But it’s also tricksy. You might think going into the book that that evil will be contained in the form of our central, ancient vampire (the non-sparkly kind, thank you very much, and a true monster in the oldest sense of the term). And there is certainly evil in Kurt Barlow (if that’s even your real name, you son of a bitch), but he wouldn’t be nearly as frightening as he turns out to be if King hadn’t made the smart decision to show us the true source of that evil, and it ain’t the angel from below.
King spends a little over half of the book showing us bits and pieces of the hidden lives, the dirty secrets, of the citizens of Jerusalem’s Lot. The book does this neat balancing trick where the vampire stuff only creeps in slowly, slowly, and as we see more of the town, the vampire stuff starts going faster, just a little more, until finally in a series of plot explosions that send the plot racing ahead exponentially (and the inhabitants to their graves), it ends up feeling like these people died not just because a vampire came after them, but because they were rotting from the inside already. It’s like he uses Barlow as an amplified symbol of the corrupted humanity that the rest of them only have in variously sized slivers. Barlow is the scariest not when he’s jumping out at people and sucking their blood, but when he’s using their deepest fears and desires against them.
It all feels horrifyingly inevitable.
In his introduction to the edition I read, SK mentions that his inspiration for writing this book was to do what hadn’t been done yet at that time (1975), and bring the idea of the Stokerian vampire to the modern world, specifically small town America. I haven’t read Dracula yet, so I can’t speak to the way this story plays off that one specifically, but the Dracula mythos has infiltrated the zeitgeist enough for me to get the general idea. The vampire is traditionally considered to be a symbol of cultural bogeymen, standing in for sex, disease, you name it, but the way King handles it broadens it in a way that feels very deliberate.
This was SK’s second book, and I think you can tell. The writing was solid, and a lot of parts extremely striking, but the plot dragged occasionally in the first half, and I had a hard time caring about most of the characters as individuals as opposed to vampire fighting chess pieces. Father Callahan, a priest struggling with his demons and his faith, felt the most real to me by far. Ben was a good guy, but he also felt weirdly distant to me as a character, like he could have been any ole good guy. His relationship with Susan Norton felt rushed to me, and I didn’t quite buy it. All the characters felt distant that way to me.
I should confess that I probably didn’t do the book any favors in the way I read it. I listened to this in audio, and the narrator was great, but my library’s copy was physical, and I’m so used to listening to digital audiobooks now that I can carry around with me in my pocket, and get really deep into it in lots of uninterrupted listening sessions. I read this in the car in spurts, and frequently it was shunted aside in favor of other audiobooks and podcasts that all felt more urgent to me. I’m sure at least some of my disconnect from these characters is related to all of that.
Still, this book was pretty great. I love the way SK writes about people and monsters. I’m glad I finally read this, and I’m super glad I’ve finally outgrown my instant rejection of all things horror, because I would miss the good ones that get to you in that deep psychological and emotional level. A good horror monster tale isn’t about slashing and killing, it’s about inner devastation. And hoo boy was young SK really into that idea.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]