Although Stephen King toys with vampirism in other works, ’Salem’s Lot (Signet 1975) is the go-to vampire novel for King fans, and a solid, though uninspired, read. Favorite King traits are featured, including a novelist as a main character; children being smarter than adults; strangers moving into small Maine towns and instilling evil; and evil ingrained in the nature of certain places. It’s not the best of King’s work, but it certainly isn’t the worst.
Ben Mears, haunted by nightmares of the time he broke into a haunted mansion as a child, returns in Jerusalem’s Lot to face his demons. He hopes to rent the mansion, but finds out it has been sold to two mysterious, foreign antique dealers. Soon after his arrival, strange things begin to happen: a dog is brutally killed, children disappear, people die of extreme blood loss. It isn’t long before Ben, his girlfriend, a local school teacher, and more come to the same conclusion: vampires are taking over ’Salem’s Lot.
Although an average vampire novel on most levels, ’Salem’s Lot makes its readers face evil but doesn’t bring them out of it, as most of King’s novels (and horror novels) do. Mears and a local child, Mark Petrie, do manage to destroy the master vampire Barlow, but only after having lost best friends, lovers, and parents. The priest—the age-old classic defeater of vampires—faces the master vampire and loses, subsequently receiving a consequence worse than becoming a vampire. If our religious leaders can’t believe in the Church strongly enough to defeat evil, than what can ordinary people do?
And finally, while Mears and Mark force the vampires into the open in the end, there isn’t much hope that they will change the course history has taken. First of all, if the vampires are forced out of the Lot, won’t they just go into the neighboring towns? Second, King wrote a short story sequel, giving the Lot’s fate away. In “One for the Road” (Night Shift), we are given one more glimpse at ’Salem’s Lot, and it is just as dead—or should we say undead—as before.
’Salem’s Lot is moving less because of its horror (which is average) or originality (which doesn’t really exist), but because it gives the reader a sense of emptiness. I’m personally more familiar with “One for the Road” than the novel, which made the experience that much more painful. In It, we know that Derry will survive, because there are Derry novels after It was written. Already having read “One for the Road,” though, I knew how the Lot’s story would end. I was just watching it move forward to its inevitable demise.