April’s Sundays with continues with Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot.”
“We must go through bitter waters before we reach the sweet.”
Stephen King has published over 90 books, most if not all to critical and financial success, however he had to start somewhere. Out of all the tales King has woven he has been quoted as having one that is his favorite. For most people, myself included this served as our introduction to the world of King, this is my Sunday with… Salem’s Lot.
“Salem’s Lot” was released in 1975, and was his second published novel. With “Salem’s Lot,” King took a topic and story as old as horror itself and turned it into a modern masterpiece. The topic of vampire infestation has been featured in print, on stage, and film for years, way before “Salem’s Lot,” however with each new incarnation came a new piece to these monsters. Each writer or filmmaker tries to put their own distinctive touch to the genre. The beauty of “Salem’s Lot” is how King delivers a straight forward and bare bones vampire yarn. He keeps most of the original details about Bram Stroker’s classic tale, but added a modern twist to it, much to the enjoyment of audiences.
The idea of “Salem’s Lot” came to King when he was teaching high school. One of the books covered in his course was Dracula and that sparked the idea, what if Dracula came back in twentieth century America? The idea was jokingly answered by his wife and the topic pretty much fell dormant, however it continued to kick around in King’s brain. After further discussion with his wife, it was decided that a small town setting would fit the returning vampire lord better. The hustle and bustle of the big city would be too much of a shock and a stark difference, but a small rural town would be much more suited for the returning vampire. With that, the idea of “Jerusalem’s Lot” was set.
Several factors went into the making of “Salem’s Lot” aside from the simplest Dracula returning idea. King has gone on to say in interviews when he was very young he had a dream that he encountered a hanging corpse and when the wind blew the body turned and it was revealed to be King’s face, bloated and pecked away by birds. This horrifying dream served as a central scene in the novel. Another huge aspect of the story is King’s ability to not only create, but fill a fictional town. Throughout his career, King has become known for his fictional towns, Castle Rock, Derry, and Jersualem’s Lot. He beautifully describes every aspect of the town to the point where you can actually envision it. Very few writers have perfected the construction of small American town quite like King. Often times, it is the background and town of his novels that play as pivotal a role as any character. It is not only his description of these places, but also the characters he fills it with. Each character, even if only mentioned briefly, is a rich oart of the woven tapestry of writing.
As with most King novels, his political ideologies, or feeling of the government (for better or worse depending on your own ideologies) at the time creeps their way into the landscape of his novels. “Salem’s Lot” is no different, as it was written during the early 70’s, a time period that was filled with shadows, and covert operations. At the time King felt that the horror and shady business that the American people were undergoing would not only never end, but it also added to an overwhelming sense of dread. When put in this context, these themes are obvious as the town is being plagued by an unknown, unseen menace that is destroying and changing their way of life under the shadows of night. The townspeople fear for the future and see no silver lining as they really have no idea of the grand scope of what is happening. The idea that society was being infiltrated and “changed” is also not just a huge part of the novel but also mirrors King’s view on the time.
As mentioned prior, Dracula was very obviously not only the inspiration for “Salem’s Lot,” but both novels serve as almost a mirror of each other. King not only kept, but embraced many of the archetypes that Stroker used in his classic. First and foremost are the vampires themselves. Both Barlow and Dracula are depicted as grotesque and elderly. This is an aspect that Hollywood deemed unnecessary as vampires, especially Dracula has been portrayed as an attractive seducer. He is an attractive man about town who has no problem moving in and out of social settings. However, in the books he relies more on his power and influence over others to get what he wants. In both “Salem’s Lot” and “Dracula,” the titular vampire is most certainly not a sex symbol, but instead a decrepit monster with over extended fingers and nails. In fact, the pleasure or seduction that the vampire brings which has been a main stay in Hollywood versions is explicitly absent from both novels. Of course both Barlow and Dracula would not be able to infiltrate their new residences without a willing and crazy strong man or accomplice. Here is our next character mirror of Straker and Renfield. Both characters act as the go between for the count surveying and purchasing the land, essentially doing the grunt work for the boss. Of course the protagonist in both stories mirror each other as Ben Mears and Jonathan Harker. Both men are personally touched and affected by the horror at hand, and thus both make it their mission to stop it. And lastly we have the intellectual believer. The character who looks at the evidence and despite how supernatural it seems takes in all evidence and plans accordingly. This, of course, describes Van Helsing and his “Salem’s Lot” counter part, Matt Burke.
Aside from the characterizations, King also follows “Dracula” in format. “Dracula” is written as a collection of journal entries, giving the audience an insight into each character and a different take on the events that are happening. This enables the reader to gain a deeper understanding not only of the events going on, but on the effects or motivations they have on each character. King twists this format and presents his story by introducing us to characters and giving us their personal story. This has the same effect as the journal writing, in a much more thought out way. This style of writing takes longer to get into the novel, but it better helps establish the backstory of not only the characters and the town, but of the large scope of Barlow’s plan. Of course the novels are not exactly the same as “Dracula” more or less focuses on a smaller scope, with Dracula directly infiltrating a small group. “Salem’s Lot” is on a much grander scale as Barlow sets out to infiltrate, quite successfully may I add, an entire town. In the end, it is only a small group of survivors essentially fighting an army.
“Salem’s Lot” also has an emphasis on the internal struggle of good vs evil more deeply than “Dracula”. The overall feeling in “Salem’s Lot” is one of bleakness as there really seems to be no way of overcoming this evil. The battle between Father Callahan and Barlow also puts a face on the battle. Father Callahan is one of the most gripping characters as his arc is truly heart breaking. As the religious leader of the town he personally feels responsible for every lost soul and puts the immense pressure of fighting this evil off on himself. This leads to several gripping instances where Callahan is forced to question his faith, and in turn his life. The crucifix, as in “Dracula” is a deterrent for the vampire, however one of the most heartbreaking scenes is when Barlow and Callahan are face to face but the cross no longer has any power over Barlow because Callahan has “lost his faith”. The final blow to Callahan comes after he is forced to drink Barlow’s blood and is in turn unable to physically enter a church ever again. This character arc, as well as the religious aspect of this novel, really helped to drive home the dire situation the town was in and the hopelessness of the situation. It also enhances the threat and evil of Barlow as he as able to “break” a servant of God.
“Salem’s Lot” is a landmark not just in the career of Stephen King, but also in the world of literary horror. It has inspired two made for tv events, the first, and best, was in 1979. This version stayed very close to the book and was actually very creepy for a made for TV movie. A sequel was made in 1987 and can be skipped! “Salem’s Lot” was remade in 2004, with King alum Rob Lowe. Whereas it is not as good as the original 1979 version, it is a decent re telling of the story. Unlike “Dracula,” the big screen versions of this classic did not go on to become a beloved staple, however I feel that “Salem’s Lot” is a better novel. “Salem’s Lot” is a standout among the impressive library of Stephen King, and if you haven’t read it or seen it already, you should fix that now. This is also a perfect opportunity to re acquaint yourself with our beloved Count Dracula, and see where the inspiration for “Salem’s Lot” came from.
(Rob Texter – @GrundyXIII)