I often refer to ‘salem’s Lot as “Peyton Place, but horror.” Because while Stephen King’s second novel (and still one of my favorites) absolutely does its job as a wrenching piece of horror fiction, it’s also a truly insightful and meaningful look at a small town (population 1300) and how everyone knows everyone, as well as the way their lives intersect and connect and cross intricately; we get to know a lot of the townspeople before they succumb to the horror that is overwhelming their little town. If you took the vampires out of the story, you’d have to replace them with something, as there’s no story without them, but at the same time, this novel along with Needful Things some twenty or so years later, are remain two of the best books about life in small towns that I’ve ever read.
I used to reread old Stephen King novels a lot for comfort, losing myself in the worlds he creates and enjoying the stories, the writing, and the characters. ‘salem’s Lot is definitely one of my favorites of his; definitely always in the Top 5, with perhaps only The Stand outranking it.
Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.
They crossed the country on a rambling southwest line in an old Citroen sedan, keeping mostly to secondary roads, traveling in fits and starts. They stopped in three places along the way before reaching their final destination: first in Rhode Island, where the tall man with the black hair worked in a textile mill; then in Youngstown, Ohio, where he worked for three months on a tractor assembly line; and finally in a small California town near the Mexican boarder, where he pumped gas and worked at repairing small foreign cars with an amount of success that was, to him, surprising and gratifying.
Wherever they stopped, he got a Maine newspaper called the Portland Press-Herald and watched it for items concerning a small southern Maine town named Jerusalem’s Lot and the surrounding area. There were such items from time to time.
He wrote an outline of a novel in motel rooms before they Central Falls, Rhode Island, and mailed it to his agent. He had been a mildly successful novelist a million years before, in a time when the darkness had not come over his life. The agent took the outline to his last publisher, who expressed polite interest but no inclination to part with any advance money. “Please” and “thank you,” he told the boy as he tore the agent’s letter up, were still free. He said it without too much bitterness and set about the book anyway.
The boy did not speak much. His face retained a perpetual pinched look, and his eyes were dark–as if they always scanned some bleak inner horizon. In the diners and gas stations where they stopped along the way, he was polite and nothing more. He didn’t seem to want the tall man out of his sight, and the boy seemed nervous when the man left him to use the bathroom. He refused to talk about the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, although the tall man tried to raise the topic from time to time, and he would not look at the Portland newspapers the man sometimes deliberately left around.
When the book was written, they were living in a beach cottage off the highway, and they both swam in the Pacific a freat deal. It was warmer than the Atlantic, and friendlier. It held no memories. The boy began to get very brown.
This is the cover of the version I originally read in high school–I bought it off the paperback rack at the Safeway in Emporia, Kansas. I kept that copy for years; eventually replacing it with a hardcover reprint in the 1990′, before finally getting an old copy with the original cover on eBay (which has since turned out to be a first edition; I love finding all the mistakes in it as I reread it).
I had read Carrie in paperback in one night when I’d borrowed it from a friend; it was only in the last decade that I finally acquired a copy of it to keep and reread periodically (I bought it to read the opening shower scene at Banned Books Night; ironically, the objections to the book have nothing to do with explicit talk about menstruation, or bullying, or violence…people object to the book because of its depiction of Christianity, particularly in the case of Carrie’s fanatic mother, Margaret (whom I always see in my head as Piper Laurie, who should have won an Oscar). I don’t think Carrie was the book that made me begin to question Christianity, to be honest; I think I already was questioning it before I read the book, but it was one of the first times I’d see a disparaging representation of someone committing horrifying abuses in the name of Jesus, or how the way the religion viewed sexuality could be taken to such horrific extremes. But I loved the book and became interested in Stephen King as an author. I was aware of ‘salem’s Lot before I found a copy while grocery shopping with my mom; I’d known he’d published a second book because I saw it in the book club ads (Doubleday, Book of the Month, etc.) in magazines. I had no idea what the book was about when I started reading it–I had no clue it was about vampires, and vampires never even crossed my mind when I started reading. It was a Saturday (Mom always drove into Emporia on Saturday to buy groceries), and I repaired to my room with the book (my homework was already done, and whatever college football game was on that Saturday was of no interest to me) and started reading. I finished reading it at around two in the morning, and was completely blown away by it. There was no way I was going to stop reading, and there was no way to stop reading once the big reveal about the vampires happened and the pace picked up.
The book was utterly terrifying, and it started raining later on that day as I read. I was living in a small town (population 973) and my bedroom window looked out at a corn field that was right across the street. I started seeing, as I read, a lot of similarities between Jerusalem’s Lot in the book and my little town–the characters, the interconnectedness of the community, and like Ben Mears, I was still kind of a stranger in the town. I just remember that when I got to the part where Danny Glick comes to Mark Petrie’s window, the storm outside brushed a tree branch against my window and I literally jumped, the book flying out of my hands and landing across the room in the middle of the floor.
It was also the first time I remember reading a book whose main character was a writer–something Stephen King returns to quite regularly, write what you know indeed–which also helped me connect with the book more; Ben Mears was a publisher novelist of minor success, but had published three books already and hadn’t graduated from college. He also seemed like a real person, living and breathing and absolutely real; it wasn’t until this reread that I realized how much physically he’s like King–tall and slender with thick black hair.
But it was also the first time I’d read anything about vampires that was so clearly set in the real world, in the real present, and with real characters I could relate to–which made it even more terrifying. I started thinking about how easy it would be for, say, a vampire to come to our small little town and how quickly people could be turned, primarily because no one would believe it was actually happening until it was too late–which King handled beautifully in the book.
It still holds up, and I am glad I revisited it.