Sep 23, 2012

'Salem's Lot: Illustrated Edition - Stephen King

'Salem's Lot Illustrated Edition
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 2005

First edition published by Doubleday October 17, 1975

This was Stephen King's second published novel. It was the first King novel that I read and it still remains my favourite. In spite of its flaws and clunky moments here and there, its greatness rests in being a very well executed realization of a terrific idea. This idea being to rewrite Dracula in a modern American small town setting and see what happens.

What happens is that you get, as King's editor at the time remarked, Peyton Place with vampires. Note that we don't get Grover's Corners with vampires. This is not the tale of a pleasant little Norman Rockwell community besieged by evil, something along the lines of Santa Mira in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (with which 'Salem's Lot has something in common). Jerusalem's Lot is a banal little town plagued by the banal evils of poverty, child abuse, alcoholism, prejudice, infidelity and violence. It's one of many little pockets of nowhere that can be found all over North America. It embodies a kind of living death long before the vampire arrives.

And Barlow takes some time to arrive. He lingers and lurks in the background, casting a shadow over everything as the reader turns the pages in anticipation. This is a rare case in which King starts out strong and keeps gaining strength until the climax. So many times he's able to grab the reader with a captivating premise but then looses some steam along the way. This is not something particular to King, sustaining a consistent level of engagement is no easy feat, especially in a novel length horror story. King's talent is evidenced in his consistent ability to nail that first part. Yet it's always a pleasure to come across a work in which the best parts are saved for last.

I like how the vampires are handled here. I'd go so far as to say that I've never read an example of vampires done better. At this point I'm obliged to bash Twilight and its ilk so consider it done. The emo superheros that populate the majority of vampire fiction alternately depress me and piss me off, there. Oh sure, Interview with the Vampire wasn't awful and vampires are just made up fantasy nonsense anyway so who cares what direction you take them in? Well I like my vampires scary. Part of what makes vampires scary is that they might bite you and make you one of them. This only works if being one of them involves an eternity as a hideous unclean thing that sleeps in the dirt. An eternity of being a gorgeous super powered sexpot that will forever look fabulous in Priape outfits just doesn't sound scary at all. All I have to do is develop a thirst for blood? Sign me up. I never liked the sun all that much anyway.

"I like watching you sleep. I find it fascinating."

With the exception of Barlow, the vampires of 'Salem's Lot don't have much personality (come to think of it, neither does Edward Cullen...oh SNAP!). Barlow has made a pact, possibly with Satan, probably something worse. He gets to continue on through the centuries as an avatar of pure evil. Yet those he infects are little better than animals. They have no real inner life, no real memory, just an unquenchable thirst for blood and compulsion to obey their master. They have been damned. Their threat is not simply physical but profoundly spiritual. I read an interesting observation once, though I can't remember who said it in regards to what, it might well have been King discussing this novel though I haven't been able to find the source. In any case it applies. The novel begins with a large cast of characters and is narrated at times through their perspectives. Once they become the other, in this case a vampire, we no longer get their perspective. The effect is similar to watching lights slowly going out all over the town. The descriptions of the undead townsfolk lying silent within seemingly empty houses during the day are eerie.

The major theme of the novel is the nature of evil and whether or not pure, supernatural Evil can coexist with the modern world. It begins with the writer Ben Mears exploring the question in the novel he's working on, researching the creepy Marsten house that overlooks the town and in which he had a terrifying experience as a child. Later, this thread is picked up with the character of Father Callahan, who has always secretly hoped that such a thing existed, a worthy spiritual opponent. Be careful what you wish for. 'Salem's Lot is an exercise in toying with the reader's suspension of disbelief. Of course, vampires and the modern world can't coexist. As Callahan tries to convince Henry Petrie's in his brightly lit kitchen, he is immediately shut down in an assault of reason. Despite the reader knowing that Callahan is telling the truth it as also obvious that Henry Petrie is completely right. But then the lights go out and Barlow rises up out of the darkness...

'Salem's Lot works as a pot boiler and an adventure yarn but most importantly as a horror story. This illustrated edition is fancied up Jerry Uelsmann's eerie photography, a couple of short stories related to the novel, and some alternate and excised material. The alternate scenes with Father Callahan are particularly interesting though I think King made the right choice in what he went with. The scene with Dr. Coby and the rats however is more disturbing than what was published. You can't have too many rats.

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