After clicking off a handful of horror movies ranging from gross to sleepy, I had a hankering for the real deal. Sometimes you want a guaranteed good time in the form of fear-induced adrenaline. That’s why rickety wooden roller coasters and Stephen King books exist.
At first, it seems redundant to read ‘Salem’s Lot. Haven’t we already absorbed it through cultural osmosis? The answer is: No, obviously not. If the word “vampire” makes you think of sulking lovesick teens dipped in glitter, it’s time to go back to Evil Monsters 101.
We begin at the end, hiding out in Mexico with a man and boy. They’re running from something, half expecting it to catch up with them when the man finally spots a story in the Portland paper about a town called Jerusalem’s Lot. After a series of unexplained deaths, the town sits utterly abandoned and no one knows why. The man and boy know they are the only ones who can finish things. If they don’t go back, what happened in ‘Salem’s Lot will happen again and again.
But what happened to the people of Jerusalem’s Lot?
Back up to the day Ben, a not-so-successful author, returns to town. He grew up in The Lot, even played in the abandoned Marsten house that overlooks the whole town. The plan is to return to the house and dig into its dark past, write the book and face a terrifying childhood memory that has festered in his mind ever since. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to face the house as head-on as he’d hoped because it’s already occupied.
Over the course of one day, King takes us around town and into the lives of its residents. We meet everyone from a teen queen turned abusive trailer mommy, to a schoolyard bully and a grave digger. We know Father Callahan hits the bottle hard, and the woman who owns the boarding house has a soft spot for her old lover. By dusk, you know a little something about everyone except the two fellows who moved into the Marsten house. Barlow and Straker.
The story reads like a well-researched historical account of how an ordinary blue collar town falls into a feeding frenzy. Fear and denial drive a core group of characters to link a series of odd deaths and disappearances. Disbelief fuels a lot of the tension early on, when the characters do the exact opposite of what you’re telling them to. You’re warning them “Don’t go in there”, but they do, which means you have to, too.
This is why reading horror (when it’s well done) is so much better than watching it. During a movie you can close your eyes and hum, much to the annoyance of anyone else in the room. Here you have no choice but to go down into the basement – unless you skip the scary parts, but then you should probably just skip the whole book and ask your mommy to push you on the swings instead.
King let’s his characters run away when they have to, but that doesn’t mean they always get away. When you read –
There’s someone upstairs.
– you know you have to go up there. What the characters confront is more than blood suckers with pointy teeth. Their fear is primal and always present.
It was from the spinal cord, a much older network of nerves and ganglia, that the black dread emanated in waves.
My only complaint is the hokey dialog. It took me out of the story a few times, but maybe that’s just me. Who am I to say men don’t talk about “jahoobies” behind closed doors?
Vampires suck the life out of people – they should be terrifying. How King sustains momentum through hundreds of pages is the million dollar question, but what matters most is that he does. In 10, 20, 50 years people will still be reading ‘Salem’s Lot, and hopefully forgive the masses for that whole glittering please-bite-me-so-we-can-be-young-together-forever phase.