Filled with wonderful characters and brooding foreshadowing, “Salem’s Lot” still terrifies some forty-eight years after its first publication.
Like any horror-obsessed young man growing up in the 80s and 90s, I developed a healthy interest in Stephen King.
I’m not quite sure at what point I became aware of Mr. King or how much his writing would come to mean to me. But what I do remember is the first King novel I read.
I vividly remember plucking a copy of Salem’s Lot from the family bookcase. It was a 1983 paperback edition with King’s name written in bold purple reflective lettering. To accompany this were illustrations of whom I would later find out to be Barlow and his dead-eyed victims.
Salem’s Lot would be my gateway drug into the beautifully macabre world of Stephen King.
From there, I would seek out the classic Tobe Hooper mini-series Salem’s Lot from 1979 and try to forget the unfortunate Return to Salem’s Lot from 1987. I also think the Rob Lowe mini-series from 2004 was pretty good.
Salem’s Lot would be the beginning of a lifelong obsession with King and his work both on the page and on the screen.
The plot follows Ben Mears, a moderately successful writer who returns to the small town where he spent the happiest part of his childhood.
Ben’s intention is to write his next book based on a terrifying experience he suffered in the old Marsten house. A house shrouded in a murderous past where the shadow of its former owner, Hubie Marsten, looms large over the town.
Two strangers have now purchased the house, and unbeknownst to everyone, the town is being slowly overrun by vampires. Along with Mark Petrie, Susan Nortan, Father Callahan, and Jimmy Cody, Ben is soon forced into a battle of good vs evil.
Re-reading Salem’s Lot is something that I have done consistently for several years, and like all good novels, you find something new each time you read it.
The one thing that has remained with me with each re-read is the sense of foreboding. King manages to sprinkle some of the most bone-chilling acts of evil in amongst the modernity of day-to-day life in “The Lot”. In the same chapter, we follow characters going to the beauty salon, finishing with child abduction and sacrifice.
King weaves together a story that poses some very interesting questions.
On the surface, we get a ripping yarn about a town becoming overrun by vampires. When really, King is serving us a slice of twisted Americana. Salem’s Lot asks the reader to consider things like the true nature of people living within a community, good vs evil, faith, mortality, and the existence of the supernatural.
Central to the terrifying tale are the characters, and like many of King’s works, there are several of them.
One thing that binds many of the characters is that they are all outsiders.
Ben Mears is eyed with suspicion almost immediately by the inhabitants of the town. Mark Petrie, for being the “new kid” in Salem’s Lot, is seen as an outsider by his peers and, indeed, his own family because of his love of magic and monsters.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is where Mark puts the school bully in his place.
Another outsider is Dud Rogers, the humpbacked custodian of the town dump who lusts after Ruthie Crockett but is kept on the periphery of town because of his disability. His eventual turning by Barlow is a classic vampiric moment of seduction and terror.
Then we have Richard Straker and his mysterious business partner Kurt Barlow. Combined with Ben’s arrival, the introduction of Straker and Barlow immediately causes disruption within the town’s equilibrium.
Among my favorite characters is Larry Crockett, the sleazy estate agent blinded by greed and womanizing who unwittingly opens the town’s gates to Straker and Barlow. My inner twelve-year-old still chuckles at King’s use of the word “jahoobies” — so juvenile but so fitting for the character of Crockett.
King lets us spend a significant amount of time getting to know the inhabitants of Salem’s Lot. Although this takes up large parts of the story, at no point did I find myself thinking ok, let’s hurry this along.
I’ve always found that besides being an incredible storyteller, King has always been able to connect with his readers on a particularly relatable level.
I connected with the struggles and challenges faced by the inhabitants of the townspeople, outside of being turned into a vampire.
Salem’s Lot is, in part, a study of the darker side of small-town life. Or, to be more specific, the slow, almost imperceptible death of a small town.
On the surface, Salem’s Lot is a quiet place where nothing out of the ordinary happens. A place where the working class go about their blue-collar jobs. A place where the affluent middle class lives in their two-point-four white picket fence house, and their children play and go to school. Life is safe and normal, but scratch the surface, and the façade crumbles. Domestic violence, greed, resentment, and trauma bubble to the surface.
You might even ask whether the townspeople are simply reverting to their true selves when they become vampires. Is someone like Sandy McDougall, who hits her baby, simply giving into the evil that lurks within her?
I have rabbited on about the deeper meaning within King’s text. But it must be said that SALEM’S LOT is, without a shadow of a doubt, a terrifying novel.
This is why I keep going back to read it all these years later.
From the famously chilling moment of the vampiric Danny Glick appearing at Mark’s window to the reappearance of Mike Ryerson at Matt Burke’s home, there are so many nightmare-inducing moments.
However, the standoff between Father Callahan and Barlow really gets me. Barlow dismisses Callahan with the words, “The boy makes ten of you, false priest,” as Callahan crumbles in the face of true evil and with the final indignation of being forced to drink Barlow’s blood.
It’s the home invasion element of this that has stuck with me. The fact that Barlow was able to strike at the Petries in their home and that even Father Callahan is unable to do anything to stop this.
Salem’s Lot is a fantastic gateway into the works of Stephen King and is the book that I always recommend to anyone who has never read King before.