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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.