‘Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel, is utterly brilliant. Essentially a book of two halves, it takes the mythos and legends of vampires, and transplants it into a modern (well, the 1970s) small-town America. As we gradually get to know and love – and hate – the locals, an impending sense of doom gradually creeps over us, as we build up to the explosive final scenes.
As with Carrie, much of this book is concerned with character. As I said in the introduction to my King Quest, for King, character is all. It is essential that we have an image in our minds of everything and everyone therein before we can truly engage with, or care about, the way in which the story ends. ‘Salem’s Lot features a theme King will return to, time and again throughout all of his work – creating a town which lives and breathes, inhabited by an array of characters creating a full spectrum of society. There are loveable characters, such as kindly teacher Matt Burke, and Eva, trying to manage her B&B, when every room is rented by older men with drink problems, right the way through to the bitter new mother, who beats her child to stop it crying, and the husband who flushes the pills down the toilet and then proceeds to rape his wife every night. We have deformed men who run the town dump, mocked by everyone. There are busy-body old women who sit in their houses with binoculars next to them, the phone at their elbow as they eat their meals. Any human flaw is represented in one or another of these characters, and as such, we identify with their needs, their problems, and so we grow to care about them – even those most despicable of characters can somehow create a sense of empathy.
The main character, though, is The Lot itself. In long, flowing narrative, King expands on his descriptions at points throughout the novel. “In the fall, night comes like this in the Lot:” begins one chapter beginning only 100 pages from the end of the story. As carnage is ensuing, and chaos breaking out, King takes a breath, and reminds us that this town should function like every other. There are processes, protocols, for this time of year, ones which should be followed to the letter. But as all hell breaks loose, it seems that only King is interested in these systems. In ‘Salem’s Lot, one line rings true over all others: “There’s little good in sedentary small towns. Mostly indifference, spiced with an occasional vapid evil”. This summarises much of his work perfectly.
In the chapter “The Lot (III)”, we see this darkness within all of the inhabitants. We are able to glimpse at the horror within each of them. But we are not asked to judge, as the town does not judge. We are not reading the book to make fleeting judgements of society. Rather, we are here to learn. We are spectators, as we must always be with novels. We cannot interfere – as with Carrie, we know that many of these people will die. Most, in fact. Indeed, the only two who we know definitely survive are “the tall man” and “the boy”, as we see them in the prologue. Which means that, regardless how these people live their lives, they are doomed. Over the course of the 598 pages, we are to see the genocide of this small town, eaten apart by its own depravation. Again, this theme will later be revisited, in stories like The Stand and Under the Dome. There is little that anyone can do to change these events, although a brave few try.
Ben Mears is the aforementioned ‘Tall Man’, and he is what we presume is intended to be the main character. Tall, handsome in a far-off way, he is the outsider to the town. He has his own ghosts, but he is in the Lot to try to cleanse some of those demons. In the first half of the book, we see his new-found relationship with Susan Norton; pretty, harmless, innocent. We see him being regarded with curiosity and disdain by the locals. We see him make new friends, drive around town looking for inspiration for his next book. He is a writer.
Writers are one of the most frequently revisited characters in all of King’s works. From Misery to The Shining, principle characters are authors, trying to understand the world around them as it falls apart. This could be seen as laziness on King’s part – writing what he knows – but instead, he uses these characters as devices to understand the events happening. Whilst a more literal man, a worker or engineer, would try and fail to appreciate the threat, a character like Ben gets it. From the beginning, he understands the dangers. He attempts to excuse it, looking for practical ways in which to test theories, hoping that he is wrong. But deep down, he knows that he isn’t wrong, and that the whole world has gone to hell.
Another of the atypical Kingsian characters is that of Mark Petrie, the ‘boy’ of the prologue. The boy is smart, world-wise and likeable. He is a little effeminate, but deep, and courageous. He is the sort of boy we all wish we had known – or indeed, been. His fight with the school bully, Richie Boddin, has the readers praying that he wins. Bullies like Boddin exist in every walk of life, every environment. Not necessarily through physical harm, but regardless, they torture and taunt, believing, as Boddin does, that the “ground shook beneath his feet”. Petrie’s courage seems to know no bounds – he knows what must be done, and so does it. He visits the Marsten house, with a gun and a stake, and singlehandedly defeats Straker. His understanding of the world, and his focus, are enviable. Whilst hogtied in the lair of the vampire king, as it were, he simply thinks. Practically and methodically, he frees himself, and is able to cripple the bad guy quickly and calmly. This bravery of the young is revisited by King in multiple stories, from It, The Stand and The Body through to Dreamcatcher and Black House.
As I mentioned, this is a slow-burner of a book, a book of two halves. As the darkness is hinted at, but characters go on with their lives unknowingly, we are introduced to each of these characters. Then the shit hits the fan, and the darkness takes over. Each and every one of these characters commits the most heinous acts, fulfilling their darkest fantasies. Characters get their comeuppance so quickly that we can barely breathe before the next murder. Babies are slaughtered – “one leg stuck up grotesquely, like an inverted exclamation point” - dogs are mutilated, dark rites are performed in the nude with the corpses of children, a gravedigger desecrates a grave and opens a coffin to reveal the stench of death and the hunger of the Undead.
It is unrelenting, as Ben, Mark and their small band of Van Helsings fight back, having to ram stakes through the hearts of loved ones, until the blood gushes “black in this chancy, lunatic light: heart’s blood”. As Matt Burke lies bedridden, powerless to move, he sends his crew off to do the work of the Light – a writer, a priest with failing faith, a doctor forced by his own evidence to believe, and a boy who has just seen his parents murdered. As the crew grows smaller, we cannot help but mourn them. Each of these characters has shown such courage in the face of evil – or Evil, or EVIL, depending on your perspective. That Matt dies of a secondary heart attack, rather than in battle, seems unfair. For Jimmy Cody to plunge down the stairs onto knife blades, having survived the first vampire attack in the morgue, is unjust. These people simply do not deserve to die.
Through use of clichés, ones which are openly acknowledged and discussed, the reader is almost on the same page as the characters. We know the stories of stakes through hearts, garlic, sunlight et al. As such, Barlow’s ability to always be one step ahead cheats us too. For such clichés to then be suddenly unfounded – with Barlow’s death, we expect his hordes of Undead to simply fade away, but no such thing happens, and they must be individually vanquished – throws us a curveball and leaves us desperately clinging on to the few facts that we do know for certain. King has us guessing, right to the last, and that’s refreshing. He doesn’t simply make do rehashing an old story. It is fresh, and original, and absolutely horrific.