As part of my Horror Reading Challenge for this year, I decided to read Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I’m slowly working my way through all his books, in publication order, to see how far I’ll get before I’m too scared to continue. At first, I wasn’t very enthused to read this book because I anticipated it being scary and I didn’t much like Carrie, so I was surprised when I started to like it and even more when I was impressed.
‘Salem’s Lot is set in a small town in Maine called Jerusalem’s Lot. It’s told from various points-of-view but our protagonist is Ben Mears, a writer who returns to the Lot to confront his childhood fear — a creepy, old house called the Marsten House — and write about it. While in town, he meets a pretty young woman named Susan and a relationship blossoms between them.
About the same time that Ben appears in town, two men show up to take residence at the Marsten House and open an antique furniture store. One is the mysterious Richard Straker, who people see about town and at the store; but the other, Kurt Barlow, is never seen and is said to be a recluse. Though the men keep to themselves, there is something sinister about their dealings and especially about the Marsten House. When people start to go missing, Ben and a few friends begin to investigate what’s going on.
I tried to do that summary without spoilers. It was hard.
I read the e-book version of this, which I rented from my library via OverDrive, and the edition I received had an essay in the front matter in which King discusses writing this book and the works that influenced it. From that essay, I gathered that ‘Salem’s Lot is a retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I’ve only partially read so I’m sure I missed many references to it though I noticed a few.
As stated above, I didn’t expect to enjoy this as much as I did based on my reading experience with Carrie. For me, Carrie was dry and boring and only picked up a few pages from the end. I didn’t like its structure or how it was written. But ‘Salem’s Lot was a huge leap. It was good and better written than Carrie. It was actually scary (I sorta had a nightmare about it and was scared at night) and I loved how King paced the story to allow fear to build in the reader.
Speaking of its pace, it’s very slow. Actually it creeps, at a snail’s pace or a turtle’s, whichever is slower. The pacing might discourage some readers, but I liked it as it allows the tension and the reader’s fear to build. To slow the pace, King goes off on tangents where he gives us detailed backstories on the townspeople, many who aren’t central to the story, and the town’s history. I appreciated this because I got a strong sense of how it is to live in a small town and how connected the people are. By relaying the story like this, King ensures that the reader will later understand why and how the townspeople react to the threat, vampires. However, I don’t think the pace had to be that slow. Sure it helps to keep the readers on edge, but from how things were resolved, I think the pace could have been sped up a little.
The descriptive writing style and sentence structure also helps to slow the pace and enabled me to easily visualize the setting as well as what is happening. I love descriptive writing so I didn’t mind it here and, as always when I see writing I like, I reread passages, like this one:
“Being in the town is a daily act of utter intercourse, so complete that it makes what you and your wife do in the squeaky bed look like a handshake. Being in the town is prosaic, sensuous, alcoholic. And in the dark, the town is yours and you are the town’s and together you sleep like the dead, like the very stones in your north field. There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take.”
As for the story itself, I liked it. It made me a little scared at night but it wasn’t so bad that I had to stop reading. I was engrossed and would look forward to reading it. However, I was confused when I started because I couldn’t tell if the events in the prologue occurred before or after the rest of the story. Eventually (close to the end), I figured it out. And although this also slowed the story’s pace, I like that King spends a lot of time disproving the logical explanations for the strange occurrences in the town. It helps the reader to suspend belief and believe that supernatural occurrences, monsters from lore, are real.
The characters were okay. My favorite was Mark, the intelligent boy who used his knowledge on fantasy and horror to survive. He made me believe that immersing myself in fantasy books will someday pay off if ever our world is thrown in chaos and the monsters of our dreams become real. I also like Matt, the teacher. He’s a guy I’d like to sit down and have a chat with. I didn’t much care for the protagonist or his girlfriend, who I got pissed at for doing dumb shit and getting caught. (I like that she reflected on watching scary movies and thinking the same thing I was thinking while reading about what she was doing.)
“…and she, with her date’s arm comfortably around her, thinking: What a silly bitch…I’d never do that! And here she was, doing it, and she began to grasp how deep the division between the human cerebrum and the human midbrain had become; how the cerebrum can force one on and on in spite of the warnings given by that instinctive part, which is so similar in physical construction to the brain of the alligator.”
As for my favorite part in the story, that was when Ben realized that it was only up to him and Mark, the little boy, to put a stop to the threat. That moment of his utter despair, loss, and loneliness really stood out to me. All Ben’s comrades were dead. The sheriff refused to help. Ben almost gave up and I could feel how scared he was.
“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
I enjoyed the story. Despite its faults, I think it’s great. It convinced me that Stephen King is a good writer, as everyone says he is. Actually, it reminded me of Billy Coffey’s The Curse of Crow Hollow, a horror novel that I read last year. Both are descriptive, slow paced, set in a small town and go off on tangents about the townspeople, and engrossing.
Quotes from the book:
“Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however…that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.”
“Now she rested there herself, a first edition of a different kind, as mint as when she had first entered the world. Her binding, so to speak, had never even been cracked.”
- Lessons from a Master: Stephen King (bluehavenpress.com)
- Charmed Book Review of “Salem’s Lot” By: Stephen King (charmedbookhavenreviews.wordpress.com)
- Stephen King Round-Up: Carrie & ‘Salem’s Lot (bachelorettesandbooks.wordpress.com)
- The Grand Romances of Stephen King (onfoodandfilm.com)