Nocturnal House: ‘Salem’s Lot

Welcome back to The Nocturnal House, Snarklings! Before I start talking about the book I’ve chosen for this post, let me go check the windows, find one of my antique rosaries, and perhaps turn on a few more lamps. Why? Because this visit to The Nocturnal House is about a vampire book that honestly does scare me. Even though I’ve been re-reading it for years, it scares me enough that I won’t read it after dark. (Well, I shouldn’t read it after dark, but sometimes my desire to be absorbed by the story overrides my common sense, and then The Husband has to gently remind me to stop freaking myself out and go read something else.

‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King.

Yes, really.

First off, let me confess: I am a fan of Stephen King’s early work. Say whatever you want about his stories being very rooted in the “here and now”, about the pop-culture references that date instantly, about the often very folksy tone of them. He is one of the few writers to consistently scare me time and time again, and to compel me to read something even though I know it is going to end in blood and tears for almost everyone. And ‘Salem’s Lot is one of my favorite works by him.

Right off the bat, the prologue tells you that things haven’t gone well:

A week later he awoke sweating from a nightmare and called out the boy’s name.

“I’m going back,” he said.

The boy paled beneath his tan.

“Can you come with me?” the man asked.

“Do you love me?”

“Yes. God, yes.”

The boy began to weep, and the tall man held him.

Still, there was no sleep for him. Faces lurked in the shadows, swirling up at him like faces obscured in snow, and when the wind blew an overhanging tree limb against the roof, he jumped.

Jerusalem’s Lot.

He closed his eyes and put his arm across them, and it all began to come back. He could almost see the glass paperweight, the kind that will make a tiny blizzard when you shake it.

‘Salem’s Lot …

‘Salem’s Lot is a small, not terribly prosperous town in Maine. Writer Ben Mears grew up there, and has returned to the Lot to work on a horror novel, partially based on the long-ago gruesome murder/suicide of Hubert Marsten, the town’s wealthy eccentric, and his wife. But someone else has come to ‘Salem’s Lot, someone who thinks it’s the perfect place to set up their own fiefdom.

There was no sound but that brought on the breeze. The figure stood silent and thoughtful for a time. Then it stooped and stood with the figure of a child in his arms.

“I bring you this.”

It became unspeakable.

‘Salem’s Lot is a study in just how easily a ruthless vampire could take over an entire town. It’s also an American riff on Dracula; Stephen King admits it in an introduction to one of the paperback editions of the book:

I wondered out loud to my wife what might have happened if Drac had appeared not in turn-of-the-century London but in America of the 1970s. “Probably he’d land in New York and be killed by a taxicab, like Margaret Mitchell in Atlanta,” I added, laughing.

My wife did not join my laughter. “What if he came here to Maine?” she asked. “What if he came to the country? After all, isn’t that where his castle was? In the Transylvanian countryside?”

That was really all it took. I saw how such a man — such a thing — could operate with lethal ease in a small town; the locals would be very similar to the peasants he had known and ruled back home, and with the help of a couple of greedy Kiwanis types like real estate agent Larry Crockett, he would soon become what he had always been: the boyar, the master.

My novel could also look through the other end of the telescope, at a world where electric lights and modern inventions would actually aid the incubus, by rendering belief in him all but impossible.

That idea of it being almost impossible to believe in the horror that is happening around them, even as their hindbrains are screaming at them, is a core theme of ‘Salem’s Lot, and it rings very true. Because let’s face it, if the people we knew and lived next to started not showing up, we would assume … what? A flu? Probably. And if we ran into an acquaintance at the local bar, and they were dull-eyed and listless, again, we would assume they were sick, or on drugs. Especially if they told us a story of dreams of red eyes, of sweetly singing voices, and a feeling like drowning, and that their bedroom window was open, even though they were sure they had closed it before going to bed. That they couldn’t really remember their dreams, but were scared. And that they couldn’t remember finishing the last job they had, of filling in the grave of a small child that died, but they must have, because the grave had been filled in, the sod properly tamped down. Would we worry about them? We might even do what English teacher Matt Burke did, and ask our sickly friend to stay in our guest room, so someone could keep an eye on them, so they could get a good night’s sleep untroubled by bad dreams, even if we were made uneasy by the two small … scratch marks? Puncture wounds? On their neck. And then, oh then:

Softly yet clearly in the silent house the words came, spoken in Mike Ryerson’s voice, spoken in the dead accents of sleep:

“Yes. Come in.”

Matt’s breath stopped, then whistled out in a soundless scream. He felt faint with fear. His belly seemed to have turned to lead. His testicles had drawn up. What in God’s name had been invited into his house?

Stealthily, the sound of the latch on the guest room window being turned back. Then the grind of wood against wood as the window was forced up.

Night invaded his brain and made it a circus of terrifying images which danced in and out of the shadows. Clown-white faces, huge eyes, sharp teeth, forms that slipped from the shadows with long white hands that reached for … for …

I can’t. I’m afraid.

He could not have risen even if the brass knob on his own door had begun to turn. He was paralyzed with fear and wished crazily that he had never gone out to Dell’s that night.

I am afraid.

And in the awful heavy silence of the house, as he sat impotently on his bed with his face in his hands, he heard the high, sweet, evil laugh of a child—

—and then the sucking sounds.

(True confessions time: at the time of writing this post, it is daylight and I am sitting in a brightly-lit room with two adorable and playful kittens. Yet I still find myself uneasy and vaguely creeped out. I wasn’t kidding when I said this book scares me.)

There is a band of (not-quite) Fearless Vampire Hunters: schoolteacher Matt Burke, writer Ben Mears, Susan Norton, aspiring artist and new sweetheart to Ben, Dr. James Cody, friend (and former student) of Mr. Burke, and Mark Pietrie, a new kid in town who has read a lot of books about monsters, and is wise beyond his years. The five of them gradually come to the same grudging realization: that something is happening to ‘Salem’s Lot, something that can’t be explained by illness, apathy, or the sometimes small-minded pettiness of life in a small town. (In fact, Mark and Susan meet when both of them separately decide to go calling on the Marsten house to meet the mysterious Mr. Straker and his unseen, but talked about, business partner, Mr. Barlow.) Eventually Father Callahan, the local Catholic priest, is drawn into their group, and things go from merely bad to monstrously worse.

The face of Marjorie Glick was a pallid, moonlike circle in the semidark, punched only by the black holes of her eyes. She saw them, and her mouth juddered open in an awful, cheated snarl. The fading glow of daylight flashed against her teeth.

The vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot aren’t sophisticated, elegant predators, oh no. They are monsters, only interested in feeding. Mr. Barlow, the mysterious man who bought the Marsten house, is more cultured, but he’s had centuries to refine his manners. No, the citizens of the ‘Lot are motivated by hunger and anger, and by doing their master’s bidding. They have no lofty goals of love, or of being understood. They just want to feed.

One of the things that scares me the most from ‘Salem’s Lot is how prosaic it all is. No parlors full of erudite, learned undead, no stately houses, no exotic locales. Just the playground of the elementary school, the classrooms of the high school, the local garbage dump, suburban houses, and their run-down counterparts in the trailer parks. It’s all so damn normal, which is what makes the story take on a lingering life of its own, long after I set the book down. It’s all too easy to picture the events of ‘Salem’s Lot happening anywhere, including in my own neighborhood.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that things do not go well for our (not-quite) Fearless Vampire Hunters, not at all. This is a Stephen King book, after all, and he has always admitted it’s his goal to terrify people. The ending of ‘Salem’s Lot does offer an ambiguous flame of hope that things will Be All Right, but even after all these years, I can’t quite bring myself to believe it. The image of Danny, scratching at his classmate Mark’s bedroom window and asking to be invited in, still flickers in the corner of my dreams.

What vampire books scare you?

26 Responses to “Nocturnal House: ‘Salem’s Lot”

  1. Lady Tam Li Says:

    I’ve read half-way through “‘Salem’s Lot”, but have yet to finish it after about a year. I first got interested in it after finishing the entire “Gunslinger” series. (There’s a clever crossover characters in the 4th or 5th book, you see.) I seriously need to pick it up again and finish it; it’s definitely the creepiest vampire story I’ve ever seen/read!

    I try not to read books that won’t let me sleep; I have enough trouble doing that with horror movies! lol

  2. Erin Says:

    The scene that I can’t seem to forget is the family under the trailer.. yuugghh.

  3. LiseyDuck Says:

    SK always manages to creep me out! Mainly because my first couple of encounters with his work were Pet Semetary and Salems Lot on late night radio, when I was in bed with the light off…

  4. K. Muraki Says:

    “‘Salem’s Lot”… easily one of the scariest books ever written; anything by SK is terrifying, due to the fact that he sets his stories in the most normal environments imaginable, which just multiplies the creepy factor by ten.

    Can’t think of the title, but I remember some Ray Bradbury story that creeped me out and sent me scurrying to bed with the light on. Similar scenario to what happens with SK: he sets his horror in prosaically normal settings.

  5. La Petite Mort Says:

    Oh my! This was my first visit with horror film as a child. I was so frightened that I slept in a suitcase under my parents’ bed with covers pulled around my neck. They had no knowledge of this.
    Later I read it, and squealed still. Now, I have it on audio book and dare say, that I do use it as a bedtime story! (That, and The Shining – the book is so much more detailed and creepy than the movies]

    LPM

  6. Lady of the Manners Says:

    Oh good heavens, the idea of ‘Salem’s Lot as an audio book is terrifying.

  7. Candystripedlegs Says:

    Oh, this was the book that made me fell in love with Stephen King! I had watched movies based on his novels, but one day I was browsing through my favourite second-hand book store and I found a paperback copy…that cover just instantly sold me, and I’m very glad I started with this and not something better-known, because it felt fresh and unexpected, such a masterpiece! ♥

  8. ladymairwen Says:

    I haven’t read that book in 15 years, at least.

    But that line about the evil laugh of a child…and then the sucking sounds….

    Has never. Ever. EVER. Left my head.

  9. Mugician13 Says:

    While I’m not a Goth, the culture intrigues me. I’ve been reading your column for quite some time, and you’ve always seemed to give spot-on advice about… being oneself, and being TRUE to oneself, shall we say.

    Must de-lurk to say, I read a lot of Stephen King’s works during Junior High & High School. His movies are never as good as the books [like most films made from books], but I think it’s because he writes so much stuff in the minds of the characters, and it’s hard to translate that to film. That said? “‘Salem’s Lot” scared the shit out of me. I wouldn’t go to sleep without a crucifix on my windowsill for a couple weeks after reading it. ‘Cause that’s all it takes to keep the vampires out, right? …right…?

  10. Upsilon Says:

    looks like another awesome book to add to the list and order online… will have to get through the earlier Nocturnal House recommendations first though!

  11. Miss Emerald Latenight Says:

    That book kept me awake all night…..I had to finish it, i was so scared.

    As The Lady of Manners already said, what makes this book (And IMHO all of King´s books) work is the realism, the normalcy that makes one believe they could be happening here and now.

    My favorite element is that the pastor´s faith fails in a very realistic way, unlike some literary moments of despair where one already knows the hero is going to find his/her faith again. With the pastor, one isn´t sure, because it doesn´t happen that way in real life……

  12. Polly Says:

    I read this book in 10th grade. At the time, I had a black cat that had two long teeth that stuck out of his mouth like fangs (Still have the cat, but he lost one of the teeth), and he really liked to sit on people’s chests while they were sleeping.
    I think one of the most frightening things to ever happen to me in high school was waking up and seeing a pair of fangs floating in the darkness above me.

    Haven’t reread it since then. Maybe I should.

  13. Rachel Says:

    You know, it’s weird. I’ve read a lot of SK’s stuff (and been subsequently creeped out by it), but Salem’s Lot is one that I never found particularly scary. =/

  14. Kalli Says:

    I first read Salem’s Lot my junior year of high school. I had been going through a bit of a vampire craze, having just finished Dracula and The Historian in quick succession. I don’t know if any of you have read The Historian, but if asked which I liked better, Salem’s Lot or the Historian, I honestly couldn’t answer.

  15. Spiky Says:

    Salem’s Lot is up there with my favorite Stephen King books *and* my favorite vampire novels. Two others that may not be as viscerally terrifying, but that share some of the same great elements, are Rose Madder and Needful Things.

  16. Roland Says:

    You ask what vampire books scared me, but i haven’t been scared by any. However, there is on that made me rethink Dracula’s whole story. It was called “I, Dracula”. Yes, I know, it IS lame to bank on another writer’s creation, but this book almost felt as if the writer came up with the idea of Dracula first.
    In the story, a young Dracula is in love (of course) but the twist is, his lady fair is involved in the occult and, threw various means, is transformed into a vampire. Not wanting to go through life without her, Dracula…well, I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
    “I, Dracula” (Can’t remember, nor find the author online) might be purchased at Barnes and noble. Unfortunately, my copy was lost years ago.

  17. Becky Says:

    “Salem’s Lot” is probably one of my favourite vampire stories. God knows how many times I’ve read it. There are many sections that stick in my memory but perhaps one of my favourites is the comparison between Matt Burke and Mark Petrie’s reactions to being attacked by a vampire – Matt as an older, rational person who doesn’t believe in monsters has a heart attack immediately afterward while Mark, who is a child and used to dealing with monsters that hide in the cupboard or under the bed (even if only imaginary ones) is asleep minutes later, albeit with a crucifix in one hand.

    There is a book by Simon Clark that fans of ‘Salem’s Lot may be interested to read, “Vampyrric”. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of english version of “Salem’s Lot” although the story takes a very different direction.

  18. Matthew Says:

    The Historian, because the pervading sense of being watched, and not being able to trust even your closest friend to help you. The mystery that no one knows to much of all the the strange events going on, and the fact that anytime someone gets close to Dracula’s secret they “Disappear”.

  19. Catlinye Says:

    Ahh, yes, the only book that has ever left me hunting for a crucifix and unable to go to sleep. None of King’s other books ever scared me as badly, though Christine came close.

    The scene I’ve never been able to forget is the basement trap… *shudder*

  20. Keiya Says:

    I’ve NEVER read any of his books but I may look into this one once I’m done with my current set of interlibrary loaned books. Also I found out today while watching G4’s Proving Ground that Stephen King is making a Sequel movie to “The Shining” called “Dr.Sleep”.

  21. Dolly Says:

    I have to say, I was rather disappointed with Salem’s Lot. I read it through and felt bored or indifferent towards the characters. While the style of the writing was great and I understand the plot devices and enjoyed the whole idea of the novel I feel that is was lacking. It’s almost as if the novel would have actually been stronger if it were more about the town and the sins of the people rather than introducing vampires into the equation. I was compelled to finish simply for the sake of finishing it rather than because I wanted to know what was going to happen and am a tad perplexed as to what is so frightening but I wouldn’t berate or tease someone for it. (My own friends make fun of me for being terrified of Slender Man so I know how irrational fears brought on fiction is like.)

    I felt underwhelmed and disapointed since this was my first experiance with King.

  22. Daelen Says:

    First of all I have to say that I love you! Your book and this site have taught me so much and inspired me. I have always loved Stephen King. His books are terrifying. My favorite is a collection of short stories called Night Shift. I’ve never finished Salems Lot. I’ve gotten far into it and gotten distracted by another book most likely. Maybe I should pick it up again.

  23. Denise Says:

    I am Stephen King’s #2 fan, right next to Kathy Bates in Misery…Salem’s Lot has been my fall to book for as long as I can remember..I cannot tell you how many times I have read it. (his book ‘Bag of Bones’ of which he reads is my favorite audio book) It’s the scratching at the window that gets me every time, and the family that is under the trailer…the writing is so good, it just sucks you in. (no pun truly intended)

  24. Amber Says:

    Maybe I’ve read too many horror stories and seen too many horror movies but SK’s works do NOT scare me enough to keep me up all night.
    Actually, SK’s writing style bores me to sleep. I remember checking out “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” from the school library in high school and returning it a few days later without ever finishing it because after reading so many pages, I’d fall asleep.

  25. Viki Says:

    I actually have a first edition printing softcover of this. It’s by far one of my favorite Stephen King books.

  26. Asphodèle Says:

    I adore Stephen King and this peculiar novel but have you read the original short story that inspired him this book? I think it is even more scary but sadly, I just forgot the exact name of the story… I think it may be in “danse Macabre”

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