Second Coming by Bev Vincent
After Doubleday accepted Carrie for publication, Stephen King’s editor, Bill Thompson, asked what they should consider for his follow-up. King had two books in mind, Roadwork ¹ and ‘Salem’s Lot (originally titled Second Coming ²). Thompson warned King that if they went with the vampire novel, King ran the risk of being branded a horror writer. King said that as long as the checks didn’t bounce, he didn’t care what people called him.
He’d started ‘Salem’s Lot in 1972, when life was still difficult for the family. He was writing in the furnace room of their trailer with a fourth-grade desk propped on his knees to support his wife’s Olivetti typewriter, while Tabitha tried to figure out which bills had to be paid now and which could be put off. Fighting vampires was a form of escape for King. They seemed more benign than the creditors harassing them.
The idea for the book stemmed from a discussion he had over dinner with Tabitha and a friend, Chris Chesley. King was teaching Dracula to a Hampden Academy high school class called Fantasy and Science Fiction. He had first read it when he was around 10—his first adult book. They debated what would happen if Dracula came back today. Tabitha said he’d get run over by a cab at the New York Port Authority and that would be the end of him. King joked that he would survive a few weeks before Efram Zimbalist, Jr. and the FBI dragged him off, a victim of modern surveillance.
Chesley, however, thought things would be different if he went to an isolated little town in inland Maine rather than to a large metropolitan area. Everyone could be dead in one of those little towns and no one would know it, he said.
King was also teaching Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He was intrigued by the play’s notion that the town doesn’t change, though the people come and go. What scared King most about his vision of ‘Salem’s Lot wasn’t the vampires: it was the empty town in the daytime, “knowing that there were people tucked under beds, under the concrete pilings of all those trailers.” His book is, after all, named after the town and not Kurt Barlow (Count Sarlinov in the first draft).
Stoker’s optimistic perspective inspired him to let science and rationalism triumph over superstition: almost everybody lives; however, King thought superstition would win out. Modern technology would render belief in vampires all but impossible, allowing them to thrive. He thought everyone in town but the writer would die (and at first, perhaps even him)—though he changed his mind and couldn’t let Mark Petrie go.
The book has scenes that are deliberate reflections of Dracula, but from a contemporary viewpoint. King described the relationship between the two books as a game of literary racquet-ball: “’Salem’s Lot itself was the ball and Dracula was the wall I kept hitting it against, watching to see how and where it would bounce, so I could hit it again. As a matter of fact, it took some pretty interesting bounces, and I ascribe this mostly to the fact that, while my ball existed in the twentieth century, my wall was very much a product of the nineteenth.”
King also drew upon one of his childhood nightmares. When he was about eight, he dreamt he saw a body of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a scaffold on a hill. In Danse Macabre, he writes, “Rooks perched on the shoulders of the corpse, and behind it was a noxious green sky, boiling with clouds³. This corpse bore a sign: Robert Burns. But when the wind caused the corpse to turn in the air, I saw that it was my face rotted and picked by the birds, but obviously mine. And then the corpse opened its eyes and looked at me.” He uses that dream in ‘Salem’s Lot, changing the name of the corpse to Hubie Marsten.
He finished the first draft the day before he received the call from Bill Thompson about the paperback bonanza from Carrie.
In the original draft, King made no secret of the fact that the book was about vampires. He wanted to include Moby Dick-inspired “extracta” featuring background information about vampires from the Bible, other books and movies. Thompson asked him for a rewrite that would keep readers in the dark for a while. He reminded King that he wasn’t writing for a Weird Tales audience that would automatically assume a supernatural explanation for what was happening.
Thompson made one other editorial request—more of a demand, really. In King’s draft, instead of being impaled on knives, Dr. Cody was devoured by a horde of rats in the boardinghouse basement, a scene he described in gleeful detail. Rats cover Cody, crawling, biting, scratching. When he tries to warn off Mark, one squirms into his mouth and gets stuck there. It was the perfect chance to bring in influences from the E.C. comics King read as a kid, where the vampires were cruder and more monstrous than Count Dracula. Because it was only his second book and he was nervous that Doubleday might withdraw their offer to publish it, he gave in, though he was never entirely sure it was the right thing to do. The original version is included in the “deleted scenes” section at the back of Doubleday’s Illustrated Edition from 2005. Thirty years later, it seems fairly tame.
King collaborated with his wife, his editor and his editor’s secretary on the dust jacket description of the novel in an effort to say something about the book without giving away too much. He’s fond of the cover illustration: a black background with the town inset in the “O” of “Lot,” with Marsten House visible in the background. One thing that slipped by everyone, though, was the fact that Father Callahan is called Father Cody on the flap, a mistake that increased the book’s collectible value. There are three states of the dust jacket. The first is the rarest, bearing a $8.95 price. The second state has the corner clipped and a new price of $7.95 added, and the third state has the $7.95 price and Callahan’s name corrected.
‘Salem’s Lot sold about 26,000 copies in hardcover and was an alternate selection from the Literary Guild book club. Bookland in Maine ordered 5000 copies of the first edition and sold nearly every one. They even produced a TV commercial to promote the novel⁴. The movie rights sold to Warner’s for a lot of money, and the paperback rights sale ($500,000—half going to King) proved that Carrie wasn’t a fluke. King could now afford to retire from teaching and write full time.
 In some accounts, for example in the afterword to Different Seasons, King says it was Blaze; however, at that time, he couldn’t mention Roadwork without revealing that he was Richard Bachman.
 Tabitha King thought it sounded like a sex manual, and Jerusalem’s Lot was rejected by the publisher because it sounded like the book had religious overtones
 A scene that will probably sound familiar to Dark Tower readers
 According to Calvin Tower in Song of Susannah
We’ll be posting a special guest essay about ‘Salem’s Lot later this month, along with Richard’s essay about rereading the book. The complete list of the books to be read can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.