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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

'Salem's Lot

1975 | Novel
A cover of 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King (1975)
B: 4 stars (out of 5)
on Oct 14, 2022

Stephen King’s sophomore novel transplants the Dracula story to a remote New England town named Jerusalem’s Lot—`Salem’s Lot to the locals.

Our protagonist is Ben Mears, a tall, dark-haired writer returning to his hometown. He strikes up a romantic relationship with Susan, a local girl, and high school English teacher Matt Burke. A book centered on the notorious Marsten House that overlooks the Lot takes shape. Things are looking good.

But another pair of arrivals coincide with Ben’s. They’ve purchased the Marsten House, as well as a downtown storefront, which they convert to an antique shop. One, a bald man with long fingers named Straker, fronts the store and handles the business deals. His partner, Barlow, remains unseen, away on a buying trip in New York.

Of course, Barlow isn’t in New York. He’s in a coffin inside the Marsten House. He’s begun feeding on the residents of the Lot, making them vampires like himself, as young Mark Petrie discovers one night when his friend Dannie Glick, who died days earlier, materializes outside his bedroom window, tapping and begging Mark to let him in.

This marked my third time through `Salem’s Lot and it improves with each visit. After crafting such a memorable small-town setting in Carrie, King plays to his strengths and makes a small town the focus of this follow-up novel. As Matt says:

“There’s little good in sedentary small towns. Mostly indifference spiced with an occasional vapid evil—or worse, a conscious one.”

The Lot proves more isolated than Carrie’s Chamberlain, though the fixtures feel familiar. A small-town constable, a roadhouse bar, a gossip network. But King adds more to the Lot, including a boarding house, the town dump, and the wild Marshes area. Indeed, on this visit, the Lot reminded of another King town, Derry.

Also new this time around, I picked up the plot’s nod to Hammer’s Horror of Dracula. Nice touch.

Some gripes remain. The physician, Jimmy Cody, still feels underwritten. A late entry into the story, he functions as a necessary plot device since this version’s Van Helsing is an English teacher, not a doctor.

And once again, I groaned at Susan’s reasoning that everyone else is crazy and that she’ll go sort everything out herself.

They were going at it stupidly, taking the long way around the barn to prove something that was (sorry, Mr. Burke) probably a lot of horseshit anyway. Susan decided to go up to the Marsten House now, this afternoon.

I understand King needing to move the plot forward, but this inanity demeans Susan’s character, reducing her to another stupid horror victim running up the stairs instead of out the door.

On the bright side, my biggest gripe—the finale’s “blue flame of power”—didn’t feel as cheap this time around. I still find it unnecessary, but I can better appreciate how King was trying to showcase a force to counter the one fueling Barlow. The “hand of God” metaphor is one King would struggle with again.

Ron McLarty’s narration proved a mixed bag. He’s perfect for Ben and I loved the New England drawl he brought to constable Parkins Gillespie, but pitching up his voice for Susan and Mark grated. And his performance of Barlow aims for Lugosi but lands closer to the Count from Sesame Street.

After this listen, I found a copy of the Illustrated Edition, which appends a “Deleted Scenes” section, showcasing bits excised from the final manuscript. This proved illuminating, as some of these excised scenes would have addressed my gripes.

It’s all about the rats. They play a bigger part in the original manuscript. When Susan and Mark break into the Marsten House, they descend into the cellar where they find thousands of the vermin serving as Barlow’s Praetorian Guard. They swarm over the floor and walls. Susan raises the small cross around her neck and we get an early reference to the “blue flame of power” as it glows and the rats shrink back from the light, allowing her to part them like Moses.

Another deleted scene introduces both James Cody and the Dracula novel. Cody feels less extraneous in this original draft, thanks to his horrific demise. Rather than succumbing to a booby-trapped staircase, he makes it downstairs and discovers the rats. They swarm over him, tearing at his clothes, skin, and eyes. One crawls into his mouth. He tries to retreat upstairs but, blinded, slips on the steps and breaks his ankle. The rats eat him alive. A memorable scene that raises the finale’s narrative and emotional stakes, and gives the Cody character a firmer place in the story.

Father Callahan also meets a darker but more memorable end in this draft.

He withdrew the blade, and plunged it in again, with all that remained of his flagging strength. As thought began to ebb, he realized that his faith—some of it—had come back and he might have cheated himself of victory in his final, instinctive effort to save his soul from the hell of the Undead; and that was the most serious denial of faith of all.

Then thought was gone and he fell forward on the haft of the knife and he closed his eyes and let himself go off to see what gods there were.

The remaining deleted scenes prove interesting, but extraneous. King excised a lot of early passages related to the Marsten House. It’s clear the haunted house idea excited him, foreshadowing his next book, The Shining.

Also excised is a scene set in the boarding house Ben’s calling home, after Danny Glick dies. Word gets out he might have died from a rare disease and a nervous panic sets in among the boarders. Unlike the haunted house angle, which remains in the final manuscript, King removed any trace of this disease metaphor from the published work, though it portends King’s fifth novel, The Stand.

And the original ending saw Ben and Mark drag Barlow into the sunlight. Another callback to Horror of Dracula but one King did well to revise.

But perhaps most interesting are the changes unrelated to pacing, theme, or gore—the name changes. In these early drafts, `Salem’s Lot is Momson, and Barlow is Sarlinov. I’d love to know the thought process as these names evolved, considering how crucial they prove to the book’s identity.

Reading History

    Fri Oct 14, 2022 via Audible (Read by Ron McLarty)
    Listened to over 8 Days
    1. 07 Oct, 2022
    2. 08 Oct, 2022
    3. 09 Oct, 2022
    4. 10 Oct, 2022
    5. 13 Oct, 2022
    6. 14 Oct, 2022