Out of the Past
As fans, we usually frown on the revisiting of classics from our past. When George Lucas announces another jerryrigging of his Star Wars canon, or Ted Turner mandates that the black and white movies in his catalog should all be colorized, we immediately leap upon our harried high horse and decry the violation of the vintage. There are valid arguments on either side for perfecting/preserving that which came before, but many of them get lost in misguided tours of the moral high ground, a place where ownership and aesthetic meet to wage their never-ending battle for ideological domination.
Yet when it comes to books, especially those from horror master Stephen King, we can’t seem to get enough of the spooky stuff, and don’t mind when he fleshes out a favorite tome to fit his fancy. His mid-1980s revision the apocalyptic epic The Stand is considered one of his best—a masterwork of a true futuristic fright containing the ultimate war between the powers of light and dark. His Dark Tower series is nothing more than one continuing story, constantly updated and expanded to suit the author’s seemingly infinite imagination.
And now his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, is getting the unexpurgated treatment. Around 50 pages of previously unreleased material has been reinserted into the book, as well as the inclusion of two short stories (from the Night Shift collection) “One for the Road” and “Jerusalem’s Lot”, and some interesting illustrations. It is his attempt at putting the completionist spin on his now legendary vampire opus. Some may argue that it’s too much of a good thing, but in King’s qualified hands, this wickedly original scary story as social commentary becomes even more potent.
The novel’s main storyline revolves around Ben Mears, a frustrated writer who returns to the Maine town of ‘Salem’s Lot where he grew up. This baneful little burg with its own house of horrors (the Marsten manor, location of a brutal murder/suicide years before) has haunted Ben, and even with success, he needs to return to fulfill some manner of flawed human destiny. He meets up with local career gal Susan Norton, and a minor romance begins.
While inquiring about renting the Marsten place, Ben learns that a new tenant has taken over. An antique dealer named Straker has leased the home for his boss, a man named Barlow. As the men’s curio shop prepares to open, strange things start to happen. A little boy is abducted. Neighbors and co-workers start disappearing. Ben begins to believe that something sinister is afoot, and along with school kid Mark Petrie, they uncover the awful truth - vampires have taken root in the small town, and the Marsten House seems to be their new central stomping ground.
King is often quoted as finding the ennui in the locale, the lack of real interest by the people being targeted by unearthly forces of evil as the most frightening facet of this book to him. Indeed, it’s a powerful message in today’s languor as lifestyle mindset. Every community in our country is now as distant and disconnected as ‘Salem’s Lot—either from its past, its population or its problems. In perfectly plotted sequences (relatively unscathed from King’s slight “modifications”) we see how terror trickles in, slips in between the spaces of sedation, and slowly strangles a community to death. While the bloodsucking horror is incredibly heinous (King loves to languish over passages of guts and grue), the fact that it comes about so fluidly, so organically, makes ‘Salem’s Lot a sensational read, even some 30 years after it first frightened fans.
At the center of the story are vampires, those smooth seducers offering the promise of everlasting life and the grotesque gift of agelessness. Again, in modern society’s ceaseless quest for immortality, our fanged fiends seem to hold as much scare sway as they did before. The entire Goth motif is married to the notion of outsiders relying on dark forces to outwit—and outlive—their conservative counterpart. King was ahead of his time as much as right on the current money when he tied Ben’s wayward nostalgia to a takeover bid by the undead.
Certainly he is haunted by visions of evil inside the Marsten House (they still “live on” for him) and he’s hoping to rekindle his muse by visiting the place where he lost his innocence. In a real sense, Ben is using the Lot like an artistic vampire, drinking in the drama from decades before to hopefully resurrect his floundering faith in his own talent. Even the romance with Susan seems like a midlife crisis (though Ben is barely out of his 30s), a chance to recapture his youth.
King is also known for keeping one foot in the far more open-minded environment of adolescence, and indeed, most of ‘Salem’s Lot‘s most horrifying elements revolve around children confronting and conquering the growing legion of vampire loyalists. Mark Petrie makes a perfect foil for the author’s fright fantasies, since he’s a slight skeptic who can still be wooed by the supernatural. His belief in mythos and legend is so strong that we come to look at him as the child Ben wishes he had been years before. He is also the sidekick our hero will need to defeat the heinous hordes.
They make an interesting team, not so much in any real father and son style setup (though that is certainly expanded upon and explored in the new material included in this version) but because they are two sides of the same coin. Both are bright and imaginative. Both carry scars that may never heal. And both need to face the demon slowly draining the town dry before they have the slightest chance of moving on.
And it is the horror growing inside that finally convinces us of King’s craft. The revision amplifies the hidden terror inherent in the Lot. He ties it back to some unsettling events in the 1700s/1800s (the setting for the “Jerusalem’s Lot” short story) and even expands on the infamous fire of 1951 that plays a part in the book (in “One for the Road”). Many of King’s most fascinating books have focused on the notion of entities as naturally evil (the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the cursed car of Christine). But in ‘Salem’s Lot, he is more successful in linking the iniquity to something tactile and true.
Indeed, the bad men of ‘Salem’s Lot—the slippery eel elegance of Straker, the overwhelming influence of Barlow—are matched nicely by far more normative fears. Floyd Tibbets, the kind of stunted bully destined to never leave the Lot, is set up as part of Ben’s pained past. He is currently dating Susan, and with typical one-horse town tendencies, has a kind of ‘chick as chattel’ mindset about his old “buddy” returning to the roost. King loves to populate his works with such petty prigs, individuals who glom on to some manner of dangerous dignity as the world slowly strips it away from them. Naturally, paranormal and personal collide, with the ghouls gaining allegiance from guys like Floyd.
Since the scope has been expanded in this newest edition, it is tempting to argue that some of the private, personalized elements get cast aside for more epic adventures. And the expanded portions do pose several interesting (and irritating and frustrating) questions about who Ben Mears really is, his true connection to Mark Petrie, and the role Father Callahan plays in this mystical conspiracy. One of the books few weaknesses, at least initially, was all the perplexing passages where people are referred to in generic terms (“the boy”, “the man”). Thankfully, the revision unravels some of that mystery. It doesn’t make it more satisfying, just slightly more understandable.
Since his first novel Carrie was about telekinesis—not the most classical of creature features—‘Salem’s Lot represents King’s first stab a legitimate horror archetypes, and as he would go on to prove time and time again, no one can rework the classics better than he. His vampires have literal bite; they aren’t some suave, misunderstood sensualists who see neck biting as a sex substitute. There is no veiled Victorian morality here, no tender embraces meeting with moral consequences in this Dracula update. These nasty Nosferatus are out for blood and minions, and the more the merrier. King rediscovers the real reason why people fear that which goes bump in the night. There could actually be something there, hiding in the dark, waiting for the right moment to strike… and suck you dry.
Even 30 years later, with added material, major backstory bolstering, and little finesses here and there, ‘Salem’s Lot is the very definition of a page-turner. The book itself envelops you, constantly hinting and winking, metering out its macabre in small, satisfying doses. It creates believable characters, crackerjack set pieces and a backdrop so descriptively visual you can practically see the Marsten House from your own window. Once the sides are drawn and the dice cast, the narrative drives forward on its own supernatural force until we can’t help but get caught up in its brazen bedlam. And as the end looms, we grow melancholy, knowing that a great storyteller is about to spring his surprise, and soon the journey will all be over.
That’s what’s so great about Stephen King’s works, and ‘Salem’s Lot in particular. Certainly those who follow Anne Rice and her horror as Harlequin romance tendencies will find King’s world soaked in the juicy juvenilia of the author’s youth (a childhood filled with EC comics and trips to the movies). Others who came to the author late in his career (around the time The Stand became a blockbuster TV mini-series) may see this as the first flawed effort of a soon to be sensational author, a untried terror troubadour spreading his wings to see if he can fly.
Remixed, remastered or remade, it is impossible to destroy the core conceit of ‘Salem’s Lot. It is the basis for all fright fiction, the kernel carved into every supernatural/paranormal plot. Death is behind every door in this tiny Maine town, a gruesome, brutal demise that should send shivers down the spine of even the most sturdy, sainted people. But oddly enough, few even care to lift a finger to prevent it. Indeed, they almost seem ordained to let it overwhelm them like a fetid wave of wickedness. Before, we thought it was just passivity that brought about this providence. But in the new version of the story, it may be part of a bigger ideal, one that argues for evil’s eventual victory during some of its battles with benevolence. Now, Jerusalem’s Lot becomes the Gettysburg of karmic clash—and that’s a scary thought, indeed.