When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I made a crucifix out of some popsicle sticks, turned on all the lights, and dug up my copy of ‘Salem’s Lot.
During my day job as a copywriter for an outdoor retailer, I’ve learned a lot about the scientific effects of going outside – even a 10-minute walk has been proven to make humans happier, because deep in our lizard brains live the instincts of our ancient ancestors, who spent the majority of their lives out in the elements.
For his masterful second novel, Stephen King teaches a similar lesson about the long memory of human DNA – when we were out there hunting and foraging and trying our best not to die, we developed all kinds of involuntary fear responses. Those goosebumps that run up your arm when you walk into a dark basement? That’s not you being a scaredy cat – it’s a very real echo from the dark corners of human history.
On its surface, ‘Salem’s Lot should be something we can easily put out of our minds once we put it back on the shelf. It’s a vampire novel that doesn’t try at all to update the lore we’ve been exposed to a million times over. The bloodsucking creatures in the fictional bad-luck town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, could’ve come right from Bram Stoker – they sleep in coffins, can seduce you with their voices, and can be harmed by daylight, crucifixes, and that good old fashioned wooden stake through the heart. It should be easy for us to think “cool story bro, but vampires aren’t real,” and sleep like the dead.
Yet this is one of the straight-up scariest things I’ve ever read, from Stephen King or any author. And I think it’s because King refuses to keep these cobwebbed, plasma-stained goings on at an arm’s length. He wants us, his Constant Readers, to identify with the rag-tag group of townies who slowly realize what’s going on in their sleepy burg, and then have to figure out how to fight it. He lays clear how their feelings are not foreign from ours. And in so doing asks an absolutely terrifying question – if our bodies are afraid of very real dangers from the past, what do we risk by ignoring them?
As two central characters – the optimistic college grad Susan Norton and nerdy tween Mark Petrie – plan to break in to the epicenter of the vampire infestation, the long-abandoned Marsten House mansion, King describes Norton’s involuntary reactions in a way that would sound familiar to anyone who has gotten lost in an unfamiliar place; or woke up to find their feet uncovered and promptly put them back under the sheets; or heard a bump in the attic and decided to wait until morning to investigate:
All the thought processes, the act of conversation itself, were overshadowed by a more fundamental voice that was screaming danger! danger! in words that were not words at all. Her heartbeat and respiration were up, yet her skin was cold with the capillary-dilating effect of adrenaline, which keeps the blood hiding deep in the body’s wells during moments of stress. Her kidneys were tight and heavy. Her eyes seemed preternaturally sharp, taking in every splinter and paint flake on the side of the house. And all of this had been triggered by no external stimuli at all: no men with guns, no large and snarling dogs, no smell of fire. A deeper watchman than her five senses had been wakened after a long season of sleep. And there was no ignoring it.
As if these shared biological insights weren’t enough to get us freaking out about vampires right alongside Susan Norton, King makes extra sure we’re primed for it. The Marsten House break-in doesn’t happen until over 400 pages have flown by. King takes his time setting the stage, letting the dread slowly creep into every nook and cranny of his imaginary town, giving us only brief glimpses of the monsters responsible for it all.
Our story begins with the arrival of Ben Mears, a novelist who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot with a vague plan to write about the Marsten House, where he had a terrifying experience as a child. As Ben gets his bearings, befriending Susan as well as a lovingly rendered atheistic English teacher named Matt Burke, someone else arrives in town. And he moves into the house of Ben’s nightmares.
Richard Straker is obviously not a Mainer returning to the nest. Notably tall, bald as an egg, driving an ancient Packard, and speaking in an antiquated way (“Attend over at this meat case, please”), he seemingly pops up out of nowhere to open an antique shop called Barlow & Straker, despite there being zero tourist trade in this town of 1,319 “where little of any note ever took place.” His partner Barlow had not arrived yet. And those who would eventually meet him would be, shall we say, forever changed.
As the body count rises, King makes the point, over and over again, that we ignore our gut feelings at our own peril. The way he describes Mark Petrie’s father Henry – an insurance administrator with CPA dreams – it’s obvious he’s not gonna last long:
He was a straight arrow, confident in himself and in the natural laws of physics, mathematics, economics, and (to a slightly lesser degree) sociology. […] His calmness increased, it seemed, in direct ratio to the story’s grotesqueries and to his wife June’s growing agitation. When they had finished it was almost five minutes of seven. Henry Petrie spoke his verdict in four calm, considered syllables. “Impossible.”
By our standards of human behavior, Henry Petrie did everything right in the face of a stressful situation. He kept calm. He thought logically. He used everything he had learned about what was real and what was fantastical to influence his decisions. And every second of responsible deducing brought him that much closer to a brutal end. This is why ‘Salem’s Lot is one of the scariest books of all time. We can pretend we know how everything works and that we’re too mature to be afraid of that dark, dusty basement. Maybe that’s true.
“THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS
5. ‘Salem’s Lot