Thursday, August 30, 2012

Yet Another, Perhaps (Slightly) Different, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Top Ten List, Part 1

My relationship with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is rather odd. I’ve liked the show for closing on thirteen or fourteen years now. I finished watching all the episodes just a couple of weeks ago. Contradiction? Not back in 1999, where bootlegging actually involved “legging” VHS tapes from friend to friend and DVD players were just being pronounced the greatest and final evolution of the home entertainment market (Note: There might be some slight exaggerations. –E).

I was about eight or nine when I very first saw Buffy, in its nascent state as a mid-season replacement on the fledgling WB network, and as a young child I hadn’t yet grasped the intricacies of either taping things on VHS or interpreting the time management involved with watching serialized television shows. When I caught Buffy, it was a one off episode here or there, maybe a marathon I stumbled upon. I didn’t become extremely attached to it—and be advised that my memories of the period are nebulous at best—but I do remember being unable to change the channel whenever it was on. I didn’t quite get everything that was happening, but I knew there were fight scenes, vampires, and some spine-tingling, smile-inducing moments that I would later discover go by the name of “good writing.”

For whatever reason, I recall that most of the episodes I did see were during season 2/3, though I do remember seeing the end of “The Gift” and having no idea what in Glory’s name was happening—but that might have been later.

See, as much as I liked Buffy, it never really was on my radar more than just something that was interesting on television if I happened to skip across it on a slow day. I was much more into Dragonball Z at the time (and you were too, so zip it). Buffy didn’t really transcend into a consistent interest until much later, after the series had ended and reruns had started popping up everywhere.

I want to say it was on the CW where I first began to watch Buffy in earnest, and I want to say it was around 2005 or 2006, but no later than 2007. But I spotted it on whatever-channel-it-was on Saturday mornings, and after the obligatory recognizance light went off, I made it a point to watch it. Every Saturday morning, usually two episodes back to back (at first, anyway). The season most salient? Six.


To this day I feel that my leniency towards season six is partially due to this juncture, watching it weekly while eating cereal on a non-school day. I’m aware, now, of just how divisive six is—yet I can’t summon up any great rage against it, and I think these Saturday mornings were the reason why. Partly because of nostalgia glasses, sure, but partly because I think I can look at six more objectively since I hadn’t had as much investment into the Scooby Gang . Since I hadn’t canonized their characters in mind, the “darkness” and “despondency” of six never really annoyed me, and in fact I thought it was exceedingly well-played. I remember vividly seeing the end of “Dead Things,” where Buffy learns, from Tara, that she didn’t “come back wrong” and cries that she doesn’t want to be forgiven. I also remember seeing parts of Grave and the entirety of "Doublemeat Palace"—a fact that will come back to haunt this list later.

For whatever reason, the Saturday morning thing dried up, and I can’t remember specifically why. I think it was a combination of factors: I started having to be places on Saturday mornings more often than not—work? Football practice? And the fact that I think CW or whatever channel messed with the lineup, showing one Buffy episode instead of two and then not showing them at all in the mornings, or something. So that pipeline dried up, and Buffy once again fell to the backburner as a show I remembered enjoying but never quite got around in the pre-streaming world to finishing.

So imagine my jumping at the chance when I discovered Netflix streamed not just part, not just most, but every single bit of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer? Finally, at long last, I had a convenient and easy way to finish this remarkable series, and accomplished in three months what I hadn’t been able to do for thirteen years—follow it from episode one right on up to the end.

Now the question is—what to say about it?

I mean, you have to say something if you have a blog. That’s practically a mandate: finish landmark entertainment, blog something about it. At least that’s what I interpreted from Bloggers’ Terms of Use. But what is there that can be said about Buffy: The Vampire Slayer that hasn’t been said ad nauseum (and more eloquently) before? Am I condemned to repeat what everybody already knows, about how great the show is, the depths of the characters (and their salty goodness), its sometimes heavy-handed but always earnest use of metaphor, the doldrums of season 6, the unmitigated quality of season three, the shocking turn in season two, the groundbreaking hours of television in season four, five, and six (again); the outrageous elision by the Emmys and the heaps of praise of which this series deserves every single letter?

What is there to say that’s not covered by the Buffy conventions and the Buffy books of criticism of the Buffy fan sites and the hundreds and thousands of blogs out there that mention Buffy and the Joss Whedon critical companion?

And then it came to me: a top ten episode list! No one’s ever done one of those before!

II: A (Slightly) Different Take On the Top Ten List

I’ve mentioned before the difference between “objective quality” and “favoritism,” and how it’s hard to separate the two within our minds. Someone’s “favorite” whatever can be influence by a number of factors: nostalgia, circumstances in life, the characters involved, etc. I loved and still love Dragonball Z—even though it obviously has severe weaknesses, even in its unaltered Japanese incarnation.

So that being said, this is a top ten favorite episode list, not necessarily the best episode list. Objective quality is hard to gauge even at the best of times, and I have no real desire to delve into that minefield just now (although I probably should put what I think are the top ten best episodes in footnote--oh wait, there it is: (1)).

Now, top ten episode lists are about as rare as corn in Iowa, and that holds even more true in regards to Buffy. How, I can practically hear you asking, can the indomitable Mr. E craft an even minutley-unique perspective on a top ten list? Why, by making a top ten list that’s not about the top ten episodes!!!

Okay, this is proving a bit more tortuous than I thought.

Let me put it this way: objective quality, despite hot debate, tends to rise to the surface, like delicious cream, and in the Buffyverse, there is a pretty well-understood census of agreement as to which are the best and favorite episodes. After having trawled the ENTIRE INTERNET (well, maybe the first five pages of Google) for Buffy top ten episode lists, for the most part said lists will consist of 10-20 of the following episodes, in no particular order:
  • Restless
  • The Body
  • Once More, With Feeling
  • Hush
  • Becoming (1 and 2 combined)
  • Graduation Day (1 and 2 combined)
  • New Moon Rising
  • The Gift
  • Passion
  • Surprise/Innocence
  • Conversations with Dead People
  • The Prom
  • Earshot
  • Prophecy Girl
  • The Wish
  • Who Are You?
  • The Zeppo
  • Chosen
  • Grave
  • Doppelgangland
  • I Only Have Eyes For You
  • Normal Again
  • Fool For Love
The order might be different, and an odd episode or two might pop up, but generally these are the eps that make the list—including mine.

Which is why I wanted to take a different tack. Because, like my fellow bloggers, fact is if I were to make an out and out top ten favorite episode list right now, it would look something like this (again, no particular order):
  • Hush
  • Restless   
  • Amends (more on this in a moment)
  • Surprise/Innocence
  • Graduation Day 
  •  Five by Five This Year's Girl (Note: Embarrassing mistake noted by a shrewd commenter. --E) /Who Are You
  •  Passion  
  • Becoming (1 and 2)   
  • The Zeppo
  • The Body
And then I would write a small paragraph about them, basically saying the exact same things everyone else has already said, more often than not better than I could.

So I decided not to do that.

Instead, I’m going to make a different sort of top ten list. One of the lesser eps. The forgotten ones. The “out of the way” episodes that you rarely replay on your DVD player unless you’re trying to watch the entire series over again.

You can call this “favorite episodes 21-30,” if you want. Or the bad ones I liked the most. Or something. And yes, I’m sure a few of these episodes have, at one point or another, popped up on a top-ten list somewhere—I’m almost certain that every Buffy episode is on someone’s top ten list. But these don’t make the cut all the often.

Some of them are legitimately good episodes that just didn’t reach the highest tier. And a couple are episodes that most of the fandom regards as forgettable to mediocre to outright bad, but that, for whatever reason, appealed to me. But remember: this is not a list of objectivity, but subjectivity. These are favorite episodes that I am well-aware of the weaknesses of, or strengths of. But I think most Buffy episodes deserve at least some praise, even the truly terrible ones, and so here’s a little nod to a couple of them:

III. My Top Ten "Off-the-Beaten-Path" Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Honorable Mention: Season 3, Episode 10, "Amends"

 It’s probably bad form to start off a top ten list with specifically delineated goals with something of a cheat. "Amends," by no means, is an “out of the way” episode. In fact, it’s rather famous. Or rather, infamous. Which is why I included it here.

Honestly, I had no idea this episode was so divisive, and I didn’t discover it until this blog on the Great Buffy Rewatch (which everyone should check out) that I read while doing research for this list. As it happens, "Amends" is apparently highly controversial, from its vague baddy to its final conversation to its quite-obviously-a-miracle that occurs at the end. And I was absolutely astonished by this, because I didn’t see how anyone couldn’t just fall in love with this episode. I know I did.

I’m a sucker for two—well, for lots of things, but two of them are: sappy romance and divine intervention (if used well). "Amends" covers this latter portion, and in my opinion, is used very, very well. The entire episode is about a force of nature trying to convince Angel he has no place in the world and so should give in to evil—that as it is, how else could the episode end without a resounding reminder that Angel does have a place in the world? Yes, it’s a deus ex machina, but remember, deus ex machina is just a function of storytelling, and can be used as well or as badly as any other function of storytelling. In this case, it’s used in a subtle way, and fits with the episode perfectly: the white purity of the snow itself, compounding with the visual idealism of Christmas, and the follow through on the implication that snow was the last thing expected to occur on a hot Southern California holiday.

But really, my overarching love for this episode down to the Conversation. You know the one. Some call it melodramatic. I call it gut-wrenching, and personally I think it’s some of Whedon’s best dialogue, perfectly captured by some of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s and David Boreanaz’s best acting. I get chills every single time Angel grabs up Buffy from where she lays on the ground and desperately pleads: “Am I a thing worth saving? Am I a righteous man?”

Or the insinuation that “It’s not the monster than needs killing in [Angel], it’s the man,” a wonderful and thought-provoking epiphany.

And hey, at the very least, the episode more or less sets up the entirety of Angel: The Series, not to mention the Big Bad for season 7…though the latter may not be a point in its favor.

Number 10: Season Six, Episode 12 "Doublemeat Palace"

So let’s start off the list proper with some decent size controversy: I. Love. "Doublemeat Palace."

Remember (and I hope you do, because it was just a few paragraphs ago) when I said there’s a difference between objectivity and favoritism? My number 10 pick is pretty much the encapsulation of that. The fandom hates "Doublemeat Palace" (for the most part). And, objectively, I can see why. It’s depressing, it’s by and large pointless, its plot is oft-tread ground (hey guys, did you know fast food restaurants appear a bit sketchy sometimes?), and there’s the Ugh! bit where Buffy sneaks off between a double shift for a wall-grinding ugly-bumping with Spike.

But dang it, I can’t help it. I love this episode.

Maybe it’s nostalgia: remember when I said above how seeing "Doublemeat Palace" when I was younger would haunt this list? Behold, the shoe dropping. I can’t help but have some lasting affection for this episode I saw as a young scamp in the carefree days of high school. It brings me to back to adolescence.

Or maybe partly, it’s because I worked fast food, and not only that, but I worked fast food in Buffy’s situation: someone with at least some college education, who could probably do better, but is stuck there because of circumstances beyond her control. And while a lot in "Doublemeat Palace" is (understandably) exaggerated—a lot of it hits home for me as well, right up to not quite knowing what’s actually integrated into the products being served.

And partly, it’s the old lady: What about the cherry pieeeeee!?

So yeah, I love Doublemeat Palace in all its glorious mediocrity, from its one the nose portrayal of lifers in the fast food industry to the stupid cow-based uniforms to the Alien rip-off phallic shaped bad guy—or snake, or whatever—I simply love. I’m sorry. Please don’t kill me.

Number 9: Season 2, Episode 1, "When She Was Bad"

The general consensus is that while Buffy showed some sparks of quality right from the beginning, and signs that it could become something transcendent, it didn’t really hit its stride until the middle of season 2—with the Surprise/Innocence whammy. A fair assertion.

It’s obvious that the writers were in uncharted territory, and it took them a while to figure out both the tone and intent of the show. Whedon and Co. should be given props just for attempting some of the insanity they were trying to put on screen. If there was anything that could characterize the entire Buffyverse, it was courage, and a penchant for pushing past the false starts—like giant praying mantis bug ladies.

“When She Was Bad,” gets sort of lost in the shuffle. It’s not considered a bad episode, just not a particularly great one. It comes in the up-and-down first half of season two (before the infamy) and deals with Buffy attempting to bury the trauma she’s undergone at the hands of the Master—you know, dying and all that jazz.

I personally think this is a really good episode. Whedon’s always been good as digging into psychological trauma and expressing it in a believable fashion—even Buffy’s catatonia from the end of season five made sense in context—and “When She Was Bad” does an admirable job portraying a young girl that represses a traumatic event by building a wall of distance and egomania. The Buffy of “When She Was Bad” is nothing if not foreshadowing her constant—throughout the series—need to be reminded that she not only can’t handle everything on her own, but doesn’t have to, a motif that comes full circle in the series finale, a whole five years later (man, do I love Whedon’s ability to synchronize serialized television!).

Plus, it features a sexy Sarah Michele Gellar doing a sexy dance with Xander set to some sexy music.

What’s not to love?

Number 8: Season 1, Episode 7 "Angel"

This is purely a personal opinion of mine (although I don’t think it’s an opinion that’s overwhelmingly rare): I love sappy romances. Call it a guilty pleasure. It’s one of the many anathemas of English majordom—you can’t have a good relationship anywhere in literature because it’s not angsty enough—but I can’t help it. Yes, sappy romance can be done badly. It can very easily be done badly. In fact, more often than not, it’s done badly. But Buffy provides one of the rare exceptions. Is it perfect? Well, no; honestly, I don’t know if sappy romance can ever be done perfectly…but it gets the job done.

Any story can be well done. Really. All it takes is the proper consideration. And the relationship between Buffy and Angel is, quite literally, Twilight if Twilight was competently written. To wit: we have a much older, mysterious and very pale vampire (though he doesn’t sparkle) going after a young, underage girl to the point where the word “stalking” might be apropos. Underage girl, however, sees this not as creepy, but adorable, and the two start a whirlwind romance with lots of angst and drama.

It's essentially same story. The only difference is the writing. When you have a 244 year old vampire and a 16 year old girl, it's hard work to make it even a little bit un-creepy, and the fact that Buffy succeeds at all in doing so is a true testament to the talent of the staff.

Because their relationship is creepy at its most basic. But that consideration is stymied by a host of factors: the obvious caring the Angel has for her, the knowledge that Buffy's self-reliant and, in fact, rescues Angel on a regular basis, and of course the performances from Boreanaz and Gellar to make the whole thing not only seem believable but also seem like the most natural thing in the world: of course these two would be together!

Angel is probably the most Twilight-ish part of the entire romance, what with Angel hanging around Buffy’s house shirtless and sleeping in her room even though they barely know each other and what not, and that’s without mentioning the terrible season one “sound-track” that evokes charming images of the worst sort of overacted soap operas. But it also has one of my favorite scenes in Buffy, where Buffy confronts Angel (whom she now thinks she has to slay) in the Bronze.

David Boreanaz’s season one performance was stiff, to put it kindly, but I think here’s a moment where we see a glimpse of the ability that he actually has, as well as one of my favorite bits of dialogue:

BUFFY: You play me like a fool. Come into my home. And then you attack my family . . .

ANGEL: Why not? I killed mine. I killed their friends, and their friends' children. For a hundred years I offered an ugly death to everyone I met. And I did it with a song in my heart.

BUFFY: A hundred years.

ANGEL: And then I made an error of judgment. Fed on a girl about your age. Beautiful. Dumb as a post, but a favorite among her clan.

BUFFY: Her clan?

ANGEL: The Romani--Gypsies. It was just before the turn of the century. The elders conjured the perfect punishment for me. They restored my soul.

Boreanaz, for all his weakness during this season, pulls off an interesting bit of menace here, a hazy toeing the line between a good/ensouled person evoking the cruelty he was such a willing participant in.

Of course this becomes a fight scene between Buffy/Angel and Darla that encapsulates everything wrong with the direction and budgeting of season one, including the way Julie Benz holds those akimbo pistols (bothers me every time) and the fact that they seem to have bottomless magazines, and since I’m not seeing a Solid Snake Infinite Ammo bandana on her person, I’m just going to assume it was something the writers didn’t want to deal with—but you know what, that's okay. Because the ending of this episode more than makes up for it, in one beautiful visual encapsulating the entire relationship these two characters will have.

The point of Angel is illuminated in its title, and as a sappy romance fan I have no choice but to heap showers of praise.

Number 7:  Season 4, Episode 8: "Pangs"

Put on your helmets, kiddies, because I’m about to blow your mind: season four is probably my favorite season after the biggies (i.e., 2 and 3). It’s regarded as forgettable by a large majority of the fan base and outright loathed by a not-insignificant portion, but I’ve never quite understood why.

I think timing has a lot to do with the way Buffy’s received. I’ve already recounted how I’m favorably inclined towards season 6 more because I wasn’t carrying the expectations of the previous seasons with me when I saw most of it. To take that a step further, I think when you 're first exposed to the Buffyverse makes a huge difference in how well you regarded certain seasons. You start watching as a youngster, and the high school stuff is what relates to you more, and when they get to college there’s a sort of distancing. You start watching as an adult, and season six doesn’t bother you near as much because you totally get the adult issues that the characters are going through. So as a relatively recent college graduate, I’ve never minded season four. Yes, Adam is a little bland—but to counterbalance, I don’t mind Riley at all. Four contains two of my favorite episodes (“Hush” and “Restless”) and some of my favorite individual moments, and is really the last time Buffy felt completely like Buffy to me for a sustained period of time, i.e. the whole season. Season five was really good and had some great episodes, but also marked Buffy’s start into the adult drama that characterized the latter half of the series. There’s no compelling season long arc in four, and the Initiative is a pretty weak exercise, but I never minded that. The fact that there are so many standalone episodes might keep the season as a whole from being as compelling, but it also makes it much more re-watchable, and that leads us to “Out-of-the-way” episode number 7.

"Pangs" fits perfectly into a list like this because the episode really stands on its last fifteen minutes. Without them, “Pangs” might just qualify as one of the worst episodes in the entire series. I see what they were going for—taking the metaphors used in the “high school years” into college, where one is more likely to be exposed to such perspectives of how the Indians (We call them Native Americans, Giles) were the victims of mass genocide in America’s plans of “manifest destiny,” and all that—but the metaphor is about as subtle as a scalping and basically boils down to Willow spouting off progressive dialogues. The villains aren’t very interesting and Angel’s appearances—and hiding from Buffy for a very weak reason—also count against it.

And then there’s the final fifteen minutes.

Honest to God, there might be no funnier bit of action in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer than the last act of "Pangs." Everything from “pincushion Spike” to the expressions of the cast at the end of the episode when Xander lets it slip that Angel was in town (setting up the wonderful Angel ep “I Will Remember You”) is laugh out loud hilarity. Some might think it’s a little too slapstick. For me, it’s what Buffy is all about, the self-aware silliness, and really—correct me if I’m wrong—but I don’t think there’s another episode like this, pure, unadulterated goofing off—after season four—until season 7’s “Him.”

Buffy’s insistence on creating the perfect dinner is rote but still an effective Thanksgiving barrel of laughs, especially in her conversations with Giles, who still has trouble not calling his bubbly group of teenagers “Bloody Colonials.”

A weak episode saved by an outrageously fun final act, hilarious as only Buffy can do.

And speaking of season seven…

Number 6: Season Seven, Episode Seven, "Him"

I want to make it perfectly clear that I don’t think any season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is “bad.” I will say that a few seasons of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer are weak. And to my mind, the weakest of all seasons was numero seven. It wasn’t as oppressively dark as season sex—er, I mean six—and it wasn’t as cheap-looking and ill-defined as season one, but of all Buffy’s seasons, it’s simply the least interesting. The episodes blur together, and not in the good the-arc-is-so-awesome-it’s-hard-to-separate season three way, but in the bad there’s just nothing memorable there kind of way. It wasn’t silly enough to be lighthearted nor dark enough to be oppressive. It was just sort of…there.

That’s not to say it’s bad. I quite enjoyed season seven; however if some vengeful god-spirit came to me and said that to save the universe one season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have to be excised from existence forever, I would say seven with little hesitation. Other than "Conversations with Dead People," there was not a single episode that made me stand up and go “Wow!” Even the oft-lauded “Storyteller” felt too bogged down by what was happening at that point (Note to self: May have to make later post entirely about season seven. –E).

As such, I feel rather confident in saying that “Him” is the last true injection of lighthearted levity (Note to self: fairly certain that's redundant. --E) into the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer canon, and for a season as depressingly contorted as seven, it’s something I’m very grateful for.

But Mr. E, I hear the three people reading this in a remote scientific research center in Antarctica screaming. “Him” isn’t a good episode! It’s just a less clever version of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”!

To that I say: I completely agree. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is the vastly superior episode, and the two have more than a few things in common.

Still, that doesn’t mean “Him” is completely unworthy and totally devoid of its own unique wit. Sure, the love spell thing has been well-covered ground, but “Him” also provides the series’ last-gasp of magic/demon-as-metaphor that the show was so good at in the early seasons, with its spin on the cliché of the jock with the letterman’s jacket having some sort of insidious influence on the teenage girls surrounding him.

“Him” also had the distinction of having one of the most hilarious moments in series, with a four-way tracking of Buffy, Willow, Anya and Dawn as they each do their own thing in regards to making R.J. theirs, the best of these being, of course, Buffy trying to kill Principal Wood with the rocket launcher from “Innocence," all in a background montage that has Spike wrestling the device away from her. Not to mention Spike and Xander’s grand “plan” of getting the jacket from R.J., which involves running up to him and yanking it away before he knows what’s happening.

I think part of my fondness for "Him" can be attributed to this last-gasp sensibility. As great as “Conversations with Dead People” was, it set the stage for the rest of the season, including the potentials, the ruin of Giles and Buffy’s relationship, Buffy’s megalomania, all of it—meaning in a certain way, “Him” is all the last pure distillation of Buffy, with the high school metaphors and Buffy actually being happy and the general fun of the story; doesn’t make it great, doesn’t make it any less of a “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” rehash, but it does make me appreciate it more than it would otherwise.

Holy Dostoyevsky, did this post expand longer than I thought it would! It’s official people, I’m going to have to split it up. So tune in next time for my top five favorite “Out-of-the-way” episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer!

(Note/Edit: Part 2 is complete! Read it here.

Until then,

Mr. E

PICTURED: An absolutely ecstatic Joss Whedon

 (1) If I was going to put a list of what are the objectively best episodes, it would look as follows:

1. The Body
2. Hush
3. Once More, With Feeling
4. Restless
5. The Gift
6. Becoming (1 and 2)
7. Surprise/Innocence
8. The Zeppo
9. The Wish
10. Passion 

Friday, August 10, 2012

King's Korner: 'Salem's Lot

"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."

--Stephen King, On Becoming a Brand Name, Adeline Magazine, 1980.

Edition: Simon & Schuster “Pocket Books Fiction” Mass-Market Paperback printed Nov. 1999; cover with the generic pasty-faced girl head tilted up all “kiss of the vampire” like with the bleeding puncture wounds on neck.

A word that pops to mind in discussing King’s writing is “inveterate.” His process, as recorded in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is to type a daily word total of 2,000 words per day, more or less ten pages. This type of methodical craftsman style is straight out of the pulp tradition from which he was profoundly influenced, where the onus was on quantity and not always on quality.

This is important because by all accounts it’s what King stuck to even when he was teaching public school kids—the nightmares—and living in a trailer in Harmon and typing his stuff out on a kids writing desk in the mud room after the school day. And it was in these conditions that he began work on a novel that he describes as a “Vampires in Our Town” (On Writing, King, p. 86)

To me, personally, this amount of writing is simply astounding. I’ve tried to write stuff after coming home from a full day’s work. It sucks. King himself says it felt like “by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain” (On Writing, King, 73), and to pound out any pages at all, much less a thousand, and much less GOOD pages, requires a force of will that I don’t see how anyone can deny as exemplary. And this is with the added bonuses of two kids, in a trailer, with housework to be done and lesson plans to make…

Forget about it.

Say what you will about King—say he’s not a good writer, say he’s not worth of literary consideration, say that he’s a hack, but you cannot deny the man’s love for what he does. What kept him writing when the forces of the world were practically compelling him not to is something that we should all aspire to attain.

On the heels of the hardback publishing of Carrie, King’s new novel was inspired by the various monster comics and vampire based stories he read when he was younger. He often relates a humorous tale of discussing the project with his wife, Tabitha, wherein he wonders what would happen if Dracula appeared today (that is, 1970s), not in a sleepy English hamlet but in a bustling metropolis like New York. At some point, either himself or Tabitha expostulated that the Prince of Darkness would probably just get run over by a bus. But the spark grew from there, the setting changed (importantly) to the American version of the sleepy hamlet town: the Idealized Pastoral Vision of Americana, the small town blue collar folks that hold the country together through integrity, kinsmanship, and kindness.

Ostensibly, anyway.

That initial conversation is telling, because Dracula’s influence on the novel can hardly be ignored. Both books involve the subtle deconstruction of ideals—Victorian sensibilities, esp. sexual, in Dracula, and small-town America in ‘Salem’s Lot--both have a team of people who come together though a confluence of circumstance, both have a main female character killed, turned, staked and tossed in a river, both have the same sort of team dynamic—Ben Mears and Jimmy Cody outright say that Matt Burke reminds them of Van Helsing—and of course both have the heroes defeating the big bad. The biggest divergence in both novels structure is probably the ending—King basically kills everyone and has the town be overrun, Stoker lets the good guys have a relatively happy existence.

But you can take it to mean that ‘Salem’s Lot really is a sequel to Dracula, not only in terms of subject matter but in terms of thematic relevance. The boogeyman just got transplanted from Victorian England to small-town America, and King updated the legend and what Dracula signified for a modern audience:

"I wrote 'Salem's Lot during the period when the Ervin committee 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. 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."

Certainly a U.S. 1970’s proposition if there ever was one. But King’s novel not only is frightening in its sensibilities and subject: it terrifies on its very thematic core, by way of the cultural hierarchy it seeks to deconstruct.

II. The Town
The Town has a sense, not of history, but of time...
--Salem’s Lot, p. 163.
Mom I love you but this trailer’s got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem’s Lot
                                                                                    --Eminem, Lose Yourself
There are two ways to gain immortality in the world of writing. The first is to be the voice of an age, write a novel that perfectly captures the culture and attitudes of the epoch in which you are a part. Catch 22, Infinite Jest, possibly even Shakespeare falls under this head. These are works through which we can study history as much as art, understand where we have come from and where the work is trying to lead us.
The second way is to be timeless. Voices of an age, while usually brilliant writers, can sometimes become trapped within their own purview. They can become obsolete, and outdated. But timelessness encompasses more: stripped down, the bare essence of the work leans on figures and tropes as old as art itself, and just as durable. The Illiad, War and Peace, Lord of the Rings, titles like that.

Now these two designations are by no means mutually exclusive. And I would wager, in fact, that the best works—the ones that are truly nonpareil, that are recognized as shining examples of man’s creativity—have elements of both. Certainly there are elements of timelessness in Shakespeare, and certainly there are elements of the age in The Illiad, where Greeks fight for honor and glory even facing the stark realities of brutish war.

I think Salem’s Lot falls into this category as well. It certain has that timeless quality: it doesn’t really matter that the novel is purely a 70’s piece, that the Vietnam War is the current news of the hour and that no one has cell phones and that trailer parks are a relatively new oddity; these things, which could have entrapped the novel, mean as little as the Victorian fringe does to Dracula. Because deep down, something in both novels speak to an enduring feeling in the human soul: of fear, of façade, and disillusionment.

But that doesn’t mean Salem’s Lot can’t be studied in the context of its environment; to be quite frank, if one asked me what is the best novel to capture the zeitgeist of American culture in the short years after the end of Vietnam and the beginning of the wanton excess of the 80s, I would hazard that there are worse things to recommend than Salem’s Lot, because the novel encapsulates as well as an history book the post-Vietnam bitterness that in part led to the metropolitan boom of the 80s. And that is the total and complete destruction of the ideal of peaceful, small-town America.

“The blue collar folk,” as it were. A charming figment that existed as long as America had, but its current form (or current in the 70s anyway) stemmed from the post-WWII dream of escape to the suburbs with the children, raising cute little families with the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving dinners. Small town America was the country’s bread and butter. They were the innocent folks, the good folks, the simple and the kindly folks untouched by the ravages of those menacing influences in New York or Los Angeles or the world at large. The best that America had to offer in terms of plain, simple goodness.

This idyllic photograph of the American family and small town had begun to disintegrate pretty early in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement brought to a national and global stage a whole other side to the simple kindly country folks--who just happened to beat black people to death and pour salt and milkshakes on them for daring to sit in a restaurant. This sort of sweeping hatred had existed since time immemorial, but it was only here, at this juncture, when the Civil Rights movement really took off, that the world noticed. Taking into account the ravages of Vietnam, the scandals of Watergate, the collapse of the image of America as a beacon of truth and light to the world, and it’s no wonder that mistrust, paranoia, and darkness are central to the core of Salem’s Lot.

King himself says that the theme is indicative of the sense at the time that not only was the government in everything but doing a pretty terrible job of dealing with it. And while it’s undeniable this plays a part, I think it’s a bit too simplistic of an understanding. Because while the invasive arms of the outside word coming to destroy the simple, poor town of Salem’s Lot is undeniably a heavily focused part of the plot, the novel makes it perfectly clear that the rot was in the quiet town of Jerusalem’s Lot long beforehand: “There’s little good in sedentary small towns,” says Matt Burke to Ben Mears. “Mostly indifference spiced with an occasional vapid evil—or worse, a conscious one” (186). All throughout the novel, there’s a sense of the town’s death: not just by the obvious means of vampires, but by the very fact of the world’s existence. It’s not apparent—in fact, it’s very subtle, but it is there:

“It was in the southwest area that the trailers had begun to move in, and everything that goes with them, like an exurban asteroid belt: junked-out cars up on blacks, tire swings hanging on frayed rope, glittering beer cans lying beside the roads…In some cases the trailers were well-kept, but in most cases it seemed to be too much trouble.” (39-40)

It’s easy to see in the frank description of the lower-class inhabitants of the town the entire problem. The trailers are seen as a cancer, a fact of life that’s invading the ideals. The small-town America of yore is one of ice cream parlors and front porch swings, not trailer parks with knee-high grass. Yet the trailers have moved in and seem to be going nowhere. I don’t in any way think King is trying to denigrate people who live in trailers—seeing as he himself spent a good part of his life in one, I don’t see how he could—but this frank and almost aloof description says everything we need to know about peaceful and innocent Salem’s Lot before we even get into the novel proper, our first sign, if we’re paying attention, that while the great evil may be the vampires, the selfishness and myopia of the town is what lets it arrive.

First Section: The Lot (I)

The novel has four sections titled “The Lot,” a stunningly appropriate number reflecting the seasons of the Lot through the narrative. The first section—let’s call it spring—is all about beginnings. School starting, Ben arriving and meeting Susan’s parents, the host of characters to play parts in the novel are introduced, and the very start of the chapter begins before dawn, before the awakening of life. Things progress, we see the “normal” day of the Salem’s Lot civilians—and some things decidedly un-normal. The sun rises on the world and life sort of “begins” for the people who live there; it’s the same thing they’ve been doing every day for years, certainly, but it is nonetheless and continuing cycle of starting over; of revivification. It has its patterns and it has its expected hills and valleys, even the more depressing aspects (e.g. school starting). The only hint of danger is when Mike Ryerson discovers a dog hung upon the cemetery gate—a discovery so out of the purview that it basically ruins the man’s day.

But other than that, it’s all setup. It’s all beginnings. The good folk of the town—maybe a little rough around the edges—getting up, going to work, leaving their secrets at home.

Second Section: The Lot (II)

The second section is interesting. Although it would ostensibly cover summer, it actually begins on the first day of fall. The actual “summer” is barely mentioned in passing—hot days and ninety-five degree temperatures in the mill—but then fall comes and “kick[s] summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, [staying] a while like an old friend that you have missed” (193).

The entire elision of summer is significant. Summer in the Lot is described as a miserable, ingloriously hot time. But it’s still Summer. Life unblemished, green everywhere, in the fullness of its cycle. Summer is a time of completion: the birth and growth that has occurred in the Spring has reached its apex. It’s a time for living—but not in Salem’s Lot, not now. Death has covered the doorstep, and the townspeople welcome the Fall.

There’s an elegiac sense that many people have about Autumn—the colors of the leaves, the cool, windy days. Football season in America, Thanksgiving and fine weather. It seems like we’re wont to forget what Autumn signals, even when we point it out: an ending. A beginning of death. Things slowly die and we marvel at the beauty of it. It’s called the “Fall” for more than one reason, and nowhere is that more applicable than to Jerusalem’s Lot, where the fall is going to come quickly, unexpectedly, and hard.
I think the language used here is simply a nice touch: “an old friend that you have missed,” the fall is called. And in this beginning of fall is the true invasion of the town begun; like an old friend; or is this not the way the vampire seduces its prey? One only has to look at how the fall is welcomed and how the Barlow approaches Dud in the dump near the end of the same chapter: like an old friend, that he’s missed for a long time. Someone to encourage him, someone to make him feel better: “…and when the pain came, it was sweet as silver, as green as still water at dark fathoms” (227).

The people of Salem’s Lot welcome the fall as an old friend, desperate to escape the hearty vitality of the summer. But they forget that fall leads to winter. They forget that fall has other meanings. And in welcoming autumn, they inadvertently welcome the town’s fall as well.

Third Section: The Lot (III)

As the second section barely bypasses summer by starting on the first day of fall, the third section details the Fall in and fall of the town in all its macabre despair. The first line of the chapter tells us everything we need to know about what’s going to occur:

            “The town knew about darkness” (312).

The chapter takes place right when circumstances start to line up for the intrepid gang of fighters, when they first begin to get a glimpse about what is infesting the town and the set-up for their doomed fight against it.
The first section details a town in its normality: there are crazy things that happen; a dog is found staked to a fence and there’s a menace that keeps bothering the local real estate two-timer, and of course people are mean and curse and are generally jerks to one another and have dark secrets they don’t dare present to the public, but for the most part, the first section details “normality”: farm work, schoolwork, bullying on the playground, the daily ins-and-outs of a “normal” small-town existence. 

The third section details the insane; a caustic switch from accepted normality to unaccepted other, acts perpetrated that are outside the shade society draws over the world. The bitterness of a backbreaking, unrewarding life. A quiet man who killed his adulterous wife and dropped her down a well and lived with it for twenty years. A young boy who goes on to future wealth and success that started a fire that burned down half the down, the guilt of which ushered him quicker into the grave. The local fire-and-brimstone preacher dreaming of young girls naked and eager. The hardware store owner that crossdresses out of sight of the wary eyes of the town. 

There’s an abrupt but fluid shift in this section, where the mundane depravity of man turns into the supernatural depravity. The hardware store owner, George Middler, and his sexual fetishes are described, and then the novel smoothly transitions:

            “or that Carl Foreman tried to scream and was unable when Mike Ryerson began to tremble coldly  on the metal worktable…” (318)

There’s not tonal or syntactical shift between the descriptions of unaccepted-other and supernatural other in the section; it’s a subtle but apparent indication of what King’s trying to put forth. The vampirism in Salem’s Lot is a new darkness, but for all its evil, it’s simply an ancillary to other, deeper darknesses. There’s a standard trope in American fiction, borne out of suspicion of the other: the trope where the small town is corrupted by outside influences and turned into something that’s not. But here King says that the town wasn’t corrupted by outside influences: the town was already corrupted. Already teetering on the brink. Already about to fall. The Outside Darkness doesn’t come in to destroy Salem’s Lot. The Outside Darkness simply exposes what’s already there, and lets Salem’s Lot destroys itself.

The Fourth Section: The Lot (IV)

And all that’s left is the winter.

The first section detailed the beginning, the birth, the spring. The second, detailed the (missing) summer, banished for being too hot despite its fullness of life. The third detailed the fall. And now the fourth, details the winter. Death and emptiness. As in the third section, an early line in the chapter says everything we need to know: “No one pronounced Jerusalem’s Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was.” The fall has occurred; the rest is simply cleanup.

The chapter titled The Lot (IV) is the second-to-last section of the novel proper, before the short Ben and Mark section and the epilogue, and it’s fitting. The novel’s a tale of disease and rot, after all, and the town’s entered a winter from which it will never return. Most of the chapter is divided between last ditch and more-and-more hopeless efforts to save the town (including a deliciously malevolent letter from Barlow to the protagonists), until even they realize there’s not hope. They best they can do is take the head (Barlow) off, and leave the town to the minions. 

If there was ever any real doubt about the thematic implications of Salem’s Lot, Parkins Gillespie puts them to rest near the end of this section and the novel proper. Ben and Mark approach him to explain what’s going on and maybe enlist his help, but Parkins is well-aware already, and says he’s skipping town:

            Ben heard himself say remotely, “You gutless creep. You cowardly piece of shit. This town is still alive and you’re running out on it.”
            “It ain’t alive,” Parkins said, lighting his smoke with a wooden kitchen match. “That’s why he came here. It’s dead, like him. Has been for twenty years or more. Whole country’s goin’ the samw way. Me and Nolly went to a drive-in show up in Falmouth a couple of weeks ago, just before they closed her down for the season. I seen more blood and killin’s in the first Western than I seen both years in Korea. Kids was eatin’ popcorn and cheerin’ ‘em on” (593).

And of course, he’s right; hindsight has in no way proven otherwise. The dream of small-town America, that glorious ideal made manifested in all its nostalgic glory post-World War II, but having existed long before, had died out. The world had, and has, irrevocably changed; and while some might say it’s for the better in many ways (which it is) it’s King’s tone here that makes this novel remarkably dissimilar of others in its genre. The tone alone separates it. Certainly, King is doing the by-now rote plot of “pulling back the layers of our society to expose the darkness beneath.” Plenty of people have done that before, and more have done it since. But most novels of that ilk treat the “peeling back” with something like glee, or vindication, or even satire; they rub our noses in it and all our petty notions of good country folk and hardworking people doing the 40 hour week to send it on down the line and say: “Hey, it’s not so admirable after all!” What makes Salem’s Lot so interesting, to me anyway, is that’s not King’s tone at all. For all its horror and all its insistence of the pervasive rot within the false dream of small-town simple America, Salem’s Lot has the marks of an elegy, a sad wistfulness of truth. 

By the end of the novel, basically the whole town is vampiric, and those that aren’t are soon to follow. And so when King says:

            “[Ben] got behind the wheel and started the engine. As he pulled out onto Railroad Street, delayed reaction struck him like a physical blow, and he had to stifle a scream.
            They were in the streets, the walking dead” (612).

You have to wonder if he’s still talking about vampires, or the small-town blue collar workers held up as the backbone of America. King’s tone distinguishes Salem’s Lot from other novels of its nature, redolent with an underlying despondency; an acknowledgement that the dream of simple America doesn’t exist, never has—but an aching sadness that it doesn’t. 

Which is why the epilogue of the novel is probably the most hopeful case of arson in the history of literature: “’But they say fire purifies,’ Ben said reflectively. ‘Purification should count for something, don’t you think?’” (630). Ben and Mark planned to try and burn the town down, and perhaps most of its vampires along with it. The act contains a sense of rebirth, of starting over. The end to the cold of winter, beaten back by the heat of fire, the heat of renewal, the heat of spring. And so does the novel end in the town as it began: with the spring coming. King, like most of his compatriots of that era, may have been disenfranchised and disillusioned about America and its place in the world. But as Salem’s Lot indicates, that doesn’t mean there can’t still be hope of reclamation. (1)

PICTURED: I'm sorry but...what...

IV: The Aftermath

Salem’s Lot remains one of King’s most famous and enduring works, a quintessential part of the vampire canon, taking its place alongside its spiritual predecessor Dracula. Pragmatically, it was a big hardback and paperback bestseller, and thunderously declared that King’s presence was more than fleeting, more than a one-hit wonder, and more than the luck of a great director adapting a first novel. 

The novel remains one of my favorite’s of King’s, even though upon a critical re-read it’s definitely the work of a man trying to pay the bills and fine-tuning his craft. The flow of the novel is sometimes clunky, things sometimes just happen one after the other in a standard and flat plot progression—not unexpected, but not compelling either. But the good far outweighs the bad, especially the sections where King ruminates on the nature of small towns and the hidden darkness therein. He again makes use of his high-mileage technique of journalistic showmanship, and again in chilling fashion, esp. in the prologue, which sets upon an absolutely profound sense of dread that gets the first time reader quivering by the time the plot begins. Some bandy about the notion that King’s endings are by-in-large weak (they certainly can be), but man-oh-man, no one can say the same for his beginnings. He’s an absolute master of mystery—not the Raymond Chandler kind of mystery, but the mystery of the unknown, well illustrated by the Prologue to Salem’s Lot. He knows how to build it, utilize it, and most importantly, let it fall to the wayside before the reader gets impatient. 

As for the ending—I personally think King gets a bad rap for the overall quality of his endings. Certainly some are better than others, and certainly many are weak. But there are those who act like most of his output has terrible endings, and I don’t think that’s quite the case. Salem’s Lot, for example, has a great denouement and aftermath. The protagonists can’t be said to have lost, but certainly can’t be said to have won—a more Pyrrhic victory you will never find outside the annals of military history—which I think is very fitting for what the novel’s trying to do and say. And the final pages of the epilogue give the reader chills, leaving them with a question that cannot be answered (2), a technique that doesn’t always work, but does in this case. We can’t be sure that the fire will take out all the vampires, even Ben says so (3). But there’s always the hope. 

With King established as a popular, well-regarded and (finally) financially secure author, there was now a time for breathing. For rest, relaxation, and looking back at success. For taking life easy and living for the moment and resting on your laurels. Fortunately King did none of these things. Instead, he strove higher, and his final third in the one-two-three punch his first novels provided to popular culture saw the full culmination of both his style and storytelling in what remains arguably his most enduring and well-regarded work.

Until next time,

Mr. E

(1)   And of course this illustration is subsequently ruined by the canon story “One for the Road” (collected in his first short story anthology Night Shift and afterwards in the Illustrated Edition of ‘Salem’s Lot) in which it becomes apparent that not only did the vampires in the town not get all wiped out, but are, in fact, thriving—which leads to horrific post-realizations about whether or not Ben and Mark survived their final mission to end the vampire menace in the town…
(2)   Again ruined by “One for the Road”
(3)   Again ruined by “One for the Road” (I suddenly feel the need to make it clear here that I actually really like “One for the Road,” but there’s no denying that half my post falls to pieces if I don’t blatantly disregard it.