Ambitious Reading List: ‘Salem’s Lot By Stephen King (1975)

salem's lot my copyI’m not doing very well with this summer’s Ambitious Reading List. I thought I’d finish The Loo Sanction, but it never quite grabbed me. I tried to start a few other books from the pile, but decided to put Stephen King’s The Dark Tower aside for another of his works: ‘Salem’s Lot.

I knew nothing about this book going in. I didn’t realize it was just his second novel after Carrie and I certainly didn’t know it was about vampires. I kind of wish I hadn’t read that bit of information, but it’s hardly a spoiler, though I was enjoying going into a book that’s been around for so long basically blind.

If you’re like me in that you also don’t know what the book is about, but unlike me in the fact that you want to know some of the details, here goes. Ben Mears lived in the out-of-the-way Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot for a brief time when he was a kid. Something terrifying and unexplainable happened to him while he was there. Now, a grown man with a few novels under his belt, he decides to return to the place, rent the old scary house up on the hill and write a book exorcising his demons. But he’s too late, somebody else has already moved in and the town starts experiencing more strange tragedies and disappearances than they had in quite a while. You know, because of the vampires.

Before I read that bit of info and found out what the book was about, I was very curious to see where the story was going. You spend a lot of time with Ben, but other chapters are dedicated to other characters while some just meander around and let you get to know the people who live in the town. In that way it reminded me quite a bit of King’s later novel Under The Dome because at times it almost felt like these were extraneous dalliances, but they became important later on for various reasons. King’s ability to make you care about towns you’d otherwise drive past and never think about again is incredibly impressive and powerful. As he does in many of his stories, King also sets up a good number of human villains who are oftentimes scarier than the supernatural forces at work and he lets you sit with some of those undesirables to the point where you’re not sure who’s worse.

stephen king's salem's lotBut, this is a vampire story and after about a hundred or so pages (at least of the volume I read which you can see above), you get to the nitty gritty craziness of everyday people facing the very real fact that these supernatural beings we’ve all heard and read about are, in fact, real and trying to kill them. In the ensuing years, vampires have become big business from Fright Night and Lost Boys on to Interview With A Vampire through to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and on to Twilight, but even though I’ve seen my share of bloodsuckers, I appreciated how King used the existing mythology, maybe dug up a few less well known details and threw in some of his own to make this a unique tale even today.

In addition to this main novel, I also read the two short stories set in or near the town from the Night Shift collection “One For The Road” and “Jerusalem’s Lot.” The former is set after the events of the novel during an intense snow storm while the latter is well before and gets into some of the town’s Lovecraftian past. I liked both, but don’t kill yourself to read them immediately following the novel (I happen to have a copy of Night Shift in my to-read pile, but the ebook version also has them included following the main story).

All in all, I found this book not just intense and enjoyable, but inspiring. Like I said, King does an amazing job of making you care about characters. Note that I didn’t say “like.” I don’t like the abusive mother, but I care about what happens to her baby and the eventual justice brought against her. I don’t even really care about the doctor who helps Ben, but I want to know what happens to him. There’s a trick there that I need to learn. In fact, there are lots of writing tools and tricks in King’s arsenal that I need and want to learn. So inspired was I by this book that I’m trying my hand at one of my own that takes a different page out of his playbook: taking the known mundane and making it spooky. Here’s hoping I can make it work.

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