Stakes and Hammers: Getting to the Heart of 'SALEM'S LOT
This is a painful admission for a die-hard Stephen King fan such as myself, but I read 'Salem's Lot for the first time this year. My familiarity with King’s work is considerable, but there are unconscionable gaps for me. I’ve never been able to bring myself to read The Dead Zone, for instance, because I love the movie so much (it’s my favorite King adaptation, in fact, judging them all solely on their merits as films). Cujo and Christine? No good excuses. I just haven’t gotten to them yet. I will. I'll get to them all one day. But 'Salem's Lot has always bugged me more than the others. Somehow I knew that I was depriving myself of a major book by not reading it.
And I was right. 'Salem's Lot is something special, but I wasn’t as easily convinced as I had expected to be. The truth is, it burns a little slow in the first half or so. You know, until the vampire action starts ramping up to a fever pitch. I realized three things as the book shifted into that higher gear:
1. Stephen King has become a better writer over the years (and he was better than just about anyone else playing the game to begin with). Here you see the brilliance of his pen in dizzying flashes, such as Mark Petrie's harrowing escape from the clutches of Mr. Straker and in the chilling letter left behind by Kurt Barlow for his pursuers to discover.
2. In 'Salem's Lot, King was honing a skill that would become central to his later work—namely, how to maximize the scare quotient by making readers care about the characters first.
3. I wish to hell I had been old enough to read this sucker when it originally hit bookshelves over forty years ago. It must have charred the wood wherever it rested.
Ironically, it’s the second of these points that marks the novel’s only real deficiency. King has practically delineated his book into two pieces: The Part in Which You Get to Know and Care about the Townspeople of Jerusalem’s Lot and The Part in Which You Get to Watch Him Flick Them from the Land of the Living One by One. Later novels, like IT and 11/22/63—hell, The Stand—reveal a more seamless and integrated approach, which creates a denser stew of wonder, suspense, terror, and humanity ... in King’s immensely talented hands, at least.
But don’t get me wrong. 'Salem's Lot is one hell of a book. I can see why anyone who encountered it upon its initial publication would tout it as one of King's towering achievements. It ranks very high even without the aid of nostalgia. I was reminded more than once while reading it what it was like to believe in vampires as a kid, and to want to believe in them as a slightly older kid. And looking at the other side of the coin for a moment, even the somewhat drawn-out first half of the novel does make for a suffocating contrast when King finally leads you down his rabbit hole. It’s like when Metallica fools you with the acoustic-guitar opening of “Battery,” off their Master of Puppets album. Just when you think you’re safe (although you know you really aren’t), strains of acoustic guitar music drop away to reveal a seething grind of electric guitar, drum, and bass kinetics.
Only in 'Salem's Lot, the weapons are stakes and hammers, not guitars and amplifiers.
And that’s probably where this little review should end. I’ve said my piece. But I think Stephen King’s reputation is established firmly enough that it can withstand a couple of minor, nitpicky complaints about his decades-old vampire novel. Whaddya know? That just happens to be the very number I have right here in my pocket.
1. What the hell happened to Father Callahan? Watching him fizzle out of the story was as painful as enduring one of the novel’s many character deaths/undeaths. Barlow obviously had something special in store for the priest, what with his unholy communion and all, so where’s the payoff?
2. Who padlocked Barlow into the root cellar under Eva Miller’s boardinghouse? Straker is dead and gone by then, so we can check him off the list. It can be explained away easily enough, I suppose, but it seems that King might have devoted a sentence or two to this logistical detail. It may have been interesting to have Callahan secure the padlock, in fact, before skipping town: one act of servitude that reconnects him with his faith, perhaps, and goads him on to commit the only act of resistance he's capable of in his compromised state—to flee the moribund community of Jerusalem's Lot.
My real intent in including these beefs is to illustrate that there’s a puzzling magic preventing such misses from counting against Stephen King in the long run. When a novel has an honest-to-God heartbeat, and a breathing soul, much can be forgiven. And ladies and gentlemen, ’Salem’s Lot has heart and soul. Believe it. Even if you’ve convinced yourself that you can easily live your life without reading another goddamn vampire story, treat yourself to ’Salem’s Lot, if you haven’t already. It’s the real deal. Bram Stoker would be proud.