Death is when the monsters get you
‘Salem’s Lot (1975): 9 out of 10: ‘Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s second published novel and one of his better ones. It concerns a writer Ben Mears revisiting his childhood home of Jerusalem’s Lot to write about the Marston House. A supposedly haunted or perhaps cursed home that scared him as a youth. Ben is suffering from the shock of a motorcycle accident that took the life of his wife and is concerned he may not be able to continue to write.
‘Salems Lot is a vampire novel. This is hardly a spoiler at this point, one hopes. Now vampires are very useful tools for authors and everyone has a theory. So, without further ado, let me give you my theory of Universal Monster archetypes. I want to talk about three in particular. The vampire, the werewolf, and the zombie. (Sorry Invisible Man, Frankenstein and gill-man and yes I know White Zombie was an independent production, but it started Bela Lugosi and came out in 1932 so it counts.)
The vampire represents the attack of the individual by the upper classes. They are the rich and powerful who will drain you of your blood and seduce (or steal) your woman. The werewolf represents men who cannot control themselves and are acted upon by “outside forces” (alcohol, testosterone, lust), turning them into animals that rape and murder. Acts they often have no memory of. And zombies represent the fear of the unwashed masses. Your French revolutionaries or urban rioters burning buildings and attacking random people in the streets. We have gated communities to keep out the zombies and progressive taxes to blunt the vampires.
‘Salems Lot of course, is a vampire story. And while it has the trappings initially of the archetype above, King playfully ignores it once the action starts. In fact, perhaps our hero Ben Mears represents the archetype as well, coming into town with fame and education and stealing the prettiest girl in town from some unlucky townie. Ben is there to steal a unique piece of town lore for his own personal enrichment, after all.
Our main vampire, Kurt Barlow, is an Austrian immigrant with a hulking manservant. His front is a storefront of high end antiques seeming out of place in a dying Maine town. While he checks the boxes for Dracula, the overall tone of the vampire seduction of the town is decidedly more Hammer Films than Universal. But no, that is not right either.
Honestly, I have a hard time placing Kurt Barlow. One issue is that he is barely in the novel. Oh, his presence is felt and talked about quite a bit. But like the shark in Jaws, it is more the evidence he is there rather than his actual presence for much of the book. What glimpses we see is a very arrogant proper vampire who clearly out classes our heroes. More a supervillain than a monster.
A Gay Old Time.
One reason that Kurt Barlow doesn’t read like that standard Dracula of either the Stoker, Universal, or Hammer variety is he is apparently chaste, possibly gay. Now I am the first person to take people to the woodshed for claiming both historical people and fictional characters gay on the filmiest evidence. (Lisa Simpson and Buffy Summers are two I found on a recent list of secretly should have been gay characters.) Yet here I am doing the same.
Okay, sure Kurt runs an antique store with his partner. That partner Richard Straker is his hulking manservant, Salem’s Lot seems to show he cares deeply about Richard, even though he is a vampire. And while he leaves our heroes, the hot blonde girl, he tries to keep the awkward teenage boy… In fact; he seems to kidnap a lot of boys. And almost all his sires are men. Okay. But at no point does he break into a haunting, a cappella rendition of “I Can Make You a Man”. And um… I need to check my notes, but I am pretty sure other vampires were not chick magnets.
I mean sure Dracula was shacked up with three hot chicks at his castle and the first thing he does when moving to a new country is hook up with Lucy. And the woman surrounding Dracula in the Hammer films seemed to have exclusively shopped in the flimsy lingerie section at Macy’s. But that is catering to an audience. Also, keep in mind Dracula was written in England during Victorian times well known for its throuples and hook-up scene. Dracula is a product of its time.
Okay, Kurt Barlow was chaste, like Henry Higgins or John Marston. He had more important tasks than hooking up with some chick. Barlow was a man’s man. He had a plan, and no lady was going to cause a distraction. If there was one person who did not have time for the ladies, it was supervillain vampire, Kurt Barlow. After all, he had an antique store to run and teenage boys to drain.
According to title eight, chapter thirty-four of the Maine revised statues all reviews of the novel ‘Salems Lot pursuant to the date of the statute and after the effective date as shown on 8.34.112 must point out that the book starts slow: Under penalty of law.
So let me get the legal requirements out of the way and state that ‘Salem’s Lot starts slow. There is a pretty extensive romance between Ben Mears and Susan Norton. And we learn the background of various townspeople. King paints a deep picture on a large canvas and while things happen in the first half of the book, there is little urgency.
Then halfway through the book (Literally if you reading on a Kindle it says 50% on the bottom corner) King changes the POV from individual internal dialogue for a moment and goes on an authorial tear. Putting his foot squarely on the gas, shifting gears. It is a rocket ride from here on out. Time to tear down the wonderful small town he spent half the book creating. He does so with the glee of a model builder playing Godzilla.
Some of the things I liked
I liked a lot of ‘Salems lot. Unlike many modern readers, I am okay with the slower start. James Herbert’s The Rats came out a year earlier and used a similar writing style. This is not a knock on King. I do not know if he read The Rats while writing ‘Salem’s Lot but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did. The idea of fleshing out the character before the story yells action seems obvious, but many authors completely miss this point. They tell us a beautiful, charming woman is being chased by the killer but they never have another character say why they find her beautiful or any dialogue to show she is charming. We just have to take the author at his or her word. And that is often a failure.
We know the boy Mark Petrie is brave and resourceful not because Stephen King says Mark Petrie was brave and resourceful but through his actions and dialogue. Stephen doesn’t have to state the obvious. He shows not tells.
Stephen also knows how to write a brilliant set piece. (The bus driver being killed by a bus of vampire children reminded me of my favorite scene from the Dawn of the Dead remake.) Salem’s Lot is full of actual scares. Anyone can die at anytime is definitely in play here.
Stephen also does not fall into the trap of our vampires are different that so many modern vampire books do. “I sparkle and my only fault is I am hundreds of years old and trying to hook up with high school girls with zero charisma.” Stephen throws the kitchen sink into play. Crosses work, holy water is necessary (Provided by drunken priest and breakout star Father Callahan.), and you better start sharpening some stakes.
Another Brick in the Wall
One last thing. I mention above that Ben Mears steals the prettiest girl in town. Sure, she was seeing Floyd Tibbets. But he was plain and local and King seems to suggest that he hadn’t gotten much past second base. It is Susan’s choice, and she is upgrading like a girl on Bumble moving her choice slider to taller than six feet.
Chapter three starts off with a couple of gents talking about Ben, the new guy in town, and they talking about Susan hanging out with him.
“That’s that writer fella, ain’t it?” Nolly asked. “Yep.” “Was that Susie Norton with him?” “Yep.” “Well, that’s interesting,” …
“Floyd Tibbets ain’t going to like some guy makin’ time with his woman.”
“They ain’t married,” Parkins said. “And she’s over eighteen.”
“Floyd ain’t going to like it.”
“Floyd can crap in his hat and wear it backward for all of me,” Parkins said. He crushed his smoke on the step, took a Sucrets box out of his pocket, put the dead butt inside, and put the box back in his pocket.
There are quite a few people who mention Floyd in the first half of the book. Outside of Susan’s mother, none seem to think much of him. He is the Fredo of the dating world. Eventually King switches gears and hits the accelerator, and among the vampires both Ben Mears and the readers have forgotten all about Floyd Tibbets. And King, in a bit of brilliance, decides that this would be the perfect time for Floyd to make a rather inconvenient appearance.
Some things that didn’t work as well.
I just finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. It is not as good a book as Salem’s Lot by any measurement. But it decidedly does one thing surprisingly well. The ending. Cline lands a heroic ending. Which, considering the ultimate battle is playing Atari’s Adventure game for the 2600, is a miracle itself. Point is he lands it. The book ends with a satisfying conclusion. It made me like the book upon reflection more than I did while reading it.
Without going into spoiler territory, the final battle between our remaining heroes and the supervillain vampire, Kurt Barlow, is disappointing. Barlow is less a supervillain than a vampire Buffy runs into before the opening theme song. King does a fantastic job building Barlow up but when push comes to stake he swings and misses.
In James Herbert’s sequel to The Rats called Lair, there is a fantastic scene where the oversized black rats take out an entire trailer park. It is easily the best scene in the whole trilogy. Or it would have been had it had a little more build-up, gone on for more than a few pages, and if we had any idea who these people were. ‘Salems Lot has a few scenes like this towards the end. For every mean drunk school bus driver being attacked by vampire children on his route. We have a scene where I can’t remember who this person is and whether they are already a vampire. King does a great job with his core players. He loses a little when the threat comes more universal.
In Conclusion: A lot of the things we love about King are fully formed in Salem’s Lot. The creation of place and use of internal dialogue. The way he fleshes out his characters before he unleashes whatever is hiding in the closet is almost second to none. It is a legitimately scary book and bits stick with you. An excellent read and well worth the time. Just don’t answer your window while reading. Especially if you are on the second story.