A Novel Ian Likes: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Ben Mears, a mildly successful writer, has returned to the small town of Salem’s Lot after the death of his wife. He spent a lot of time there as a boy and is hoping to regain some of the calmness of spirit he felt as a child. He begins research on a new book and, through that, meets many of the town’s inhabitants. However, there are a rash of slightly odd deaths and disappearances that arouse his curiosity. Through his investigations he comes to one horrifying conclusion… Salem’s Lot has been infested with vampires…

Salem’s Lot (1975) was Stephen King’s second novel, following the astonishing success of Carrie the previous year. A lot of people with better qualifications than mine have written umpteen pages about it so I’m just going to discuss it in a way that relates best to me.

The premise is pretty simple: what would be the easiest way for vampires to thrive in the modern world. King’s initial idea was to retell a version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula but set in New York. His wife Tabitha, an accomplished writer herself, jokingly suggested that he would be run over by a cab. But King kept on thinking and eventually came to the conclusion that the best plan would be for a vampire – Barlow, the villain of this story – to insert himself into the fabric of a small, insignificant town because by the time people noticed that there were fewer people about, he would have established himself in an invulnerable position – it’s a plan that was also used by the pod people in Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers twenty years earlier and in a slightly different form in King’s own Needful Things fifteen years later.

It’s an ingenious set up because for a big chunk of the novel the characters don’t really know what’s happening, just that there seems to be a really nasty strain of flu… or something… doing the rounds. But this allows us to visit a lot of the town’s inhabitants to find out the different ways that they succumb to Barlow and his growing number of minions.

And this is where King’s wonderful talent and vision is allowed to blossom. Because I maintain that in a lot of his novels and stories, the horror doesn’t come from supernatural causes: it derives from the situations the characters find themselves in that forces them to confront the supernatural causes. It was shown brilliantly in Carrie: there’s a scene in that where Carrie White, the telekinetic protagonist, is waiting for her prom date to pick her up and she imagines her life when school ends and the rolling monotonous horror that awaits a social pariah like her with no real friends or prospects to look forward to, just an extension of the same financial and emotional poverty she has experienced so far in her life.

It’s no different here. Salem’s Lot is a small town that gets by on its inhabitants travelling to larger centres for employment: there are very few opportunities for people trapped within its confines by circumstance or through attachments. King really exposes the malaise and depression and the vicious cycles that small-town poverty can wield. It’s most obvious in the story of Sandy McDougall, a teenage mother who we see becoming an abusive parent, and her husband Roy. Stuck in what has become a loveless marriage, trapped by their obligations to each other and their child, we can see the makings of a kitchen sink tragedy, the circumstances of which King would have been familiar with through his work as a high school teacher prior to becoming a full-time writer.

Or Weasel Craig, the older man who lives at the boarding house that Ben takes lodgings at. He’s another character living a pointless life – worse, he’s aware of it. As King writes,

                In those days … people had still been calling him Ed instead of Weasel, and he had still been holding the bottle instead of the other way around.

We can see when and why Sandy and Ed’s lives have taken their downward turn but can also see how they are powerless to enact any kind of change. Like their town, they are just going to keep on dying slowly, one day at a time.

That is, until they are taken by Barlow and his thralls…

I came to Stephen King in the early 1980s, when he had been a bestselling author for just a few years. My brother had become – and remains – a huge fan of his work and that trickled down to me (the first King novel I owned was gifted to me by him. It was Cujo, a book that King claims to have no memory of writing). I loved the visceral, physical way that King wrote and the way that he could create characters who felt like people I knew. There were a couple of Carries in my high school, as well as some Sandy McDougalls. Which is, I believe, the secret to King’s success: his ability to tap into our real-life fears and insecurities and manifest them as some kind of id-monster wreaking havoc on everything we love.

He was also one of the first authors that I recognised as having a particular voice and style. I was aware that many authors wrote in different ways, of course, but King’s books were the first place that I became consciously able to point at how someone did it. His references to the popular culture and ephemera of the day which cemented the reality of his settings, as well as his third-person paragraphs that he interspersed with first-person streams of consciousness, made his books feel a lot more lived-in and immediate. And being aware of how King made himself unique was a gateway to looking for other writers and how they managed to create a writerly persona that crept out of their pages. Unfortunately, I was less successful at creating one in my own writing… but that is a story for another time.

So Salem’s Lot is my Stephen King comfort read. I realise that a comfort read in which – spoiler alert – nearly everyone dies is an odd thing, but this is the King book that I find the most familiar and personal, with a story that grips me the most.

It owes a huge debt to Dracula, of course. Even the team that is assembled by Ben has echoes with the vampire hunters who assemble around Jonathan and Mina Harker. The structure of the story also gives the suggestion of the epistolatory/”found footage” vibe from that earlier novel. And the vampire lore culled from years of casual reading and film watching by our heroes also plays to Stoker’s use of the popular mythology of his own time.  

Seriously, though, I can’t speak any more about the book without referring to the condition of my own copy. I mean, look at it.

It’s practically an ancient tome that looks to be filled with some kind of arcane knowledge itself. Believe it or not, I bought it looking like that from a stall at Hobart’s Salamanca Markets for 2 or 3 dollars in 1987. I was a bit of a magpie in those days and a cheap Stephen King was always a welcome addition to my library (I had a copy of The Shining, King’s next novel, that was in even worse condition, if you can believe that and it was newer!). This, however, had really been through the wringer. I didn’t discuss it with the stallholder, but it’s clear that this copy was left in a lot of sunlight for a long time. The copyright page said that it was printed in February 1977 – so it was only ten years old, for crying out loud! However, once I’d checked that it was intact – I had once bought a copy of From Russia With Love that was missing the last 16 pages – I handed over my money and was off. I’ve read it over a dozen times since then and never replaced it. Once I put a coat of Contact over it, I didn’t even feel the need: the binding was secure and taking care of my books is not a chore. Even when presented with the option to get nicer copies I haven’t succumbed to the temptation of a nicer edition. I love this copy. I’ve replaced plenty of my books with nicer copies over the years. But the replacements have usually been first editions: unless I’ve lost it, or loaned it out and not had it returned, or had it eaten by a puppy, I’ve always tended to hold on to the books I love unless I find a first edition. But finding a first edition of Salem’s Lot has always been a bit beyond my budget so unless some firm like The Folio Society decide to do a lovely version of it that I think is reasonable value for money – I don’t collect books for their resale value; I just want something to read – I’m stuck with my rubbish paperback. And its wonderful, terrifying story. And all the memories that go with it, of course.

You can find out more about Stephen king at https://stephenking.com/

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