Six weeks back my book pal—who has only read one Stephen King novel—suggested we read ‘Salem’s Lot and discuss it for our literary edification. I was mildly enthusiastic, but not really. My response surprised me. I’m a fan. One of the four bookshelves in my office is devoted to the books of Stephen King. I have read The Stand three times and have no doubts about revisiting it and the Dark Tower Series at least once more before I passon. Nothing against ‘Salem’s Lot, I’ve read it twice, but I never intended to read it again. What more could those vampires have to say to me? More than I ever believed possible. And how soon did I change my mind about the impact of ‘Salem’s Lot? As soon as I turned to page one.
Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son.
The line is anchored in truth and echoes with fear; a combination that permeates King’s work. Fear of the truth is an undercurrent in life that perpetuates white lies and keeps secrets. Fear is the foundation of drama and King owns the market.
I’ve come across a lot of people who refuse to read books written by Stephen King because the content is too scary. The scare factor is a given, but it’s not the only ingredient at work. Behind the evil things he unleashes when he opens the closet door or looks under the bed is a ton of humor.
That Weasel, he does love to talk. He’ll open his mouth too wide one day and fall right in.
And no one twists a phrase into funny better.
But there was more than dullness in the confessional; it was not that by itself that had sickened him or propelled him toward that always widening club, Associated Catholic Priests of the Bottle and Knights of the Cutty Sark.
To handle location as if it were a character is part of good storytelling. To make location, in this case the town or The Lot, a principle point of view character ramps up the tension.
The town has a sense, not of history, but of time, and the telephone poles seem to know this. If you lay your hand against one, you can feel the vibration from the wires deep in the wood, as if the souls had been imprisoned in there and were struggling to get out.
The Lot’s hold on every resident allows the reader to sneak peeks at peripheral characters that would otherwise not be given page time. Seeing who’s who and what’s happening around the edges of town is like spilling gasoline over the entire story. All the reader has to do is wait for the first match to spark.
The atmosphere of fear King stirs is glorious. But what I admire most is the way he handles character. Descriptions are never shopping lists of observations. Characters are introduced through an essence of mood.
His face looked sad and old, like the glasses of water they bring you in cheap diners.
He also trusts the moment to establish the dynamics of the relationship and provide a glimpse of the participants’ underbellies.
Eva Miller was in a white terrycloth robe, and her face full of the slow vulnerability of a person still two-fifths asleep. They looked at each other nakedly, and he was thinking: Who’s sick? Who died?
This underbelly, which is woven with the character’s weaknesses and guilt—in the end—is only a mask. King’s characters are stronger than Superheroes because they do not possess the confidence or the skillset required to do battle. What they do possess is a belief in the goodness or light that coexists with the evil that has infiltrated their world. Not all of his characters survive, but they are willing to approach the inmost cave, as Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, and face the darkness there in.
The exultation had faded away like a bad echo of pride. Terror struck him around the heart like a blow. Not terror for his honor or that his housekeeper might find out about his drinking. It was a terror he had never dreamed of, not even in the tortured days of his adolescence.
The terror he felt was for his immortal soul.
When the reader comes upon these moments the tension spikes and they know there is no turning back. So they follow the characters forward knowing that death is as probable as victory.
Another fascinating standard in King’s stories is the simultaneous metamorphosis of children and adults in the same story. To see a child and an adult process the ascent of evil at the same time, but in different ways, helps the reader comprehend the situation on a much deeper level.
The joy of reading ‘Salem’s Lot—for the third time—returned, as I said, right at the beginning and the thrill of the ride never lessened. When I was a mere fifty pages into the story my husband walked into my office. I jumped, screamed and laughed to release the tension that had already taken hold of me. And the more I read, the more my adrenalin pumped like I was watching a thriller on the big screen that made me scramble to sit higher in my seat, while I held my breath and clenched my hands.
What deepened the thrill was my inability to remember the ending. Usually when I reread a book, the upcoming details flood back—not in a bad way—they flow in and upgrade the tension and anticipation. My inability to recall the ending of ‘Salem’s Lot—in fact, at one point I was certain of a different outcome—has increased my admiration for Stephen King’s storytelling. He wraps the reader up so tightly in the moment, our imagination becomes more powerful than memory.
What will the Vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot teach you?