Country Darkness: I read “‘Salem’s Lot”

Country Darkness: I read “‘Salem’s Lot” January 24, 2017

After I finished Alan Moore’s hulking tome Jerusalem (of which more presently) I picked up a pulp classic which turned out to have more in common with Moore’s jawbreaker than just the Holy Land reference in the title. I’d actually never read ‘Salem’s Lot, despite loving Stephen King in general and pre-‘9os King specifically. It’s a great read, a luscious tribute to vampire tales of yore, with all of King’s trademark sadness and determination. Some notes:

# King returns to many of the images and ideas here later–I caught a lot of snatches of Pet Sematary floating on the acrid breeze. The empty shoe after a highway accident; the evil laughter of a child; the sudden, terrifying certainty that someone’s upstairs. King always makes you feel the reality of his children: their inner lives and strength as well as their vulnerability. He’s exceptionally good at showing you evil fastening on and swallowing a child.

King is typically great at showing all the little, intelligible decisions and strokes of fortune that make up a disaster. He knows how huge a role bad luck plays in our lives (cf the refrains of The Dead Zone–the bad hot dog, the Wheel of Fortune) but he also consistently depicts and honors perseverance, the determination to do battle against evil, to escape or die trying. His characters throw everything they’ve got at evil–ingenuity, book-learnin’, physical courage, sheer willpower–and he shows you the majesty of their effort as well as its insufficiency.

# When there’s something strange/In your neighborhood/Who you gonna call?/ROMAN CATHOLICS!

No, man, the role of the Church in this novel is so weird! It’s mostly great in its wigged-out way. We get Catholicism just slathered up and down the page starting in the prologue: confession, crucifixes (is… is it really true that merely owning a crucifix in 1970s rural Maine means that you must be Cat’lick?), Psalm 23, holy water, let’s get all of that up in this joint. Opinions about social justice ministries!

An aside: The dichotomy between social concern and supernatural battle seems super ’70s to me, ahistorical and captive to an immediately post-Vatican II worldview. Get you a church that can do both, etc. And note that the current face of social-concern Catholicism, our pontiff, is not shy about airing his views on the Devil. (He’s agin’ him. The Pope is not having any Satan today, thanks.)

Spoilers: In ‘Salem’s Lot Catholicism isn’t actually true, although it seems for a long time like it’s true and it’s definitely truer than most things. There are some sketchy uses of sacraments, and one genuinely bizarre page where a vampire who maybe should’ve had a better CCD teacher seems to think that the Catholic Church holds that sacraments are purely symbolic. I think the novel wavers back and forth, for maximum dramatic impact, on the question of whether the Church’s spiritual power persists independent of our belief in Her.

But still, Whiskey Priest vs. Dracula is a tale I’ll always settle down for, and King serves it up with all the trimmings.

# I’ve read a bunch of books lately that are hymns to a place. ‘Salem’s Lot does an incredible job of making you feel the depth and richness of its small town’s life, without any ideological strongarming. We get the secrets, cruelties, and complicities of a small town. But we also get this, one of the very best descriptions I’ve read of what it means for a place to be home: “Being in the town is a daily act of utter intercourse, so complete that it makes what you and your wife do in the squeaky bed look like a handshake. Being in the town is prosaic, sensuous, alcoholic. And in the dark, the town is yours and you are the town’s and together you sleep like the dead, like the very stones in your north field.”

There are a lot of victims in this novel, and a lot of vulnerable creatures. We watch as characters decide whether they will stand and defend those threatened creatures or whether they will surrender. And the most chilling scene of betrayal–refusal to protect–comes when someone abandons his responsibilities not to a specific individual, but to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.

# Love the way King punctuates his transparent prose with sudden swoony rushes of scarlet and black. Love the cinematic descriptions of movement–he does that in Pet Sematary too, with the cat bumping into the doorframe, how horrifying it is when a creature moves wrong. Love this great image: “The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar.”

I think I found this song via a Vampire: The Masquerade playbook. Guess my age.

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