Second novels are difficult. You have numerous expectations on your shoulders, both from fans of your first book and from your publishers. The fans of your first book want to also enjoy your second novel, and the publishers want you to also widen your audience, that’s a lot of pressure.
It must have been a bit of shock to both then when Stephen King suddenly changed from the abuse-terror and semi-realisitc plot of Carrie to vampires for his followup. I bet there were a few concerned looks in the publishers offices.
It was a good job that Salems Lot is a damn fine novel.
What’s surprising about Salem’s Lot is its slow build up, which even at its most long winded is still enjoyable to read. A good portion of the book is taken up with introducing us to its main character, Jerusalem’s Lot (Salem to the locals).
Yep you read that right, it’s the town itself that’s the star of the show. This was a kind of warm up for what King would later do to his more famous fictional towns of Derry and Castle Rock.
He gives us vivid descriptions, details and nuances of the town, then he slowly and methodically populates it with a host of characters so unique and outlandish as to rival any daytime soap opera. Every facet of human life can be found within the boundary lines of Salem’s Lot, and they all want to know who the stranger is that just moved into town.
This stranger is a writer called Ben Mears and he grew up in the titular town, and let’s just say he has some bad memories of it. In particular of the Marsten house, which looms across the rest of the town from a nearby hill.
Ben has returned to his hometown to work on his next novel, the details of which we never discover, except beyond the fact that it involves “the recurrent power of evil”, and the creepy gothic house atop the hill.
As you’d expect Ben gets straight to stomping around his old town, giving King ample opportunity to expand the details of the main setting. Ben doesn’t do a lot of writing, instead he meets and befriends a wild collection of townsfolk, including Father Callahan, a priest with a drinking problem, a kid who loves old horror films, and Susan a girl who loves his writing skills.
This total disregard for his main objective allows King to spend half the novel simply establishing the town and the world it inhabits. And as for the actual vampires, well you won’t be seeing them just yet.
They are hinted at though, and the biggest hint comes in the form of Mr Straker, who along with an absent Mr Barlow has opened up an antique shop in the town. They have also bought the Marsten house to live in while they set up their business.
When a young boy dies under mysterious circumstances the only person who pays any real attention outside of his family is the inept local lawman.
As a reader the townsfolk are frustrating, they’re all so wrapped up in their own lives that they cannot see the inevitable death and destruction that is barrelling quickly towards them.
Around the halfway mark though the proverbial shit finally hits the fan. More people begin to die, babies come back to life and seek blood instead of milk. Nighttime is no longer safe.
The first half of the novel is slow and deliberately plodding, it lulls you into a false sense of security so that when the vampires eventually show themselves you are whisked off into a whirlwind of action, it barely lets you take a breathe.
This action heavy portion of the novel takes place over just two days and sees Ben and his new friends try to end the quickly spreading vampire threat.
When I first read this book years ago I didn’t like the slow first part and I loved the action heavy finale. Now though, for whatever reason, its the opening that intrigues me the most.
This is a slow opening for a novel, make no mistakes, this is a drip feed of a build-up, but boy is it worth it. King imbues every passage with impending dread, and when the action finally unfolds it is a real payoff.
This isn’t the greatest vampire novel ever written, for me Bram Stoker’s masterpiece still holds the crown over everything else, but it is certainly one of the most entertaining. It takes the monstrous creature, puts it in a small town and sits back to watch the blood flow, and flow it most certainly does.
I highly recommend Salem’s Lot to previous fans of Kings other novels and to anyone interested in the horror or vampire genres. If you don’t like slow burning books though I’d recommend staying clear.
You can grab a copy of Salem’s Lot from Amazon.