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Book review: <i>'Salem's Lot</i> by Stephen King

The second novel of Stephen King—the phrase “classic seventies horror” isn’t necessarily a bad thing!

The story

Ben Mears, published author of two books and grieving widow morning the loss of his wife some years earlier, heads back to Salem’s Lot, where he spent several carefree boyhood years. He has come to write, and to recapture some of the contentment he felt in Salem’s Lot... but he’s also come for another reason. That reason lurks above the town like a living, malicious being... the old Marsden house; unoccupied, sinister, and haunted by the events that occurred there, many years ago. Ben is also haunted by the house. He decides to rent it and write about it and confront his demons.

However, when he arrives in town, he discovers the house has already been purchased. While this disappoints him, it’s not the end of the world—he meets Susan Norton, who helps him to forget his unhappiness and brings him into the present, and he gets involved in the small town life and the characters in his boarding house.

Then suddenly, a young boy goes missing. Then his brother dies unexpectedly in the hospital. The body count is rising, and Ben, Susan, and a couple of other people are the only ones who can sense that there is something more than a casual link between the deaths... and the answer may just lie within the Marsden house. When the facts stack up, the unlikely group of six... Susan, Ben, a young doctor, an old school teacher, a drunkard Catholic priest, and a young boy... must try and fight an ancient, intelligent, and brutal evil force. But who amongst them will survive? And can they finish the mammoth task they have been presented with?

The style

Salem’s Lot was King’s second novel, right after Carrie. It had certain Carrie-esque elements to it; such as the use of newspaper cuttings and reports to help tell the story, but there were substantial differences as well, which in my opinion made Salem’s Lot better. And let’s face it, it’s classic Stephen King and quintessential, almost textbook horror, so it’s kind of fun to read it based purely on those two points.

Salem’s Lot, as well as incorporating news reports for that objective, the-newspaper-doesn’t-know-the-half-of-it vibe, used a narrative technique based on a variety of third person limited narrations. The very central characters, Ben and Susan, get their own chapters and sections during which the narration follows them. Then there are chapters and sections entitled “the Lot” and “Danny Glick and the others”, in which, the third person limited narrative flicks from character to character in the town, developing storylines and giving different perspectives as the town gradually disintegrates. It works well, particularly because the main characters, with whom a lot of time is spent, end up with an emotional investment from the reader. In this way, Salem’s Lot is better than Carrie because the reader ends up with more opportunity to become attached to the characters and care about what happens to them. Which ups the suspense. Which is crucial, really.

Now for the genre... I can’t read Salem’s Lot and not talk about how well the horror was done! Obviously, reader’s responses to horror will differ greatly, depending on their experiences. However, I think the horror element in Salem’s Lot is very clever, because, for me anyway, it really tapped into that childish element of fear that is completely irrational and completely uncontrollable. During the first sections of the narration, in the lead up, the characters explored many of their feelings as those of vague, unspecified, and childlike terror. When the full weight of the plot was revealed these feelings remained and intensified. There were bits in this novel that scared me, and I don’t scare easily. And they scared me because they reminded me vividly of the way my imagination used to scare me as a child. Granted, I was reading the damn thing alone in a power-out by candle light, so maybe that affected my fear level as well, but still, it was well judged for scaring.

King also did a little exploration of the nature of evil during the novel, there was a bit of social commentary, if you were looking for it, thanks to the involvement and opinions of the Catholic priest. I found the emphasis King put on religion interesting, but I also found the commentary about the townsfolk and the kind of evil that lurked there separate from the Marsden house to add some depth to the story. And, while the Catholic bit perplexed me, the Catholics don’t save the day so I didn’t mind it so much... it didn’t get all in-my-face religious, which I was a bit afraid of.

The writing isn’t bad. The descriptions are vivid, and there’s nothing too dubious or gratuitous with sex and violence—it’s there, but as tasteful as you could hope for within the confines of the genre. However, I object to writers writing about writers... it’s always embarrassing when they talk about their writer character as being a great writer. The reader lives in fear that the writer character will start writing—and the writer character is only ever as good as the author. Luckily King avoided most of the potential pitfalls, but there were some pretty close shaves.

Who is this book for?

Here’s the deal. It’s good for what it is... mid seventies standard horror. It’s dated. It has lots of good points; I reviewed it based specifically on what it is and when it was written; but it’s been over thirty years since it was published and now there is better, more original, sexier and edgier horror. That said, Stephen King fans, who either haven’t read it or haven’t read it for a while, should read it again; it’s worth it. That also goes for fans of the horror genre, or just persons interested in such things. Or an aeroplane ride, or a bus trip, or light holiday reading (in the daylight surrounded by people of course!)

If you like this book, you would also like...

Steven King’s other stuff. He’s not short of publications, you know! Furthermore, for some edgier, more recent horror, I’m thinking Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby or Diary.

In short

Title: ’Salem’s Lot
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 0385516487
Year published: 1975
Pages: 280
Genre(s): Horror, Fiction
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this review helped me alot. i enjoyed reading it and i think you gave a very good description of the book. however, the house in the story is called the marsten house, not the marsden house.

but I couldn't disagree with you about today's more edgier and sexy horror. Today's horror books only invoke laughter from the horror lovers....and if you are thinking Meyers or Anita Blake books, well let's not go there and discuss wastefully about books which no one will remember ten years later while King's books will remain staple classics. In this respect the review is substantially misleading.