Monday, October 20, 2014

Hallowe'en Reading 2014 - 'SALEM'S LOT by Stephen King

I have a long association with Stephen King’s fiction, as I may have mentioned in the past. I would say I’ve read about 80% of his novels and many of short stories, but before last week, one of the major oversights of his bibliography for me was his classic vampire novel ’Salem’s Lot. Well, that oversight has been “corrected,” to borrow a term from another of King’s work. In short, I enjoyed the hell out of the novel.

Cover of original US Hardback.
My dad has a copy of this.

As has likely been recounted about this novel, ’Salem’s Lot is King’s mash-up of Peyton Place and Dracula. Both novels are referenced in the text of ’Salem’s Lot: one character (Matt Burke) is remarked to remind the others of Van Helsing and Peyton Place is even called out by another character. After a brief prologue featuring Ben Mears and a young boy after the events of the novel transpire, King introduces the populace of Jerusalem’s Lot in a leisurely fashion. ‘Salem’s Lot (or The Lot), as the inhabitants call it, seem to know each other and each other’s business; the quintessential New England small town. Their everyday life is shaken up when visitors arrive: writer Ben Mears arrives looking to exorcise some past demons through writing a book and Straker & Barlow, two antique salesmen who arrive looking to set up a new shop. Ben and Straker & Barlow are both interested in the old Marsten house which overlooks the Lot to the point that Ben was going to rent it out until he discovered Straker & Barlow have taken up residence in what many feel is a haunted mansion.

Cover of the MMPB I read. I've
had the copy for at least a decade.
While some of the characters can be considered to lean towards cardboard cut-out territory, King gives a lived in, familiar, and quaint feel to the Lot. This is one of the novel’s strengths, its sense of place and initial comfort. The other strength is the subtlety and slow reveal of the terror hiding in the shadows, aside from the dog’s head on the pike early in the novel, of course. The subtlety is when the human characters interact with the vampire; there are more hints than description, allowing the reader to finish the scene with their own imagination. Though King can imagine terrifying things, it is this cooperative horror that proves to be so effective in ’Salem’s Lot.

Where the novel stumbles is two-fold and both of these I’ll generously attribute to the time the novel was published and the fact that it was King’s second published novel. The relative lack of female characters stood out to me. We have one primary female character – Susan Norton – and while it is through her eyes we initially see the novel she’s little more than a romantic entanglement used to drive Ben Mears through the plot and provide him tension and action. The only other truly (and fully) positive female character in the novel is Eva Miller, owner of the boarding house where Ben takes up residence during his time in the Lot. Most of the other women are portrayed in varying degrees from middling to quite negative.

The other stumble is some of the flowery early interaction, between Susan, her family, and Ben. I’ll chalk this up to being a novel of its time in how the characters talk. Susan and Ben fall for each other quite quickly and the language King uses to show them falling for each other reads as a bit put upon by today’s standards.

Some other points to note about ’Salem’s Lot:
  • It is the first (of many) Stephen King novels to feature a writer as the protagonist
  • King would return to similar themes, specifically small town with a dark cloud of monster(s) hovering: It, Needful Things, The Tommyknockers and to a lesser extent The Dark Half
  • Tangentially, like Needful Things, ’Salem’s Lot features a small town disrupted by the arrival of a strange visitor
  • Like IT, ’Salem’s Lot features a small town with some historically recurring darkness
  • As the King constant reader knows, Father Callahan later shows up in the fifth Dark Tower novel, Wolves of the Calla
  • I think part of the reason Needful Things has a lesser reputation in King’s bibliography might be because of how it echoes ’Salem’s Lot (I personally liked Needful Things but it has a special spot for me relating a great deal to when I read it, as I point out in that link at the top of this post).

My colleague (though we’ve never met, and I mean colleague in the sense that some of our writing appears at the same place) Grady Hendrix over at wrote about ’Salem’s Lot as part of his Great Stephen King Reread. While he does make some points I can grok even if I don’t agree with them, one interpretive point I can’t agree with is his assessment of the Marsten House. He suggests there’s no real reason for Barlow and Straker to set up residence at the Marsten House. The answer, for me, is right there in the novel. Throughout the novel, characters remark that The Marsten House is a magnet for evil, ever since old Hubie Marsten lived there and committed horrific acts, supposedly demonic sacrifices, killing children, and killing his wife.

The other point on which Grady is also flat out wrong is the character of Mark Petrie; Grady makes Mark out to be something like Harold Emery Lauter when in fact, Mark is fairly well-adjusted and manages to take out the school bully early in the novel. This sort of informs us that Mark, coupled with his love and knowledge of horror/monster movies, is as well-equipped as any character in the novel to take out Barlow. Mark’s calculative methods prove very useful to the plot and if he were nerdy and off-putting, the two other kids we see in the novel (the Glick Brothers) would have been more hesitant to visit him. (Admittedly, Grady recants some of his thoughts on Mark).

I’ll split the hairs regarding Grady’s take on the one-dimensional hillbilly characterization of the ‘Lot’s inhabitants. Most of them don’t really stretch beyond their cliches, like that of a cheating spouse or an abusive mother, but those folks don’t need much more attention than their archetypes in this particular story for me. Again, I see Grady’s point here and can agree with it to an extent.

As for the adaptations of the novel, I watched the old TV miniseries once years and years ago. I hadn’t been aware of who James Mason was at the time, but now I want to rewatch it just for James Mason. I did not see the 2004 remake with the stellar cast of Rob Lowe, James Cromwell and Rutger Hauer but that interests me now, too.

’Salem’s Lot was an incredibly addictive read and I can understand why this helped to set King on the path of superstardom. I’m not sure exactly where it ranks against the other King novels I’ve read only because the later books I read were after he became a more polished writer and storyteller. All told, I really enjoyed the novel despite some of its flaws.

A post-script: Any and all King fans and Constant Readers should check out Grady’s reread project, there’s some good insight to the books in his articles and I’ve reexamined my own thoughts on some of King’s work.


Bob said...

After 3 amazing installments, I really felt Dark Tower faltered with Wizard and Glass, and I wasn't sure I wanted to continue. Knowing that Father Callahan showed up in Wolves of the Calla was, more than anything, what prompted me to move forward with the saga (and I'm glad I did).

As for Needful Things, I don't quite have the connection around it that you do (awesome story, by the way!), but I've always viewed it as a sort of companion piece to 'Salem's Lot, and I enjoyed both immensely. To me, they sort of epitomize the classic 'small town with monsters' era of King.

RobB said...

I was less than thrilled with Wizard and Glass, too. It felt a step back in the story...almost as if King wasn't sure where he wanted wanted to go with the story.

I think calling Needful Things a companion to 'Salem's Lot is fair... and a lot more generous than most would use do describe NT.