Doubleday / 1975 / 439 pages
A Novel Critique
It is difficult to imagine the initial response to ’Salem’s Lot. We are aware from the start that something is wrong with the eponymous town, but King deftly skirts the specifics, focusing instead on ’Salem’s Lot’s general unrest. Immersing the reader in the lives of the townspeople of ’Salem’s Lot, King uncovers the dark private lives of those who live in a supposedly idyllic small town: child abuse and neglect, infidelity, gossip mongering, schoolyard bullies, and psychological and physical abuse abound. In these initial pages, isolation emerges itself as King’s main theme – not only the isolation of the town from the larger world (a point King underlines specifically in several passages), but the townspeople’s isolation from each other.
We are also privy to the town’s dark past, specifically the long, private insanity of Hubie Marsten and his wife, ending in a violent murder-suicide. Their former home, known as the Marsten House, looks down on ’Salem’s Lot from a hill, a grim reminder of a poisoned past. When we are first properly introduced to our hero, semi-successful novelist Ben Mears, he is returning to his hometown after twenty-five years to confront his demons. Once, as a child, he had gone into the house on a dare and saw – or thought he saw – Hubie Marsten dangling from the rope he’d hung himself with. Here we sense another motif, one common in King’s work: that of the past reaching out to disastrously affect the present and future, along with characters determined to stop it from doing so. King would later explore this concept to great success in It, From a Buick 8, and Bag of Bones, and to a lesser extent with The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher.
By focusing on these aspects of the book’s narrative, King is able to keep the true horrors hidden. For well over a hundred pages, King gives no blatant indication that ’Salem’s Lot is about vampires. Using misdirection and narrative slight-of-hand, he is able to kill off several characters and begin to incapacitate the town before anyone – including the reader – has even an inkling of what might be going on. Even the initial hardcover illustration gave nothing away, concentrating as King does on the town and the looming presence of the Marsten House.
The shock of discovery must have been tremendous when ’Salem’s Lot was first published. For second- and third-generation readers, that ’Salem’s Lot is a vampire novel comes as no surprise. In addition to the existence of a well-known TV-movie adaptation, later printings of the book also make the revelation explicit: the initial paperback revealed a die-cut illustration of a child with fangs and a drop of blood depending from her mouth. Later back-cover blurbs meant to entice the reader mention “the sucking sounds.”
King’s willingness to operate within traditional vampire lore – utilizing such standard tropes as holy water, crosses, coffins, even garlic – might seem quaint by today’s standards. With such modern and varied interpretations of the vampire mythos such as They Thirst, True Blood, and Twilight, King could be seen as constricting himself to hoary stereotypes that now seem out-of-date, especially to younger readers discovering King for the first time. Two facets of ’Salem’s Lot work against that presumption: first, by applying those traditions in a rural American setting – as opposed to classic European backdrops – King almost singlehandedly modernized the vampire tale. Second, despite the ubiquity of vampires in popular culture, King’s novel still manages to terrify. By allowing the threat of vampirism to work behind the scenes for the first third of the book, King instills a feeling of dread without focus, leaving the reader unsettled. Even when the threat becomes overt, King manages to keep his head vampire, the ancient Barlow, offstage for much of the action. Indeed, he appears in only a few key scenes in the novel; his work is mainly seen in the effect rather than the cause, allowing Barlow to remain mysterious yet deadly.
’Salem’s Lot is King’s second published novel, and it represents a dramatic shift in King’s storytelling. Whereas Carrie was a short novel focusing mainly on a single character, ’Salem’s Lot is longer and far more complex. While Ben Mears is ostensibly the lead character, others, such as the schoolteacher Matt Burke, the child Mark Petrie, priest Father Callahan, and Susan Norton – Ben’s girlfriend – are fully realized and important in their own right. Secondary and tertiary characters have lives and secrets not relating to the main plot, and the way they are weaved together into the tapestry of the town is impressive.
The novel also marks the starting point of a number of interests that will continue to fascinate King in the future, notably the small town in peril (see also It, The Tommyknockers, Under the Dome, and Needful Things), the small group of outsiders banding together against a common threat (Desperation, Dreamcatcher, Cell), and the writer as a main character struggling with inner turmoil (The Dark Half, Misery, Bag of Bones). It also marks the first appearance of the archetypal "haunted house," what critic Michael Collings refers to as King’s Bad Places; the Marsten House is the precursor to the Overlook in The Shining, the Black Hotel in The Talisman, and the Fisherman’s home in Black House.
Carrie gave readers a glimpse of Stephen King as a storyteller, offering hints as to the type of author King would become. With ’Salem’s Lot, however, we begin to sense the maturity and capability with which King would approach his novels and the horror genre in the future.
Out from Momson
Notes on the Illustrated Edition of ’Salem’s Lot
When Centipede Press published a brand-new, illustrated limited edition of ’Salem’s Lot, no one quite new what to make of it. It was almost prohibitively expensive, and many people had never heard of Centipede Press. In addition, they required pre-payment (by either PayPal or credit card) before the book was ever published. The whole thing smelled like a sham.
The problem was, it wasn’t a sham; by the time the King community verified this project’s authenticity, the lot (heh) was sold. Now, copies of the deluxe edition command up to $7,500, and the less-rare (but still uncommon) limited edition is now going for around $1500. (Now we know why Kev got out of the collecting game.)
But now, this amazing edition of this amazing book is being made available to everyone, and I couldn’t be happier. Doubleday, the original publisher of ’Salem’s Lot, has republished the Centipede Press version in an affordable yet quite spiffy hardcover, just in time for Christmas. The illustrations – sufficiently creepy photographs by Jerry Uelsmann – are represented here in high-quality black and white. They have an appropriately autumn feel to them, seeming a cross between Berni Wrightson’s black-and-white illustrations for Cycle of the Werewolf and the lunatic photo-realistic illustrations accompanying the Scream/Press edition of Skeleton Crew.
What’s most intriguing about this edition, though, and what most King fans will go crazy for, are the deleted scenes. When ’Salem’s Lot was originally published, King either opted to or was forced to remove certain scenes, for a variety of reasons (for example, one scene involving a full-scale rat attack was removed because the publishers thought it was far too gory.) Now, these scenes are back, and unlike with The Stand or even The Gunslinger, the expurgated material is not reinstated within the text, but comes afterward in a series of short vignettes. This makes for a somewhat schizophrenic reading experience, but those already familiar with the novel will find no trouble following along.
Some very intriguing bits are here, too: Barlow was once known as Sarlinov, and The Lot itself was at one point referred to as Momson (which seems, to this reader at least, a very obvious way of giving the town a very homey name, one that inspires images of motherhood and family ... only to have that very concept first subverted by the Peyton Place inner workings of the town, then perverted by the appearance of sudden evil). The aforementioned (and infamous) rat scene seems a lot less gory at this late date, but also seems less necessary than one might expect. It’s shocking and brutal, certainly, but not as important to the final book (unlike, say, the excision of the Barney theme song in Desperation) as I’d once previously believed. (Something interesting about the rats, though: in a later scene with Ben and Mark in the cellar, they force the rats to clear a path for them; as they move forward, the rats close ranks behind them. This scene is wildly reminiscent of the much later scene in The Dark Half, when Alan Pangborn is driving through the multitudinous waves of sparrows.)
The absolute best deleted scene is a fairly long discussion between Ben and Susan on the nature of evil, specifically as it relates to the Marsten House. King’s later comments about evil as a “floating” thing crystallize in this scene. And there’s another, shorter discussion later regarding Ben’s short history as a writer that I particularly enjoyed. (Anytime King writes about writing, I’m pretty darn gleeful.)
Rounding out the package are King’s 1999 terrific afterword to the novel (featured prominently in those weird garish trade paperback with the overbright pulp-fiction covers), the peripheral short stories “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road,” and a simply wonderful new foreword, commissioned especially for this edition. It’s certainly the most complete – and most attractive – edition of this book ever published, a necessary and welcome edition to any King fan’s bookshelf.