The Town Knew Darkness
(A Book Review of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot)
Far more complex than his debut Carrie, Stephen King ups the ante in his sophomore hit ‘Salem’s Lot, published in 1975. Raising the bar of horror from a quaint character study of a girl coming to terms with her powers and her eventual maturity, King opts to a much larger grasp of the terrors that haunts us (or more specifically the American way of life) by digging into the darkness hidden in the human heart and focusing on the familiar confines of small-town life where malevolence festers underneath the sheen of its idyllic exterior.
Jerusalem’s Lot, or ‘Salem’s Lot as commonly known and called by its locals, is no stranger to its own shadows one of which is the Marsten House, the notorious haunted house in the area where violent incidents and whispers of occult worship had taken place. Located atop a hill, its mere sight commands anyone’s attention as it looks down on the town, its façade a grim reminder of the Lot’s poisoned past. Like any community it also has its share of skeletons in the closet where rumor mongering, child abuse, adultery, school bullies, sordid affairs, and physical and emotional abuse mark the dark lives of its resident.
But a far more sinister force threatens ‘Salem’s Lot, gaining slowly and steadily as nightfall blankets the town in a deathly clutch. This peril is what Ben Mears, a mildly successful writer who comes back to his hometown after twenty five years to exorcise his inner demons by writing about it, and a ragtag townsfolk that include a high school English teacher, a physician, and a kid will encounter and have to fend off, only are they enough to oppose this rapacious evil made cunning and malicious by its long brooding existence?
Traditional horror tends to play its spooks deriving from esoteric tomes and far off locales, but what makes ‘Salem’s Lot stand out and a trailblazer in the field of modern horror fiction is that it ushered in a new brand of fright that need not come from foreign supernatural elements to invade the life of its characters. Stephen King in this particular book — a daring feat for such a young age — shows that fears can exist among our midst and who knows it might even be lurking in our own backyards.
If you’re planning to read this book sometime in the future and have little to no inkling of what’s it about (aside from what I told above) then I would have to say that keep it that way and that’s all you have to learn for now as the discussions that will follow might contain possible spoilers — lest you want to rob yourself of the experience and surprise that is your to discover. So turn away now, close the window and see you till then, Gentle Reader!
The genius of Stephen King’s second offering lies in its effective narrative legerdemain. Skirting away from the terrors that lies in wait to be unleashed in latter pages, the author at first presents the setting of the eponymous novel of an all too familiar quiet town so remote and tucked away in the rural Maine that even if it’s erased off the map one would hardly take notice, much less care. The reader is even led to believe that he’s reading a haunted house story only to be blindsided and caught up by a nasty treat that will loom large in the novel’s climax.
For all its gory glory ‘Salem’s Lot is an unabashed vampire tale. Working within the conventions of the traditional vampire lore King plays it all up here from stakes, coffins, crosses, garlic and even the Holy Host. Though it might somehow appear that he is limiting himself by using this scare tactics that has been done repeated times already by today’s standard of the Undead’s various interpretations, the author has a few tricks up his sleeve that works against this initial assumption. Stephen King is credited as one of the writers who flat out revolutionized the vampire mythology by turning the rules on its head — no wonder this book is regarded as second best to Dracula — and places the danger posed by these blood suckers in a recognizable countryside setting too close for the comfort of the reader. And the title the Modern Master of Horror is a stamp of recognition he so deserves putting his own spin in the image of vampires by creating an updated pop culture hybrid from the scary books, EC comics, and campy B movies he enjoyed during his childhood which in turn inspiring a generation after and mimicked countless times by writers and movies (except Twilight of course — vamps would’ve turn in their coffins if that’s so!). His is not the refined Count we met on the pages of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece; rather his are savage blood-thirsty beasts prone to tearing the neck and mutilating their victim.
King nevertheless remains true to some of the dogma set by Bram Stoker by allowing the threat of vampirism to work and effect clandestinely for the first third book, infusing a feeling of unidentified disquiet to the reader. Even when the threat is uncovered and made plain by the characters midway through the novel the author still manages to do so through his chief vampire, the ancient Barlow who looms big is not seen much though . He only shows up in a couple of significant scenes yet his deeds (a smart homage to Count Dracula I believe) are mostly seen as an upshot rather than the cause, making Barlow mysterious yet deadly.
The author’s character development is fully realized and still to disappoint and once you’ve thought about it you’ve got to take it that their actions are motivated by what they must do instead of what they ought to do. What’s impressing here is how King ties up the lives of minor characters, though not necessarily part of the plot, with the tapestry that makes ‘Salem’s Lot believable in the reader’s mind’s eye.
As Stephen King said in the introduction of the 1999 reprint of ‘Salem’s Lot, it’s his “coming-out party”. For fans it’s their first real taste of such fantastic page turners he will churn later, synthesizing thrills and horrors into the primary machinations of evil. True, it’s a work that cries much of the reader’s dedication (as any novel are) and suspension of belief (you’re a party pooper if you refuse outright the feasibility of vampires in this one and you’re reading fiction, kid, so what’s good in that?), but it’s a patience that will rightfully rewarded by an ending to make the hairs on your nape stood on end and will linger long after the pages are turned.
In ‘Salem’s Lot, King admonishes that evil brings about and is drawn to its own. No matter what we do to put it off, it abides even when its origin met its perdition.
Darkness continues on…
Book #37 for 2011
Published by Pocket Books
(Mass Market Paperback, November 1999 Reprint)
Started: September 28, 2011
Finished: October 08, 2011