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‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
4.25
Book Name: ‘Salem’s Lot
Author: Stephen King
Publisher(s): Doubleday
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Horror
Release Date: October 17, 1975

Novelist Ben Mears returns to his hometown of ‘Salem’s Lot after the death of his wife. He becomes part of local life and begins a new relationship, but things are not going well in the town. An antiques shop has just opened, run by two suspicious men, and a spate of deaths and disappearances plagues the townsfolk. As the death toll rises, so do the dead, and Ben and his friends find themselves taking on a wily vampire and his minions.

‘Salem’s Lot is one of Stephen King’s earliest novels and, I think, one of his best. In the forward to the edition I own, King says it was his version of Dracula, partly an answer and partly a tribute to Bram Stoker’s novel. Like Dracula, and rather like Ramsey Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate His Mother (which King discusses in Danse Macabre), a monster invades normal, quiet life, and a band of people come together to defeat him. In doing so, truths are revealed about the world they are trying to save.

The town of ‘Salem’s Lot is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s read King’s books—or, for that matter, listened to much Bruce Springsteen or seen a film set in small-town America. It’s a minor, unexciting place, full of familiar and generally reasonable people getting on with their lives. They are easily labelled—town gossip, old drunk, rural policeman, wheeler-dealer and so on—but King depicts them well.

Modern readers may well feel ‘Salem’s Lot is too isolated and un-diverse to be convincing as a modern town and feels a bit too much like a caricature. I’m sure places like it existed back in 1975, when ‘Salem’s Lot was first published. It feels convincing, even if it has to convince as a period-piece rather than a story set in the present day, like the 1950s of The Body Snatchers or even The Midwich Cuckoos.

The pacing of ‘Salem’s Lot is very good indeed, and King skilfully increases the tension notch by notch until the bleak conclusion. Certain scenes, including a corpse coming to life in a doctor’s surgery and a showdown between the town priest and the master-vampire, are very strong indeed. It’s definitely a fast-paced, exciting thriller, but there’s more to it than that.

King is no Clive Barker, and this isn’t Nightbreed. The undead are evil, and that’s that, and they deserve no sympathy. The vampires offer a sinister liberation from the rules of sane, decent life.

Nor are the vampires glamorous or gothic in the manner of Anne Rice’s creations. The newly-turned have a sluggish malice, like zombies, and King compares them to insects and grubs. The master-vampire’s genteel mannerisms and grand gestures ring hollow, like a politician trying to impress his audience with false sophistication. I am not sure whether King intended him to be rather unconvincing as a classic vampire in the Bela Lugosi tradition. I don’t think he’s a great villain in himself, and his lines sound a bit cheesy to modern ears.

But that doesn’t really matter. What’s important is what he represents; the disease that he is spreading. I think, for King, the ultimate evil is the decay in good relations between people, the collapse of morality. In that way, ‘Salem’s Lot feels like a warning: the vampires could represent crime, poverty or anything else that destroys communities. In that way, it’s a very modern book. The concerns voiced by the chief policeman towards the end of the novel—that people have just become callous, and everything is falling apart—sound very modern indeed. King’s vampires remind me of the pod creatures in The Body Snatchers. It’s not so much bloody carnage they bring, as decay and collapse. They’re monsters because they’re incapable of goodness—indeed, at the end King makes it clear it’s not exactly Christianity that drives the undead back, but goodness itself.

So, would I recommend this book? Definitely. It’s one of King’s finest novels and is still a frightening, unsettling read. ‘Salem’s Lot is a version of Dracula for the 20th Century, and perhaps for the 21st as well.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Allan Batchelder says:

    I just read it — somehow, I started with Carrie as a boy and read everything of King’s I could get my hands on, but missed this one. I enjoyed it, but I have to say I was confused by the various epilogues, which didn’t seem particularly connected to the main story.

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