If you grew up in a small town, there are probably a number of fairly inoffensive words that come to mind to describe it—at best, you might say “peaceful”, “prosaic” or “familiar”. If you didn’t like your small town, it was probably “boring”, “insular”, or “depressing.” A lot of small towns I can think of, including the one where I lived some of my childhood, do not inspire strong feelings one way or the other – perhaps above all, they just don’t register as very significant, or even distinguishable from each other, unless you happen to live in a particular one. This seeming insignificance of the small town is probably what drives a lot of us restless youth to seek out the cities for at least some of our 20s –surely the REAL things that MATTER happen in the city, we think.
Not so, according to Stephen King. Small towns frequently house nothing less than the nexus between good and evil, between Here and the Other World, between human and monster; something about the mysterious microcosm of a truly small and isolated town seems to both attract Evil seeking vulnerable spots as well as raise up unexpected heroes to face that Evil. It’s a theme marking several of his books, including The Stand, From a Buick 8, and to some extent the various towns of the Dark Tower series. None of them delve into the daily workings and key markers of a small town, however, like his 1975 book Salem’s Lot. While the main descriptor usually given for this novel is that it’s a “vampire book”, I found myself much more fascinated by the foreboding story of the town of Salem’s Lot than by the monstrous villains that begin to lurk there.
The detail begins with the name itself, which comes from the lot on which a locally famous pig named ‘Salem (short for Jerusalem) lived. Nearly every person from the town who shows up in the story gets some of their history told by King, and the Marsten House which overlooks the town become a character in and of itself. The home of an evil man who committed evil deeds several decades prior, the Marsten House continues to lurk above the town and is apparently part of the reason ‘Salem’s Lot has become attractive to vampires seeking to set up shop.
Somewhat surprisingly, the only character who isn’t very interesting in the whole town is the actual vampire who has settled there. The original vampire, and his growing legion of disciples who have been bitten, are more like the velociraptors of Jurassic Park: just smart and vicious enough to make really scary predators, but they don’t have civilizational aspirations beyond feasting on every resident of Salem’s Lot as soon as possible. The vampire element is most important in this book because, like much of the epidemic/zombie genre, the residents face the horror of fleeing, and even being forced to kill, their own loved ones who have already been bitten. We feel the same horror in watching the characters we’ve come to know turn on their former families and friends, and a sense of regret that they must be killed to stop the monstrous spread of death.
All the detail and the small drama of individual lives in ‘Salem’s Lot do more than just draw you in. King’s treatment makes the resounding case that this town, and its people, are significant, and liable at any minute to join the ranks of monsters or heroes in the battle between good and evil. If you came from a small town, there may be much more going on there than you ever thought – be careful if you, like one of the protagonists, decide to return and figure out what’s really going on.