Man vs Bookshelf

Man vs Bookshelf: Salem’s Lot

This entry is part 93 of 104 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

This is going to be a tough one to write.

That’s not to say Salem’s Lot has any emotional relevance to me. I won’t struggle to get through it before the waterfall of my tears sends sparks flying from my keyboard. I mean literally, it’s going to be difficult.

See, my dad has lent me his iPad to see if I might like to buy it off him with the express purpose of me using it at work, rather than the Microsoft Surface I currently use.

There will be benefits to this. Chief of those being that A) the iPad is smaller than the surface, without sacrificing too much screen and B) I can use Scrivener on here more effectively than I can on the surface, as I have a Mac at home, and the Windows and Apple versions of Scrivener are different beasts.

So, I think I will buy the iPad, but there is one large sticking point.

The keyboard.

I love Apple but when they made their iPad keyboard they obviously never intended for it to be used.

It’s stiff, and not in a good way. It does not lend itself to easy, quick typing and-

Oh, hang on, I’m actually getting used to it quite quickly.

Maybe this won’t be so bad. Maybe I complain too much, too quickly.

Let’s just talk about Salem’s Lot.

After a quick mention about…

Stephen King

As I mentioned in my last blog, I have spoken about Stephen King a couple of times before, and see no need to repeat myself. So, why not check out my previous blogs via the links below? Then we’ll move seamlessly into Salem’s Lot

Salem’s Lot

Following the life-changing release of Carrie, Salem’s Lot must have been a nerve-wracking proposition for King. The difficult second album, as it were. The novel that would confirm him as an author going places, or stop his career dead in its tracks, returning him to square one.

Though the $550,000 his paperback publishers bought the Salem’s Lot rights for would have likely staved of abject poverty for at least a little while.

Despite this nerve-wracking proposition, King was not tempted to write a sequel or stick to something that was completely like Carrie. Instead, he expanded, moving from a tightly weaved short novel focused around a few characters to a book almost three times as long that encompassed a whole town.

The common thread here was horror. Where the first story looked at telekinesis, this looked at vampires, and when King presented it to his editor, he was warned that this book could lead to him being typecast.

King didn’t care, and Salem’s Lot would go onto to become a huge success.

His editor, as it turned out, was correct. King is still seen as a horror writer today, though a lot of what he writes is anything but.

Salem’s Lot is focusing on a small and dying American town which is visited by a vampire and his human assistant. Said Vampire proceeds to turn the entire town into vampires and has a pretty easy time of it until a few of the town’s inhabitants learn what is going on and decide to stand up and be counted.

Why has said vampire – Barlow – come to town? Why is he hell-bent on turning its inhabitants into inhuman undead monsters like himself?

Uh, pass?

I probably mentioned this last week (how quickly I forget) but Stephen King is, unlike most genre writers, very much a character writer.

He thinks up a scenario (vampire in a small American town, dome covering a town, cut-off hotel possessed by a mean spirit) and populates that scenario with characters.

Then he writes. He spends little or no time thinking about plotting or weaving together an interesting and multi-layered story. His entire focus is on letting his characters expand and grow and come to life as the pages turn.

This has led to some incredibly memorable characters over the years, but the counterbalance is that the plot is often sacrificed.

So Salem’s Lot is a good set up, but King is only interested in seeing how the characters of this town will cope under the vampire encroachment. He is not interested in why the vampire is there in the first place.

And when I say “the characters of this town” I mean that almost literally.

Salem’s Lot has a handful of central characters (the outsider, the teacher, the preacher, the brainy kid, the doctor, the Smurfette) but, beyond these, King spends a long time writing about characters from all over town.

It is a feature of King’s writing, giving backstories to people who appear in only one or a handful of scenes. It’s part of what makes a book a Stephen King book. But this is the first time he employs it, showing us a school bus driver who hates the kids on his bus, a cable guy having an affair with a dangerous man’s wife, and two cops who work in a town so small they’ve never really had to do any police work.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of King’s excessive characterisation. I find it superfluous and often find myself skipping such segments. It was the same here to some extent, but there was a difference.

When we are given the life story of the pharmacist in The Drawing of the Three (the second Dark Tower book) there is no point to the section. This is a character we will never see again. He does not matter.

In Salem’s Lot, though, King wants to show us how this town goes from being a vibrant little community to completely depopulated in a short space of time. Thus, we see it’s inhabitants picked off one by one.

Any writer can do this, but by giving us time to get into the heads and lives of so many different characters, it stops feeling like cannon fodder being blown away when they die later on. We watch this town picked clean and because of King’s character work we are affected by each and every demise. It makes the book longer, but gives its contents more weight too.

That, in my eyes, makes this characterising of every man, woman and child in the fictional Salem’s Lot worthwhile.

And the main cast?

I read a review of this book recently and said reviewer called the cast of Salem’s Lot paper thin.

I didn’t find that. I found myself empathising with each of our main cast. I found them believable and naturally written, as King’s characters always are.

I also found the way they come together effectively, and the twist death of one of them halfway through the novel was great.

They grew as a team, and that fuelled the forward motion of the latter part of the book, as they came together to face Barlow, the main vampire in a tense and frightening altercation.

The only negative, for me, was that we know right from the beginning who lives and who dies thanks to King’s prologue, set after the story. This foreshadowing is something King does a lot, letting us know who lives and who dies ahead of time then making us sweat to find out when and how. A lot of the time it works well, but here it was frustrating going into that final battle knowing what the outcome would be.

All that being said, this was a well-written novel. It encapsulates a whole town and, while it dragged at points, the characterisation was done brilliantly.

The final act was fast-paced and exciting, leading to a heart-pounding climax between good and evil.

I enjoyed it this time far more Than last and, if you’re going to get into King, this probably isn’t a bad place to start.

A short word on the short works

This edition of Salem’s Lot contains two more stories after the main work. The Salem’s Lot sequel, One for the Road, and the Salem’s Lot prequel, Jerusalem’s Lot.

I could try to talk about the first of these but the truth is I skimmed it, so I won’t bother.

The second story I have read at least some of before, but this was the first time I read it all.

Jerusalem’s Lot is set in the fictional town of Preacher’s Corners, in 1850. Like Dracula, it is told through a series of letters and diary entries, mainly those of its main character, aristocrat Charles Boone, although his manservant, Calvin McCann also occasionally gets involved.

It is a horror featuring the cursed Boone family home and the nearby town of Jerusalem’s Lot, an abandoned town where strange happenings have taken place in recent years.

Despite my distaste for epistolary stories, this is a well-written tale that builds on an impending sense of dread up to an action-packed engaging finale.

I’m not sure how it would stand up alone, but it’s a neat little extra to add to Salem’s Lot proper.

Next Time

Next up it’s the story often attributed as King’s best – and the one book we know Joey Tribiani has read.

The Shining.

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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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