"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


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.  The alcoholism and addiction that springs from despair, from knowing the jobs have all gone and you can't feed your family.  These are the small town evils, evil with a small "e," the monotonous and banal evils that slowly bleed you dry like a million paper cuts.  Everyone knows the really big "E" Evils could never happen here.

Until, of course, Big "E" Evil waltzes--by your invitation--into town.

...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...

In terms of plot, 'Salem's Lot is essentially Dracula; an ancient European vampire relocates from East to West and begins vampirizing the populace.  But the book is actually far more than that.  In his introduction to the 2005 Illustrated Edition, King talks about the naive arrogance of a 23-year-old writer thinking he could rewrite Bram Stoker's Dracula as "the great American novel."  Maybe it would be a stretch to bestow that title on 'Salem's Lot, but what amazes is how close King actually came. Forty-two years after its publication, the novel rings true more than ever.  This is the story of a rural American town well past its glory days; no jobs, no hope, no future.  In their despair the townspeople make a Faustian bargain with a stranger, a man who comes into their lives with empty promises of great things.  Submit to him, put your faith in him, and he will make you great again.  Out of quiet desperation they turn their backs on the light and lose their souls in the process.

In the wake of the 2016 election and the more recent events in Charlottesville, 'Salem's Lot seems very relevant.  

When horror works, and it works extraordinarily well in 'Salem's Lot, it does so because it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves.  Vampires don't cast reflections, but 'Salem's Lot makes us squirm because it turns the mirror on us.  Dracula was a very 19th century novel, in which the liberal and democratic British easily put down the threat of foreign imperialism.  But 'Salem's Lot emerged at the tail end of the 20th, and just a generation removed from the people who fought World War II, King understands fascism far better than Stoker ever could have.  Fascism, whether it happens in Germany or Italy or middle America, is always the willing submission of the populace, the surrender of morals and freedoms, born out of despair.  Fascism is something that must be invited, like the vampire, into your home.

Like Eminem says in the song, he can't bear the idea of growing 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 "don't you worry about a thing, close your eyes and I will make everything go away."

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.  For once they are not being ignored or dismissed.  Someone is listening to them.  Someone cares.  And if the price for that is vampirism, or racism, or anti-semiticism, why not? 

...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...

I reread 'Salem's Lot biennially.  It was one of the novels I read in my childhood that made me want to write.  There are a thousand reasons for this.  I could talk about the stealthy and devious way King creeps up on you and makes you believe in vampires.  I could talk about the memorable characters.  I could talk about King's easy, almost folksy prose.  I could praise his intimate understanding of small town people and small town life.  But I think it rises to the level of a great novel because it has a warning for us.  It understands the narcissism that is ultimately at the heart of the vampire tale, the poisonous notion of Prince Charmings and politicians and saviors who we think will sweep in and make all the pain just magically go away.  And maybe above all, it understands the necessity of fighting this in whatever form it takes.

No comments:

Post a Comment