As King said in 1983, “In ‘Salem’s Lot, the thing that really scared me was not vampires, but the town in the daytime, the town that was empty, knowing that there were things in closets, that there were people tucked under beds, under the concrete pilings of all those trailers. And all the time I was writing that, the Watergate hearings were pouring out of the TV…. Howard Baker kept asking, ‘What I want to know is, what did you know and when did you know it?’ That line haunts me, it stays in my mind…. During that time I was thinking about secrets, things that have been hidden and were being dragged out into the light.”
Jerusalem’s Lot, vernacularly known as ‘Salem’s Lot, is the quintessentially pastoral Maine town – on the surface. Scratch that surface and you get the usual lies, corruption, prejudice, and bullying. Scratch a little harder and you’ll discover ‘Salem’s Lot hides abuse, violence, and now, something deeply menacing*. One of my favorite aspects of this novel, like many of King’s novel (particularly Bag of Bones, IT, and Under the Dome), is that the town of ‘Salem’s Lot functions as a character as well as place. The collective psyche of the town’s inhabitants is as sordid as any big city, perhaps more so, thus leaving the town vulnerable and oblivious to the new residents. This is ultimately their undoing. When Ben Mears moves back to the town’s haunted mansion, he has no idea what he is stepping into.
At its core, ‘Salem’s Lot is simply a well-paced, well-plotted novel. The book’s ability to make a simple invitation or an errant scratching noise deeply menacing are what make it terrifying. Moreover, some of the most disturbing scenes have nothing to do with the vampires and are entirely due to the horrifying proclivities of some of the town’s residents. This is not a novel for the faint of heart. It deals with many of humanities darker issues, the ability of an entire town to look the other way, the triumph of evil and the loss of humanity.
Honestly, there is no better time to read ‘Salem’s Lot than autumn. On the off chance you’ve read ‘Salem’s Lot – and that’s everyone, right? – any of the following novels would be worth picking up if you’re are looking in something in a similar vein.
Night Shift by Stephen King. I’m recommending this collection solely for the fact it opens with Jerusalem’s Lot, which adds to the story featured in the novel.
The Missing by Sarah Langan. “A remote and affluent Maine community, Corpus Christi was untouched by the environmental catastrophe that destroyed the neighboring blue-collar town of Bedford. But all that will change in a heartbeat. The nightmare is awakened when third-grade schoolteacher Lois Larkin takes the children on a field trip to Bedford. There in the abandoned woods, a small, cruel boy unearths an ancient horror—a contagious plague that transforms its victims into something violent, hungry . . . and inhuman. The long, dark night is just beginning. And all hope must die as the contagion feeds—for the malevolence will not rest until it has devoured every living soul in Corpus Christi . . . and beyond.”
Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. “This masterfully crafted horror classic, featuring a brand-new introduction by Dan Simmons, will bring you to the edge of your seat, hair standing on end and blood freezing in your veins. It’s the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic middle-childhood. But amid the sundrenched cornfields their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, an invisible evil is rising. Strange and horrifying events begin to overtake everyday life, spreading terror through the once idyllic town. Determined to exorcize this ancient plague, Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a war of blood—against an arcane abomination who owns the night…
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. “Robert Neville may well be the last living man on Earth . . . but he is not alone. An incurable plague has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him. By day, he is a hunter, stalking the infected monstrosities through the abandoned ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for dawn….”
Phantoms by Dean Koontz. “CLOSER… They found the town silent, apparently abandoned. Then they found the first body strangely swollen and still warm. One hundred fifty were dead, 350 missing. But the terror had only begun in the tiny mountain town of Snowfield, California. AND CLOSER… At first they thought it was the work of a maniac. Or terrorists. Or toxic contamination. Or a bizarre new disease. AND CLOSER… But then they found the truth. And they saw it in the flesh. And it was worse than anything any of them had ever imagined…
NoS4A2 by Joe Hill. “NOS4A2 is a spine-tingling novel of supernatural suspense from master of horror Joe Hill, theNew York Times bestselling author of Heart-Shaped Box and Horns. Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country. Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.” Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son.”
What will you be reading this autumn?
*On a separate note, I immensely enjoy the evil nature of vampires in this novel. Originally published in 1975, neither the author nor novel could have predicted the state of vampire literature today. The average vampire novel today is more likely to romanticize and sexualize the bloodthirsty (vegetarian) undead than to make them menacing. In general, I prefer my vampires to be supremely evil (as long as they’re fictional).