Saturday, March 3, 2012

Exfanding Review: ‘Salem’s Lot

Somehow I’ve managed to make it to the weekend, and, what’s more, I’ve even managed to have something of substance to write about for today.

Which, if you’ve followed the blog at all lately, is a bit of a change of pace for me. I’ve been the King of Innocuousness© this week and last, but all that changes today, as I write about a book that’s now nearly 40 years old.

Don’t be mean.

Anyway. Back to the almost-40-year-old book.

Somehow, amidst my crazy schedule of the past two weeks, I managed to squeeze in Stephen King’s seminal vampire novel, ’Salem’s Lot. Now, the fact that I made time to read the whole thing shows just how good the book was, as—you may have noticed—I haven’t had much time to do much of anything lately.

Written in 1975, ’Salem’s Lot is King’s second book, written and published after Carrie took the publishing world by storm a couple of years prior. When King wrote ’Salem’s Lot, he was still teaching high school English (it was a class on Science Fiction and Fantasy literature—wish I could have taken that in high school), and he was, like many Americans, at odds with the government.

Both those things had obvious impacts on his sophomore novel; the former in that one of the books assigned to the class was Dracula, and the latter becomes quite obvious while reading the text.

Now, clearly, I’m a horror fan.

And, as such, I’m quite familiar with the work of Stephen King. Oddly enough, though, I haven’t read all that much of the man’s bibliography. The work of his that has resonated deepest with me is actually a book called On Writing.

I say oddly because On Writing is not a horror book, but rather a book about (you guessed it) writing.

I’ve read the first two of the Dark Tower books, and I’ve started the third in that epic series. "Rita Heyworth and Shawshank Redemption" is one of my favorite stories ever, and I’m a proud owner of a first edition of the compilation book in which it appeared. I remember reading Green Mile back when the book came out in monthly installments—a format that I think is genius, and should be utilized today.

But King has many, many more books out there and as a horror fan I really have no excuse for skipping out on them. I’m working to rectify that, and I decided to start with ’Salem’s Lot.

In an interview long after the book was released, King said he set out to “create a fictional town with enough prosaic reality about it to offset the comic-book menace of a bunch of vampires.”

He succeeded.

’Salem’s Lot works on a lot of levels—allegorical tale of the intrusive reach of a corrupt government; portrait of a small New England town and the kinds of people who live in them to name a couple.

But where the novel really shines—where it really succeeds, I mean—is in its goal of being a wicked post-modern vampire story.

King set out to make nasty, scary, threatening vampires set in a world of modern technologies capable of laying waste to them rather quickly. And yet, there is still the feeling that no one is going to make it out of the story alive.

King’s vampires are a believable threat, even though they are of the classic, Stoker species—can’t enter a home unless invited, religious items have an effect on them, etc. Even with their myriad weaknesses, King’s vampires are dangerous and terrifying.

But the human characters are never completely overmatched—they’re smart, and brave, and they act selflessly when faced with an impossible reality. There’s that perfect balance of fear for—and belief in—the characters who make their way through the book and its horrors.

Which is something missing from so many horror stories, especially post-John Carpenter’s Halloween. In the vast majority of recent(ish) horror tales, you can pretty much guess who’s gonna bite it.

Or, I suppose, who’s gonna get bit.

Not so in ’Salem’s Lot. No, here King creates a world wherein every character is totally up for grabs, and that's the real horror in the story.

I've read a lot of vampire literature over the years, but now that I've read ’Salem’s Lot, I'm ashamed to say it's taken me so long to get to it. It's right up there with I Am Legend and, dare I say, Dracula.

And, really, that's the best comparison I can make--’Salem’s Lot is a modern day Dracula, revised and updated to fit into a contemporary society. Sure, it's a few decades old now and there are a number of anachronistic things that keep the setting from being timeless, but its message is still as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

And it's still scary as hell.

Which, really, is all that matters.

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