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 fa├žade, 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.

1 comment:

  1. This was an incredibly thorough look at "Salem's Lot". I really enjoyed your thoughts. I haven't read the "Night Shift" anthology, but now I really want to check it out. One of the things I love about King is how his canon is interwoven - probably one of the reasons I enjoyed the Gunslinger series so much.