“Salem’s Lot” (Post 1/3)

salems-lot-01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2/3

Post 3/3


 

Stephen King’s second-published novel, released in 1975. I read a hardcover collection of King’s first three books, which means the page numbers (191 – 639) will look very odd if you’re trying to follow along with a different edition.

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Writer Ben Mears returns to Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, a town he spent several years in as a child. Trying to work through demons in his past, he finds hope for the future in new friendships and an emerging romance with a local woman. But his arrival coincides with a new demon – a vampire – who terrorizes the town and people Mears loves.

King has a couple of standard novel-motifs and this is his huge cast, small town New England, supernatural-shit-hitting-the-fan extravaganza in the style of Needful Things (a near-flawless Salem’s Lot 2.0), Under the Dome and The Regulators. Salem’s Lot is the weakest of that group; too long to be the journey of a single character (which is what it’s ultimately reduced to) and too short to justify its huge cast. It should have been cut down to focus more on Ben Mears or beefed up to give the scope and mythology of It or The Stand.

Nit-picking aside, this is an entertaining read with creepy scenes and nods to classics (Dracula, of course, but also a good dose of Shirley Jackson). You could do much worse if you’re looking to spend some time in King Country.


 

[1] George Seferis is quoted several times. We’ve encountered Seferis before, in The Magus (note [86]).

The Prologue:

Old friend, what are you looking for?

After those many years abroad you come

With images you tended

Under foreign skies

Far away from your own land.

(p.189)

This is from “The Return of the Exile.” The full poem can be found here.

 

Part Two introduction:

This column has

A hole. Can you see

The Queen of the Dead?

(p.371)

An untitled Seferis haiku.

 

And both quotes in the Epilogue:

Among those decimated villages

Upon this headland naked to the south wind

With the trail of mountains before us,

hiding you

Who will reckon up our decision to forget?

Who will accept our offering at this end

of autumn?

(p.631)

From the poem “Mythistorema.” The full text can be found here, with a slightly different translation.

Now she’s eyeless.

The snakes she held once

Eat up her hands.

(p.631)

I can’t find the source of the original haiku, only other people quoting it.

[2] Fact check:

A small town in Vermont called Momson. During the summer of 1923, Momson apparently just dried up and blew away, and all 312 residents went with it.

(p.194)

Momson and its disappearance are inventions of Salems Lot.

[3] Reference:

Others, of a less supernatural bent, remember the young men who “disappeared” in the Houston, Texas, area some three years ago [~1972] only to be discovered in grisly mass graves.

(p.196)

 

“Like that thing in Houston two years ago.”

(p.310)

Between 1970 and 1973 at least 28 boys were murdered by three men in Houston, Texas. The crimes became known as the Houston Mass Murders and came to light after one of the murderers fatally shot one of his accomplices.

[4] Inconsistency/Error?:

The tall man’s name was mentioned in the course of the [newspaper] story.

(p.193)

The “tall man” in the Prologue is our main character, Ben Mears. In the section of newspaper article Ben reads, the name Ben Mears is not mentioned. The article trails off, so it’s possible Mears was mentioned later in the article, but this is a piece of deception for a first-time reader.

I don’t know why King is coy about Ben’s identity in the Prologue. Once the book gets going, it’s clear who our hero is.

[5] In the Prologue, which takes place after the majority of events in Salem’s Lot, the relationship between Ben and Mark (the “tall man” and the “boy”) has profound depth. But the relationship isn’t developed or even properly formed in the narrative. We see them go through horrific events together, but they never connect; we don’t see this family-like bond form. King just gives us interactions that come off as uncomfortable instead of moving.

A week later he awoke sweating from a nightmare and called out the boy’s name.

“I’m going back,” he said.

The boy paled beneath his tan.

“Can you come with me?” the man asked.

“Do you love me?”

“Yes. God, yes.”

The boy began to weep, and the tall man held him.

(p.199)

Take out the “Do you love me?” / “Yes. God, yes” exchange and this works much better.

Near the end, we another uncomfortably written exchange. This is a man talking to a boy, remember; the intensity is very strange. Weirder still is that we never see this relationship from Mark’s perspective. How does this kid feel to have a man – a virtual strange – saying “I need you?”

“I want you with me,” Ben said more softly. He felt a germ of self-disgust in his stomach. He sounded like a football coach before the big game. “I don’t care who’s tried to stop him before. I don’t care if Attila the Hun played him and lost. I’m going to have my shot – I want you with me. I need you.” And that was the truth, pure and naked.

(p.607)

[6] In a borderline-cheating move, King starts Part One by quoting Shirley Jackson’s incredible opening lines from The Haunting of Hill House; one of the best openings of any work of fiction:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

(p.201)

Now, I just called this cheating, but King has also hurt himself. His portrayal of the Marsten House never makes good on the promise of this opening. All he’s done is reminded us of a work that mastered the haunted house genre.

[7] Reference:

“We only got one channel anyway – lots of country music, farm reports, and Kitty the Klown.”

(p.213)

I have no idea if Kitty the Klown was a real thing in the 1950s (the time period Ben is referencing). I only get references to Salem’s Lot when looking it up.

[8] Ben and Susan’s love story lacks warmth; he is too self-consumed to care about her as an individual and she falls for him because he represents the world outside Jerusalem’s Lot. This short exchange sets the tone:

He stopped, amazed. He had made a speech.

“You talk just like your books,” she said, awed.

He laughed. “I never said anything like that before. Not out loud.”

“What did you do after your mother… after she died?”

“Knocked around,” he said briefly. “Eat your ice cream.”

She did.

(p.214)

If someone told me to eat my ice cream like I was a child (within fifteen minutes of meeting me), I wouldn’t be seeing that person again.

[9] In the Prologue, we are told that Ben is working on a book. Early on, there’s a feeling that Salem’s Lot itself might be that book:

In all small towns, scandal is always simmering on the back burner, like your Aunt Cindy’s baked beans.

(p.219)

Cindy is the name of the aunt Ben lived with while in Jerusalem’s Lot. Having the narrator make this statement (“your Aunt Cindy”) is a bizarre step into second-person that isn’t repeated. I’m not sure what to make of it.

The sense that we may be reading Ben’s lightly fictionalized (and third-person) version of witnessed events falls away by Part Two. Overall, there’s a strange inconsistency in Salem’s Lot between the first and second halves. Characters and situations are set-up and then left hanging (note [17]). The narrative tone and rhythm shifts. This may have happened in the editing process.

[10] The third-person narrator knows all, but switches between past tense about the town to present tense, as though there’s confusion whether Jerusalem’s Lot still exists or is dead. In this case, the tense shift happens mid-sentence:

There were three selectmen, the town constable, an overseer of the poor, a town clerk (to register your car you have to go out on the Taggart Stream Road and brave two mean dogs who ran loose in the yard).

(p.219)

Is this a typo (“ran” should be “run”) or is King purposefully drifting through tenses to ease us from the Prologue (which takes place after the ruin of Jerusalem’s Lot) to the “present” of when Ben arrives in town?

[11] Reference:

“They say the Mad Bomber looked like a gardener.”

(p.221)

George Metesky (1903 – 1994), better known as the Mad Bomber, terrorized New York City for 16 years in the 1940s and 1950s with explosives that he planted in theaters, terminals, libraries, and offices. Metesky planted at least 33 bombs, of which 22 exploded, injuring 15 people. He was arrested in 1957, found legally insane, and committed to a state mental hospital until his release in 1973. He died twenty years later at his home.

[12]

The scandal and violence connected with the house had occurred before their births, but small towns have long memories and pass their horrors down ceremonially from generation to generation.

(p.225)

[13] Reference:

The completed sets of Dickens, Scott, and Mariatt had been scavenged for the Jersusalem’s Lot Public Library.

(p.227)

I can’t find an author by the name of Mariatt. There was a British author named Frederick Marryat (1792 – 1848) who was an acquaintance of Charles Dickens’. Marriat may be a typo or alternate spelling of the name.

[14] Vocabulary:

He was ten months old, but sickly and puling for his age.

(p.239)

pule

verb – (literary) – cry querulously or weakly.

[15]

He was good-looking in an open, pleasant way.

(p.241)

[16] Vocabulary:

[He] hadn’t been able to cadge many beers.

(p.244)

verb – (informal) – ask for or obtain (something to which one is not strictly entitled).

[17]

Their tails dragged after them like thick pink wires. Dud loved to shoot rats.

(p.252)

These junkyard rats are established in the beginning of Salem’s Lot and then disappear. King, in his non-fiction look at horror, Danse Macabre, explains:

I decided I would let Barlow – my version of Count Dracula – also use the rats, and to that end I gave the town of Jerusalem’s Lot an open dump, where there are lots of rats. I played on the presence of the rats there several times in the first couple hundred pages of the novel, and to this day I sometimes get letters asking if I just forgot about the rats, or tried to use them to create atmosphere, or what.

Actually, I used them to create a scene so revolting that my editor at Doubleday (…) suggested strongly that I remove it and substitute something else. (…)

In the first manuscript (…) I had Jimmy go down the stairs and discover – too late – that Barlow had called all the rats from the dump to the cellar of Eva Miller’s boarding house. There was a regular HoJo for rats down there, and Jimmy Cody became the main course.

(DM p.26 – 27)

I’m glad that King took his editor’s suggestion – the scene we get instead is the most terrifying one of the book – but unfortunately, he didn’t give the rats an alternate purpose. They become a piece of atmosphere with no payoff, which – no matter the reason for it – comes off looking like a mistake.

[18] Reference:

Lawrence Crockett (…) put away the book he had been reading (Satan’s Sex Slaves) and set his watch by the whistle.

(p.253)

Not the title of a book, but a porn film from 1974.

[19] I like this non-traditional expression of dialogue:

“Hon,” Babs said, closing in on her with a sigh, “that’s what they all say.”

The sigh wafted the odor of Juicy Fruit gum, and Babs asked Susan if she had seen that some folks were opening up a new furniture store in the old Village Washtub. Expensive stuff by the look of it, but wouldn’t it be nice if they had a nice little hurricane lamp to match the one she had in her apartment and getting away from home and living in town was the smartest move she’d ever made and hadn’t it been a nice summer? It seemed a shame it ever had to end.

(p.261)

It’s an effective way to establish Sarah’s dreamy, tuned-out state.

[20] Reference:

He had just finished readings for a three-act farce called Charley’s Problem.

(p.263)

Doesn’t appear to be a real play.

[21] References:

He was not a Mr. Chips languishing away in a rustic corner of America and waiting for Ross Hunter to discover him.

(p.264)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a novella about the life of a schoolteacher, Mr. Chipping, written by James Hilton and first published in 1934. The novel has been adapted for film and television.

Ross Hunter (1926 – 1996) was an American film and television producer and actor. After serving in World War II, he returned to his job as a drama teacher. He eventually moved to Los Angeles after his students sent his photo to Paramount Pictures.

Hunter does not appear to have connections to any adaptation of “Mr. Chips” and this reference by King might refer to Hunter having been discovered while a teacher.


Post 2/3

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