StephenKing.com Synopsis: Author Ben Mears returns to ‘Salem's Lot to write a book about a house that has haunted him since childhood only to find his isolated hometown infested with vampires. While the vampires claim more victims, Mears convinces a small group of believers to combat the undead.
C’mon, Steve. Vampires? Really!? That the best you got?
In 1974, Stephen King released Carrie, a bleak pulp horror novel about a bullied girl who happens to have telekinetic powers and destroys her whole town. It wasn’t a terribly inspired premise, but the execution was stellar, showing off what would become the trademark Stephen King hyper-characterization, which embedded the horror in believable people and realistic motivations. Given that the book was originally intended for the trash can, the fact that it got published was a win by itself. But, King managed to catch a tiger by the tail, launching him headlong into sudden literary success. Carrie sold like hotcakes, got optioned for a Hollywood movie, and the publisher was pressing for an immediate follow up to strike while the iron was hot.
King seems to have been caught in a situation he’d never be stuck in again…scrambling for a new book to publish. One has to assume he was flailing around, pulling every drawer to find a manuscript he could submit to the publisher. How else to explain following up a pulp horror smash success with a vampire story that effectively reheats the plot of the original vampire story, Dracula? Started in 1972, ‘Salem’s Lot got passed up by Carrie when King managed to finish it first, which is suggestive of how enthusiastic the author must have been about this baroque vampire story.
Yet, the publisher went with it, and in October, 1975 ‘Salem’s Lot was released on an unsuspecting public, who devoured the book at nearly the same pace as Carrie the year before. While it sold less than Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot was a bona fide hit, proving that even Stephen King’s tossed off ideas are still filled with enough interesting, believable characters to keep the reader turning pages. The premise may have seemed an odd choice for a sophomore novel, but it connected with audiences and proved Carrie wasn’t a fluke, paving the way for King’s true breakout year, 1976 when the Brian de Palma adaptation of Carrie and The Shining would open the doors to full-blown Stephen King hysteria.
Author Jeffery Deaver wrote about the cultural impact of ‘Salem’s Lot:
“’Salem’s Lot single-handedly made popular fiction grow up. While there were many good best-selling writers before him, King, more than anybody since John D. MacDonald, brought reality to genre novels. He’s often remarked that 'Salem's Lot was 'Peyton Place meets Dracula,' and so it was. The rich characterization, the careful and caring social eye, the interplay of storyline and character development announced that writers could take worn themes such as vampirism and make them fresh again.”
Carrie may have a been a singular horror curiosity, but ‘Salem’s Lot proved King could drag out even the most tired and worn of tropes and freshen them up for mass consumption. It may not be the most original or horrifying of his many boogeymen, but there’s still plenty of things that go bump in the night in Lot.
So, yeah, vampires. I guess I can dig it.
In 1905 Albert Einstein published his Theory of Special Relativity, a veritable bombshell of a document that reoriented the entire field of physics. It’s famous for the ubiquitous E = mc2 but this seemingly simple equation had a load of surprising consequences for physical observations. One of the most counterintuitive is the relativity of simultaneity, which states essentially that two events that occur at the same time can actually appear to happen at different times depending on the reference point of the observer. So, for instance, two people could both be bouncing a ball at the same time, but if you’re closer to one than the other, the person you’re closest to will appear to bounce the ball slightly before the one further from you.
100 years after Einstein published his theory, another batch of scientists were researching time from a different angle. University of Munich psychologists, Marc Wittmann and Sandra Lenhoff, were researching the perceived “speeding up of time” for the elderly. They surveyed a batch of participants between 14 and 94 and had them gauge their perception of a variety of time lengths from minutes to decades. As the Editors of Scientific American explain, “For shorter durations—a week, a month, even a year—the subjects' perception of time did not appear to increase with age. Most participants felt that the clock ticked by quickly. But for longer durations, such as a decade, a pattern emerged: older people tended to perceive time as moving faster. When asked to reflect on their lives, the participants older than 40 felt that time elapsed slowly in their childhood but then accelerated steadily through their teenage years into early adulthood.”
'SALEM'S LOT BOOK COVERS
They hypothesized that humans judge time in two different ways: prospective (while the event is happening) and retrospective (looking back on the event). Since the brain has a tendency to make new memories when things are interesting and new, and not when things are routine, our retrospective view of those eventful times can make them seem like they lasted a lot longer. The first quarter of our lives tend to be filled with tons of new and exciting things, while our later life is more routine and prosaic, hence time seems to speed up as you get older.
At its heart, ‘Salem’s Lot is also a document about time. Different time frames move through the narrative, large and small, slow and fast. There’s the speed of the sun as it travels through the sky, creating a brief pool of safety before night comes and the monsters emerge to feed. There’s the passage of the seasons as the timeless village of Jerusalem’s Lot moves from Spring to Summer to Fall, and then to Winter. There is the passing of generations, the rise and fall of industries, the old and new owners of buildings. There is the long age of the Catholic church, ancient and mysterious. And then there is the reign of Barlow, encompassing and superseding them all, burying them in the darkness of his shadow.
These different time frames swim around one another. They blend and shade in places, like Ben Mears’ horrifying memories of the Marsten House. In others they crash full on, obliterating time entirely like Father Callahan’s crushed and defeated crucifix lying on the floor, ancient magic against ancient magic. But throughout, the passage of time is a recurring motif. There’s either not enough time, as the sun pulls its light over the horizon, or there’s all the time in the world. Time is either the last drop of sand in the hourglass, or a rushing river with no end and no beginning.
King uses the passage of time as the central framing device for the book. There are four chapters titled “The Lot,” corresponding roughly with the four seasons, the basic building blocks of a human lifespan. Seasons of the year, seasons of a life. Through these broadly-drawn sketches we see Jerusalem’s Lot move from dying to death to reanimation through the lives of a representative group of individual characters. Like an old man remembering youthful fancies, the final year of these characters’ lives (and the life of the town) seems to pass swiftly because we’re focusing on only a few key moments, the best bits.
Within that basic framing device, we see a wide variety of other units of time. We see the life-altering rapidity of young love in Susan and Ben’s romance, as they go from total strangers (well, sort of given that Susan is a big fan of Ben Mears’ writing) to lovers to husband and wife in a terrible ceremony. We see time pass in generations as old timers recall the days of Hubie Marsten and his horrific murder-suicide, or reminisce on past lovers, or as Matt Burke recalls teaching generations of the same family. And we see time pass in epochs, the age of the Church, and the age of Barlow.
Barlow appears to transcend time; it is one of the key gifts he offers his victims, to no longer be bound by the confines of human time. You can go on being young and beautiful forever, as long as you empty yourself to him. Barlow is patient, content to wait out his rivals as they scramble from obstacle to obstacle. He has the advantage of time, because it doesn’t exist for him. On the other end, Ben and his band of vampire hunters struggle with the shortest and meanest version of time, the movement of the sun across the sky. They are slaves to an objective measure of time, they are bound by its laws. Barlow has all the time in the world; Ben has less than half a day.
The climactic scene culminates in a battle of time frames. As the sun edges out of the sky, time moves too fast for Ben, slipping like water through his fingers. For Barlow, time can’t move fast enough. He is stuck, rigid and helpless until the night takes hold. These two men stare fixedly at the same unit of time, the setting of the sun, yet for each of them time passes quite differently. It is a reversal of the normal state of things: for the young time moves too fast, and for the ancient time moves too slow. In the end, time moves along for all of us, but how we view it depends on where we’re standing.
The vampire is an odd creature. It is at once clearly a folk myth, akin to the Creole conception of the zombie, or the Native American Wendigo, a virulent drain on the life force of the living. And yet, so much of vampire mythology is awash in Catholic conceptions of death and the after-life. No other mythical beast, save for the witch, has been so intertwined with medieval Christian dogma. From the endless fixation on blood (bad blood, poisoned blood, blood lust, the perverted blood of the lamb) to the classic protective remedies of holy water and the crucifix, the vampire may be a creation of Eastern European folk tales, but it has always been filtered through the fears and fever dreams of the Catholic Church.
Although the concept of vampires existed long before Bram Stoker, his imagining of the creatures in Dracula more or less trapped our cultural conception of vampires in amber. He so brilliantly mixed folk tale with flights of fancy, that many of his fictional flourishes we now take as distinctive hallmarks of the vampire, instead of the creations of a single author. For instance, for most of history vampires were thought to look more like human leeches, swollen, and red-complexioned because of the blood they’d recently drank. Fangs also weren’t apart of the folk myth, though elongated fingernails were, which some historians attribute to medieval misunderstanding of how the body decomposes after death. Regardless, the aristocratic, refined, and sexual vampire we so often imagine these days, is directly due to the popularity of Stoker’s Count Dracula, and the widespread popularity of the filmic interpretations in the 1920’s and 1950’s.
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One of the key themes present in Dracula that was a novel addition to the myth of the vampire is the idea of faith. Given its roots as a pre-Christian folk myth, the vampire was not always rooted so tightly in Catholic demonology and sexual paranoia. Stoker took the myth of the vampire and filtered it through the prism of Catholicism, teasing out the obvious sexual underpinnings of the myth, and reimagining the struggle against a vampire as a test of faith, strength, and resolve. Invasion stories were a popular genre among the British, who were wary of their position in the world order, and released those fears through popular fiction that imagined the British mainland overrun by horrific creatures. Dracula was only one of the most popular of the genre, but it is rife with Victorian conceptions of Anglo-Saxon, Christian male virility. The women in the story fall prey to the sexual yearnings of the Count, while the young, faithful Briton males are the heroes of the story, saving the entirety of the British mainland with a few strokes of their knives. In the end it is faith in God and country that give the vampire hunters the strength to defeat the ancient evil.
King has made no attempt to hide the direct connections between Dracula and ‘Salem’s Lot. In the old description of the book at StephenKing.com, he describes the book’s genesis:
"One night over supper I wondered aloud what would happen if Dracula came back in the twentieth century, to America. 'He'd probably be run over by a Yellow Cab on Park Avenue and killed,' my wife said. That closed the discussion, but in the following days, my mind kept returning to the idea. It occurred to me that my wife was probably right – if the legendary Count came to New York, that is. But if he were to show up in a sleepy little country town, what then? I decided I wanted to find out, so I wrote 'Salem's Lot.”
King argues implicitly that Dracula’s failure to take over England was because he started in London instead of in the Cotswolds, and in ‘Salem’s Lot attempts to rectify that failure.
In many ways, ‘Salem’s Lot is almost a direct retelling of the Victorian bestseller; an aristocratic, ancient creature uses go-betweens and threats of violence in order to arrive in his newest resting place under guise of bureaucratic and commercial exploits. Once there, he sets about infecting as many new vampires as he can. If you squint, it’s basically the same story. Yet, rather than simply updating the older tale, King uses it as the starting point in order to create a sort of theme and variations. As ‘Salem’s Lot unfolds, the differences between King’s work and Dracula become ever more apparent.
What’s interesting is that, though King seems adamant about using Barlow to bring vampires back to their ancient, pagan roots, he keeps many of the Catholic trappings of Stoker’s telling, and even makes the theme of faith more obvious. It’s an odd trick that really only works because time has made the bizarre pairing of folklore and Catholicism present in Dracula into household knowledge. Everyone knows that a vampire can be beaten off with a crucifix and holy water and…garlic?
Given King’s penchant for rooting all his genre work in humanist realism, he has to create a reason why all this Catholic mumbo jumbo works against a creature that predates Christ, and which has such obvious disdain for Christian trappings. King does this through the idea of faith: faith in oneself, faith in goodness and moral certainty, and in the case of Father Callahan, religious faith in God Himself. It’s interesting that religion is shown to be the shakiest foundation of faith. In one of the most potent sequences in all of King’s canon, Barlow defeats Callahan’s faith in God, winking out the light of the cross, and forcing Callahan to drink from the poisoned well of his ancient magic. It’s a grotesque perversion of Christ’s command to drink the pure blood of the sacrificial lamb. Disturbingly, King doesn’t allow Callahan to simply fall from grace, but shows us the aftermath as the man, broken and flailing, flees the Lot in a desperate attempt to reclaim his humanity.
The tragedy of Callahan’s character is that it is his faith in Christ that ironically makes him susceptible to Barlow’s challenge. It’s not so much that Callahan doesn’t believe in Christ; he is simply afraid he's no longer worthy of God’s love, and that fear and shame is what causes him to falter. Agnostic characters like Ben, Matt, and Mark labor under no such delusions. They don’t believe in Christ. They believe only in their ability to destroy Barlow through folkloric means, and overcoming their own fear of undeath.
And this is the ultimate irony of ‘Salem’s Lot. Barlow can defeat Callahan because Callahan is crippled by his belief in Christ. At the same time, Ben and Mark are able to defeat Barlow because Barlow is also crippled by his belief. He believes a stake through the heart will destroy him, and so it does. Faith is a double edged sword in King’s work. The characters spend a great deal of time struggling with accepting the reality of vampires, but once they do their faith is what drives them forward. They don’t know whether holy water and garlic and stakes will work, but they take the leap anyway. They risk everything for faith, while Barlow risks nothing. In the end, Barlow is faithless, and so he loses.
‘Salem’s Lot is one of King’s most opaquely sacrilegious works, crushing and spitting out just about every Catholic convention. He even goes so far as to morally destroy the novel’s literal stand-in for the church. Yet, ‘Salem’s Lot is also one of King’s most spiritual books, a treatise on the power of faith, friendship, and morality. The book ends with Ben and Mark returning to the Lot, driven by nothing more than a moral certainty that they must finish what they started. They sacrifice their lives for the good of humanity. And as Christ showed, sacrifice is the root of faith.
The original title for ‘Salem’s Lot was Second Coming, an on-the-nose religious reference that both Doubleday, King’s publisher, and his wife, Tabby, didn’t care for. So King went with Jerusalem’s Lot, before Doubleday shortened it to the title we know and love today, with all the 17th century horror the word “Salem” conjures. That King wanted to go with a title that put the focus on Kurt Barlow, the ancient vampire at the heart of the tale, suggests that both Tabby and Doubleday knew something King didn’t about his little vampire tale…the central character is the town of Jerusalem’s Lot itself.
Whether King understood what he was doing or not is irrelevant; it’s right there in the text. There are four separate chapters titled “The Lot,” which show the progressive deterioration of the town as Barlow’s legion of vampire drones infect more and more people. He shows a cross-section of the town by way of individual vignettes: there is a harried young mother who takes her stress out on her young child; there’s a father and his sons battling over the importance of maintaining the family farm; there’s the slimy real estate agent who’s responsible for selling the Marsten House to Straker and Barlow. These stories, like bizarro world Norman Rockwell paintings, show the reality of small town life on the brink. King tells the tale of the town through the people in it, a nod to the Ancient Greek concept of the demos, which meant simultaneously “the people,” and also “the city.” To the Greeks the city was the people, and so it is in Jerusalem’s Lot. So, ‘Salem’s Lot isn’t just a horror tale about vampires and faith; it’s the story of the destruction of an entire town as the city’s life force, its demos, are destroyed.
This is a common tale. Small Town America has been under attack for almost 50 years. A ruthless combination of Big Business, large-scale farming, highway-building, and government policies that favor Suburban mega-projects have made it nearly impossible for small towns to compete for the demos, the people necessary to maintain a sense of place. This process started as early as the 1950’s when crop quotas and better farming techniques made it possible for corporate farming cooperatives to start swallowing up small family farms. Then came the ever-widening roads, and the FHA loan standards, which prioritized suburban housing developments over the traditional mixed-use development patterns of small towns. Then came the Big Box stores, which grew up on the edge of town and sucked the capital of the demos to the town’s hinterlands, and then off to New York City where it was distributed to shareholders across the globe. Then came the drugs and the crime and the desperation.
‘Salem’s Lot shows this process in fast-forward, projected through the prism of supernatural horror. The average American Small Town may not be in the throes of a vampire attack, but the effect of the Walmart and Dollar General on the edge of town is about the same. Either way, something big and menacing sits on the edge of town and sucks away the life force, leaving a husk, foreboding and forgotten. And at night, the desperate victims come out, with a hunger that won’t go away, seeking needles and pipes, anything to make the hunger go away even if only for a little while.
It’s not Walmart’s fault these towns are desperate; their desperation was the very thing that brought the Big Box giant to town. They were invited in. In the same way Barlow sought out the Lot because it was ripe for the taking. He was invited by Hubie Marsten, who laid out the red carpet when he killed himself and his wife. By the time Barlow arrived, the Lot was already declining, was already ready to take the bite and enter the bliss of the undead.
As Town Constable Parkins Gillespie says near the climax of the book:
“[‘Salem’s Lot] ain’t alive. That’s why he came here. It’s dead, like him. Has been for twenty years or more. Whole country’s goin’ the same way. Me and Nolly went to a drive-in show up in Falmouth a couple of weeks ago, just before they closed her down for the season. I seen more blood and killin’s in that first Western that I seen both years in Korea. Kids was eatin’ popcorn and cheerin’ ‘em on. They prob’ly like bein’ vampires.”
Doctor Jimmy puts an even finer point on it:
“The scariest part of this whole thing…is the relative ease with which a vampire colony could be founded. [‘Salem’s Lot] is a bedroom community for Portland and Lewiston and Gates Falls, mostly. There’s no in-town industry where a rise in absenteeism would be noticed. The schools are three-town consolidated, and if the absence list starts getting a little longer, who notices? A lot of people go to church over in Cumberland, a lot more don’t go at all. And TV has pretty well put the kibosh on the old neighborhood get-togethers, except for the duffers who hang around Milt’s store. All this could be going on with great effectiveness behind the scenes.”
The vampires come to the victims most willing to fall prey. They have to be let in, and Small Town America has been so decimated from decades of neglect that it has left the window wide open. And the vampires are feeding.
When Mike and Ben return to ‘Salem’s Lot to finish what they started, they find an empty town still reeling though Barlow, the original animus for the town’s downfall, is gone. They go to the edge of town and they flick a cigarette into the dry brush, in the same place a raging fire had destroyed much of the town decades before. They’re going to let the purifying grace of fire drive the vampires from their hidey holes into the burning heat of day, and then they’re going to pick them off one by one until there is nothing left of the demos of ‘Salem’s Lot.
It’s a fitting end for a story about renewal and grace and putrefaction, to end in fire and brimstone. But it’s tragic as well. In the end, the only hope for America’s diseased small towns is to burn to the ground.
As the fire catches, Ben says, “They say fire purifies. Purification should count for something, don’t you think?”
That may be so, but it won’t bring Main Street back.
In 1975, Stephen King was not yet the "Master of Horror." He was a young author (still in his 20’s), who’d struck pulp gold with his first published novel. It’s easy with the power of hindsight to see ‘Salem’s Lot as the second step in a continuum that stretches through 4 decades, over 60 published books, and countless Hollywood blockbusters. But in October, 1975 nothing was a sure thing, and King published a relatively safe novel compared to his later, envelope-pushing material. He was a pulp author with a literary education, not yet celebrated or coke-addled or awash in money and prestige, and in many respects it shows in ‘Salem’s Lot.
Most obviously, the subject matter is decidedly pulpy, almost cliché, and the pacing and tone of the novel is slightly erratic (is it a vampire story, a haunted house tale, or a gothic small town character study?) If you were to simply read Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, you could be forgiven for seeing King as s slightly more bedazzled version of the common paperback writer of the time. The mid-1970’s was the moment when genre started to hit the big time, especially horror, and every publisher was scrambling to put out their own pulpy blockbusters. King was very much a part of that movement.
Yet, ‘Salem’s Lot also shows an author starting to explore the boundaries of the genre novel, infecting his narrative with far more realism and character development than the average paperback hack. As much as King has bemoaned the literary creeps that he went to college with, his more avant garde flourishes make it clear he's not content to simply write a ripping good yarn…he also wants to move you. ‘Salem’s Lot is an ambitious novel, perhaps too ambitious for the subject matter, but it shows an artist with the imagination and chops to just maybe break out of the pulp mold and make a dent in the world of literature. Readers would have to wait until 1976’s The Shining for the true “Master” to emerge, but for anyone paying attention, ‘Salem’s Lot showed an author gaining momentum, exploring his limits, and most importantly, having a shit ton of fun.
Like Hubie Marsten paving the way for Barlow, ‘Salem’s Lot gave King the space, notoriety, and confidence he needed to crack open the cellar door of his mind and let the demons come forth. ‘Salem’s Lot may not be a perfect novel, but it cleared the way for one. The apprenticeship was over, and the Master was coming.
- Similar to the witch panics that spread across Europe and America, there were vampire panics, usually occurring around the same time as tuberculosis outbreaks. One such outbreak occurred in New England in the 1880s and 1890s, and in a few cases the townsfolk attributed the disease to vampirism from forces beyond the grave. One example in particular sounds eerily like 'Salem's Lot. The town of Exeter, Rhode Island had been falling apart for decades. "Civil War casualties had taken their toll on the community, and the new railroads and the promise of richer land to the west lured young men away. By 1892...Exeter’s population had dipped to just 961, from a high of more than 2,500 in 1820. Farms were abandoned, many of them later to be seized and burned by the government. 'Some sections looked like a ghost town'" Into this decimated landscape stepped tuberculosis, devastating the community. One family in particular was hit hard, and when one member after another past away the townsfolk decided vampirism was to blame, and exhumed the dead family members' bodies. They decided the youngest daughter was to blame, and burned her liver and heart and fed it to the final, ailing child. Two months later he died too. For more on the story of Exeter, Rhode Island and vampirism in general, check out this LORE podcast.
- 'Salem's Lot is officially part of The Dark Tower multiverse, since Father Callahan appears later in Wolves of Calla where he joins Roland Deschain's Ka-Tet and is featured through to the last book, The Dark Tower.
- There is another odd connection to The Dark Tower multiverse by way of the classic novel, It. In Chapter Ten, the vampire Danny Glick tries to get Mark Petrie to open his window, and in a desperate play to keep out of the vampire's thrall, Mark whispers, "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plan. In vain he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts." This is, of course, the anti-stuttering mantra Bill Denbrough uses to hurt Pennywise during the Ritual of Chud in the last third of It.
- In another strange connection to It, Mark Petrie thinks later in the same chapter, "on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away the terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can't get Jenny nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. There is no group therapy or psychiatry or community social services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonley battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual obfuscation of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood." Almost 10 years to the day, King would make a whole book out of that thought.
- For a great discussion of the history of America's rural/small town deterioration, check out Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler.