Release Date: October 17, 1975
Synopsis (from Goodreads) – “Thousands of miles away from the small township of ‘Salem’s Lot, two terrified people, a man and a boy, still share the secrets of those clapboard houses and tree-lined streets. They must return to ‘Salem’s Lot for a final confrontation with the unspeakable evil that lives on in the town.”
Welcome to Part 3 of A King’s Ransom, where I travel through time and visit all Stephen King novels and the movies and TV shows based on these works. Click here to find links to my past Stephen King review articles for this series, including Carrie and the original movie adaptation from 1976.
SALEM’S LOT REVIEW
The year was 1975.
Stephen King had enjoyed remarkable success with his first published novel Carrie, which was a best-seller and netted the new horror author an eye-popping $400,000, of which $200,000 went to King himself. The successful debut novel made King’s second release very important. It could continue to push his career to the stratosphere, or it could cause it to crash back to Earth.
In 1975, the only thing most people knew about vampires came from Hammer Horror films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. There were also the Dracula movies at Universal in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but all those movies kept Dracula as a foreign presence, in the castles and backlands of Transylvania and other exotic locations.
Interview with the Vampire, the Anne Rice novel that some claim revitalized the vampire myth for a new world didn’t arrive until 1976. That made Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, the book that initially brought vampires to small-town America.
However, while most people consider Salem’s Lot to be a great vampire novel, it is much more than that. Originally titled Second Coming and then later re-titled Jerusalem’s Lot before settling on Salem’s Lot, the book is more of a story of small-town America – albeit one with vampires infecting it.
King himself has said that he was influenced more by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House when writing the story of Salem’s Lot. He didn’t hide that either, as the main protagonist of the novel, author Ben Mears, namedrops that seminal horror novel throughout the story.
The story sees Ben, a successful author trying to write his next big hit after the untimely death of his wife, come back home to Salem’s Lot. He lived there as a young boy for a few years, and the town stuck in his mind. One of the biggest reasons he wanted to come home was because of the Marsten House, where former Depression-era mobster Hubie Marsten lived – and died. Ben wanted to rent out the home, stay there, and write his new novel.
This is where the haunted house aspect rises, as Ben has a story about his childhood and the house. He and some friends thought it would be a good dare to go into the house – which most people considered haunted since Marsten killed his family and himself. Ben takes the dare, goes upstairs and sees Marsten hanging by his neck – where he died years before. Marsten then looks at Ben, and the child runs and never looks back.
However, Ben can’t rent out the house because strangers have moved into town – art dealers named Kurt Barlow and Richard Straker. No one knows them, and only the local realtor has even seen Straker. They plan to open a new dealership in town to sell high-end antiques to vacationers passing through.
Of course, Kurt Barlow is the vampire, and soon he starts to infect the entire town, turning locals into vampires without anyone having any idea what is going on. What this novel is about is a town that is slowly dying – and no one knows it until it is too late. Much of the book deals with an extensive cast of characters – some that only get glancing introductions – but all a vital part of the town that will one day sit as a ghost town.
According to Stephen King, he knew that vampires were a “comic-book menace” and he figured that he could make them scary if he created a town real enough to make their arrival so devastating.
While there were a ton of characters – enough to make a reader confused if they were not paying close enough attention – there were only a handful of primary characters in the novel. Ben Mears started his quest to stop the vampires with some close friends, including his new girlfriend Susan, a young boy named Mark Petrie, a teacher named Matt Burke, a priest named Father Callahan and a doctor named Jimmy Cody. This being a Stephen King novel – not all of them survive, and at least one of the deaths is still shocking to this day.
However, the vast cast of characters allows King to showcase how the town had severe problems before the vampires ever showed up. Bonnie Sawyer was a bored housewife having an affair with a telephone repairman named Corey behind the back of her husband, Reggie. Eva Miller is a kind woman who runs a boarding house and at one time was the lover of the town drunk Ed “Weasel” Craig.
Larry Crockett is the real-estate agent who sold the Marsten House to Barlow and Straker for a nice bribe. Audrey Hersey is the town gossip and always has her binoculars close. Homer McCaslin is the sheriff with no aspirations on being a hero. Sandy is a 17-year-old mother who beats and abuses her 10-month-old son. Charlie Rhodes is the school bus driver who seems to hold a hatred of the kids in town.
There are even more characters introduced from Salem’s Lot, all of them have their own unique stories that play out in the pages of the novel, and most of them die or flee the town.
On a side note, fans of the Dark Tower series know that Father Callahan plays a significant role in that story, which makes it slightly surprising that he does not play as active a role in this novel. He plays no more a part in the story than the other listed townspeople, but his story is far from over with by the time the book ends.
The book is best when telling the story of the people of the town, as they fall one by one, and falters a little when dealing with the hunt to bring down the vampires. One of the complaints about King’s novels is that he has terrific books with endings that seem rushed and almost anticlimactic. Carrie did not face that problem. However, the final confrontation between Ben and Barlow was much less impactful than what came before.
However, what came before showed how brutal King could be when it came to writing horror. The scenes with Sandy beating her baby, the scenes after Reggie caught his wife cheating on him, and the many scenes of children turned into vampires coming for their parents were some of the most disturbing that King has written. The pure horror of Ben looking through the Marsten House for the missing Susan was horrifyingly heartbreaking as well.
Stephen King proved with Carrie that he could write about people and make you care about them, even as the world burns around them. In Salem’s Lot, he proved that he could also make you despise and fear people as well – even as the world dies around them.