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'Salem's Lot


Stephen King

'Salem's Lot
average rating is 4 out of 5

Horror, Vampires, Supernatural, Thriller

R. Alex Jenkins

This is a hard review to write because I didn’t enjoy Salem’s Lot as much as I was hoping – my expectations were way too high - although I now better appreciate how good Stephen King is as a writer.

I’ll get straight to the point. This is a terrifically fluid read, but it’s not particularly scary. Essentially, horror for the mainstream - gripping, but not up-all-night intensely compelling - massive on scope with so many characters and potential side stories, in some ways rambling but also coming full circle to focus on the wider picture in a concise and satisfying way.

It’s the sort of book you might buy at a newsstand before a long-haul flight, content with being introduced to so many new characters, friends, families and confidants, seamlessly invited into the fictional world where day-to-day events unpretentiously roll into your subconscious. People get along well in a friendly community in which world building and character development are excellent. When the real action gets going there's already an important sense of investment and personal attachment and Stephen King does a great job of tenderizing our soft underbellies before exposing us to any real threat. He tends to over develop the characters, though, and keeps on introducing less significant personalities instead of concentrating on the core horror, which, for me, failed to deliver enough caustic punch to counter the buildup. It not hard-hitting enough, but these are mild criticisms.

Stephen King is brilliant at developing relationships in a Tolkien-esque and delusional world where human beings are soft little hobbits ready to keep the Shire harmonious at all costs, and once the evil is extinguished, we're all best friends again. The story focuses on friendly chit-chat and getting-to-know-you vibes and is almost clean cut and convivial at times. We know where the evil is coming from, but we won’t get to know what’s going on in the Marsten house until Stephen King is good and ready to tell us, and let’s face it, we never really find out where the evil comes from or why it's there.

It's impressive for only Stephen King’s second book, published in 1975, and I am keen to step back to Carrie, his first book, to compare it with prior knowledge (I knew nothing about Salem’s Lot) and to see if it’s written in the same way, before moving on to later and more mature works, hopefully.

The book gets properly going about a third of the way in when it starts to acknowledge the existence of vampires. And by 40% it ramps up quite a bit, and there's a really mature, educational and rationalized chapter about halfway through that helps to allay any fears that things are becoming OTT or ridiculous, taking things back down to earth before any serious life-changing confrontations can take place. This is a skillful technique of slowing things down when the bombastic nature of monster slaying could get out of hand.

I really enjoy these slowdowns, but this is where I start to query the originality of the book.

There's a large smattering of The Exorcist in here, published three or four years earlier in 1971! Priests with flaming crosses against dark, evil hosts.

There are so many more throwbacks to other important horror books, too, with some openly discussed while others are well hidden.

- The Haunting of Hill House - 1959 - with the house on the hill element. The classic horror trope.

- The Whippoorwill birds from The Dunwich Horror, cawing nightmarish terror in the presence of evil.

- The mention of Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and its character Geraldine who assumes a proto-vampiric role, written around 1797, similar to the lesbian undertones of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, although there are no LGBTQ+ references of any sort in Salem’s Lot.

- Dracula, of course, with vampires needing to be invited in, having extreme hatred of crosses, sunlight and running water, plus stakes, garlic, holy water, metamorphoses into thin air, fangs, etc.

- Straker as the equivalent of Renfield in Dracula, as the human henchman.

- I am Legend - 1954 – let us carve hundreds of stakes to rid the community of the vampire plague!

Yes, I’m thrusting the word cliché around and the excessive use of crosses and bibles gets a bit much. The assumption that vampires are Christian, too? Or anti-Christian. Would a copy of the Koran thrust into a vampire's face have a similar effect? If not, why not? I’m not trying to establish scientific caveats in the plot, but the use of crosses is a bit generic, but then again, so are vampires and I love everything about them!

In vampire literature there’s always a sinister undercurrent. Vampires are subtle, highly educated and maliciously determined. Movie directors sometimes portray them as fast, rushing, powerful super beings, often coming at you in zombie-like hoards, ripping flesh wherever they can. In historical fiction they live in small covens and hide at night in secrecy and are considerably scary, and this is where Stephen King gets it right. This is his version. Vampires will attempt to slowly dominate the entire landscape like an unstoppable and almost invisible plague. Think of the shuffling hoards circling the house every night in I Am Legend (stunning book) and compare that to movie adaptations that have nothing in common with it.

Stephen King is such a fantastic writer that I’m in awe of him, but he emphasizes too much on humans needing to get it right, and less on vampires and how they might feel, which is what makes Let The Right One in so amazing. Sometimes I want more restraint, more unexplained mystery and less hand-holding, less delivered on a plate.

We know we're in for a treat, the question is, how to arrange the final push? I like a bit of blandness, darkness, ordinary textures and failure, but I thought Salem's lot was a bit obvious and convenient and therefore failed to shock or surprise. It feels kind of dated and borrowed.

But this is only his second published novel! Wow! If you gave me fifty versions of myself in a parallel universe with unlimited time, resources and keyboard-tapping monkeys, I couldn't write a tenth as good as this. Like a beehive with its intricate and perfect hexagonal construction, scientifically understandable but also inexplicably complex at how it joins together.

The lack of hard-hitting splatter or gore as the plot unfolds bored me a bit and made the storytelling feel whitewashed, clean and almost sandpapered to a commercial sheen. But hey, when the character development is as good as this?

I wish I'd read this book 40 years ago when I had zero expectations, it might have blown my mind the way Tolkien did - I can imagine my teenage self breathlessly guzzling through the chapters to reach the conclusion - but on closer and more retrospective inspection it’s kind of breezy and farfetched and doesn't always hold up to closer scrutiny, but it's still a great introduction to Stephen King and I’m kind of excited to see what comes next? Who knows, I may become an SK crusader and go on a six-month virtual tour of his novels.

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