‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.7.2019
Book from: Library

‘Salem’s Lot was originally published in 1975. I read the 2005 special edition, which includes the prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” the sequel story “One for the Road,” and deleted scenes.

Jerusalem’s Lot is a small, blue-collar town in Maine, rife with gossip and the petty drama of adultery, alcoholism, greed, and thwarted desires. Widowed young writer Ben Mears returns to the town – briefly his childhood home – to work on a new book triggered by a disturbing childhood memory. As October begins, children begin dying and disappearing, and Ben and a small circle of allies must confront the encroachment of a latter-day Dracula who preys on the residents of ‘Salem’s Lot with increasingly terrifying speed and cruelty.

I pegged ‘Salem’s Lot as my Halloween read this year, but felt sadly lukewarm about the whole thing. The Shining remains the scariest reading experience I can remember, so how could I go wrong with Stephen King + New England vampires?! In short, this is at best highly competent, tends to be hammy rather than spectacular, and lacks compelling characters. (It is impressive considering that King was 23 when he wrote it, though, and I do adore that his ambition was to craft the “Moby Dick of vampire novels.”)

King spends the first third of the book building up the ensemble small-town cast, but the tone is so heavy-handedly, even campily satirical that few of the side characters inspire more than mild amusement or wistfulness. (I admit I was a sucker for the melancholy of the late-in-life almost-romance between boardinghouse-keeper Eva Miller and town drunk Weasel Craig.) The heroic characters, meanwhile, are drawn with a kind of strained virtuousness that comes off as either bland (Ben) or, again, hammy (especially the precociously serious 10-year-old Mark, bleh). The action in the second half is intense and well-paced, but I still felt like I was just following along and waiting to see how things resolved themselves.

A big part of the issue is that I don’t find vampires frightening anymore – though some of the most fun moments of the book are when evil Count Barlow goes off on florid megalomaniacal monologues. (These are more engaging by far than the various ponderous speeches made about the nature of evil, all of which are written in the same voice – for bonus tedium – despite being delivered by different protagonists.) The last chapter is also grimly satisfying, harnessing as it does the hard-bitten mystique of the veteran vampire hunter.

One final point in the book’s favor, as a detailed portrait of small-town darkness: the parallels now to the opiate crisis are chilling.

Predictably, though, I was much more into the Lovecraftian prequel story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” set near the Lot in 1850. Rats in the mansion walls, a profaned church, and an accursed tome If you’re gonna be campy, just give me the Gothic, please.

Worst line in the novel: “He saw that his hands were glowing, as if wreathed in ghost gloves.”

A favorite line from the novel: “Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route 12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place.

Related reading:
Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares, by Jon J. Muth (1993) – review by Emera
100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, ed. Robert Weinberg (1995): review by Emera
Vampire Stories by Women: Venus, Outfangthief, So Runs the World… : review by Emera


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4 thoughts on “‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (1975) E”

  1. Not an unjust review, I think, but I retain more than a little fondness for the book, which I read at an early age, so the familiar genre characters were less familiar to me (I don’t think I had read _Dracula_ before this). I still feel sentimental about the high school English teacher who takes on the Van Helsing role. I didn’t know that King was only 23 years old when he wrote it, and I am suitable impressed. For readers who still feel a chill at the thought of vampires, I think _Salem’s Lot_ will be a rewarding read.

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for dropping by again. I do wish I had read it earlier in life – the mix of gritty adventurousness and melodrama would have been appealing. (Although I would probably have been mad about the only female lead getting unceremoniously vamp’d less than halfway through – I couldn’t help speculating that young King felt like he’d gotten the predatory/piteous antiheroine out of his system with Carrie, because ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have anything close to a Lucy.)

      Isn’t it nuts that he managed this at 23?! He’s a phenomenon.

      1. I read it pretty early in life(I was 18 and I’m far from a youth now) and I liked it. I think King managed to make a hackneyed and unoriginal vampire yarn effective and scary, and that was a considerable achievement.

        I’m tempted to call “Jerusalem’s Lot” a shameless rip-off, but I guess it would be more fair to call it a pastiche or a homage, if there’s a difference.

        I’m going to be very pedantic: Father Callahan says that St. Paul was crucified head downwards. It was actually St. Peter(according to an unreliable tradition).

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