The Great Stephen King Re-Read: Salem’s Lot

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For years, my favorite Stephen King novel has been Salem’s Lot. After re-reading it years later, I can officially say that still hasn’t changed.

The world of literary vampires has changed drastically since Salem’s Lot’s release in 1975. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles widened the lens on literary vampires, painting them as both tragic and terrifying. This opened the door for other writers to completely redefine the vampire not as monster, but as tragic romantic antihero.

The vampires in Salem’s Lot, while at times tragic, are unapologetically terrifying. But none so much as Count Barlow, the novel’s chief antagonist and king vampire slinking through the shadows. Barlow spends little time on stage. His narrative built, instead, by the residents of Salem’s Lot as they attempt to unravel the deadly mystery he weaves.

Count Barlow as envisioned in the 1979 TV miniseries. He was a lot less Orlok-like in the novel.

As with King’s most gripping works, the horror of Barlow and his growing army of undead isn’t built so much by the in-depth descriptions of their appearance, but in how the human characters that inhabit the town perceive the growing horror. We don’t see Barlow’s terror as much as feel it as it slowly chokes the life out of the town around the characters.

At the center of the novel is Ben Mears, a novelist running from a tragic past toward a distant, but terrifying childhood memory. While Ben is merely a victim of circumstance, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can’t help but feel that his reappearance in the Lot is the catalyst that thrusts the town toward its fatal appointment with fate.

When I first read Salem’s Lot years ago, there was no such thing as an iPhone. Internet was sketchy at best. The world of the Lot seemed isolated, but no more so than any other small town I was familiar with at the time.

Reading the novel now, on my tablet as my Nest cam gives me updates on every bit of movement outside my home, the Lot may feel even more terrifying. Encased in literary amber, Salem’s Lot is a relic of its time that allows you to feel the terror of what horror was like in a world without constant communication. It occurred to me, while reading Salem’s Lot (and The Shining, which I will cover later), that there may be no better time machine than that of a well-written horror novel from the 60s-early 90s.

But obviously, it isn’t the lack of devices that give Salem’s Lot its horror. Were that the case, it wouldn’t have been terrifying in 1975.

There are a lot of things that give Salem’s Lot its terror. The atmosphere of a town under the malevolent eye of the Marsten House that seems to almost float above the town, ready to strike at any time. The growing “body” count as resident after resident falls “ill” only to disappear from regular life later.

But the most terrifying (and frustrating) thing about Salem’s Lot is the way the majority of the residents refuse to see what’s happening around them. Perhaps one of the most oft-used staples in the tropehouse of horror, it’s there because it works and it’s human. The characters are too busy dealing with the skeletons in their own closets to confront and deal with the one menacing the town just outside their front door.

And it’s this that makes Salem’s Lot so enduring as horror fiction. While the story obviously centers around Ben Mears, it’s also the story of a town dealing with the horror of both its own secrets and the darkness that will soon engulf it. Without a doubt, Salem’s Lot is, for me, the pinnacle of vampire fiction, building on the work of Bram Stoker and giving it that homegrown, folksy feel of which King is such a master.

In my mostly chronological (more on that in another post) rereading of King’s fiction, this is the one I almost hated to finish. It’s just that good. It’s one of his that I’ve read a few times and it just gets better with each read. If you haven’t read it, get thee to it. And if you have, reread it again. It will restore your faith in vampires as the monsters and stalkers of the night.

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