'Salem's Lot (1975)

'Salem's Lot is King's first 'long' novel, and is one which I came to early in my horror career. And, as you can tell from the cover above (from my edition), it's a vampire novel. In a way, it's a shame that this is telegraphed before you even pick up the book, because King effectively wrongfoots the reader for over a hundred pages: the Marsten house, looming over the town of Jerusalem's Lot, dominates the early action - this, together with references to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (source material for the eerie, black and white film, The Haunting, 1963), suggests that we are actually reading a haunted house novel.

The chapter structure introduces us to the major characters, and indeed the town itself, gradually. We get to know most of the inhabitants of the Lot - some in passing, some in more detail - as writer Ben Mears struggles to exorcise his childhood demons and comes to understand that something awful has arrived in town at roughly the same time as him. What exactly are Straker and Barlow, the new owners of the Marsten house, up to? At first, Ben is alone in his suspicions, but gradually he draws in others. His relationships with Susan (romantic interest) and Matt (the wise teacher) develop credibly and smoothly. Father Callahan, a Catholic priest, and Jimmy, a local doctor, are also pulled into the group. After around two hundred pages, the reader is fully caught up in the affairs of this small country town. And then King suddenly hits us with shocks and action, and keeps the pressure on for the rest of the book.

Spoilers ahead! The plotting and background work all pay off with some chilling moments: a little dead boy floats at a window, begging to be let in; Susan teams up with Mark, a child with a love of the old Universal-style monsters, for an ill-fated expedition into the Marsten house. Her subsequent transformation into a vampire leads to a turning point in the book, as our heroes are forced to destroy a friend and ally. This, as you might expect, means war. Other major characters are either sidetracked or killed off as the plot races ahead, gradually forcing Ben and Mark together to face the monstrous Barlow alone. And while King considerably raises the bar in terms of violence and gore as compared to that in Carrie, we are shown how physically and emotionally overwhelming these things can be for those who witness them (especially for children).

'Salem's Lot is King's first real page turner, blending thrills and horror into the initial, insidious machinations of evil. Much is made of the necessity for suspension of belief among the main characters (ie if you refuse to even entertain the possibility of vampires, you've already lost), and this lesson is not lost on the reader: we must accept that these things are real if we are to truly feel a chill down our spines when a branch scrapes the window in the dead of night. Fortunately, the lengthy build-up is entirely successful in its depiction of a small town being slowly but completely overrun by monsters, and 'Salem's Lot is just as enjoyable as I remembered it being.

Next: The Shining.


Will said...

Isn't Straker the name of one of the central characters in the original "Dracula" novel?

Dan said...

Are you thinking of Bram Stoker?

Will said...

No I'm sure it is something to do with Jonathan Straker, or something. Although all the letters of "Straker" are in "Bram Stoker", leaving the letters MOB. I don't think that we should downplay the significance of this!

Dan said...

It's Jonathan Harker you're thinking of... Another way of looking at it is that 'Straker' replaces the middle 'o' of 'Stoker' with the middle 'ra' of 'Bram'. Mystery solved?