‘Salem’s Lot

first edition cover of ‘Salem’s Lot

The Vitals

The Context

Back when Stephen King was teaching high school in Maine, he would use Dracula as a primary text in his fantasy and sci-fi class. It’s a classic of the genre and introduced the vampire to a broad range of readers in a way that had never been done before.

King loved the novel and wondered aloud what would happen if Dracula were dropped into a modern day metropolis. Tabitha King, ever the keen observer, said, “He’d probably be run over by a Yellow Cab on Park Avenue and killed.” True enough. “But if he were to show up in a sleepy little country town, what then? I decided I wanted to find out.”

And ‘Salem’s Lot was born.

The title that King originally worked with was Second Coming. Tabitha thought it sounded like basement smut (she’s a smart woman, isn’t she?), so Stephen changed it to Jerusalem’s Lot—the name of the town the story takes place in. The publisher decided that iteration was too religious, hence it was shortened to ‘Salem’s Lot, with the apostrophe in front—a small detail most readers don’t notice.

I, for one, think it works much better than either of the other two working titles. The use of “Salem” immediately conjures an occult vision of a spooky New England story.

At the time, ‘Salem’s Lot was well-reviewed for being a fresh take on the vampire genre. Dracula was still very much a part of the cultural imagination, as was Richard Matheson’s 1954 I Am Legend, which reads as more of a noir/hardboiled look at the subject. The genre was ripe for new exploration, which King was happy to do.

How does it read today, though? Let’s find out.

The Story

“If a fear cannot be articulated, it can’t be conquered.”

Ben Mears is a pretty successful author, by most accounts. He’s not a household name, but literary types are aware of his novels. Though he’s been out of the Lot for a long time, he’s come back in order to do firsthand research for his new story.

(‘Salem’s Lot is the first time that King introduces us to a writer protagonist. It’s a semi-autobiographical tactic that will be utilized numerous times throughout his work.)

He quickly strikes up a romance with Susan Norton and rekindles a friendship with high school teach Matt Burke, all while trying to figure out what’s going on with the Marsten House.

It’s a big house up on a hill that overlooks the Lot. The townspeople won’t say it’s haunted, at least not out loud, but Mears believes it is. You see, the house has been empty for a looong time and Old Man Marsten left a grisly legacy.

Recently, though, a couple of out-of-towners, Barlow and Straker, have bought the place, as well as a downtown storefront for them to sell their high-end antiques out of.

Meanwhile, a kid has disappeared, which leads to a cascade of problems for the Glick family.

The timing is a bit fishy, ya know?

From there, night by night, the town slowly unravels as a mysterious plague descends upon the citizens of Jerusalem’s Lot.

The cast of characters that King builds up in ‘Salem’s Lot is impressive, to say the least. Father Callahan, 12-year-old Mark Petrie, Dr. Jimmy Cody—I haven’t mentioned these names yet, but they’re just as memorable as any secondary character you’ve come across.

This is the book which really highlighted King’s ability to world-build. The story is as much about the town itself as it is the vampires. When King moves around the town in the narrative, it’s incredibly easy to place yourself there and visualize exactly where you’re at and what you’re seeing. The sense of place is as well-done as I’ve ever encountered.

For me, though, the heart of the story is just a little too trope-y. I wish the vampires weren’t tied so closely to the original vampire mythology and that King had ventured a little more into speculative, modernized territory.

That said, this is a book that has gotten better in my short memory of it (I finished it about four weeks ago). The atmosphere has stuck with me more than the lame-at-times plot line.

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

There’s no doubt that one of the primary themes of ‘Salem’s Lot is the plight of American’s dying small towns (literally, in the case of the Lot). Almost 50 years ago, King was writing an ode to the rural communities that were being overtaken by “outsiders.” Turns out that idea was probably more evergreen than he anticipated.

For me, though, the most salient idea was that seeing is not always believing. Reality is not always easy to realize. Each night, more and more townspeople become victims. But there’s so much disbelief among the remaining healthy people that there’s just not much action taken. “Vampires can’t be real. They just can’t.” Despite all the clear evidence, they couldn’t make themselves accept something that went so wildly against the grain of their previous beliefs about the world.

Whether in the realm of politics, faith, work, or elsewhere, seeing and accepting and believing reality, the facts that are staring you in the face, can sometimes be hard work—and even a stretch of the imagination.

Overall

Though I give it a 3.5, ‘Salem’s Lot is closer to a 4 than a 3. King shows off his remarkable world-building talents and his penchant for creating a spooky atmosphere. Though the characters were incredibly memorable, a few of them fell flat and the storyline wasn’t my favorite of the King novels, hence the 3.5.

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