Revisiting ‘Salem’s Lot by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
‘SALEM’S LOT was the first Stephen King novel I ever read.
I carried the paperback (with the bright red drop of blood dripping from the embossed black fang) everywhere I went. I’d picked it up used at — where else? — Carol’s Used Bookstore in good old downtown Edgewood, and by the time I was finished reading it, the cover was torn off and missing and most of the pages were dog-earred. I still have that copy today.
I was fifteen years old when I discovered ‘SALEM’S LOT. It was shortly after I’d read “The Monkey,” along with the rest of my tenth grade English class, and I was itching to try a full-length Stephen King book. I remember starting the novel on a school day. In the middle of class. My History teacher was not amused. Neither were my parents, a few days later, when I tried to sneak in a couple chapters during Sunday church service.
Hey, don’t blame me; I was fifteen. Blame Steve.
I hadn’t read a lot of adult fiction back in those days (I was mainly into non-fiction books about baseball and military history and every surfing magazine I could get my hands on), and I remember being most fascinated by the little stories within the big story of ‘SALEM’S LOT. Colorful — and often racy — tales of the Lot’s townspeople and their particular small town comings and goings.
I had read somewhere that ‘SALEM’S LOT was DRACULA (which I loved) meets PEYTON PLACE (which I had never heard of), but that didn’t mean much to me at the time. All I knew was that I found myself turning the pages like my fingers were on fire, something I had never experienced before with a novel.
Of course, I was eager to learn the fate of Ben Mears and his pretty young girlfriend, Susan Norton — not to mention the likes of Mark Petrie, Matt Burke, Father Callahan, and Jimmy Cody — as they tried to stop a centuries old vampire from bleeding the Lot dry (sorry, that couldn’t be helped); but for some reason I was just as anxious to learn about the dark history of the town itself and its many occupants.
I loved that Ben was a writer and Mark was brave and liked monsters and was close to my own age, and while I certainly related most closely with these two characters, I was just as captivated by folks like Mabel Werts and Mike Ryerson and Weasel Craig and Parkins Gillespie and the Glick family. Their individual stories touched me and made what was happening in the Lot that much more real and personal…and frightening.
This was to be my first lesson regarding what I believe makes Stephen King so popular still today. His characters; the people who live and breathe within his stories. They were so real that I learned to love and hate and fear for them — I learned to care about all of them. And, perhaps, in no other book was it more clear that these characters were just like you and me; just like the people who lived next door to us and shopped at the same grocery stores and waited in the same lines at the post office and sat in the same traffic jams with us.
Even at fifteen, I understood that Stephen King had brought horror home to me. To the neighborhood right next to mine. Or the town just down the road from where I lived.
I remember walking home from school each afternoon and summarizing the scary parts for my best friend, Jimmy Cavanaugh, and the two of us wondering aloud where we thought the vampires would hole up if they came to our own small town of Edgewood (I think we decided on the abandoned elementary school right down the street from our houses) and christening our own neighborhood haunted house as the Marsten House (although it would return to its original namesake, The Myers’ House, later that summer, which I would later write about in a not-very-good short story).
I also have very faint memories (keep in mind, I could be wrong about this, because we are both very brave individuals) of Jimmy and I squealing like schoolgirls a year or so later when we watched Tobe Hooper’s version of ‘SALEM’S LOT on television and Danny Glick made his second floor window visit to his old friend Mark Petrie, and then the two of us making immediate plans to prepare wooden stakes in my father’s garage workshop. Just in case…
THIS IS NOW…
Revisiting ‘SALEM’S LOT was exactly like stepping into that time machine I discussed in my introduction — the one with MANUFACTURED BY STEPHEN KING stenciled on the side — and being transported back to a much simpler age. It felt like finding and opening a dusty photo album, flipping the brittle pages, and visiting with a town full of old friends… and enemies.
Here are a few of my favorite snapshots I want to share with you…
* As noted, there are so many wonderful characters in the novel, both main and secondary players, but this time around, I found myself focused on Hubert Marsten and his wife, Birdie, and that mysterious trucking company of his, and that even more mysterious house on the hill. I honestly think King could have written an entire spin-off novel about Marsten and his evil past. I wish he still would.
* ‘SALEM’S LOT was originally published in 1975, almost forty years ago. Does the novel read a little creaky and old-fashioned now? Sure. Is it dated in places? Of course. But I’ll tell you something…none of that takes away one sliver of enjoyment from the reread. The characters carry the day (and night), and the story is every bit as powerful and chilling today as it was almost forty years ago.
Looking back, it’s no wonder that reading ‘SALEM’S LOT set me on an immediate course to read as many other grown up novels as I could lay my hands on. A lot of horror fiction, to be sure, but also my father’s John D. MacDonald paperbacks and old pulp novels by the dozens and even my sister’s Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins stash. Once again, Stephen King had opened a door for me, and once I stepped through it, I never looked back.
* As a teenager, ‘SALEM’S LOT was the first time I experienced an author creating a place so real and vivid that it practically became a character itself in the story. This amazing feeling was only reinforced as an adult reader.
Who reading this can recall that “Brock Street crossed Jointner Avenue dead center and at right angles, and the township itself was nearly circular. On a map, the two main roads gave the town an appearance very much like a telescopic sight”?
Who else remembers that the northwest quadrant of the sight is the most heavily wooded section of ‘SALEM’S LOT, and that the Marsten House stands there on a sloping hill overlooking the town like a watchful “dark idol”? Or that the Royal River runs through the northeast quadrant? Or that the southeast quadrant is the prettiest and most untouched by the long ago fire and is dominated by Charles Griffen’s dairy farm? Or that it’s in the southwest that the trailers and “junked out cars on blocks” have started moving in?
Or that the name of the cemetery where Mike Ryerson unearthed Danny Glick’s coffin was Harmony Hill?
And who else can recite the long, dark history of Hubie Marsten and his evil house like it was taught to you in History class just a week ago?
I know I can — and I see a lot of other hands high in the air out there in Constant Reader Land.
And that, folks, is what they call… magic.
* One final snapshot, and then it’s your turn: upon further review and consultation with my lifelong friend, Jimmy Cavanaugh, it was decided that he and I did not squeal like little girls. We may have covered our eyes when the undead Danny Glick floated up to that window, but we did not scream. I’m almost sure of it.
Danny Glick’s middle of the night, second floor window visit to Mark Petrie. No contest.
“Mark Petrie turned over in bed and looked through the window and Danny Glick was staring in at him through the glass, his skin grave-pale, his eyes reddish and feral. Some dark substance was smeared about his lips and chin, and when he saw Mark looking at him, he smiled and showed teeth grown hideously long and sharp.”
The lengthy scene at Matt Burke’s house the night he invites a sickly-looking Mike Ryerson home with him from Dell’s Bar. He puts Mike to bed in the guest room and retreats to his bedroom, laying awake and worrying himself over whether or not to call Ben and voice his fears.
I think it’s the most suspenseful scene in the entire book, and when Matt hears Mike’s voice coming from across the hall — “Yes. Come in.” — and the sound of the window opening, and “the high, sweet, evil laugh of a child–
“–and then the sucking sounds,” the suspense crosses over into pure terror.
The opening line of Chapter Ten: “The town knew about darkness.”
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Doc Jimmy Cody falling on the knives in the booby-trapped cellar of Eva Miller’s boardinghouse. The most amazing part is that Jimmy’s gruesome death takes place entirely offscreen. We hear his screams and we first learn about it through Mark Petrie’s stunned reaction, but only later do we hear Mark’s explanation of what happened and still later we finally get to see Jimmy’s blood-soaked body. It’s an incredible scene, and thanks to King’s artistry, our own imaginations supply most of the gory details.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
It’s a tie. Mark Petrie, of course. But I also think Constable Parkins Gillespie, who abandoned his town in shame near the end of the book, might have found redemption somewhere down the road. I would like to know when and where and how that happened.
START DATE – November 7, 2014
FINISH DATE – November 15, 2014
Next you can read about the history of ‘Salem’s Lot. The complete list of the books we’ll be reading 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.