Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
My favorite Stephen King books are The Stand, It, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew, two epics and two short story collections. This gives rise to my oft-repeated maxim that King is at his best over 1,000 pages or under 100. But when recommending a King book of a more traditional length I always say 'Salem's Lot. It's the most fondly remembered normal-length novel from my middle-school King-reading, though I never returned to it the way I frequently do with the other four. Thinking about it recently, I wondered why that was and what I'd think of the book now. I was already in the grip of my usual autumnal interest in horror apocalypses, fueled this year by working with Marvel.com on The Stand, watching the first-person zombie movies Diary of the Dead and [REC], and re-reading World War Z. Plus, I finally had the shelf space to take all my books out of storage, which meant that I had easier access to the thing. Put it all together and it's a recipe for a re-read.
I was really delighted with how much I still enjoyed the book. It now seems obvious to me why it stuck out in my mind all these years even while King books I was really enthusiastic about at the time--Christine, say--receded: It's a trial run for my two other favorite King novels. Like The Stand, it's horror gone viral, and it centers on a black prince. Like It, it's about how the lowercase-e evil of small towns can feed the uppercase-E Evil of monsters, and the idea that places can be evil too.
Unlike those two gigantic books, however, and unlike the other King novels with which I've had recent experience, the Dark Tower series, 'Salem's Lot is short. Things happen with a speed I'm unaccustomed to from King, even from his short stories. (Those tend to focus on a small cast and a simple idea, so they feel efficient rather than fast.) Sometimes this was, well, if not a bad thing then at least an awkward thing. The main character (and the first of King's writer protagonists), Ben Mears, makes friends with somewhat unrealistic rapidity upon his return to the town he called home for a brief period during his boyhood; having the character note this himself as he meets cute with his love interest Susan is a worthy save attempt, and much less annoying than similar tactics tended to be in those damn Dark Tower books, but it's still problematic. Mears and his acquaintances tend to speak in a clipped variation of King's trademark just-folks banter during these encounters, and it can ring hollow, particularly during his chats with Susan's dad and with the town's English teacher.
Speaking of, King's treatment of the townsfolk is more a series of sketches than the more fleshed-out town history and psychological geography he gave Derry in the very similar storyline of It. Most of the small-town types he introduces--the desperate housewife and her telephone-man romeo, the sleazy real-estate mogul, the teenage mother who beats her baby, the mean bus driver who I constantly pictured as Snake Eyes from You Can't Do That on Television--are introduced to move the plot along and/or provide a vampire foot soldier somewhere down the line, while doing the bare minimum necessary to make the point that some shitty stuff goes on behind closed doors. Some--the school bully, the local dairy, the old guys down at the store, the town gossip--are hardly returned to at all. Though I think all these little portraits are effective and feel as true as King's Maine men usually do, the negative ones don't add up to "this town deserves to die" the way the similar elements in It's Derry did; in that book, a lot of the bad shit directly enabled the monster (race riots, lynch mobs, psychopathic lumberjacks and schoolchildren, the people who looked away when Beverly was threatened), whereas here it's kind of just hanging there for purposes of metaphorical comparison.
Shakiest of all, and this won't surprise the horror skeptics out there, is the speed with which Ben's new English teacher pal Matt leaps to the conclusion that vampires are battening on the townsfolk. Aside from a joke with the doctor that we didn't even hear until it was brought up after the fact, there really wasn't anything that happened in Matt's orbit to put him in mind of vampires with such speed and certainty. The two of them convince a lot of people really fast, too, and again, no matter how many times King makes his characters say "I know how hard this is to believe, but it's the only explanation," it still doesn't make it work.
Amusingly, the one character with the sanest reaction to Ben and Matt's belief, Susan (she believes them that something terrible is happening in town, and that maybe the person perpetrating these things has vampires on the brain, but she just has a hard time swallowing the notion that movie monsters are murdering people all around her), ends up paying the ultimate price for her lack of total confidence in their theory. And that's part and parcel of where the speed of 'Salem's Lot really works for it: establishing that head vampire Kurt Barlow is not fucking around by having him kill and/or swallow the souls of main characters and their loved ones without breaking a sweat. Even though I knew what was coming, it was still shocking to see Susan killed and turned after making a grand total of one mistake, or junior protagonist Mark Petrie's parents get their skulls smashed open (by slamming them together--what an image!) a matter of seconds after they're first informed of the vampire threat. Indeed, the vampires take down the whole town in a matter of days. That's the part that reminds me of The Stand--it's not just that the vampires spread like a virus, it's that the show is pretty much over for the Lot the second Barlow bit into his first schoolkid, just like how America clocked out the moment Charles Campion pulled into a rest stop for a burger.
In fact, what the book does best of all is convey that vampires are really, really scary. In this early work, King's ability to demonstrate the terror of his monsters by describing just how scared shitless his protagonists are by them had lost none of its potency through repetition. When he talks about characters pissing and shitting themselves after their first undeniable vampire encounter, by god you believe that's exactly what you'd do in their shoes. When he describes (over and over again until it feels like a drumbeat) how the sinister Marsten House sits black and crazy atop a hill overlooking the entire town, radiating waves of mystery and malice outward, you feel those waves. His characters' bodies and nervous systems react to being close to the vampires the way your pets do to dangerous animals or strangers--it's a feeling you can grok.
And the vampires themselves are memorably creepy. I loved how King describes their attempts to smile as a tightening of the mouth muscles that never reaches their eyes at all, how their voices may be capable of speech but sound no more human than the barking of a dog. I love the arrogance of Barlow, that awesome Dracula-esque letter he left behind to mock his pursuers. I love the never quite squared away linkage between Barlow, his late serial killer penpal Hubie Marsten, Marsten's possible appearance as a ghost or zombie to a young Ben Mears, and the nature of the evil entity the two of them apparently worship (not to mention the tenuous continuity of all this with the Lovecraftian prequel story "Jerusalem's Lot" which showed up in Night Shift years later but I think was actually written before the novel itself). I love mocking despair of the catchphrases: "I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher." "Even now one laughs! Even now your circle is smaller!" For me that last one is up there with "WE ARE IN THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD NADINE", and as I sit here in the dark writing it I'm getting chills.
I could be wrong, but I get the sense that vampires were pretty played out at the point that this book was written, and that 'Salem's Lot was an attempt to punch up their ability to terrify the way Night of the Living Dead gave a jolt to zombies. I'm really grateful for the attempt. One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is that there's no reason that supernatural magical entities can't be just about the scariest things ever. From the Black Lodge to the Blair Witch to the Ring, the great thing about them is that they not only have the power to kill you, they can...I want to put this right...they can tear a hole in you. You know? And where you used to be they can put nothing, a seething black electric cackling nothing.