by Darryl Keeping
Thousands of miles away from the small township of ‘Salem’s Lot, two terrified people, a man and a boy, still share the secrets of those clapboard houses and tree-lined streets. They must return to ‘Salem’s Lot for a final confrontation with the unspeakable evil that lives on in the town.
While Carrie had some frightening moments, it focused mostly on the struggle of a young woman through the effects of puberty and bullying…with explosive results! With ‘Salem’s Lot, King really flexes his horror muscles. As I continue with these reviews, anyone not very familiar with King will insist he is a horror novelist, someone who writes gory, pulpy books that hold no meaning beyond the amount of blood spilled. That assumption is wrong for a couple reasons.
First, while a number of King’s novels can be deemed “horror”, many of his works are not. If you haven’t read any King at all, you would probably be surprised to learn that The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, and The Green Mile are all films based on King novels. While there are some supernatural elements to The Green Mile, none of these novels or films could be deemed “horror”. They are stories of every day people doing their best to triumph over difficult situations. Andy Dufresne is a man wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a novella from King’s collection Four Seasons. Another novella from that collection is The Body, a story of four young friends on the cusp of their teenage years taking a journey along some railroad tracks to find the body of a kid presumably hit by a train. That novella became the aforementioned Stand By Me. Such was the stigma placed upon King as “only a genre writer” that the story goes that the name of the film was different than that of the novella it is based on to ensure that the connection to King wasn’t too strong and people would get the “wrong idea”. as it were, about the movie and it’s categorization. As the film, novella, and many other King works make clear, however, this prolific author is much, much more than just a “horror novelist”.
Secondly, even in a book such as ‘Salem’s Lot, a horror novel on it’s surface, King still incorporates themes that many authors of the genre would not think to include. One of the overarching themes of the novel is the xenophobic nature of people living in small towns. What King does here, and what he will perfect in about 10 years from this point with IT, is make the titular community a character. King devotes chapters of the novel to the goings on around Jerusalem’s Lot, the people who live there and the lives they live. It becomes apparent early that there are some shady characters in the town, just like you would find in any other community in America and beyond. Although I’m not sure they necessarily deserve the fate that awaits them when Barlow moves into the Marsten House on the hill.
Another theme prevalent in the novel is the death of the small town; in the case of Jerusalem’s Lot, that death is a literal one. As more and more people are bitten and transformed into a vampire, the community becomes more and more desolate. The parallels are there with people leaving small towns for bigger cities and bigger dreams in real life.
Our hero in this novel is Ben Mears, a novelist (along with teachers, King’s go-to for a protagonist’s profession) who is returning to his hometown to write a novel about the Marsten House, a large home on the hill overlooking town with more than a few stories to tell. Ben himself had a terrifying experience in the house as a child and he feels as though the house is drawing him to it by sheer supernatural force. Ben discovers that the house has been purchased by a Kurt Barlow, who also has an antiques store in town being run by his proxy, Richard Straker (the first two in a long list of awesome King-created names). It soon becomes apparent to Ben that the new guys in town are not what they appear to be. He teams up with a number of locals: Susan Norton, a fan of Mears’ who meets him while reading one of his books (okaaaaaaay…) and Mark Petrie, a young man wise beyond his years. King is sure to include a teacher (of English, natch!) by the name of Matt Burke to help round out the vampire hunters. There are some chills along the way along with the odd surprising and heart-wrenching death. This is also the first of King’s novels that lays the foundation for the Kingverse as characters here will pop up in other King works in the future, most notably the Dark Tower series.
I really enjoyed this novel. King is the master of suspenseful scenes and one in particular with Mark and a race against time to freedom is particularly nerve-wracking. This is one of those novels that will stay in your memory, whether you want it to or not, for quite a while after reading.