Archive for November 21, 2009

Book Review: ‘Salem’s Lot

Stephen King
Paperback, 631 pages
Simon & Schuster
Copyright 1975



I adore Stephen King but I’d always avoided ‘Salem’s Lot due to the subject matter.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinated by vampires and obsessed with reading about them, but I prefer them to be the protagonists of the story rather than horrific monsters that must be staked in order to save the townspeople.

But a few months ago a friend lent it to me and I finally decided to give it a try in October.  I figured that it was fitting since Halloween was coming up.

‘Salem’s Lot (short for Jerusalem’s Lot) is a sleepy, quiet town on the East coast that’s filled with a cast of colorful characters and King introduces you to practically all of them.  The milk man, the town drunk, the Irish Catholic priest, the dysfunctional families, the high school English teacher and the list goes on.  The town itself is even a character and several chapters are told from its point of view. 

When writer Ben Mears, who grew up in the Lot, returns to battle a horrific childhood experience in the Marsten House, where the previous occupant hanged himself in the upstairs bedroom, he discovers that the house has been sold to two strange outsiders.  Determined to confront his demons, he takes up residence in the local boarding house and throws himself into writing his new novel, which is centered around the looming, dilapidated structure that hangs over the town like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. 

Soon after Ben settles in and begins reacquainting himself with the town, strange things begin to happen.  The milk man’s dog is found hanging upside down from the cemetary gates, a young boy disappears in the woods and his brother stumbles home, dazed, with no memory of what occurred.  More people go missing or die mysteriously and Ben joins up with some of the townies, including Father Callahan, a classmate of the missing boy, Mark Petrie, English teacher Matt Burke, and Susan Norton, the girl he’d met shortly after arriving and had been instantly drawn to.  All evidence points to the new owners of the Marsten House, Straker and Barlow, and the group sets out to discover just what  secrets the newcomers are hiding. 

After more attacks and people behaving bizarrely, they soon find out what they’re up against and realize that to fight the evil that had infiltrated ‘Salem’s Lot they would have to face it head on, knowing they probably wouldn’t survive, before it was too late for the entire town. 

From the first chapter, I was sucked into the story and as I got to know the back stories of all the characters I found I could picture ‘Salem’s Lot with perfect clarity.  I didn’t feel as strong a connection to the characters that I usually do in King’s novels, maybe because the point of view jumps around so much, but I was entirely invested in them and desperately wanted them to succeed.  

Here’s an excerpt that stood out for me, from the child Mark’s point of view after facing a nightmare-come-true.  In it he remarks on the differences between a child’s fears and an adult’s:

“They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child.  There is no group therapy or psychiatry or community services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach.  The same lonely battle must be fought night after night  and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.” 

Occasionally I got bogged down with a few too many gossipy details about the town’s residents but overall the story unfolded in a suspense-building pace until the final conflict between the survivors and the evil they sought to snuff out.  And my fears about how the vampires would be portrayed were pretty accurate.  Aside from the master vampire Barlow, who was cunning and sophisticated, the rest were described as little more than brainless sacks of flesh.  There weren’t that many parts where Barlow made an appearance and I wished that a few more chapters could have featured him, or even been written from his point of view.  But that’s just my biased pro-vampire attitude talking.  It wouldn’t have been in line with the story.

Here’s one Barlow quote that I loved:

“Look and see me, puny man.  Look upon Barlow, who has passed the centuries as you have passed hours before a fireplace with a book.  Look and see the great creature of the night whom you would slay with your miserable little stick.  Look upon me, scribbler.  I have written in human lives, and blood has been my ink.  Look upon me and despair!”


To me the story wasn’t so much about the townspeople becoming vampires, as how they reacted to the unbelievable events that gripped the town.  Who would turn tail and flee?  Who would rise to defend the town?  Who would sacrifice themselves to save the ones they loved?  It makes you think about what you and your friends and neighbors would do in the face of such a nightmare.  The answer might not be one that you like.

I would recommend ‘Salem’s Lot to anyone looking for a dark, chilling tale of good versus evil.