Baby mama drama's screamin' on and too much for me to wanna
Stay in one spot, another day of monotony's
Gotten me to the point I'm like a snail
I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
Success is my only mothaf****n' option, failure's not
Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem's lot
- Eminem, Lose Yourself
I grew up in 'Salem's Lot. Many Americans did. The town that is the titular character in Stephen King's second published novel is instantly recognizable to millions of us. It's a dead little place. Nothing ever happens there. Everyone knows everyone, and it is so safe you can leave the keys in the ignition of your pick-up truck at night. If you live there, you probably don't even have a lock on your front door. After all, the crime rate is just about zero. Because 'Salem's Lot doesn't know the inflated and grotesque evils of the big city; its evils are all the small and whimpering kind. The neighbor's wife cheating with the postman. The guy who smacks his girlfriend around. The kids who shoplift at the dime store. But there hasn't been a murder in years, and everyone knows nothing really evil could ever happen there. Just the monotonous and banal evils that slowly bleed you dry like a million paper cuts.
"...The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face..."
When horror works, and it works extraordinarily well in 'Salem's Lot, it does so because it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. In deciding to rewrite Dracula for the 20th century, King understood this perfectly. Stoker's novel worked because it preyed on all sorts of things the late Victorians felt uneasy about, from the dark and Dionysian sexuality underlying proper Apollonian England to fears of foreign powers rising from the East. All King does is import Count Dracula to rural America from late Victorian London, and the effect is chillingly the same. All the lesser evils--the teenage mothers getting knocked up young and taking it out on their kids, the alcoholic priests, the crooked real estate men, the cheating wives, the bullied disabled man--get sucked up into the ensuing vampiric whirlwind and transformed. Vampires don't cast reflections, but 'Salem's Lot makes us squirm because it turns the mirror on us. Like Eminem says in the song, he can't grow old in 'Salem's Lot. He's desperate to escape and become something more. And that is what the vampires in King's novel feed on, far more than blood. They drink up that quiet desperation, that ennui. With their cold dead smiles they seem to say "you will never need to worry about growing old here again."
"...Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route-12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place..."
King makes several references in 'Salem's Lot to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a book that deeply influenced him. No where is that more clear than in the way he characterizes Small Town, USA. 'Salem's Lot is the geographic incarnation of Jackson's protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a deeply conservative and self-obsessed woman who secretly longs for something, anything, to "happen" to her. It finally does; she encounters Hill House and allows it to seduce her. The small Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot just about does the same with its vampires...creatures that of course have to be invited in. There is a grim undercurrent running through the novel that the town is pleased something interesting is finally happening to them. And even when you love your little town, there is always that desire under the surface.
"...No one pronounced Jerusalem's Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of the previous days, it retained every semblance of life..."
It's this quality, this deep and intimate awareness of Americana--and especially small town "folksy" Americana--that puts King in a different class from his competitors. Sure, he has a tendency to go "too far" at times, even to get slightly clownish, but few other readers tap the American subconscious as well as he does. It doesn't always work for me--Christine was just a bit too American Graffiti with ghosts--but when King nails it he is the envy of a thousand other writers, myself included. And this quality speaks to those of us who know 'Salem's Lot, who grew up there. By the same token, when I hear King's critics, I can't help but wonder if they are from suburbia or the city.
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