Stephen King’s second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, provides a notably drastic boost in quality from his debut ,which is impressive considering how great Carrie is. Obviously, King is a master of his craft, so it should come as no surprise that ‘Salem’s Lot is a great novel. However, reading them back to back is truly telling of the boost of confidence in himself, but also in his ability as a wordsmith. It’s a brilliant story that feels both expansive while specifically character oriented, in a way that so few could achieve so effortlessly.
‘Salem’s Lot takes place in the town the novel is named after, Jerusalem’s Lot. Ben Mears, an author who spent a brief part of his childhood in the small Maine town, returns in hopes of gathering inspiration for his latest novel. He also hopes he can knock out two birds with one stone and exorcise some of his more personal demons along the way. These demons primarily appear through the form of the ominously named homestead that “watches” over the town, the Marsten House (yes, it is as creepy as it sounds). But this story is not just a haunted house story. Instead, true evil begins disrupting the quaint town, and as the story progresses, King is able to create what feels like a supernatural crime procedural. It’s an incredibly modern take, or at least modern for the time of release, on an ancient story that mainly everyone knows some incarnation of. However, that wasn’t enough for King, so he takes it a step further, and this is where some detractors lose their interest in the novel.
This is certainly a slower book. It has many moments of blood curdling horror and truly terrifying moments, but there is a decent amount of “down time”. Many claim there’s a lot of filler, and even though I dislike that word, it feels important to mention these criticisms. However, where many might see filler, it appears to be King expertly showing how this town can feel simultaneously expansive but also small-scale. The town is very much a character in and of itself, as each chapter is written from the perspective of certain protagonists. And in a perfect example of the titular town, there are chapters aptly titled, “The Lot”.
The first time a chapter like this begins, it simply takes the reader through a full day of life in ‘Salem’s Lot. Each smaller section of the chapter then whisks the reader all over town to the various residents within. Rather than paint a broad overview of a small town, the reader instead gets to experience a farmer’s thoughts as he rises before the sun comes up. We get to notice all the idiosyncrasies of the man who oversees the town dump. Or perhaps how a teenage mother treats her newborn baby when nobody is around. King brilliantly roots the reader into the town by means of its people, and it shows how each “side” character is unique and multi-dimensional, even if they don’t get as much time to shine as the main cast of protagonists. It makes their possible untimely demises all the more frightening, and it’s a true joy seeing all the residents of the town interact with one another and cross paths over the course of the novel.
Without spoiling what the true horror of this town is, it’s also very great to look at this novel through a broader lens. It’s a great extension of the themes King addressed in Carrie, such as religion, childhood trauma and the power of fear. What may start off as a small-town story ends up becoming a very literal battle between the forces of good and pure evil. It shows the necessity of true goodness, as evil doesn’t go away, but instead it festers. It’s everlasting and constantly evolving. This notion of evil evolution is a fantastic segment of the novel wherein a priest contemplates if there is even a need for faith and goodness if evil has become so mundane among daily lives. To the priest, evil takes the shape of less drastic entities. The daily evils that occur so frequently and nonchalantly many may not understand what they are doing morally. King eloquently breaks down good versus evil in a microcosm of the larger narrative, and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. Take a quick trip to this small Maine town, and you will not regret it.