Friday, March 23, 2012

Stephen King: 'Salem's Lot (1975)

"There's little good in sedentary small towns. Mostly indifference spiced with an occasional vapid evil - or worse, a conscious one."

With 'Salem's Lot - his second published novel (October 1975) - Stephen King is suddenly at his peak, showing all the strengths that will quickly make him one of the most popular writers in the world: a superb gift for storytelling, a propulsive narrative drive, an unerring sense of detail and imagery, and deft management of a large cast of characters. He also displays a keen sense of the state of America during the mid-70s and reflects, and capitalizes on, those fears and desires in this novel.

King's production over the next four years will be staggering: he will publish five novels - The Shining, Rage, The Stand, The Long Walk, and The Dead Zone - and set down first drafts of four others: Firestarter, Cujo, Christine, and Pet Sematary. He will write the four novellas collected in Different Seasons, as well as Danse Macabre, a non-fiction look at horror in literature and popular culture. King will also publish a short story collection (Night Shift), and write the screenplay to Creepshow, and leave three other (unfinished) novels in his trunk.

King submitted two manuscripts to Doubleday editor Bill Thompson as a possible follow-up to Carrie, his debut novel: Second Coming - in which vampires invade the small Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot - and Roadwork - the story of a man who takes extreme measures to prevent a highway extension from being built through his property.

[Bill Thompson] said that Roadwork was a more honestly dealt novel — a novelist's novel, if you know what I mean — but that he wanted to do 'Salem's Lot, because he thought it would have greater commercial success. But, he said to me, You'll get typed. And I said, Typed as what? He said, Typed as a horror writer. I just laughed. I thought, What? Like M.R. James and Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley? I said, I don't care.
(In the afterword to Different Seasons, and in at least one interview, King says it was Blaze he offered, not Roadwork. Both Roadwork and Blaze were later published under King's Richard Bachman pseudonym.)

King's wife Tabitha thought Second Coming sounded like a tawdry sex book, so King changed it to Jerusalem's Lot. But then the publisher balked; too religious. So it was shortened to 'Salem's Lot. ... As a kid, I always thought the book was about witches and Salem, Mass. (King first wrote about the fictional town of Jerusalem's Lot in college and an epistolary short story from that time was published in his 1978 collection Night Shift.)

When I conceived of the vampire novel which became 'Salem's Lot, I decided I wanted to try to use the book partially as a form of literary homage. So my novel bears an intentional similarity to Bram Stoker's Dracula . . . At the same time, because the vampire story was so much a staple of the E.C. comics I grew up with, I decided that I would also try to bring in that aspect of the horror story. . . .

I wanted to have a section in the book called "exactra" the way there's a section in the beginning of Moby Dick called "exactra". Except the "exactra" at the beginning of Melville's book was all about whales, and I wanted to have a lot of background stuff about vampires, stuff from the bible, stuff from books and movies. . . .
King's initial idea for the novel has been recounted in slightly different ways, but the basic tale is this: During a dinner conversation with friends, the scenario of Dracula returning in the late 20th Century came up. King figured the FBI would quickly nab him, thanks to wiretaps and covert surveillance. One of King's friends, however, thought Dracula could go virtually unnoticed in a rural setting.

There are so many small towns in Maine, towns which remain so isolated that almost anything could happen there. People could drop out of sight, disappear, perhaps even come back as the living dead. I began to turn the idea over in my mind, and it began to coalesce into a possible novel. I thought it would make a good one, if I could create a fictional town with enough prosaic reality about it to offset the comic-book menace of a bunch of vampires.
Synopsis: Novelist Benjamin Mears returns to the small town of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, where he grew up, hoping for closure with the haunting (and possibly haunted) Marsten House, and to research his latest book. Also new in town around the same time are Richard Straker and Kurt Barlow, who rent the long-abandoned Marsten House and open an antiques shop on the town's main street. After a series of mysterious disappearances and odd deaths, Mears realizes that Straker and Barlow are vampires intent on infesting the entire town. So he and a handful of others - including Susan Norton, Matt Burke, Mark Petrie, and Father Callahan - join forces to fight the ever-growing number of Undead. ... Through it all, King piles up dozens of allusions to numerous vampire novels and American Gothic authors.

King's vampires are not only literal, but they are, according to Douglas Winter (Stephen King: The Art Of Darkness), "important metaphors for the seductiveness of evil and the dehumanizing pall of modern society". Winter claims 'Salem's Lot deals a "jackhammer blow" to the myth of "the peaceful, rustic charm of rural communities" as contrasted with the "monolithic greed and guilt of the American city".

I wrote 'Salem's Lot during the period when the Ervin committee [wiki] was sitting. That was also the period when we first learned of the Ellsberg break-in, the White House tapes, the connection between Gordon Liddy and the CIA, the news of enemies' lists, and other fearful intelligence. During the spring, summer and fall of 1973, it seemed that the Federal Government had been involved in so much subterfuge and so many covert operations that, like the bodies of the faceless wetbacks that Juan Corona was convicted of slaughtering in California, the horror would never end Every novel is to some extent an inadvertent psychological portrait of the novelist, and I think that the unspeakable obscenity in 'Salem's Lot has to do with my own disillusionment and consequent fear for the future. The secret room is 'Salem's Lot is paranoia, the prevailing spirit of [those] years. It's a book about vampires; it's also a book about all those silent houses, all those drawn shades, all those people who are no longer what they seem. In a way, it is more closely related to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than it is to Dracula. The fear behind 'Salem's Lot seems to be that the Government has invaded everybody.
Christine Mazur, in her 1997 thesis, Gothic Fiction, Liminality, and Popular Culture: Stephen King's "Grotesque" Social Commentary in 'Salem's Lot, states that the "unquestioning adherence" of some characters to science and logic, their stubborn insistence that vampires cannot exist, despite growing evidence to the contrary, "resembles the unquestioning faith the American people once had in their institutions of government and the office of president".

Mazur quotes authors Leonard Dinnerstein and Kenneth T. Jackson (American Vistas: 1877 to the Present):
In the space of one year beginning on October 10, 1973, a vice-president resigned in disgrace, a former attorney general was indicted, and a Congressional committee ascertained that President Nixon himself had underpaid income taxes to the tune of almost half a million dollars. Americans learned of the "plumbers," of "dirty tricks," of a politicized FBI, and of an Internal Revenue Service ordered to audit the tax returns of political enemies. As each new episode became public it appeared that nothing more damaging could possibly turn up, and yet on every occasion something still more devastating emerged.
At one point in the novel, Ben Mears is suspected in the disappearance of a young child and the local police chief contacts the FBI to see if it has any info on him. The report on Mears comes back with numerous items, including his attendance at anti-war rallies and peace marches over a period of six years.

Although King deemphasized the sexual aspect of the vampire theme, there is an interesting homosexual subtext to the novel. The two heroes of the book, Ben Mears and the teenaged Mark Petrie, are both described as having soft, even feminine, features; Mark is taunted by a bully as "queer". Ann Norton, whose daughter is dating Mears, disapproves of Mears because his latest novel includes a prison rape scene; also, she "distrusted the creative male with an instinctive small-town dislike". A fear and obsession with gay men appears frequently, and many townspeople equate homosexuality with deviance, "preeverts", and pedophilia. Barlow and Straker, as mysterious outsiders, are considered to be homosexuals ("Maybe they are queer for each other"). A minor character, a store owner, is identified by his "fruity" voice and "prissy" mannerisms.

King wrote the novel only a few years after Stonewall and the more public fight for gay rights in America. When he began the novel, homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The thoughts of the townspeople of 'Salem's Lot mirrors the country's confusion, fear and hatred of gay people.

Douglas Winter describes King's "jackhammer blow" to the myth of "the peaceful, rustic charm of rural communities" as contrasted with the "monolithic greed and guilt of the American city". 'Salem's Lot exposes the terrifying rot at the heart of the American small town. Mears returns to the town in which he once lived, but he's treated as a foreigner, an outsider, with suspicion. The town he once knew is dead.

"[M]ost of the stores are false-fronted," King writes, "although no one could have said why. The people know there is nothing behind those false facades. . . . There is no life here but the slow death of days."

King lays bare the town's fears, desires, shame, neglect, and abuse, hidden behind drawn shades and curtains, in windowless rooms, all across the Lot (which reminds me of the British expression, "the lot", meaning everything). Barlow, the main vampire, believes the townspeople are "stuffed with the aggression and darkness so necessary to" become vampires. Police chief Parkins Gillespie tells Mears that 'Salem's Lot has been dead for 20 years or more ("Whole country's goin' the same way") and reflects that the townspeople "prob'ly like bein' vampires".

Mazur also see an anti-capitalist theme in the novel, with the vampires playing the part of the bourgeoisie.
What makes the vampiristic motif so adaptable to a critique of American culture in turn, is the extent to which a capitalist economy is very like a blood-sucking system. . . . The vampire's relation to his victims is comparable to the capitalist use of other as commodities. the vampire regards humans as his "cash-payment" suppliers with whom he enters into an exchange in which they give him blood and he gives them eternal life in return. Like the capitalist, the vampire has "resolved personal worth into exchange value" and Marx calls this treatment of the human being "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation". . . .

Always foreseeing the need for more blood, the vampire must search for other places in which to settle. . . . Marx could just as well be describing the vampire when he writes: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere."
Mears is the first writer portrayed in King's novels, and he will certainly not be the last. But King does not spend much time exploring Mears's writing career or methods. Mears's first book was a hit, but his following two were poorly received. (King was no doubt worried about how his second novel would fare.) Mears is depicted as a fiercely dedicated writer, unwilling to have a second beer with dinner because he wants to put in some late-night hours on his manuscript.

King, from the novel, on fear, children, and adults:
The door shut softly and his father's slippered feet descended the stairs. Mark [Petrie] let himself go limp with relief and delayed reaction. An adult might have had hysterics at this point, and a slightly younger or older child might also have done. But Mark felt the terror slip from him in almost imperceptible degrees, and the sensation reminded him of letting the wind dry you after you had been swimming on a cool day. And as the terror left, drowsiness began to come in its place.

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting - not for the first time - on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job, the money, what the teacher will think if I can't get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. There is no group therapy or psychiatry or community social services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

. . .

She [Susan Norton] had always consciously or unconsciously formed fear into a simple equation: fears = unknown. And to solve the equation, one simply reduced the problem to simple algebraic terms, thus: unknown = creaky board (or whatever), creaky board = nothing to be afraid of. In the modern world all terrors could be gutted by simple use of the transitive axiom of equality. Some fears were justified, of course (you don't drive when you're too plowed to see, don't extend the hand of friendship to snarling dogs, don't go parking with boys you don't know - how did the old joke go? Screw or walk?), but until now she had not believed that some fears were larger than comprehension, apocalyptic and nearly paralyzing. This equation was insoluble. The act of moving forward at all became heroism.

. . .

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.
Next: The Shining.


laura k said...

Brilliant post. I have some thoughts to share but will wait until I'm not typing with my thumbs.

laura k said...

The anti-capitalist analysis is really interesting, in light of the rise of zombie/vampire themes everywhere now, just as global capitalism is imploding and dragging the whole world down with it. Many organizers refer to "zombie capitalism"; there is a book by the same name. More and more public money is poured into the system to try to save it, but it continues to eat everything in its path, including our planet.

* * * *

I was also remembering a time when if I said "I'm a writer", 100% of the time, the response would be, "Like Stephen King?!" For much of the public, his name was synonymous with the word writer. Stephen King probably has global name recognition along the lines of Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson. It's kind of amazing.

I'm enjoying this post series a lot. Since I don't read King, it's a very interesting window for me.

allan said...

Sounds like there an anti-capitalist streak in a few of his novels/short stories.

In SL, because the townspeople are too wrapped up in their own lives (or gossiping about everyone else), they cannot join together and defeat Barlow/Straker. And so they picked off one by one.

allan said...

In Danse Macabre, King recalled a dream he had when he was eight years old, the image of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a scaffold on a hill. He incorporated that into the novel:

"The corpse bore a sign: ROBERT BURNS. But when the wind caused the corpse to turn in the air, I saw that it was my face - rotted and picked by birds, but obviously mine. And then the corpse opened its eyes and looked at me. I woke up screaming, sure that a dead face would be leaning over me in the dark. Sixteen years later, I was able to use the dream as one of the central images in my novel 'Salem's Lot. I just changed the name of the corpse to Hubie Marsten."

Zenslinger said...

The impression this novel made on me was the necessity of physical combat, that this was outright war with the vampires, and the good guys were definitely going to lose a few. That knock-down-and-drag-out sense gave it a kind of pulpy pleasure, but to me it has nothing on The Shining, which created a much more interesting and tangible atmosphere. I'm reading your posts one by one, several months behind still.