‘Salem’s Lot is a 1975 horror novel by Stephen King, and it is the prolific author’s second novel. Set in the small fictional town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, the story follows a young author named Benjamin Mears. He has returned to the town, where he spent a number of years growing up, in order to face some old childhood fears and continue working on a new novel inspired by the source of those fears, the foreboding and abandoned old Marsten House, which looms over the town on a hill.
Although his arrival in the Lot is met fairly warmly, a mysterious new pair of residents have arrived at the same time, lodging in that decrepit old mansion that Ben can’t help fixating on. Though at first these changes are simple curiosities, the disappearance of two local boys is a sinister portents of things to come, as the town’s new residents have brought with them a nightmarish blight that threatens to consume the town whole.
This is one of those novels that feels almost impossible to go into completely blind, especially having grown up in a house with a shelf full of King books. It being over 40 years old at this point, it also gets talked about in horror circles, so I’ve had my share of exposure to some of its elements. Nevertheless, it’s a book I’d been meaning to finally dig into for a while now, especially since I finished reading The Dark Tower series years ago, which inherits one of the major characters from this book. It’s kind of surreal to have seen the bizarre path that character’s life went down without having read their relatively grounded origins.
This book contains a lot of the hallmarks of what I love about King’s writing, particularly the frank representations of everyday people. He’s really good at incorporating minor details about the thoughts and feelings of characters, sometimes crude, that perhaps don’t matter to the overall plot, but bring about something honest about the hearts and minds of people. In this vein, the standout character in this novel was ‘salem’s Lot itself, the heart of a place ultimately being its people. Many chapters are dedicated to vignettes of the town’s various residents, their unusual quirks, loves, cruelties, and everything in between. Though most of their characterizations are fairly one-dimensional, there’s enough personality to them all that they form a wonderful mosaic that becomes the very town itself.
The novel was at its best when getting to know the townsfolk, especially as things gradually take a turn for the worse. If you don’t know already, I’ll stop being vague and tell you that it’s vampires, starting with their new ancient resident who kicks off an infection of everyone in town. I loved the way this was depicted with such creeping dread, with a great balance being struck between vampires as more sophisticated villains and monstrous creatures of the night, something to make you want to cover your windows, huddle in place, and wait for sunrise. The story fostered a great sense of hopelessness, as it becomes increasingly apparent just how easily a community like this could be swallowed up by such a threat.
The web of townsfolk did have its drawbacks, however, as King can sometimes be too indulgent in the fine details of his characters, regardless of how minor they are. This was really effective at making these people and their little lives feel genuine, and it definitely added to the town’s sense of character, but at certain points just wanted the story to get a move on, especially since a few characters seemed like they would have a bigger role to play than they actually did. There were also a number of characters that weren’t quite distinct enough, and as result I often had to stop and try to remember who exactly I was reading about.
Ben and his cohorts, including his love interest Susan Norton, schoolteacher Matt Burke, doctor Jimmy Cody, local boy Mark Petrie, and local priest Father Callahan, were each enjoyable enough as characters, though fairly two-dimensional. I was engaged while learning about their lives and watching their relationships unfold, and they were at their best when actively trying to deal with the vampire threat, which was appreciably difficult for such everyday people carry out, but an unfortunate amount of time was also spent on them just coming to grips with the very idea that it is in fact vampires.
At first I had no problem with this, as accepting this would be a fairly big hurdle in small town America in the 1970s, but it started to feel a little too circular as more characters were brought into the fold. It started to feel like there was too much time spent with the characters puzzling it out and planning, that they were becoming too organized when the novel was at its best when the vampire threat felt overwhelming, whether spiritually or physically. Fortunately, overwhelming is precisely the note the story ends on. It’s not an ending without hope or retribution, but I was very compelled by how dark and open-ended it wound up being, without being so open to interpretation that I was left unfulfilled.
‘Salem’s Lot is a great example of vintage Stephen King, leaving no wonder as to why he became a rising star with his first few novels. Some elements are a little dated, especially certain uses of slang and perhaps a few cultural references, but I had no trouble diving into this small-town world as it was slowly swallowed up by night creatures. No one character was especially complex, but all together the town itself was a great character all its own, as well as a spectacular setting for a meeting between modern life and ancient Evil as a true force to be reckoned with.
My Rating: 4 out of 5