Monday, 9 May 2016

'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King

In search of inspiration and a chance to exorcise some personal demons, moderately successful writer Ben Mears returns to his childhood home town of Jerusalem's Lot, or 'Salem's Lot for short. His life has been haunted by vivid, terrifying memories of the time he entered the deserted Marsten house on the hill as a dare- the house where depression-era gangster and all-but-confirmed Devil-worshipper Hewbie Marsten had brutally murdered his wife and then hung himself in an upstairs room. Ben recalls his terrified childhood self  catching a horrified glimpse of Marsten's hanging corpse, 30 years after the fact, decayed and staring right at his child self- but he isn't sure if it was a hallucination, an over-active imagination or real. If that doesn't get his author juices flowing then nothing will.

Ben is initially delighted to find 'Salem's Lot mostly unchanged, though the Marsten house that he had hoped to rent has been sold to a mysterious Austrian man that nobody has ever seen- it was handled by the charming, snappily dressed Mr Barlow, his associate. A few of the residents recognise Ben as an author and are familiar with his work, but none recognise him as a former resident. Within hours of getting into town he has secured a comfortable room in the local boarding house, met a nice local girl (Susan) and arranged an evening out with her. So far so small town.

It's when unusual, gruesome things start to happen that normality in 'Salem's Lot begins to fracture. Ben is one of the first people to conclude that this epidemic of flu-like illness, the disappearances and the mysterious, sudden deaths are the result of a vampire, and his suspicions turn immediately to the elusive Austrian gent and his dapper assistant. He begins to form the idea that the Marsten house is inherently evil, like a battery ready to act through whichever person takes up residence there. Perhaps it's his outsider's eye, perhaps he is just more open minded than most. Either way, it's up to Ben to firstly convince and then assemble a team of Vampire Slayers to take on the threat before it turns the whole town. 

Ben's Buffy's squad demonstrates another great strength of King's is his ability to apparently pull funny, likeable, well crafted characters out of thin air. With a few well chosen habits or descriptions, the reader feels like they've known these people forever and are immediately invested in their survival. There's Mark Petrie, a pre-teen hammer horror fan who is so deadpan and practical, so prepared for vampire activity that he needs no convincing of the danger. They are joined by elderly school teacher, academic lore-buff Matt Burke (a total modern day Van Helsing, as pointed out by Ben) and his doctor, Jimmy Cody (useful, even if he's the least memorable of the bunch) Susan, who takes some convincing but gets there in the end and the colourful local priest, Father Callahan who has been waiting for a reason to get out and do something his whole life.

I absolutely loved this book and read it in two days. It's divided into two chunks- Pre-Vamp and Post-Vamp. I'm not going to count the mention of Vampires as a spoiler, cos it says on the cover that it's Vampires...Anyway, I loved how much the first section takes its time- it really lets the reader stew in the unease and the slowly mounting fear of the town. First we get to know 'Salem's Lot and its inhabitants, the normal rhythm of life in out-if-the-way Maine. A couple of odd things start to happen; A dog is found mutilated. A child disappears. Then another dies of extreme anaemia. King is not scared to invest time in laying the groundwork early on and takes his sweet time in doing so; but you are never bored. The wealth of minor characters gives the town such vibrancy and an authentic reality- the diner, the boarding house, the origin of the all adds colour. Whenever the reader is directed towards a minor character that gets some solo screen time, we know they're enjoying their last moments on Earth and because the reader *knows* what's going on long before anybody else, the length and the pace of the Pre-Vampire section becomes unbearably tense.

The post vampire section is a brutal, violent unleashing of horror and fear on the town and its remaining population. Where the first half is a slow, gradual build up, this is the apex of the roller coaster's track and the mad, frantic descent into the unknown. It's an interesting exploration of people's unwillingness to believe in something that can't be real- half the town knows something is amiss, but they cannot concede to the crazy solutions that the evidence points to. It's their refusal to be convinced that gets them killed most of the time- they will not see what's in front of them, and so they become part of the problem.

It's part Dracula, with the charming, magnetic evil of the traditional turn-of-the-century vampire, and part The Bodysnatchers, with the horror of the small-town realisation that the people that you live and work alongside could be facsimiles of some kind. While they may look like themselves, they could well have been in some way corrupted. These are timeless, endlessly relevant fears- the idea of infiltration, the altering of a way of life, the idea that those closest to you are not the people they once were, the ease with which illness, ideas, badness can spread. Through the Marsten house too King introduces the theme of inherent, geographical evil, the idea of a malevolent space that sits patiently and dormant, waiting for inhabitants to corrupt with its evil influence. It's a theme he will explore further in The Shining, which would be his next novel. Which, incidentally, is also excellent.

There are so few things in the world that deserve the hype and admiration that is bestowed upon them, but I'm more and more convinced with every book that Stephen King is one of them.

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