Vampires in America
Today I am writing to discuss one of my all-time favourite King novels, it also happens to be one of his favourites as well. I am, of course, talking about Salem’s Lot.
King’s take on vampires was published in October 1975 by Doubleday and has since been made into an illustrated book, an audio book, a radio drama, and a film/ two-part television miniseries. There was a sequel film, Return to Salem’s Lot, the town was mentioned in the Castle Rock series and lastly, after the success of IT, the two-part miniseries has also been earmarked for a remake, though no release date has been announced, it only got its director in April 2020.
All that aside, this review will focus on the book, released in 1975. Spoilers ahead!
The story opens with Ben and Mark fleeing Salem’s Lot, but the decide to return and the events which lead to their flight are revealed.
Ben originally grew up in Salem’s Lot and has returned home to write his next book, which focuses on a house in the town. Ben wants to stay in the house, but it has already been purchased by Richard Straker and Kurt Barlow, who intend to open an antique shop there. Ben make’s friends with Matthew and starts a relationship with Susan.
It soon becomes apparent that out of Richard and Kurt the only one ever seen is Richard. Probably because Kurt is an ancient vampire and Richard is his servant/Renfield. Kurt’s intention is to turn the town into a vampire colony. People start dying and disappearing, notably children. One of the children, Daniel Glick is Kurt’s first direct victim and thus becomes a vampire. Naturally, Daniel starts spreading vampirism like it is going out of style and so it spreads through the town.
However, Ben, Matthew, James Cody (a doctor), and Mark Petrie (Danny’s friend) become aware of what is happening. Matthew has a heart attack due to fright and ends up in hospital and Ben, James and Mark join with Susan and a priest to kill Kurt.
Susan is captured, turned, and killed by Ben. Mark injures Richard who is then eaten by Kurt (dude, seriously some self-control would be nice). Richard then kills Mark’s parents as revenge and take’s Mark hostage while the priest ineffectually tries to defend him with holy symbols. They effectively make a bet regarding faith and the priest fails and is turned; he runs away.
Near enough everyone in the town is now a vampire. Matthew dies in the hospital; James is also killed which leaves only Ben and Mark. Ben manages to confront and stake Kurt right at sunset (cutting it a bit close, why does no one kill vampires in the afternoon? Or mid-morning?). but despite this the town is still full of vampires and so Ben and Mark flee.
The epilogue picks up where the prologue stops, with Ben and Mark back in the town. They set fire to the town to destroy all the vampires.
As I said this is one of my favourite King books, mostly because it is all about vampire’s and I read it while deeply intrenched in my ‘vampire phase’ that a lot of horror readers seem to go through in their adolescence.
I reread the book recently and it still holds up. As always King is a great craftsman when it comes to setting, characters and tension. His character roster is smaller for this book than some of the other’s I have read, and he uses this smaller cast to really build the character’s up. So much so that when those who die do so you genuinely feel for them.
I loved Kurt, his motivations seem a little odd to me, but they feel realistic in the context of the story, he sticks to his gun’s through the story and is a great version of the vampire mythos. He really feels like a monster with alien motivation’s, thought’s, and incomprehensible logic at times. He’s a far cry from the version of vampire’s that became popular in the early/mid 2000’s in that he is not sympathetic, he is just a monster, doing what monster’s do.
The town itself, while not a character, feels almost like one. While it is not a living thinking entity the way the Outlook Hotel was it feels almost as well crafted and developed as the characters that dwell in it.
The plot of the novel is straight forward, and you can really feel King’s inspiration (Dracula) coming through in obvious ways. But I really enjoyed the plot, it felt natural, no part of it felt forced and I felt that the story ended strongly. There was none of this ‘kill the head vampire’ nonsense where everyone else is magically saved, no, those people died, the whole damn town died, and the heroes had to leg it before they became lunch themselves. They only returned once it was safe and then they did not return to save the town they came back to burn that place to the damn ground.
I love the fact that this story was born from a conversation King had with Tabitha, when he asked her what would happen if Dracula turned up today and her response was that he would probably get hit by a car and die. I also like that this was kind of a gory love letter to King’s idea of the small town.
I do take issue with the whole vampires cannot resist blood thing, which meant that Richard’s death annoyed me a little. The concept that if you get so much as a paper cut around a vampire it will not be able to control itself and nom on you is lame. I mean I love burger’s, but I do not lose control of my inhibitions when I see cows, or when I see uncooked or cooked burgers. I understand this is just a pet peeve of mine though but to me it cheapens the monster. To me vampires are scary because they embody our gluttony but hide it so well, they move among us undetected and they would not do that if they lost their mind every time someone got a papercut.
If you have read my blog about horror cliché’s, you will know my feelings about experts and this book shows how to do experts right. Yes, the priest does eventually do a runner, but he does it after being active for a time, he tries to face down the vampire, he ultimately fails and flees. using the expert in this way only highlights the power of the monster, we got to see them go toe-to-toe with someone who knew what was what and was well armed in the traditional sense. But the vampire defeated him thus upping the stakes and giving us a firm idea of just how powerful this vampire is.