Book Review: ‘Salem’s Lot

Ben Mears has returned to Jerusalem’s Lot in the hopes that a short residence in Marston House (an old mansion long the subject of town lore) will provide inspiration for his latest novel… and help him exorcise his own demons. But when two boys venture into the surrounding woods and only one comes out alive, Mears comes to the chilling realization that something else is at work in his hometown; something ancient and evil. Very evil.

‘Salem’s Lot marks my first encounter with the work of Stephen King, and it turned out to be both a pleasant surprise and a sore disappointment. The scales were tipped in its favor until about halfway through, making it something I’d like to recommend, but can’t.

The artistic merits of the book are undeniable. King is a superb writer, and his knack for spinning a good yarn – and doing it with style and imagination – is quite remarkable. With  an expert sense of plotting, pacing, and characterization, he reworks the vampire legend and deftly deposits it in a small New England town all but forgotten by the rest of the world. Thus, a story that might have been long-winded and tedious is, instead, crackling with vibrant characters, vibrant suspense, and vibrant writing:

When fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you. (p. 200)

Which brings us to the vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot. They’re really the only one-dimensional characters in the book, and that one dimension is pure darkness. Led by the sinister Mr. Barlow, they hearken back to the good old days when vampires were, y’know, evil. Bill Ott says it best:

Before vampires became sympathetic characters with their own alternate worlds, they used to be bad guys, scary not sexy, and they preferred wreaking havoc in horror novels rather than exuding tortured sensitivity in YA coming-of-age fiction.

Stephen King is no Stephanie Meyer. And for that, I am truly thankful.

Chilling as the vampires are, the town itself is even more chilling. Peaceful enough on the surface, it harbors dark secrets underneath, and the vampires are little more than a tangible manifestation of the evil that already lurks in the hearts and minds of the Lot’s inhabitants. Destroying Barlow is only half the battle: the town needs a stake driven through its heart, too.

And that’s where things get sticky. The counter to this evil is a bizarre mixture of humanism and vague spirituality. We hear plenty about the “power” of the Roman Catholic Church, but God and Jesus Christ are noticeably absent (except as expletives). The crucifix is a powerful weapon against the Undead, but its power is directly proportional to the “faith” of its bearer. Faith in what? God? The Church? Religious clap-trap? The answer is unclear. Ultimately, the sole religious figure, Father Callahan, abandons the town in defeat. We never learn what his fate is. We only know that Mears is left to finish the job alone.

If all this wasn’t enough to convince you to shelve the book, content issues should put the nail in the coffin. From sensuality to crude dialogue to eroticized violence, the sexual content in ‘Salem’s Lot is excessive and unnecessary. Unrealistic? Probably not, but I fail to see why we need our faces rubbed in it. A writer of King’s creative calibre could’ve easily told the same story without the smut. And the book would’ve been all the better for it.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Salem’s Lot”

  1. Great review, Ink Slinger! The best things about Salem’s Lot seem to be: the writing, the captured atmosphere, being truthful enough to show something for what it is: that a vampire is something hideous.
    Liked this review, probably won’t read the book, although I’ve read Bram Stoker quite a few times. The only King book I’ve read was his book on writing, which I truly enjoyed.

    1. You got it: the writing, the atmosphere, and the depiction of the vampires were all stellar; unfortunately, the strange “theology” and objectionable content ruined it. It’s not a book I’d recommend spending time on.

      On Writing is on my shelf, too, and I’m loving it so far. It’ll probably be a favorite. :)

      1. It sounds like SL was somewhere between Bram Stoker, in which ‘holy things’ hold true sway over the unholy, and more modern works in which even the Name of Jesus would never even be considered as the weapon against evil.
        Glad you like his book on writing!
        I see you have a site for film reviews. Have you watched the 1956 version of The Bad Seed? Watching and listening to how evil is portrayed and then dealt with in it is very enlightening. I’ll check out your film site.

  2. Great review, you handled the book and the writer very nicely. Never read the book, and it sounds interesting. If it were not for the content issues it would be a for-sure read.

    1. I’ll probably explore King’s work some more, as I really do enjoy his writing. This one just happened to be a dud. Perhaps Misery or Firestarter will provide a better experience overall. :)

  3. I don’t have much experience with King or the horror genre, but I’m not particularly attracted to either. I enjoyed 11/22/63, but I don’t think it’s exemplary of King’s work in general. Thanks for warning me off, though I don’t think I’d have delved into this one anyway.

    1. I’m not attracted to that genre either, so I won’t be reading all of King’s works. ‘Salem’s Lot had some horrifying parts, but I’d classify it more as a supernatural thriller than anything else. 11/22/63 is on my list of books to check out.

  4. I love Stephen King’s work. He is a good writer, as you say. But you won’t find anything redeeming in his work. He is a proud atheist and his writing always follows suit. You are fortunate that you choose Salem’s Lot as your first book as he does not always bring a distinct line between evil and good. His best book from a theological point of view is The Stand, which is about religious evil vs good. Though all the things you didn’t like about Salem’s Lot are present in all his books. Language especially!

    Have you read Dean Koontz? He is Catholic and his work follows suit. He returned to the Church partway through his career, so his earliest books are not that great but all his more modern stuff is. Each of his books has a religious (Catholic) theme, if you know to look for it. I find redemption is a big theme in them and evil is evil and good is good, there is never any sympathy shown towards the evil characters nor are there any grey characters. I haven’t read all or even a lot of his work yet, but this is what I’ve found in what I’ve read so far. He is not as good an actual writer as Stephen King though.

    I’m Catholic, btw.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Nicola. I have not read any of Koontz’s work, but I’ve been eyeing his Frankenstein books for some time. May have to give him a look sooner rather than later. :)

  5. Good review, even loving Salem’s Lot as much as I do. If you ever want to give King another try, the best places to go are The Stand, Misery, and The Dark Tower series. Speaking of which, I just wanted to point out that Stephen King continued the tale of Father Callahan’s adventures in it.

    1. Thanks for the comment (and for the info on Father Callahan)! :) I intend to check out Misery and The Stand, and my Dad enjoyed The Dark Tower series, so I’ll probably give them a go, too.

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