But I wonder, is that feeling even possible today? Is it because I was a not-so-experienced horror fiction reader at the time I read 'Salem's Lot? That I had yet to experience Lovecraft and Straub and Machen and Blackwood and Jackson and Leiber? Or was it that King so effortlessly wrote about simple fears of wrongness and malevolence in a common world that is perhaps inured to such things that I couldn't help but respond as if I myself were in danger? Honestly I don't even read horror (or watch horror films) to be scared anymore. Sometimes I wish I could recapture that feeling.
King has said this novel was his attempt at bringing Dracula - one of the few other books to physically frighten me, in the middle of 8th grade study hall - to the modern age, at imagining how this Old World villain would fit into a New World environment. Would the master vampire, in all his darkest wisdom, choose to arrive in New York City or Boston, or would he perhaps choose a quiet, near-forgotten rural town far from any outsider's concern? King felt the latter would provide the best cover and placed upon 'Salem's Lot the curse of the undead through cultivated Mr. Straker (I cannot see anyone else but James Mason in my head) who prepares the way (where have I heard that before?) for the dread Kurt Barlow, vampire king.
Their locus is the black and shuttered Marsten House, which overlooks (where have I heard that before?) the Lot; the distasteful and perhaps satanic owner of said house Mr. Barlow had illicit communications with decades before the novel begins. The town has its secrets, King informs us, but it keeps secrets even from itself:
They know that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, but they don't know what he made her do first, or how it was with them in that sun-sticky kitchen in the moments before he blew her head in, with the smell of honeysuckle hanging in the hot air like the gagging sweetness of an uncovered charnel pit. They don't know that she begged him to do it.
No sexy vamps or victims hereThis was the first novel of King's in which he employed a rich panoply of everyday men and women, giving them believable backgrounds, interior lives, conflicting desires, and fears that finally make themselves manifest just past midnight. While no one would mistake King's depictions of such for those of an Updike, a Cheever, a Carver, his characters don't have the preciousness of those who populate more, ahem, lit'ry fiction. Ben Mears, the protagonist, is the first in a long line of King stand-ins, young writers obsessed with childhood fears who struggle to move past them. Mears grew up in the Lot, left it, and now after the accidental death of his wife and the nightmare of what happened to him inside the abandoned Marsten House have drawn him back again, he wonders aloud if it could be anything like Hill House in that famous book by Shirley Jackson. Oh it is, it is that and more. And worse.
First edition Signet paperback August 1976 - without King's name on coverAlthough I've owned the hardcover of the book since high school, I found this '70s Signet paperback recently (at very top); I'd forgotten how simple it was. I like that you can barely see King's name on the cover (didn't even appear on the first Signet paperback printing), so obviously this edition was published before he was a name-brand author. The androgynous, angelic face looks like it's carved from stone, or maybe forged in iron; it reminds me of the Jacob Marley doorknocker from "A Christmas Carol." And blood so subtle, just a drop, just a drop to hint at the immortal terrors within, those terrors that millions know and have never forgotten, but they are terrors that sound strangely like a child laughing, laughing right outside your upstairs bedroom window, long after the sun has gone down on the final night of your life... or on the first night of your new one.
Art by James Plumeri
Art by James Plumeri
the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings.
The vampire's time has come."