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Picking the Bones

'salem's Lot (1975)

by David Carroll

First Appeared in SKIN#1.12

There's little good in sedentary small towns. Mostly indifference spiced with an occasional vapid evil -- or worse, a conscious one...

There are three forces in the town of Jerusalem's Lot, as told by Stephen King -- the good, the evil and the indifferent. Although, as Steve himself says, he is most concerned in his writing with the machinations of Good vs Evil, it is the third category that is perhaps the most important, providing the texture and the background to his tales. It's not always so simple, of course. In his first novel, the indifferent were cast as evil through Carrie White's distorted perception, and in The Stand he kills off the last (and majority) faction in the first third of the book, leaving the remaining two to slug out the theology. But in 'salem's Lot, King's second novel and the first fully realised example of the detail and style that would give him more than a passing popularity, those three factions are clearly defined and the main driving force behind the action.

The novel was a logical follow-up to Carrie in its supernatural themes, perhaps too logical, and already King's editor, Bill Thompson, was worrying about typecasting. After all, the novels King had previously submitted were not in the genre, so he obviously had a wide range (disappointingly, its status as a horror novel didn't stop the editor asking for the removal of Jim Cody's death by rat on the grounds of being too intense). The novel was originally titled Second Coming and based on a conversation King had with his wife, among others, of the coming of Stoker's Dracula to modern America. It is interesting to note that he considered several alternate settings -- the western, the big city -- before alighting on more familiar turf [1].

King's inspiration for writing about small town America came from a variety of sources, including Grace Metalious' Peyton Place, Don Robertson's Paradise Falls and notably Thornton Wilder's Our Town -- and of course his own experiences growing up in Durham, Maine [2]. 'salem's Lot is well named, the novel is about the town, twenty miles north of Portland, zip code 04270, more than anything else. It wasn't the first time it had been written of (the story 'Jerusalem's Lot', written in 1967, was a Lovecraft pastiche, and can be seen to set up the town's attraction to supernatural evil), nor the last. A short sequel was the uneventful but entertaining story 'One for the Road', and King mentioned in the late Seventies that he was thinking seriously of another novel, starting with Father Callahan and with something other than the vampires being the major villain [3]. Those plans don't seem to have gone anywhere, but as King has commented, Castle Rock is just Jerusalem's Lot without the vampires. And of course there was the TV mini-series (later edited down to a two-hour video version) with its own sequel by Larry Cohen. Having only seen the video version, I still feel safe saying there are three forces in the town of Salem's Lot [4] as told by Tobe Hooper, the stupid, the boring and the ineffectual. The second King adaption (though not made until 1979), it was a textbook case on how not to do it -- it had its moments, but in whole it was more concerned with transferring elements from the novel than giving them their own consistency or sense. Return to Salem's Lot is, strangely enough, a much better movie, though has nothing to do with Stephen King (if still managing to look a lot more like my idea of King's town than Tobe Hooper's effort). But back to the novel...

Now the force of good is, of course, our group of Fearless Vampire Killers (as King calls them in Danse Macabre, though unlike the original FVK's, they actual manage to kill some vampires), Ben Mears, Dr Jim Cody, Matt Burke, Father Callahan and perhaps Susan Norton and Mark Petrie. They are not perfect, witness Callahan's fall, but what distinguishes them from the masses is the awareness they show of the greater picture. Ben gives speeches (to his surprise, at one point) about the nature of the Lot and the residue of evil. Father Callahan considers the problem of EVIL, or evil, or perhaps (evil), and the literal force that is the Catholic Church. Matt sits in hospital distributing wisdom on vampirism, and Dr Cody uses his medical knowledge and contacts.

Contrast these characters to the vast majority of the town's populace. Sandy McDougall and baby, Dud Rogers of the town dump, Lawrence Crockett, the local real estate agent, Bonnie Sawyer and husband and lover, the Norton's, the Petries, Mike Ryerson, the grave-digger, Mabel Werts and her binoculars... The list goes on and on, that isn't even a good start to it. These are the townspeople that are Jerusalem's Lot. They are by no means necessarily stupid or mean or without self-awareness, but they are generally caught up in their own affairs, or those of the Lot, and care more for their wife's indiscretions or their own repressed sexuality or the kids on their bus or their money or gossip or whatever than for evil or literary allusions. And they are mostly hurtful, simply because that's the way it is. Perhaps the defining moment for this group comes from Parkins Gillespie, town Constable, in his talk with Ben about leaving town. "['salem's Lot] ain't alive. That's why he came here. It's dead, like him... They prob'ly like bein' vampires". The Fearless Vampire Killers are written with wisdom and intelligence and a remarkable eye for detail. The indifferent are written with that and more, a stark gut-feeling of truth that makes the novel such a masterful achievement. This is one of King's own favourites, and it's not hard to see why.

But sooner or later we have to run into the third group, the evil itself, and that is the book's short-coming. As a novel 'salem's Lot is superb, as a vampire novel, is simply isn't very good.

Of course it has some disadvantages that are beyond it's control. For a start, it wasn't until the year after 'salem's Lot appeared that Anne Rice gave the world Interview with the Vampire. It wouldn't be for another ten years or so before the vampire novel properly came into its own, propelled by Rice and Whitley Streiber and Tanith Lee and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and a number of others into a fully modern genre, the vampire as a character in its own right. There is no sign of any such characterisation in 'salem's Lot. Even the work Matheson had done twenty years earlier in I am Legend towards establishing the vampire as both a physical and social being isn't to be seen. Of course King had different ideas, and deliberately de-emphasised the sexual aspect of the vampire, whilst professing admiration for the minimalist use of Count Dracula in his main source. The underlying subtext he was portraying was of paranoia, 'about all those silent houses, all those drawn shades... In a way, it is more closely related to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than it is to Dracula' [5]. So this explains, for example, why we get no point of view from any transformed characters, or even characters that have been drunk but not killed -- basically all such people are lost completely. But still, I feel it is not too unfair to expect an author to stick to the mythology he has chosen to convey his ideas. If we borrow this month's nitpick from Don Herron's interesting (if rather bitchy) article in Kingdom of Fear [6], that Ben acted stupidly in forgetting to bring a cross to watch over Marjorie Glick (to which I say, so what?), there are more fundamental questions that aren't given answers.

What was the point of the ritual bringing Barlow into town? Why did Straker and Barlow go to such trouble to set up a business in a town they would promptly decimate? Why was Barlow so easy to kill? Stoker's Dracula put up much more resistance, and the final chase in the earlier book was somewhat more exciting. And most importantly, what did the vampires feed on when they had assimilated the thirteen hundred townsfolk? That's a lot of vampires (if you pardon the pun), and Ben didn't get round to starting his fire for over a year. If they took the Lot in a week, why not America in three months?

Maybe the Marsten House had something to do with it. Maybe it has to do with sleeping in 'local soil'. I don't know.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. I have said it's a superb novel and I stand by that, the writing and the characters carry it almost effortlessly. It's also a novel I have a special fondness for, for scaring the shit out of me at the age of fifteen -- the only novel to have ever really done so (it was the end of part one that did it -- and speaking of which, I wonder what the impact would be if you didn't even know about the vampires? That scene, more than a third of the way through, is the first real indication of what's going on, in stark contrast to the previous novel's style).

'salem's Lot is a novel about a number of things, the vampires, the townsfolk, the forces of reason and also of course, the Marsten House (based on an actual house in Durham, from King's childhood). But it was not till two years later, with his third published novel, that King would provide his definitive haunted house tale. That was The Shining, and that's for another day.

[1] Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King. Edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, Warner Books, New York, 1993.
[2] The Stephen King Story, by George Beahm, Warner Books, London, 1992.
[3] King on 'Salem's Lot, in Fangoria #3, December 1979.
[4] Note the lack of initial apostrophe, just to drive copy editors nuts
[5] Written by King himself, quoted in Douglas Winter's The Art of Darkness from 'The Fright Report', Oui, January 1980.
[6] Stephen King: The Good, the Bad and the Academic, Don Herron, in Kingdom of Fear, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, NEL, 1986.


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