Published in 1975 as the young Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot occasionally betrays its age. Many of its themes are still pertinent today–for example, the lament for small-town America, slowly fading into obscurity as the elderly pass away and the young flee for more opportunities, applies as much in 2013 as it did during the time of King’s writing. So too does the mundanity of evil. While there are actual vampires haunting the shadows of the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, the reader knows that a more common breed of monster has been there all along. The rapacious, the envious, the duplicitous. Child abusers, alcoholics, cheating spouses, malicious gossips, wife beaters.
When the evils of the everyday become subsumed by an ancient, supernatural Evil, it’s actually a fairly smooth transition–and that might be the scariest thing of all, King seems to say.
It was impossible to ignore the use of the derogatory “f-word” as a constant insult for perceived weakness or potential homosexuality. Though the argument could be made that King was simply using it as a way to characterize the townspeople as bigoted or behind the more-progressive times, it didn’t come across that way to me. There was never any pushback to characters saying that word; it felt normalized and careless. Regardless of King’s intentions behind using the “f-word”, it was still very jarring and uncomfortable to see it in print so often.
King was also still growing into writing fully-realized female characters. Susan Norton, the heroine of Salem’s Lot, seems to exist in the novel only to give hero Ben Mears the excuse for a love scene and an impetus for revenge. Though she has some agency, when compared to the other main (male) characters, Susan is weak, flighty, and contributes very little. On the basis of her character alone, Salem’s Lot would fail the Bechdel Test.
I realize that these complaints may seem harsh, but it’s only because I otherwise thought Salem’s Lot was GREAT. As a horror novel–and an early vampire novel at that!–it is very successful, honoring classics like Dracula and The Haunting of Hill House without treading stale ground. His vampires are cruel, mindless, animalistic creatures that exist only to feed. (No sparkling here.) While the master vampire appears urbane and handsome, he’s the only one, and he exudes such a primal sense of danger that it’s nearly impossible to face him without losing yourself. (Reading this gave me a sleepless night, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a horror novel.)
Most of the characters, too, are almost-instantly believable and likable. Father Callahan, a Catholic priest who questions his faith, is a tortured and reluctant hero. Matt Burke, a local high school teacher, gives us Van Helsing re-imagined for the 20th century. And Mark Petrie, a young boy drawn directly into the eerie events taking place in the Lot, is probably one of the coolest child characters I’ve read in a long time. He’s clever and nerdy, with a strong sense of right and wrong and the ability to stand up for himself. For all his faults, King always privileges children as complete characters in their own right; he doesn’t patronize them or their fears and instead celebrates their unique strengths, often (correctly) pointing out where they have the advantage on adults.
On a related note, I’ve always respected King’s willingness to “kill his darlings,” and it’s in full effect here. Not even children are safe from vampires, and this leads to some of the more haunting images from the book. The fact that he has spent so much time illustrating the townspeople for the reader only heightens the tension as vampirism slowly spreads.
Finally, King is sometimes criticized for writing weak endings, but I thought the closing here was perfect. It was dark, but also hopeful, and smart, but also badass. Fears and challenges are overcome, though the reader knows that more danger awaits our heroes. It seems that the movie and television adaptations of Salem’s Lot all changed this ending, unnecessarily, so if you are interested in King’s mature take on vampires, I would suggest reading the novel first.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.”