This post is going to sound like heresy to some people, so let me just acknowledge right now that I’m writing about my idol, here. I have yet to find a storyteller that is as commanding on the page as Stephen King. I love his work so much that I limit how much of it I will read, fearing it will influence my work too much. So what inspired these thoughts about the fallibility of the undisputed greatest contemporary horror novelist of our time? I recently reread a classic that’s near and dear to our hearts – ‘Salem’s Lot.
For the few of us who are unfamiliar, ‘Salem’s Lot is the story of vampires invading a small town in rural Maine. I won’t get into a long contrived description of the plot – that’s what Goodreads is for – but it’s important to know that since its publication in 1976, this book has scared the shit out of millions of people around the world. From a purely emotional perspective, it might be one of the most effective horror novels ever written. I can remember my brother reading it in high school and mentioning that he actually looked under his bed before turning out the lights to sleep. This is powerful stuff, folks, the likes of which we don’t often see today. Perhaps we’re too “battle-hardened” as King himself remarked in an interview on NPR recently. Audiences today get force fed gore in such large quantities (though rarely with any creativity) that we might be simply too hard to scare. I decided to pick up this old favorite for that very reason. I wanted to reread a masterful novel of suspense to see if it still scared me. It did. When I finally put it down I realized, with tremendous relief, that the battle-hardened theory blows up in the face of good storytelling. I realized something else as well – even an amazing work like ‘Salem’s Lot has its flaws.
The first one hundred pages or so introduce us to most of the main characters, and we watch the town respond with curiosity, even dread, at its newest residents who move into the infamous Marsten House. Two little boys disappear, and the action begins. The first third of the book starts the same way as most of King’s novels: slow build which gradually boils to a huge clash between good and evil. But in ‘Salem’s Lot something happens between Acts Two and Three that we don’t usually see. The story accelerates in a hurried pace, not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it spawns a few zits.
Characters Who Believe ‘Just a Little Too Easily’
This is a tough one for any writer to who is trying to introduce a monster from ancient folklore to a land where people drive Citroens and play badminton in the backyard. I don’t care what physical evidence you have, if you saw a vampire and told a buddy about it he would think you’re friggin nuts until he himself saw the vampire. In the scene where Matt Burke and Mike Ryerson cross paths at the bar, a very frail and sickly looking Mike starts describing scary dreams that seemed real. Burke sees the puncture wounds below his jaw and instantly knows it must be a vampire. This seemed a little too easy for me, even for a modern day sage like Matt Burke. He calls Ben Mears, the protagonist, and convinces him of what’s happening after spending some time walking hand-in-hand through the “how do we know I’m not crazy” dialectic, so I’ll buy that one. But then enter Jimmy Cody, a physician and brother-in-arms who jumps on the vampire bandwagon faster than you can raise a crucifix. I’ve thought about this, and I realize the story probably would’ve sucked if we had to assemble a team of vampire-killers and watch each and every one of them go through the same stages of shock, disbelief, and eventual acceptance. After all, the evidence was mounting around them. People were dropping dead right and left of some unknown illness and most of the ones who were still kicking stayed indoors with the shades drawn during the day. Despite all this, I feel like the protagonists could’ve shown a little more of a fight on their way to belief. A real person would have.
The Plight of Father Callahan
This character makes an encore appearance many years later in the Dark Tower series and I wonder if it’s because King wanted to settle up with him. Callahan comes to us comparatively late in the story, but the gravity around him has a strong pull. Callahan is an alcoholic priest who’s grappling with his faith and a mounting depression. He feels the elemental mission of the church has been diluted by the modern world and needs something to hold onto (other than the bottle). Sure enough, he finds his fight and what happens is interesting, but this character is not treated with the weight he deserves. Callahan seems like a more important piece than he is given space for in the novel. I felt like we should’ve been pulled into his world a little deeper than a single chapter halfway through the book, before he plunges headfirst into a fight with the Prince of Darkness.
Still a Masterpiece
‘Salem’s Lot is a beacon of horror fiction I will spend the rest of my life swimming toward with whatever meager talent I have struggling beside me. If I could write anything that’s even half as effective at scaring the pants off people I’ll feel pretty damned tickled about it. What I appreciated about reading the book again, after my own writing chops have matured a bit, is recognizing the wrinkles and knowing it’s still an awesome tale. Stephen King is a genius, but he’s still a writer just like me, and maybe you too. Writers have the same challenges every day – seeing the story clearly and organizing words into sentences that put that vision accurately into the reader’s head. If I see that King can stub his toe and still cross the finish line with honors, it gives me the strength to run harder.
I’d love to hear what you think. Do you totally disagree? Have you found similar issues in this story or others? Were you inspired or let down? Let me have it.