and it became it’s own facet of pop culture without relying on a theme that was already commercial. Have you read Matthew Lewis’s The Monk? It’s a mammoth Gothic novel from 1795 that was scary in a similar way to Salem’s Lot and, I think, much better.

    1. I haven’t read the Shining but it seems to be a favorite of many. In King’s supplemental text of the edition of Salem’s Lot I read, he explains that he definitely thinks the book has its flaws and is far from perfect, which I agree with. You can feel its datedness and some of the lines are corny but, in other ways, he excels. He is able to write some standout sentences and the creepiness of some of the more “horror” scenes are constructed well to give that anxiety he was looking for.

      I am reading The Monk now, so I will have a review soon.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Great post! I’m a long time fan of King and rapidly becoming one of Shirley Jackson’s. Thank you for re-awakening my memories of reading Salem’s lot. (Its probably been 20 years ago now). I also have a vague memory of a tv miniseries starring David Soul (from Starsky and Hutch!) that scared the bejesus out of me when I was younger.

    I just bought the new collection of “new” Jackson stories, “Just an Ordinary Day” after reading her story “Paranoia” in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I blogged about that one at http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/shirley-jacksons-short-story-paranoia/ if you’d like to take a look.

    -Jay

    1. As I was reading it, I kept having the image of Rob Lowe pop into my head and then with some internet sleuthing, I realized that I had watched the mini-series (from about 10 years ago). I remembered nothing of it but I was happy to crack the case of why I kept thinking of him.

      Thanks for the link. I haven’t read that story but I always have that nagging wonder if a deceased writer would have wanted those posthumous works published (if it hadn’t be explicitly requested). I definitely recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle, too.

  3. I loved this book and have also just read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House. Both really good. I also watched the mini series you mention – I think – is there like a scene where the young boy who has recently died is floating outside his brother’s bedroom window, tapping on the glass and asking to be let in! That gave me the massive heebee jeebies. Sorry if I’ve delved into the realms of spoilery there but I just couldn’t help it!
    Lynn 😀

    1. That’s actually the only scene I really remember from the mini series. When I read that part in the book, I started to have mental images of Rob Lowe. Glad you liked both. I am a huge fan of Shirley Jackson’s. If you haven’t read anything else by her, I definitely recommend you go exploring.

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