'Salem's Lot (1975)
By: Julian on June 30, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Stephen King
Pages: 751
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'Salem's Lot is Stephen King's second novel, published the year after Carrie and over double his 1974 debut's length. 'Salem's Lot is also far better by virtue of the manner in which the book has been assembled: its first act, The Marsten House, showcases King's brilliant ability at characterisation and descriptions of small-town Americana; its second act, The Emperor of Ice Cream exhibits King's profound abilities as a suspense author and the third act, The Deserted Village, is a rip-roaring exercise in vampire horror. It's a huge step up from Carrie's literary and thematic simplicities and this is the work that established King as a significant writer.

'Salem's Lot introduces Ben Mears, an expatriate of the titular Maine hamlet (a shortening of Jerusalem's Lot, the book's title before the publishers thought the punters would mistakenly think it was a religious tome) who returns to town a widower and acclaimed writer. Mears intends to base his new book on the Marsten house, the shady owner of which inadvertently immortalised the premises as a base for Halloween parties and childhood dares after he suicided in one of the bedrooms, and Mears' writing is an attempt to exorcise himself of childhood visions of Hubie Marsten hanging from a bedroom balustrade. Soon after his arrival at 'salem's Lot, Mears strikes up a friendship with an elderly school teacher Matt Burke and develops a relationship with the young, beautiful Susan Norton, much to the chagrin of Mrs Norton who has big things in mind for her daughter and local boy Floyd.

Mears makes some enquires into renting the Marsten house, but he is beaten to it by the mysterious out-of-towner Mr Straker, who says he will use the premises to operate an antiques store with another man. Upon Straker's arrival in 'salem's Lot, unexplained disappearances begin to rouse the sleepy village: not a problem when it's a local dog, but the townspeople are paralysed with fear when Ralphie Glick disappears and his twelve-year-old older brother turns up partially exsanguinated.

'Salem's Lot is a very good book, and the first work to show King's genuine ability to deal with small American towns and their citizenry in an urbane, gripping manner. The Marsten House is certainly 'Salem's Lot strongest third for this reason, and also for the suspense that King effortlessly elicits. These first two-hundred odd pages are remarkably strong for an author still operating in his literary adolescence, and they hold the sort of powerful, intelligent prose that one might expect from an author who has been published for several decades.

However as good as The Marsten House is, 'Salem's Lot is slightly let down by The Deserted Village. I've said above that it's effective as a primarily horror based segment, but it is an underwhelming follow-up to the insidiously foreboding Marsten House and the outwardly terrifying Emperor of Ice Cream. Part of the issue might be the absence of Mr Straker, who is a tremendously well-written character and one of King's creepiest villains (although he isn't the chief antagonist of this story).

This edition of 'Salem's Lot, subtitled 'Illustrated Edition', is good value for money. As far as the illustrations go, there isn't too much to recommend this particular copy: Hodder has published a few black-and-white snaps by Jerry N Uelsmann, an American surrealist photographer, but these are few and far between, only really separating the main novel's three parts. However, this edition also includes two short stories that appeared in the anthology Night Shift: One for the Road (the penultimate tale in Night Shift) and Jerusalem's Lot (the anthology's opening story). The first short is very good, taking place several years after the events of the main novel, with out-of-towners befalling a similar unfortunate fate at the hands of 'salem's Lot's more sinister residents. I enjoyed Jerusalem's Lot significantly more when I read it the second time, but it's certainly the weaker companion piece. Jerusalem's Lot takes the format of 1800s-era diary entries of an explorer of 'salem's Lot. The entries are interesting at first but become tiresome, particularly as their length increases and King's attempts at ye-olde language become increasingly less believable.

The real treat is seventy pages of deleted and alternate scenes the publishers have chronologically compiled. Some of them alter the novel quite significantly, and are often striking in their quality: a dialogue between Susan and Mears is particularly interesting, offering good insight into Mears' state of mind, and it's unusual that such a superior piece of characterisation was excised. Another scene involving the death of one of 'Salem's Lot's protagonists is particularly affecting. I'm glad that a decision to "restore" the novel wasn't made, because those artificial efforts aren't restorations at all: King's original work is preserved in the main novel, but the addition of deleted scenes separate to the published novel (and supplemented with a brief preamble) should be very pleasing to fans of King's writing.

An introduction and afterword written in King's typically engaging conversational style bookend the novel, short stories and deleted scenes and they provide some further interesting insight into the writing process and publication of 'Salem's Lot (including the amusing revelation that one of the novel's original titles, Second Coming, was rejected by King's wife because it sounded too much like a sex manual). The additional material makes this edition a bit more pricey than the other King paperbacks published by Hodder, but the extras are interesting and readable, and the novel itself is a powerhouse of horror writing, if occasionally flawed in its final act.
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