Stephen King first found his way onto the international stage with 1974’s bestseller, Carrie. But it was his next published novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, that cemented his reputation as America’s foremost writer of horror fiction. King, who had been working in obscurity until his newfound success, had two unpublished manuscripts. In his 2005 introduction to ‘Salem’s Lot, King recalls a conversation with his editor Bill Thompson, who was enthusiastic about one of the two manuscripts, calling it ‘Peyton Place with vampires’. It had bestselling potential, Thompson had said, but there was one problem: the decision would forever type him as a horror writer. King was relieved: ‘I don’t care what they call me as long as the checks don’t bounce’.
The cheques didn’t bounce. In the four decades since ‘Salem Lot’s publication in 1975, Stephen King has become one of the world’s bestselling living authors. And, while his work ranges a broad range of styles and genres, including thrillers, fantasy, and nonfiction, his reputation as the ‘King of Horror’ persists. It seems Thompson had been right on both counts.
‘Salem’s Lot, in case you were wondering, is short for Jerusalem’s Lot, a fictional rural town in King’s home state of Maine. Set in the early 1970s, this shaggy but compelling novel follows the story of one Ben Mears, a grieving writer returning to the hometown of his childhood – the Lot – to exorcise troubling memories. Ben’s arrival in the town, and his fascination with the forbidding Marsten House that overlooks it, coincides with the arrival of another: an ancient European vampire named Barlow. As the narrative unfolds, the vampire’s grip on the small-town community strengthens as he converts its population into nocturnal undead servants.
‘Salem’s Lot can be read as a retelling of Dracula set in small-town Maine. King makes no secret of his debt to Bram Stoker’s popular chiller, listing it in the afterword as a formative influence on his development as a writer. Some of the scenes of the novel are structured as deliberate homages to the original text, and Dracula and its brave crew of light are explicitly referenced on several occasions. Where Stoker’s haphazard masterpiece offers a glimpse at Victorian obsessions, ‘Salem’s Lot dwells on the cultural anxieties of post-Vietnam America. Both novels are uneasy about empire and foreign invasion, and they each provide pointed commentaries on the march of scientific progress.
“‘Salem’s Lot can be read as a retelling of Dracula set in small-town Maine. King makes no secret of his debt to Bram Stoker’s popular chiller”
Yet, where Dracula might appear to champion the advance of modernity as an enlightening force, ‘Salem’s Lot is deeply ambivalent, even hostile, to its implications. This is another issue that King discusses in his afterword, where he expresses his intention to publish an ‘inverted Dracula’: ‘In Stoker’s novel,’ he writes, ‘the optimism of Victorian England shines through everything like the newly invented electric light. Ancient evil comes to the city and is sent scatting (not without some struggle, it is true) by thoroughly modern vampire-hunters who use blood transfusions and stenography and typewriting machines’. King’s intervention? ‘My novel could look through the other end of the telescope,’ he suggests, ‘at a world where electric lights and modern inventions would actually aid the incubus, by rendering belief in him all but impossible’. Modern advancement has thus reached a point where cultural folklore and superstition has been all but banished by logic, reason, and rationality.
King certainly achieves his point, but for me the strength of ‘Salem’s Lot does not rest in purposeful social critique. Rather, what is most compelling about this early novel is the delight it takes in antiquated traditions and local community histories. Such local myths and folk histories are rich in sinister intrigue, and recur again and again in the narrative: from the mysterious fire of ’51 to the murder-suicide of bootlegger Hubert Marsten and his wife, Birdie. As readers, we become much like the Lot’s very own town gossip Mabel Werts, whose mind encompasses ‘over five decades of necrology, adultery, thievery, and insanity’. Our thoughts and preoccupations turn toward the past, and some of the novel’s most chilling moments occur while the narrator dispassionately surveys the Lot’s hidden history:
“The town has its secrets, and keeps them well. The people don’t know them all. They know old Albie Crane’s wife ran off with a traveling man from New York City – or they think they know it. But Albie cracked her skull open after the traveling man had left her cold and then he tied a block on her feet and tumbled her down the old well and twenty years later Albie died peacefully in his bed of a heart attack, just as his son Joe will die later in the story, and perhaps someday a kid will stumble on the old well where it is hidden by choked blackberry creepers and pull back the whitened, weather-smoothed boards and see that crumbling skeleton staring blankly up from the bottom of that rock-lined pit, the sweet traveling man’s necklace still dangling, green and mossy, over her rib cage.”
In its recounting of newspaper articles, farmer’s almanacs, local rumours, and hidden secrets, ‘Salem’s Lot masterfully captures the darker side of American small-town life. This concept of the novel as an assemblage of public and private documents, which King takes from Stoker, finds its most effective expression in what I consider to be his finest book, It (1986). While King’s bloodsucking text captures a frozen moment in America’s post-Vietnam era, his greatness as a horror writer lies in an abiding fascination with hidden, recurring patterns of historical violence. What is most disquieting about the novel is not its supernatural elements, but its account of the dark conspiracies that communities keep.