Matt's Reviews > 'Salem's Lot

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
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bookshelves: fiction, horror

I don’t read a lot of horror, so it’s taken me a bit longer than most to recognize the genius of Stephen King. Belated as it might be, I am finally making my way through his surprisingly versatile oeuvre. At this point, I think I’ve skimmed off much of the cream, having read several of his undisputed classics (The Stand, It, Pet Sematery, etc). Now I’m ready to bore down into the second level. Salem’s Lot is definitely a step down from King’s best, most enduring novels. That being said, horror done by King can really only be compared to horror done by King.

King is so ubiquitous (he’s written over 50 books) and so much a part of popular culture that it’s become hard to read one of his books without knowing everything about it before the first sentence. Take The Shining, for instance. You might not have tried the novel, but you’ve probably run across Kubrick’s classic film (which King hates), The Simpsons’ spot-on parody (“No beer and no T.V. make Homer go something, something”), or had the ending spoiled as the punch-line to a joke on Friends (Joey does not do well with spoilers).

Salem’s Lot has not had that same widespread cultural impact. It’s been adapted twice for television, as a movie and a miniseries. Despite this, I didn’t know anything about it when I started. This ignorance made for a better reading experience, so I’ll try to tread lightly, just in case you’re as late as I am to the Stephen King show.

Salem’s Lot is set in the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot. A writer named Ben Mears, who grew up there, comes into town to write a novel and exorcise his demons. He starts canoodling with a young artist named Susan, and befriends an aging schoolteacher named Matt. Strange things start happening, emanating from the haunted Marsten House that overlooks the community. Those strange things, you will not be surprised, take a turn for the violent.

I think that’s about all I can safely say, plot-wise. I could probably stop writing right now, review complete. But then what excuse would I have for ignoring my family, specifically the child knocking on my office door right now?

Published in 1975, Salem’s Lot was King’s second novel, after Carrie. You can see early on many of the hallmarks he would work into his later efforts. There is the struggling writer as the lead character. There are children, both in danger and as heroes. There is care and detail taken into constructing Jerusalem’s Lot, which is given both geography and history. As he did later with Derry and Chester’s Mill, King gives you such a comprehensive rendering of Jerusalem’s Lot that you feel you can navigate its streets in your mind.

Salem’s Lot is written in the aggressively third-person omniscient style that he utilizes so well. King leaps from person to person, from consciousness to consciousness, giving you a story from an eclectic collection of viewpoints. Ben might be the moral and plot-necessitated hub, but there are many spokes. Among the dozens of characters, King gives us a small-town constable struggling with his courage; a young mother who abuses her newborn child; a couple engaging in a discrete affair; and a Catholic priest whose struggle is more with the bottle than his faith. Are all these characters necessary to the storyline? No, absolutely not. Many, if not most, could have been shorn. The 653 pages in my trade-paperback edition could easily have been halved, without losing any of the essence. But the excess is what sets King apart. It is what makes him great.

This is not, however, a great Stephen King novel. He is still experimenting with the themes that he’d nail later on. He does not have the complete and utter grasp of his material yet. There are lurches and sudden, jarring stops in the pacing.

Here, more than in his other novels, I strongly felt the outside literary influences guiding King’s hand. (It’s impossible not to, since King name-checks many of them within the story). Salem’s Lot feels like an amalgam of Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Richard Matheson. Elements from those authors’ works are thrown into a pot and set to boil. King then adds his own secret sauce, that sauce being blood, and lots of it. It’s entertaining, but not seamless. There were times I was more interested in literary comparisons of early verses later King than I was in the tale unfolding on the pages before me.

The characterizations are just not there. King has the ability – think Jack Torrance, in The Shining – to create characters of incredible depth and complexity. Characters that are unforgettable. That’s not present in Salem’s Lot. More importantly, the connections between the characters is lacking. Ben saunters into town and quickly falls in love with a woman and becomes BFFs with a guy. This happens overnight, with no real explanation except expediency. As the plot reaches its endgame, and people find themselves in mortal danger, King desperately needs us to believe in the bonds – love, affection, loyalty – between his characters. But it’s just not there. I didn't believe in Ben’s humanity beyond his role as a pawn in King’s chess match. Thus, I didn't feel any stakes when Ben, and the people around him, found themselves struggling with their very lives.

Perhaps it’s not necessary to think so deeply about Salem’s Lot. It’s just a genre throwaway, right? A guilty pleasure worth a cheap thrill? Something to be read at the turning of the season, when leaves change and fall, when the air sharpens like knives, when the long dark of winter begins whistling in the wind?

I don’t think so.

King is an American treasure. He is a master. He has a gift for baking complex and knotty themes into deceptively simple spook stories. His unmatched skill has probably made it easier for us to take him for granted. The guy churns out 800-page blockbusters by the gross, books that’ll be read by millions for years to come. Yet he’ll never get the same fawning attention that some Iowa Writers Workshop alum receives for delivering a slim, affected deconstruction of suburban ennui, or the laurels heaped upon some Harvard-grad twenty-something for capturing the acute travails of being young, sardonic, and overeducated in New York City.

In that spirit, I can say that Salem’s Lot is not King at his best. It is, however, better and more effective than most books you’ll read. And I don’t mean just horror novels. I mean novels in general.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 5, 2016 – Finished Reading
November 6, 2016 – Shelved
November 7, 2016 – Shelved as: fiction
November 7, 2016 – Shelved as: horror

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim I'm late to the show; I haven't read a single King title. That's mostly to do with my distaste for the supernatural, but reviews like yours make me think maybe, just once, to give him a try.


Matt Jim wrote: "I'm late to the show; I haven't read a single King title. That's mostly to do with my distaste for the supernatural, but reviews like yours make me think maybe, just once, to give him a try."

Totally agree with you on the supernatural. I never had a bit of interest in it, or in horror novels in general. It's just in the past few years, usually around Halloween, that I'll give one of his books a try. He's so good at grounding his stories that you barely realize you're reading genre fiction. Now I'm getting hooked.


Morgan I totally agree with you about the way that you get a true sense of place from the way that King writes. That was one of the main reasons that I latched on to this book the first time I read it because he somehow manages to nail the small, creepy nuances that are the undercurrent of certain towns. Great review!


message 4: by Kristi (new) - added it

Kristi Krumnow I'm late to the show as well and have recently read a few of his novels: The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, Mr. Mercedes. They are all good but his prison books (Green and Shawshake) are fucking excellent!!! Pick up those when you get a chance! I'll try Salem, The Shining, and Doctor Sleep next. His book about writing is interesting too and, like Carrie, shows his early writing style.


message 5: by Christi (new) - added it

Christi Wonderful review!


Matt Kristi wrote: "I'm late to the show as well and have recently read a few of his novels: The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, Mr. Mercedes. They are all good but his prison books (Green and Shawshake) are..."

Loved his prison books! I just got Mr. Mercedes. I'm interested in reading some of his non-horror stuff.


Matt Christi wrote: "Wonderful review!"

Thanks!


message 8: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Phillips Having read several Stephen King books, I never got round to this one, though I've got the original tv miniseries. Your review echoes what Grady Hendrix said in his review on Tor.com, except he cited Peyton Place rather than Matheson as a major influence. It seems like King was still finding his voice here, though I generally prefer him when he writes small scale, personal stories rather than tackling big communities and towns, as it results in having too much to hold together. Having wanted to read this book for a while, I feel like I've kind of lost interest now. Perhaps better to stick with the books that influenced it.


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