I have a confession. I read this book for the first time when I was in my teens, like so many others of my generation no doubt. So this review, though my first for ‘Salem’s Lot, is in fairness based on my recent half term re-read. But no matter, the book gets better and more terrifying and inspirationally landmark as a reader and writer with every heart stopping visitation.
Prior to reading the book, I watched the classic US television series that serialised the novel, starring David Soul, and James Mason and produced by Richard Kobritz. For many years both sort of co-existed in my mind, one propping up the other in a horror double whammy that remains my benchmark for creepy, believable storytelling. One reason why the television series was so very scary is that it managed to recreate the same tone and tenor which King conveys to the reader through the pages of his long novel. Both create a believable, photographic portrait of modern small town American reality of its day, while at the same time dissolving slowly the boundaries of what we accept as possible until the sinister occultism of the book stands behind you, fang mouthed and watching. The book is masterful in part because King does not hurry the reader. He increases the sense of suspense and menace in slow, unpleasant pulses; and they catch us, like the deepening shadows of a dusk that, once so safely distant, is suddenly upon us, and heralding the creatures of the night. King is a fan of Arthur Machan’s The Great God Pan, and his homage is there throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Never more so in his portrayal of infectious panic that slowly spreads through the rational protagonists and so to us, the reader, when we are left with nothing to do but believe that all is not what it seems and never will be again.
I’ve never had the honour of meeting Stephen King, but I did meet David Soul in a pub in London’s West End about fourteen years ago. My mate Paddy was working the show he was performing in and we all stood and had a pint. The conversation moved to ‘Salem’s Lot. Soul was aghast to learn that I’d watched the whole thing aged six! My Dad, who now freely admits that he was too scared to watch it alone, lodged me into the crevice of the sofa next to him and made me his wing man. I remember he was eating cheese and having a beer. When I asked him could I have some cheese, he cautioned against it as he’d heard it could give a child nightmares before bed! Ah now, only in Belfast. I think he probably let me have a sip of his beer. Or two.
I first read ‘Salem’s Lot as a teenage fan, but I now revisit it as a writer. Oh, but a man has to be careful. King wrote this thing on his wife’s typewriter in the back room of a rented caravan he and his young family were living in at that time. He was working full shift as a High School teacher, not unlike the day job I now do, but he was, unlike yours truly, a young fella with no grey in his beard.
And ‘Salem’s Lot is what he produced.
To approach such facts from the wrong angle could be incline a forty something writer to down tools and walk off the job at hand. After all, King’s vampire epic is better than what many of us can ever hope to create. But, be that as it may, I’m not that man. I see the hope in the horror and I return to this book as much for lessons on how to weave the poetic and page turning, on how to be brave with the pace and be true to the tale one hopes to tell, however outlandish and improbable. I also go to King because he’s a guy who managed to do the lot (sorry, that one just slipped out). He worked a day job, more than one, he had a young wife and the ups and downs of a real marriage, and he had a young family and wrote books. Not the books others wanted him to write, not the books that would follow a market trend. The books that lit a spark in his dark mind and kept him returning to that little room where the magic happened.
I was interviewed for an Irish TV channel last week about my novel Blood Will Be Born and was asked whether someday I’d like to write full time. I felt like I fumbled the answer, but what I wanted to say was yes, of course, but, also to quote King who once said that art is here to support life and not the other way round. ‘Salem’s Lot, perhaps more than any other King novel has been a support for me. From guidance on the craft, to assurance that one’s story is worth telling, to a reminder that a good story, perhaps even a great novel, is possible while life insistently, and very rightly, gets in the way. But mostly, it’s been a support in the very best way that a terrific story, beautifully constructed and characterised and masterfully unfolded always is. It’s the window into another world, this one best entered with the lights out and a cross and holy water at hand, whether you believe in any of those things or not.
When reading ‘Salem’s Lot, first time, or tenth time, it’s best to go prepared, because all is not as it may seem.
This review is also available at www.goodreads.com