As we’ve mentioned here before, beloved patrons, we all have stories that save us. Those books that come into our lives precisely when we need them or stay around for years and years like an old friend. Today, I wanted to talk with you about another one of those books in my life. It’s a book I turn to every year around this time, for reasons that might very well become clear as we chat…
King’s second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot was first published in 1975. According to his introduction to the 2014 audiobook recording, King was teaching Dracula to a high school class, and was inspired to consider what might happen if the titular count were to return again. Though he might not survive in, say New York City, King’s wife Tabitha mused what might happen if he appeared in a more rural setting. Like Maine. And that was that. The book was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1976, and the Locus Award for the All-Time Best Fantasy Novel in 1987, and King has stated several times that it is among his favorite of his works. In 1987 he told Phil Konstantin in The Highway Patrolman magazine: “In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!”
Very broadly speaking, the novel follows a 32-year-old writer named Benjamin Mears, who returns to Jerusalem’s Lot township in southern Maine (where he lived for four years as a child), following the death of his wife, Miranda. Ben is intending to write a novel inspired by, and based on, an old, decaying, creepy house in ‘Salem’s Lot known to locals as The Marsten House. It is a house in which Ben had a traumatically frightening experience as a child that he hopes to heal fully through his writing. Ben is not, however, the only newcomer to ‘Salem’s Lot. Another person has rented The Marsten House. And their intentions are far from neighborly, to say the least.
I first encountered ‘Salem’s Lot while I was living in the UK and working on my Master’s Degree. I had written a seminar paper on Dracula (another book that I love just a bit too much), and was devouring all the subsequent vampire novels I could get my hands on. My dad, who I think I’ve mentioned before, is an enormous Stephen King fan (I thought he was a family friend because we had so many of his books around his house), and reminded me that King himself had written a book inspired by Dracula, so I made it my present to myself. The day I handed in my Masters’ Thesis (September 10, if I remember correctly), I bought a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot.
I loved it from the moment I started reading. Being far away from home, I adored the sections that talk about fall in New England, about the feeling of the cold seeping into the air, into your bones, into your consciousness. I loved being reminded of the way telephone lines used to buzz gently in the days before digital. I loved the discussions of darkness, and about what darkness did to the people who lived with it.
I also really liked that King used his study of a small town to talk about the ways in which secrets moved and circulated, and about the impact of evil. Not just the big evils (although Big Evils abound in this book), but the petty kinds of evil: laziness, greed, selfishness, chauvinism. If this book reinforces a real-world message, it is that those kind of small evils permit more small evils, and those build and build into something truly fearful. Larry Crockett, for example, is a shady, lazy, sexist real estate agent who rents out the Marsten House (see an imagined image on the left), even though he knows in his gut that the man renting it is seriously bad news. But he is also earning a very fat commission on the transaction, so he looks the other way–and allows the vampires to enter ‘Salem’s Lot. We learn, eventually, about how the town turned away from the things that scared or disturbed them about the Marsten House…and how that permitted the evil inside it to fester. I appreciated the ways that King discussed the grief and pain that these evils caused, from the loss of a child to the anguish of marital rape (and I also give him a world a credit for calling it ‘marital rape’ in 1975).
Oh, right, and I also loved the vampires. That should go without saying. But if you can’t tell, while this book scared me, I loved it too much to be scared of it. Instead, I read it every year as fall begins. And every year, I find something else to love. Right after reading it the first time, I traveled to Belfast for a research trip. Belfast wasn’t the best of areas to be around that time, as the trauma of the Troubles was still very real. While I was there, I listened to the audiobook of ‘Salem’s Lot, and appreciated anew how well King plays on our very human fears of being alone and isolated. It was a sensational that was as real in Belfast at the turn of the century as it was in the ghost town of Momson, Vermont, which “dried up and blew away” in 1923 (according to the novel).
Years later, I was working in Copley Square, and had to go to work two days after the Boston Marathon Bombing. As I, and my fellow workers, emerged from the Green Line to a mob of reporters, camera operators, and police, a found myself recalling a scene where Susan Norton goes to pay a call on the Marsten House–and realizes what real fear is. Not the jump-scare fear of movies, but the deep-down, paralyzing fear that can warp a person into something very ugly. But Susan, like others in the book, reject that fear, and confront the darkness in the world with determination and hope. “The act of moving forward at all became heroism,” King wrote. That line remains one of my favorite in the book.
These past few years in reading ‘Salem’s Lot, I am struck by the discussion of faith in the book. Not necessarily religious faith–though that it discussed in the book–but something perhaps more fundamental. A trust in an inherent structure and a goodness in the world that goes beyond hierarchies and symbols. Several times in the course of the story, at times of greatest emotional peril, characters in the book refer to their love for each other, and it is that love that saves them. I find myself reaching for that kind of faith in my readings this time around, and it makes the world outside the book just a little less scary.
…What are the books that save you, dear readers? Feel free to share them with us here, or come in and find some new ones today!