Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Evaluation: 'Salem's Lot (1975) by Stephen King

I may have spoken of this in my first October Nights review of the television movie Salem's Lot, but since I don't remember, I'll reiterate myself for the masses, yes, the absolute masses of people reading my reviews. 'Salem's Lot is my absolute favorite Stephen King novel. To me, this novel is better than anything else he has ever written. Now, also keep in mind that this was the second novel he ever wrote. Yeah... yeah... I hope you understand where I'm going with this.

Now, it's not that I don't like a lot of his other books because that is grossly untrue and I'd probably go berserk for even trying to think it. Some of his other novels are fantastic. Duma Key and The Dark Tower series come especially to mind, but I also love many of his other works. Some of his short stories and novellas are absolutely brilliant as well, but I'll get into more detail about them when I review some of them whenever I do that. I will say that some of his legitimate novels are absolute rubbish and that I'm not afraid to say that. Actually many of his better known works tend to really rub me the wrong way.

Getting back to 'Salem's Lot though, this novel is his best to me for many reasons. It may not be as perfectly written as many of his later novels, it may not be as subtle nor as creepy as his other novels, and it deals with vampires, something that Stephen King has had almost nothing to do with before or since except in a few Dark Tower novels for brief periods. So, what makes this novel my favorite? What makes me love this novel more than the rest? What draws me back for more?

Well, one of my favorite novels has always been Bram Stoker's Dracula. I love that novel. I'm pretty certain it is the perfect vampire novel. I happen to like vampires. I think I mentioned that in my freaking review of vampires. They are my favorite presumably not real creature/horror monster. I think the idea of them is fantastic and works so well as something both exciting and creepy. That isn't to say that vampire fiction is all good. It mostly sucks. (Ha ha ha...) I make a stupid pun, but I mean it. Vampire fiction is mostly terrible, but the few shining gems really did make an impression on me.

'Salem's Lot is, at a basic level, a retelling of Dracula with a modern day small town instead of some British gentlemen and a castle. It also doesn't set itself up to be a vampire story. In fact, the whole story is set up to be a haunted house story. It seems like everything is leading up to the Marsten house and finding out that the place is haunted and everything, but no, Stephen King does something nobody reading that book would have ever expected: He brings a random vampire named Barlow into the mix along with his creepy hairless familiar-thing, Straker. Now, that actually sounds awful, but it works in the book. It really does.

The characters are absolutely fantastic as long as the character isn't one of the three leads. Ben Mears, Mark Petrie, and Susan Norton (the three leads) are the worst characters in this novel. They really come off as very one-dimensional characters, but that's okay, since some of the best Stephen King characters ever come out of this novel: Father Callahan, Doctor Jimmy Cody, Matt Burke... these characters are the reasons that the novel holds up so well. They work so beautifully in the world this novel takes place in.

This novel also happens to be Stephen King's first novel to focus on an entire town rather than a few individual characters... It is, in style, a lot like Needful Things, The Tommyknockers, and, seen in a grander scale, The Stand. It was the first time Stephen King used this style and it works here better than the rest of his novels in my opinion. It works really well, I think, because the main character here is the town itself. Yeah, that sounds a little crazy coming from me, but that's exactly how it feels. 'Salem's Lot is its own entity, a town already cursed by many things, becoming gradually less human because of a vampire outbreak and possibly its own disease. The town is diseased, you see. It's cursed and everything. That's why Barlow comes to the town. That's why he picks that town to feed. Or at least that's what we can assume. It sounds good though, doesn't it? It gives the vampire some motivation, some characteristics. He's drawn to a place of evil. So, in many ways the novel is a haunted house story... or rather a haunted town story.

I'm sure a more astute person could write essays on how 'Salem's Lot is a metaphor for the degradation and falling apart of small town America, or that it says things about AIDS, or some similar kind of STD that vampirism usually suggests. These are apt metaphors, and work really well, but I'm not really into examining something with that much academic acumen. I think a vampire is a vampire and the town is a town. You see bad towns from time to time. Who's to say some vampire won't try to make it his own village of the damned?

Why would Barlow do it anyway? I mean, what's his motivation here? Is he trying to create an army? His own town? A vampire refuge? It doesn't make a lot of sense. I guess he could have been really inept and couldn't control the very vampires he made, and they in turn started turning everybody else into vampires. That explanation works, but really takes away from Barlow as a character. I guess the more apt thing to say is that Barlow just wanted to screw up things in the town of 'Salem's Lot. He wanted to go and mess everything up and destroy the town. I guess that makes sense. But what would have happened once he finished with the town? Would he have moved on? Huh... that actually sounds really cool...

I guess my point is that this is a novel that should be read by pretty much anybody who likes old-fashioned vampire stories. I think this is one of the legitimate best novels I have ever read and really does work quite well. I love this novel. I love so much about it. Sure, it has its flaws, but it does work very well, and holds up very well despite being written thirty-six years ago. Hell, the idea of small-town America and its portrayal sounds exactly like it does today.

I love this novel and I have to add that again. Go ahead and check it out. I'd rather not tell the story again or spoil this novel for you. Check it out for yourself if it sounds interesting. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

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