Salem’s Lot is where Stephen King becomes Stephen King. The master of horror. A man who can take a small town and make you feel as if you are living in it. The tone, the atmosphere, the dread. Even more than Carrie, I think this book is the one where he earns the title “Master of Horror”.
One of the earlier ideas in Mr. King’s head was to combine the vampire myth from Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the naturalistic fiction of Frank Norris and EC comics. One thing he points out in his introduction to the 2005 edition of Salem’s Lot is that Stoker’s Dracula is one of the most optimistic horror novels of all time. You don’t doubt that the vampire hunters will come out on top in the end. Stoker’s fascination with science’s innovations and inventions is part of the lore (and lure) of that story. It’s a turn of the century piece dealing with science vs. reason. Blood transfusions. Phonographic cylinders. What King does is look at the vampire myth darkly. Around 1975, the US was dealing with nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons. So it was his idea to reflect those ideas at the time.
Originally titled Second Coming, which his wife Tabitha thought sounded like a sex manual, the title King’s 2nd novel would bounce around as was Jerusalem’s Lot– which his publishers at Doubleday thought sounded like a religious novel- before settling on Salem’s Lot. It’s not the last time we hear of Jerusalem’s Lot or some of its characters. A short story in Night Shift is titled Jerusalem’s Lot and Father Callahan makes an appearance in The Dark Tower series.
Ben Mears is the first character of many who King makes a writer. His is a tortured past dealing with the death of his wife. Ben isn’t one to sit on an intellectual high horse. He hangs with the townsfolk and has a number of admirable qualities. He bonds with a teacher, Matthew Burke, who is my favorite character in the book. While people may peg Ben as being a shoe-in for King himself, I see Burke as more King-like. Susan Norton on the other hand isn’t one of King’s better female characters. She exists more as a plot device than anything. If I had one problem with the book it would be Susan’s thinly drawn character.
Father Callahan is another one of my favorites and many readers of this book can attest as being theirs. He’s not a paint by numbers character. King draws him with care. He carries around a bag of bones in the guise of the bottle. One can even point to this being the earliest example of King hinting at his own addictions during this period in his life. Callahan has a fantastic arc here and the scene between him and Matt Burke is one of the more intriguing dialogue exchanges in the book.
Now the chapter titles don’t just focus on Susan, Ben, Matt or Father Callahan. King names The Lot as a piece that is reoccurring, which justifies it as a character in itself. The same way The Overlook Hotel or The House on Neibolt Street are characters. We’ve dealt with the small town in Carrie, but The Lot is more rich, detailed and unsettling than anything touched on in his previous novel. There’s a festering rot whose roots grow from a house on top of a hill- the Marsten House. Not a haunted house mind you, but a place of menacing evil. And that’s before a vampire takes residence there. It acts as a temple of Ben’s fears from childhood. His encounter with the owner, a devil worshipping ex-mobster. The evil Hubie Marsten brought into existence never left. Even in adulthood, Ben Mears is haunted by it. The evil extends into the nasty proclivities of the townsfolk. King showcases his knack for painting humanity with all of its flaws.
It’s one thing for a writer to have a debut as strong as Carrie. To follow it up with a book just as good, if not better, is a miracle. Salem’s Lot would mark Stephen King as not just another successful writer, but a master of horror. And he’s just getting started.