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.
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.
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?