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Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (1975) 439 p.



This is King’s second novel, and one which hasn’t really entered the mainstream pop culture consciousness in a way that many of his others have, like It or The Shining or The Stand. I knew what it was about because the story of one character is continued in the Dark Tower series, but since a lot of people may not, I’ll avoid spoiling anything. Suffice to say that it begins in media res with an unnamed man and boy driving across the country and then fleeing into Mexico, haunted by something that happened to them in Maine, which a newspaper article identifies as the gradual disappearance of the population of Jerusalem’s Lot, rendering it a ghost town. Snap back to last summer as young writer Ben Mears arrives in his old hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot and it’s quickly obvious who the man from the prologue is.

There’s a widely held view (which I agree with) that King’s early work is far better than his later work, but in this case maybe I went a little too early. Salem’s Lot is a fine, enjoyable book, but it’s very clearly the work of a younger man. King has always been a little bit self-indulgent, but in his best work, like The Stand, that self-indulgence is at least interesting. In Salem’s Lot, the excess narrative around the enormous cast of characters in this small town is far more like the tedious bloat that afflicts his later work. This book easily could have shed 100 pages for the better. The group of trusted people Ben gathers around him as the crisis deepens all sort of blend together (it doesn’t help that they all have very generic names) and display an uncanny ability to accept the situation as relayed to them before experiencing the supernatural themselves. This feels particularly odd given that King has a good knack for writing characters who refuse to accept horrifying events even when face-to-face with them – notably Richie in The Talisman and many of the people trapped in the supermarket in The Mist.

There’s also a central problem I was never really able to suspend my disbelief about: the notion that an ancient evil could pick people off one by one, eventually dominating a town of a thousand people, without the outside world ever noticing. It revolves around King’s half-baked thematic kernel, the idea of small towns slowly dying or disappearing, given a horrific slant which doesn’t translate well into reality – particularly given that one of King’s strengths in the first place is juxtaposing supernatural horror against the humdrum, everyday world of small-town America. There is a newspaper article about the mysterious vanished populace of Jerusalem’s Lot, inserted into the prologue, but the state police spokesman quoted in it shows an incurious nature which we can only assume is matched by the county police (even after their sheriff is killed in the course of the novel), the school boards, the Portland coroners, the insurance companies, the utility providers, etc. The events which transpire in Jerusalem’s Lot – over the full course of a year – would be more believable if the town were smaller or more remote, or if the story was set in a much earlier era.

None of these are really huge problems, but they accumulate enough that Salem’s Lot is merely a decent yarn rather with some good moments rather than one of King’s truly great novels. I didn’t love it, but it was fine; he certainly went on to write far worse.

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June 2020