'SALEM'S LOT: The Best Stephen King Novel You Haven't Read

Welcome back to the special Drunk on Writing Scripts!

Today, we’re going to talk about Stephen King’s follow-up to Carrie, one that goes in an entirely different direction. I’m talking, of course, about ‘Salem’s Lot, originally published in 1975—just a little over a year after Carrie—and reportedly King’s favorite of all the books he’s written.

Admittedly, though I’ve only just read it for the first time, I might have to agree with him.

And its adaptation is pretty good, too!

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That said, let’s talk ‘Salem’s Lot.

The Plot

I have to say, I wish I’d read this book without knowing a single thing about it going in. I didn’t exactly rush to Wikipedia for spoilers, if that’s what you’re thinking, but I did read The Dark Tower, parts of which act as a pseudo-sequel.

That said, if you haven’t read that yet, or if you really, truly, honestly don’t know anything just yet, I suggest you stop reading this and go read the book instead. I think it’d be worth it. But please come back!

So, 'Salem’s Lot, shortened from Jerusalem’s Lot and not so much named after the holy city as it is a mean and feral pig—true story, that—is a small, made up town in Maine with all the drama of small towns everywhere and a particularly nasty problem that slowly rears its head.

The book and the movie take different approaches to this, and that’s pretty much par for the whole course because while both go in the same direction to get from point A to point B, the book basically took the back roads while its adaptation sped down the freeway.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or either approach. I think both are great in their own ways. But the book totally owns the rising action, with the realization that there’re vampires running through the town at night, taking the children, wives, lovers and the local junk yard denizens only coming after nearly 150 pages of intrigue. At least in my collection, which is the same I read for Carrie.

Until then, it’s never said for sure. We get hints, teases. King even plays with our expectations a bit, like he does in this little passage, when one character is asked if there’re ghosts in the Marsten House—a Bates Motel-like home with a sordid past that’s seemingly perfect for a bunch of vamps to call home:

‘Ghosts!’ The old party smiled, and there was something very disquieting about that smile. A barracuda might smile like that. ‘No; no ghosts.’ He placed a faint emphasis on that last word, as if there might be something up there that was even worse.

Which there most definitely was, because once the head vamp, who’s mostly just referred to as him but goes by the name Barlow, makes his presence known, all those little town problems like bad mothers, bad bus drivers, bad wives, bad alcoholics and the like—they cease to matter. In fact, a lot of them get solved, making it seem as though life as a vampire might not be all that bad.

Of course, we humans, we non-bloodsucker, we can’t just let a vampire, let alone a whole town of them, run around, so we’ve just got to end that, right? Well, once the ragtag team of protagonists, which includes the smartest kid you know who might as well be 1970s Seth Green, a priest more worried about spilled whisky than his congregation, a school teacher who gets an easy out, a straight-up stand-in for Stephen King, and a woman who makes the dumbest decision of the whole story—once they finally get their act together, they handle this mess best they can.

By burning the whole town down. Oh, and only two of them, the King stand-in Ben and the kid Mark, leave the story alive. It’s a pretty miserable end, especially in the film. But even in...

The Book

'Salem’s Lot represents a huge evolution in King’s talent, despite the fact it was published only a year after Carrie. The structure and story line is markedly improved, with far more depth and exploration of interpersonal relationships, and King seems to be channeling his inner poet, with picturesque similes and metaphors on almost every page.

There’re a few favorites I picked out I thought worth sharing:

“The curves of her body were heroic, Rabelaisian. Watching her in motion at her eight-burner electric stove was like watching the restless movements of the tide, or the migration of sand dunes.”

If you don’t know what Rabelaisian means, don’t worry, I had to look it up, too. And, for the record, it means, according to Webster, “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism.” And its apparently a nod to François Rabelais and his works, but this is a Stephen King video, and I already mispronounce enough names, so we’re not going down that rabbit hole just this moment.

Because I’d rather talk about the character studies that fill 'Salem’s Lot to the brim. There’re a few in particular that really shook me.

Two definitely hit me just because I’m a father. They seriously just destroyed me.

Every scene with the baby, for instance—choked up. Like when King describes this scene:

The scene struck him immediately and forcibly, cutting through the beer haze like the flick of a wet towel: the baby, naked and screaming, blood running from his nose; Sandy holding him, her sleeveless blouse smeared with blood, looking at him over her shoulder, her face contracting with surprise and fear; the diaper on the floor.

And the scene where the father jumps on his son’s casket? When he screamed

‘You ain’t gonna throw no dirt on my boy!’

And then he kicked and screamed and threatened to whip his dead son’s butt for faking his death. That was rough.

As was the scene where the husband watches in wait for his wife’s lover Corey to come over, then ambushes the two of them with a shotgun. I want to quote King here, because I wouldn’t otherwise do him justice:

Put it in your mouth, Corey. Both barrels. Yes, that’s right. Easy! … that’s okay. Yes, your mouth’s big enough. Slip it right in there. You know all about slipping it in, don’t you?’

Corey’s jaws were open to their widest accommodation. The barrels of the shotgun were pushed back nearly to his palate, and his terrified stomach was trying to retch. The steel was oily against his teeth.

‘Close your eyes, Corey.’

Corey only stared at him, his swimming eyes as big as tea saucers.

Reggie smiled his gentle smile again. ‘Close those baby blue eyes, Corey.’

Corey closed them.

His sphincter let go. He was only dimly aware of it.

Reggie pulled both triggers. The hammers fell on empty chambers with a double click-click.”

Corey fell onto the floor in a dead faint.

How insanely good is that? But like I said, not every piece I loved was character-related. King spatters world-building sections throughout the book that explore the setting. Like this example, which grabbed me right-off, perhaps because, as a native New Englander myself, it truly hits home:

Fall and spring came to Jerusalem’s Lot with the same suddenness of sunrise and sunset in the tropics. The line of demarcation could be as thin as one day. But spring is not the finest season in New England – it’s too short, too uncertain, too apt to turn savage on short notice. Even so, there are April days which linger in the memory even after one has forgotten the wife’s touch, or the feel of the baby’s toothless mouth at the nipple.

That’s what King does—he hits home. He puts words to thoughts and feelings I know I’ve had, but have never given voice to. Not the nipple part.

What King doesn’t always do, though, is give every character his or her due. In this case, I want to specifically call attention to Susan Norton, the love interest and one of the main characters. Or so I thought, until about two-thirds through the book.

See, what happens then is Susan makes a dumb, dumb, dumb move. I mentioned this a little earlier, and it’s handled a little differently in the adaptation, but basically, Susan thinks the men are taking too long to get anything done and so, without telling anyone, decides to try and off the king of the vamps all on her own. With a “stake” that’s really just part of an old wooden fence.

Then she dies. Off-camera as it were. Well, she gets turned into a vampire herself, but I’ll get to that in a moment. When she dies, it’s in a section of the book where every main character—the writer, the kid, the priest, the school teacher and the doctor—all get their own little narratives surrounding what happens this particular night. Susan doesn’t.

Next we see her, she’s a vamp and tries to turn the kid. Then, the only other time she makes an appearance, she gets a stake through her heart in an awful, agonizing, torturous scene. In the end. she’s basically treated as a prop.

Even Barlow, big bad as he is, describes her as little more. In a fantastically satirical note left for the protagonists, who’ve come to kill him only to find the turned Susan, Barlow says,

‘I have no further need of her and so I have left her for you to – how is your idiom? – to warm up for the main event. To whet your appetite, if you like. Let us see how well you like the appetizer to the main course you contemplate, shall we?’

Susan becomes an appetizer. And is that Stephen King speaking through Barlow, saying he has no further use for the character?

The note, and that scene, by the way, while being horrible for Susan, also gave me a great laugh, and happened to inspire...

The Wine

I had a couple of ideas when thinking of what to pair with 'Salem’s Lot. Vampyr wine of course. Lagunitas Sucks was another one. And even Cutty Sark, which is mentioned in the book as Father Callahan’s, the priest’s, drink of choice.

But once I read that note Barlow left for our protagonists, I knew exactly what I had to do. And it was a very natural fit.

‘My good, good friends” he wrote “– Mr Mears; Mr Cody; Master Petrie; Father Callahan – enjoy your stay. The Médoc is excellent, procured for me especially by the late owner of this house, whose personal company I was never able to enjoy. Please be my guests if you still have a taste for wine after you have finished the work at hand.’

Yes, though that was written in pure jest, I got me a Médoc.

A 2014 La Patache Médoc Bordeaux to be precise, which was the only Médoc at my local shop, Wines and More—but one that was highly recommended by them. The guy at checkout actually had a bottle set aside for himself for that night, funny enough.

I let it sit for about an hour after opening, as I heard that really broadened the flavor. It's a little bitter, but that after-taste—sort of like oak wood chips and cherries. I can taste all sorts of berries in there. It's quite good. My wife had an initial sip and she wasn't a fan of it. She thought it was bitter, and I got that impression as well.

But, yeah, it's quite good.

So that’s the 2014 La Patache Médoc Bordeaux, inspired by what very well be my favorite scene in 'Salem’s Lot. The book anyway, because it happens to be missing from...

The Film

Like I said earlier, the 1979 adaptation—which I really shouldn’t call a film, since it was originally released on television—takes quite a different path to tell its story.

The most noticeable difference right off the bat is the shrunken and renamed cast of characters. Which was perfectly fine by me, since following a whole town’s worth of people became more than a little difficult as the book ran on.

So, Susan’s dad goes from being a regular ol’ Joe to the town doctor, and we lose another character, Dr. Cody.

Larry Crockett, played by Fred Willard, who I’ll always know as Amy’s dad, and the local Salem’s Lot real estate man, replaces Corey in that shotgun scene.

And Susan’s ex-beau, renamed from Floyd Tibbets to Ned Tebbets, is one of the guys who moves Barlow’s box at the beginning, and so on and so forth.

Floyd’s renaming I don’t quite get, but most of the others I understand. Especially to get rid of so many M names. In the book we had Mike, Matt, Mark, Mears, Marsten, Marjorie, McDougall, Miller… but enough of that.

All you need to know is, this adaptation takes its own path. And it’s great. It’s directed by Tobe Hooper—who also happened to direct The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. Like he did with those films, he gives the scenes in 'Salem’s Lot a touch of surreal power, playing with the framing and camera work to highlight key performances and ratchet up the tension.

The shotgun scene I found particularly effective, as I could almost feel the hurt and anger coming from George Dzundza, who played the estranged husband, Cully Sawyer. Even without the shotgun going into the mouth, which I’ve heard is in the alternate version of the film, this was an amazingly evocative scene.

The camerawork was also quite notable when Susan and Mark infiltrate the house, as the frame pulls back to show the two in almost miniature, effectively showcasing the enormity and power of the building. Oh, and let me not forget almost every scene involving Straker, Barlow’s right-hand man in the book, who is so much more than that in the film.

He goes from being the Igor to Barlow’s Dr. Frankenstein in the novel straight to Dr. Frankenstein himself in the movie, and Hooper capitalizes on and adds to this with expert framing and direction.

This glorified take on Straker I believe has mostly to do with the more sinister portrayal of Barlow, presented here as homage to the classic Nosferatu, and wildly different to King’s version, where he comes off far more gentlemanly—though he seems to change appearance depending on who’s checking him out. I think.

But the film has a few hiccups. For one, the mystery of the two characters at the beginning—noted only in the novel as “the man” and “the boy,” but quickly verified to be Ben and Mark in the film—is completely lost, throwing away some of the tension as we know they’ll survive the conflict in Salem’s Lot.

The timeline is also horribly compressed, which makes not only the vampire reveal, but the romance between Ben and Susan, portrayed by the one and only Mrs. McClane, Bonnie Bedelia, feel completely forced and unearned. Despite the floating brother at the window, which was a pretty dang cool moment.

The Susan part I again had a special contempt for, but for different reasons than King’s book. Because while Susan was captured in the book, in the film, she willingly goes to Barlow. And then, when Ben and Mark leave, setting the house on fire without knowing Susan’s fate in the least, all Ben says is, “Sorry Susan, forgive me.”

Are you kidding me? You’re just gonna set the house your supposed “love” is in on fire, without even trying to save her? Ok cool, you’re a good man.

Closing Notes

King would go on to revisit ‘Salem’s Lot a few times, both in his short story collection, Night Shift, and his magnum opus, The Dark Tower. But in this book, there’re a few connections to King’s other stories I happened to note: particularly to “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” to IT, and even back to Carrie.

But the biggest connection isn’t one that’s outright stated. It’s King’s portrayal of a sort of magic in children. This was hinted at a bit in Carrie, and would be further explored in “The Body” and IT, but King seems to define this characteristic in two key passages of Salem’s Lot:

The night before, Matt Burke had faced such a dark thing and had been stricken by a heart seizure brought on by fright; tonight Mark Petrie had faced one, and then minutes later lay in the lap of sleep, the plastic cross still grasped loosely in his right hand like a child’s rattle. Such is the difference between men and boys.

And this one:

The essential and defining characteristic of childhood is not the effortless merging of dream and reality, but only alienation. There are no words for childhood’s dark turns and exhalations. A wise child recognizes it and submits to the necessary consequences. A child who counts the cost is a child no longer.

Well, I’m clearly no longer a child, and to be frank, reading 'Salem’s Lot gave me the spooks. So much so that I dug through my shelf and found my old cross. Much like audiences refused to go in the water after seeing Jaws, better to be safe than sorry, right?

Next time: The Shining

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