Out of all of Stephen King’s books, the one I read over and over again in high school was ‘Salem’s Lot, and why not: VAMPIRES TAKE OVER AN ENTIRE TOWN! Could there be a more awesome book in the entire world? And it’s not just me. King himself has said that he’s got “a special cold spot in my heart for it,” and without a doubt it’s the bunker buster of the horror genre, a title that came along with the right ambitions at the right time and broke things wide open.
So it came as a surprise to re-read it and realize that it’s just not very good.
The bulk of ‘Salem’s Lot was written before King sold Carrie, back when he was still hunched over a school desk in the laundry closet of his mobile home, dead broke, out of hope, and teaching high school. Inspired in part by a classroom syllabus that had him simultaneously teaching Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he later described the book as, “…a peculiar combination of Peyton Place and Dracula…” or, “vampires in Our Town.” Which is sort of the problem.
After selling Carrie and while waiting for it to be published, King returned to ‘Salem’s Lot (then called Second Coming), polished it up, and sent the manuscript for it and for Roadwork to his editor Bill Thompson, asking him to choose between the two. Thompson felt that Roadwork was the more literary of the pair but that ‘Salem’s Lot (with a few changes) had a better chance of commercial success.
The two major changes he requested: remove a gruesome death by rats scene (“I had them swarming all over him like a writhing, furry carpet, biting and chewing, and when he tries to scream a warning to his companions upstairs, one of them scurries into his open mouth and squirms as it gnaws out his tongue,” King later wrote) and to draw out the beginning and make the source of the evil plaguing the small town more ambiguous. King protested that everyone would know it was vampires from the very first chapter and readers would resent the coy, literary striptease. His fans (and he did already have fans of his short fiction) wanted to get right down to business. Thompson pointed out that when King said “everyone” he meant a tiny genre readership. He was writing for a mainstream audience now, Thompson reassured him, the last thing they would be expecting was vampires.
And he was right. At the time, nobody expected vampires in a posh, hardcover bestseller. But nowadays, thanks to its success, ‘Salem’s Lot is synonymous with vampires and this drawn-out beginning feels interminable. One could say it’s establishing the characters, if they weren’t some of the flattest characters ever put on paper.
Ben Mears (whom King pictured as Ben Gazzara), comes to the small town of ‘Salem’s Lot (population 289) to write a book about the evil old Marsten House that sits up on a hill and broods like a gothic hero. The Marsten House will have absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the book but it’s great atmosphere and King expends a lot of words on it. Ben sparks a romance with the extremely boring Susan Norton, who helps him overcome the tragic motorcycle accident in his past. Also on hand are an alcoholic Roman Catholic priest who’s questioning his faith, a handsome young doctor who believes in science, and a quippy bachelor school teacher who’s beloved by his students.
For no particularly good reason, Barlow, an evil vampire complete with European mannerisms and hypno-wheel eyes, and Straker, his human minion, also arrive in ‘Salem’s Lot and move into the evil old Marsten House because…it’s cheap? It has a nice view? They want to turn it into a B&B? We’re never quite sure what draws them to the Lot but by the time the book is over, they’ve sucked the blood of most of the townspeople and turned them into vampires, the survivors have fled, and cue the cheap metaphors for economic devastation and the destruction of small town American life.
‘Salem’s Lot is compulsively readable, the high concept hook snags you right through the lip and reels you in, it’s full of high-five-worthy action scenes, the bad guys are so very, very arrogant that it’s a pleasure to see the smirks wiped right off their faces, and King kills his good guys like it’s going out of style. There are still some clumsy sentences (“An expression of startlement” crosses someone’s face) and characters repeatedly “almost” burst into laughter at inappropriate moments (they also laugh “fearfully,” “queasily,” “evilly” and “nervously” – 31 flavors of adverb-inflected laughter). But the real reason ‘Salem’s Lot isn’t very good is because it was the book where King was trying really, really hard to reach beyond the Weird Tales audience and the stretch marks show.
Heavily influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Grace Metalious’s blockbuster small town scandal novel, Peyton Place, and Shirley Jackson’s great American horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, ‘Salem’s Lot never transcends its influences. It either superimposes Dracula onto a modern-day American setting, or it drops some vampires into Peyton Place and while there’s a certain frission to the juxtaposition, its characters are super-model thin, it strains for importance harder than a constipated Elvis, and King’s imitation of Peyton Place is about as deep as a mud puddle.
Metalious’s novel was an exposé of the secret scandals in small town New England, a “let’s rip off the scabs and let it all bleed” potboiler that sold a bazillion copies. It’s full of abortions, unmarried sex, knuckle-dragging working class types who lock themselves in basements and drink cider until they get the DTs, hypocritical religious cults, and babies born out of wedlock. But it’s also anchored by several complex and well-drawn characters and Metalious’s ability to convincingly write about the joys of small town living as well as its seamier side.
‘Salem’s Lot has no joy and its inhabitants are drawn with crayons. The town is a hillbilly hellhole from the very first page. The heroes are just-add-water, one-dimensional Square-Jawed Champs or Mighty Men with Feet of Clay right out of Central Casting, while the secondary characters who populate the Lot are overheated Peyton Place pastiches. In King’s book, everyone is hiding a terrible secret and the town is populated exclusively by baby-punchers, malicious gossips, secret drinkers, child-hating school bus drivers, porn-loving town selectmen, women’s-clothing-wearing hardware store owners, secret murderers, and pedophile priests. Everyone is either a moron, a bully, or a tramp, and all of them are bitter, sour, and hateful. Even the milkman turns out to secretly hate milk.
King’s heartlessness towards his one dimensional characters gives him the freedom to kill them off with great panache (their deaths are their most interesting qualities), but he also makes the adolescent mistake of assuming that depicting hammy scenes of wife-beating, baby-battering, cheating spouses, abusive husbands, and drunk bullies is somehow writing a mature and adult book. Instead it’s a self-indulgent wallow in dark n’gritty cliches, like an angry adolescent who has just discovered R-rated movies Telling It Like It Is, Man. The result is one-note and tedious.
It’s revealing that the only memorable character in the book is the only new one King bothers to add to his mix: Mark Petrie, an overweight horror nerd whose lifetime of pop culture consumption has been a bootcamp for the vampire apocalypse. The second the vampires parachute into town he’s ready to rock and roll, prepped for action by a lifetime spent consuming horror movies, EC comics, and pulp fiction. Mark is the prototype for the new wave of hero nerds, people like Jesse Eisenberg’s Columbus in Zombieland and Fran Kranz’s stoner, Marty, in Cabin in the Woods. For these guys, being a geek doesn’t make them outcasts, it makes them survivors.
But it’s King’s love of The Haunting of Hill House that really does him in, both for better and for worse. Shirley Jackson was a supreme stylist, and even today Hill House is an unequaled accomplishment; except for Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves no haunted house novel is even within shouting distance. In King’s non-fiction study of horror, Danse Macabre, he labels Jackson’s book as the ur-novel about “the Bad Place” and devotes an entire chapter to Hill House, writing, “It is neither my purpose nor my place here to discuss my own work, but readers of it will know that I’ve dealt with the archetype of the Bad Place at least twice, once obliquely (in ‘Salem’s Lot) and once directly (in The Shining).” In ‘Salem’s Lot it’s the Marsten House, about which King also writes in Danse Macabre, “It was there but it wasn’t doing much except lending atmosphere.”
And that puts a finger directly on the problem. After the lean, mean, speed machine that was Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot gets bogged down in endless passages of purple prose that aspire to Jacksonian greatness but really just sound like endless passages of purple prose. Shotgunning words insures that he occasionally hits the target in these sections with lines about “the soft suck of gravity” that holds people to their hometowns, but more often than not we get dust motes dancing in the “dark and tideless channels of their noses.” His soaring word poetry is all Shirley Jackson hand-me-downs, with a little bit of Ray Bradbury masking tape holding it together.
But these purple passages are important, because they indicate that while King’s ambitions outstripped his abilities, at least he had those ambitions in the first place. When ‘Salem’s Lot was published there wasn’t a field less given to literary claims than horror. It was where you went if you purposefully wanted to reject literature. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist wasn’t famous for being well-written, it was famous for purporting to be true. Rosemary’s Baby was admired not for Ira Levin’s spare style, but for its breakneck narrative. The only widely-read horror novelist with any claim to being a literary stylist was Thomas Tryon, and he was the exception, not the rule. But, as King demonstrates in these purple passages, he wanted to reach higher. He didn’t just want to write gross-out scenes of teenaged bacne, giant green snot bubbles, gushing menstrual blood, pig slaughter, or upthrust bosoms and make a quick buck on the drugstore racks. He wanted to write about people’s lives. He aspired to literature.
Horror didn’t have big ambitions in 1974, but ’Salem’s Lot was a hardcover attempt at a literary novel that also happened to be about vampires eating a small New England town. Often overwrought and eminently skimmable, ‘Salem’s Lot was an indication that Stephen King wasn’t just writing about a couple of people in weird situations, and he wasn’t just writing science fiction or fantasy. He was writing horror, and he was writing it with the same ambitions as the best mainstream novelists of the day. The book is a failure but it’s important as a statement of purpose, a manifesto, an outlining of intentions. King’s reach far exceeds his grasp and ‘Salem’s Lot falls way short of his lofty target, but he would hit these marks in his next book. Because if there’s a keeper out of the entire King canon, it’s The Shining.