Salem's Lot

Monday, March 29, 2010


Salem's Lot
Stephen King, 1975


I have to admit, I winced when I opened this book.  I'm a little hypersensitive to Mr. King's pet narrative devices after reading Under the Dome last month (review pending a break in my posting schedule), which retreads a lot of the ground first walked in Salem's Lot.  But happily, once past the first page I was reminded why they became his favorite narrative devices.  Because when he's on point, it works beautifully.

Man, this was a good American re-telling of Dracula.  King makes no pretensions that it isn't just that, even comes right out and says it in the introduction, also that he tried to blend back in some more horrific elements found in EC Comics.  Old vamp Barlow and his human lackey set up shop in the Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot, with considerable success.  A group of locals figure out what's happening and move against him.  Like most of King's writing, it flows beautifully and reads viscerally, full of great turns of phrase and enough creeping doom to keep me pleasurably off-balance.  Even though I've read this one before.

The characters are great to follow, the vampires creepy, the plot tight.  A motif King would use again many times, recounting the small concurrent happenings that tie to the plot across different places and characters, is used to great effect.  Space is left in the narrative for exploration of a problem that would plague the heroes of many a horror novel: vampires (or other supernatural beasties) are not considered possible in the modern era, but that very fact gives them enormous freedom to operate unhindered.

Mark, first published of King's clever boy heroes, avoids some attacks because he is a horror reader, and knows the stories.  It was pointed out in The Magician's Book that a similar moral is in the Narnia books, the Pevensies can deal with the fantasy world because they read the “right sorts of books”, in that case, heroic fantasy adventure.  I always enjoy it on a somewhat silly level when being a reader is a tactical advantage.  Or, to put it another way....

Perhaps because it isn't set or written that long ago, but I found this book more real, more tangibly possible, than Dracula or I Am Legend.  Which, I think, is why I'm tying it into so many other things; it doesn't sit still as a self-contained tale, only confined to it's own book.

I was interested, rereading this now, to see some of the specific effects/powers which appear here that I know are coming up in some of the later books, too.

For example, the vampire's hypnosis is explicitly linked to eye contact, which I don't remember being the case in the book Dracula, although it certainly shows up in film versions of the same.  Also crosses don't just scare off vampires, they GLOW.  Like Sting.  You could probably use a holy symbol as a vampire detector.

I really like this book, can you tell?  It's Stephen King doing what he does so well: combining supernatural forces with the pettiness of small town life.  King reports in the introduction to this edition that the book was inspired by a conversation with his wife in which they discussed the possibility of a Dracula setting up, not in an American city to parallel London, but in the American countryside instead of the Transylvanian countryside.

I will defer in further explanation to Sherlock Holmes:
“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”  -The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Characteristics of Vampires in Salem's Lot:
Hypnosis upon eye contact
Also control over partially drained victims
Super-strength
Super-speed
No Animal Control
Turn into dust, unclear whether animal transformation is possible.
Appearance seems to be fixed at age of death(?)
Can fly to some degree

Limitations include:
Need darkness, hide and sleep soundly during day
Need to desecrate holy soil
Unclear whether Barlow needs native soil, not stated that he has anything other than himself and his coffin shipped to the house.  Younger vampires sleep wherever they can find hiding places.
Need to be invited into a building
Possibly repelled by garlic, but it doesn't get tested.  They specifically have bulbs, because garlic flowers are not available.
Almost certainly driven back or balked in some way by roses, the vampire has all the local ones gotten rid of.
Driven back by holy symbols, including consecrated host.
Unknown whether difficulty crossing running water
Troubled by a black dog with white spots over its eyes.

New vampires?
Made by draining the blood of the victim, can happen in a single night.  The ingestion of vampire blood by a victim marks a victim as unholy, does not damage health, unclear whether such a victim would become undead eventually.  New vampires acquire cunning, but not exceptional intelligence, gain exceptional speed, strength, ability to turn to dust.  They are not as powerful or as clever as the older vampire.  New vampires can create more new vampires very quickly.  Vampires created in Salem's Lot are all ages and genders, taken depending on opportunity.

How to destroy:
Stab the heart with wooden stake.  As in Dracula, older vampires turn to dust, new ones revert to a normal dead body.  Sunlight causes extreme pain, and probably eventual death, but they can awaken enough to try to get to shade.

1 comment:

Zak said...

King works really well here not trying to turn this into an epic, just telling a very tight and interesting vampire story in small town America.

I love that the vampires here can put on an impersonation of civility, but are first and foremost beasts.

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