Salem’s Lot or Hey You Remember Back When Stephen King Was Great

So I hadn’t read anything in a while till a few weeks ago when at about one o’clock in the morning one night I decided to finally read The Giver. Great book, and it’s easy to see why a ton of people have to read it in middle school. It’s young adult dystopian novel that’s really well put together, with some great thematic and dramatic revelations. It’s an easy read that comes recommended.

But after that I decided to continue the theme of reading books that I’ve been meaning to read for years and chose ‘Salem’s Lot. It has always been one of his more famous novels, and as an avid King read for a good portion of my life I’d always wanted to read it. I’ve had it sitting on my bookshelf for about three years now; so even after putting in the effort of purchasing the book, Id never managed to get around to reading it.

Having finished it yesterday, I have to say that it’s easy to see why it is one of his most famous works; it’s pretty straightforward and pretty great.

It’s the first time that King uses a full small town as his cast of characters, making the reading feel like a behind the scenes presence at times in all the little dramas of small town life. The whole thing starts off slow, with plenty of buildup. So by the time the vampire stuff really starts in around page 200 you’ve got a decent investment in the main characters, and an idea of where most of the secondary characters stand. So even though some characters are mentioned  briefly and then brought back later on, you still get the feeling that they’re all in the middle of the shit that’s going down.

I think that King said it quite well when he said that ‘Salem’s Lot has more in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Dracula. Cause the book overall is just as much about the entire town succumbing to the vampire menace as it is the characters themselves. You see early signs of King’s habit of using small Maine towns as characters of their own. It’s just as chilling to watch ‘Salems Lot the town shrivel and die helplessly as it is to read the terror of the characters.

To give credit where credit is due, King’s work has at times been some of the most frightening stuff I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything that terrified me the way Pet Semetary did; and I remember at one point while reading The Shinning when i was twelve, I had to turn on all the lights on in the house before I could fall asleep.

Having said that there is one masterful sequence in the book that for me genuinely left me freaked out and uncomfortable for a while. It’s just a sequence in which one character hears a bump on the second floor of his home, and though frightened tells the woman he’s with to continue talking to him as he slowly ascends his stairs. As a reader you know what’s going to be at the top, and the character knows it too, so the entire sequence is just a great little passage of tension building that manages to be borderline perfect.

Through much of the book the idea of the vampires plays out not as a bunch of monsters, but as a sort of unstoppable, subversive force, which enables them to actually be frightening. Because seriously vampires are mostly played out, have been for a while, and it takes some skilled handiwork to make them menacing in any manner beyond “OMG MONSTERS”. It’s the feeling of powerlessness to stop the inevitable that King brings to the main characters and the reader, that creates most of the terror, and it works.

Unfortunately like a lot of King’s novels he doesn’t totally nail the ending, it seems slightly easier than it should have for the characters, but it doesn’t ruin the book at all, it’s just kinda “Really that’s the big finale?”. The coda pretty much makes up for it  though as it’s kinda badass; and as a seasoned King reader I was just grateful that he didn’t pull a really stupid “good magical forces save the day through plot convenience” like he does a couple times in his later works, Needful Things and The Dark Half being the worst offenders in my opinion.

Honestly if you’ve never read Stephen King, or only read a few of his more famous works, the I’d recommend Salem’s Lot as a good King Starter novel. It’s creepy and shows a pretty good example of his writing, before the King Universe became as intertwined as it did in the later years.

It’s about vampires who are actually bloodthirsty and frightening instead of the ones that are effeminate and sparkle, and these days that’s always a plus.

  1. i really did enjoy this book when i read it. and i liked your review of it. i became a fan of king a long time ago. i remember reading IT outloud to my younger brother when i was in like 3rd grade and was terrified of storm drains for a good long time 🙂 i have to say as far as his books go, i fell completely in love with the Dark Tower series. and i wholely agree that his endings are lackluster after all the book. i hate when he leaves it on a cliff hanger 😦

    • I think I’ve really gravitated towards King as a writer more than any other author. I love the interconnected-ness, of his later works and the Dark Tower Universe. While the last book in the Dark Tower series wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be, the I did find the cyclical revelation of the ending to be satisfying enough.

    • Patrick
    • April 4th, 2010

    Nice review, Jon. Haven’t read this particular King book, but am now tempted… though my favorites of his aren’t really his ‘horror’ novels. The Stand is and will always be his masterpiece to me… which the Dark Tower would’ve been if not for the catastrophe that was the last book. Cop-out ending for the loss. Anyway, keep up the random ramblings.

    • Gonna have to agree with you on that one, “The Stand” is King’s Masterpiece

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