Around Halloween I like to sink my teeth into a good vampire novel. This year, I decided to dive into a book I’ve been meaning to get to for quite some time, ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. The photo below is one of the early mass market paperback editions, the one I have in my collection.
‘Salem’s Lot tells the story of a writer named Ben Mears who returns to a town where he had a horrifying experience as a child so he can exorcize some personal demons. Soon after he arrives, strange things begin to occur. A young boy named Ralphie Glick disappears and soon afterward his brother Danny dies. In the meantime, two men have purchased the Marsten House, which literally looms over the town. After Danny’s death, people around town begin contracting strange symptoms that look a lot like anemia. We eventually learn that the men who purchased the Marsten house are a vampire and his Renfield-like servant.
King takes his time with the first half of the novel, introducing us to many of the town’s residents, most of whom have the proverbial skeleton in the closet. Even though these are flawed characters, King gives us enough information to care about them.
It was interesting for me to consider the protagonist, Ben Mears. As editor of Tales of the Talisman Magazine, quite a few stories come across my desk featuring writer protagonists. Typically these stories set my teeth on edge because they feature a wildly idealized image of a writer that’s far more successful than the story’s author will be if they don’t improve. From that perspective, I found Mears refreshing. Although the character had some success it was clear his more recent books weren’t doing as well as earlier novels. King himself had recently found success with Carrie and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was channeling some of his own fear. Would Carrie be the height of his success? Would he eventually disappear into obscurity? The lesson here is that to make a successful writer character, don’t make that writer more than you are.
As for the overall plot of ‘Salem’s Lot, it felt like a Hammer film set in a small Maine town. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like Hammer films and I enjoyed seeing how the vampire manipulated the members of this small, rural community. In many ways, that reflects many of the Hammer films, where Dracula would manipulate villagers that seemed to exist out of time. Still, it’s hard to say King added much to traditional vampire lore, or even carried it much beyond what was shown in the movies.
Two things in particular stood out for me about King’s vampires. First, I really liked the way he was able to portray them as both alluring and revolting at the same time. That really captures the spirit of the old vampire folklore. Also, I like the fact that King’s vampires had very phantom-like qualities and could even disappear. One thing that’s really become a trope of modern vampire fiction is to spend time telling us why none of the folklore about vampires is correct. King joyfully embraces the folklore and makes it a seamless part of the narrative.
Overall, I found ‘Salem’s Lot to be a satisfying vampire escape. It’s hard to call it a groundbreaking novel, but there were parts I found very effective and the overall metaphor of a vampire manipulating a village out time was particularly successful.
Have you read ‘Salem’s Lot? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought.