Wednesday, 24 September 2014

‘Salem’s Lot: A Reader’s Confession

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been aware of Stephen King and his impressive (in more than one way) body of work. I can also remember disliking him for just as long. I’m not sure exactly what it is about him and his books that didn’t sit well with me, especially since I didn’t finish my first of his stories until last year when I read The Mist. So where the hell did my dislike come from? I can’t answer that in any great detail but I will say that I tried to read one of his books at one point. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which but my reaction was that it described a great many things but nothing really happened. I also didn’t like horror. I’m still not really a fan of the genre though I will fully admit that there are some very good horror stories out there, in various mediums. I remember watching a few of his non-horror movies. The Green Mile is still a favourite of mine. I remember being stunned by the immensely powerful story of The Shawshank Redemption when I first saw it at the recommendation of my aunt and uncle. Aside from those two movies, I didn’t like King.

For the most part, he didn’t have much of a presence in my life while growing up but that change several years ago when my father was reading The Dark Tower series. He read them in large hardcover and trade paperback versions which had lush, captivating illustrations by various skilled artists. I remember asking him if it was horror as I incorrectly believed that King only wrote horror (despite my previous viewings of non-horror films based on some of his stories). My dad responded that it was more fantasy than anything else. Damn. How dare he? Fantasy’s a genre I’ve enjoyed for most of my life and the idea that an author who I didn’t like (for no apparent reason) would write an entire series in my favourite genre irked me. But it also had my attention because it reminded me that King doesn’t just write horror. I would eventually read several of The Dark Tower comics which I really, really liked despite my fervent opinion that Stephen King was no good and I didn’t like it. Hypocritically, I stuck to this conviction by poorly rationalizing that King didn’t have much involvement in the comic adaptation of his series because it was written and illustrated by a creative team that he wasn’t a part of. Needless to say, my previous opinions of King were nothing short of asinine and hypocritical.

I admit I’ve always been troubled by my dislike of King. Probably because I knew that it was a dislike that wasn’t rooted in anything concrete. I realize now that it was prejudice, pure and simple. Last year I read and watched The Mist. After finishing the movie, I still wasn’t convinced I liked King. It’s was the first completed King story I read and it was clearly a horror story. I really enjoyed it but I wasn’t sold on the guy or his work. Even after that I was a disappointed in myself for feeling the way I did about King. It gave me an unpleasant feeling mostly because amidst all my confusion of like and dislike, I knew that I never really gave the guy or his work a fair chance. I gave him another shot last week. I read ‘Salem’s Lot and I realized something.

I like Stephen King. I really like him.

Don’t ask me what the fuck happened. The best explanation I can give is that I changed and grew up as a reader and King is actually good when you take the time to read one of his books (as opposed to developing an opinion out of thin air).

I didn’t just read ‘Salem’s Lot. I also read about King online. I watched interviews. I read about his work. I got to know the man and I also got to better understand his body of work. Some of the arguments I had used on myself and other people (I know what you’re thinking. I’m an ass. I’m sorry. ) to dismiss his work and importance to literature were also used by other people online. More importantly, they were directly addressed and swept aside by his fans, his supporters, his peers and many critics. Stephen King writes long and boring books. Go read one in its entirety, and then we’ll talk. Stephen King is trash fiction, his work is rubbish. Again, go read one of his books from start to finish and then we’ll talk. Stephen King only writes horror and horror sucks/is boring/is trashy/whatever. No, he also writes things in other genres and some of his horror is based on astute observations of the human condition. The guy’s written non-fiction, even! Give him a fair chance. In fact, give any writer you personally criticism and are uninformed about a chance. I did and I’m glad I did because I discovered an excellent writer whom millions of other fans have been enjoying for decades. Sure, I’m late to the party but at least I showed up in time to enjoy it.

That’s enough of that. Let’s talk about ‘Salem’s Lot.  At over 600 pages this is a large book but it has to be in order to work. In the introduction to the 1999 edition, King writes about some of the writers and stories that influenced him in his writing of this particular story. He also writes about what he wanted to accomplish with ‘Salem’s Lot and it’s because of those goals that the book is longer that what some people think it needs to be. King’s second novel can best be described as a cross between Peyton Place and Dracula. Everybody knows of Dracula but Peyton Place is a more obscure novel written by Grace Metalious. Published in 1956, the book focused on the small town life, specifically the scandalous activities that occurred behind closed doors. The book was hugely popular at the time of its release, staying on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks. It even inspired a TV series of the same name that ran from 1964-1969.

The idea King had for a story was to incorporate the arrival of vampires in the small New England town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Though ‘Salem’s Lot is fictional, it’s based on very real little towns. It was the first instance where King wrote about a town as if it was a character all its own. The first 200 pages of the book are nearly entirely focused on setting up the various characters along with their peaceful and simple lives. This slow build has put off some people form the novel and likely I would have found it rather boring at a younger age but I really appreciated the set up. I got to know the people before the tragedy of their situation became apparent. At that point it was too late for me to backup or read without concern for Ben, Susan, Mark, Father Callahan and Matt. I was emotionally invested, King worked his spell on me.

The second third of the book concerns itself with the discovery of the dreadful situation the townspeople are in. The final third is all about setting up the final confrontation with the original vampires and the dozens and dozens of people they’ve turned. At the time of its original release the vampires were not openly marketed in order to keep it a surprise for the reader. It was a suggestion of King’s editor. King was dubious that people wouldn’t be able to put the pieces together but he played along. Today, due in great part because of King’s popularity, it’s widely known that ‘Salem’s Lot is a vampire novel. Some covers even announced it proudly, such as the cover of the edition I read. The vampire “surprise” isn’t what makes this a good book. The pacing, the characters and the way King doesn’t shy away from portraying a vampiric invasion with fanboy glee and a surprising amount of realism. As you can imagine from a book by the Master of Horror, things don’t really end well for the characters though the ending is ambiguous enough to keep readers wondering about the final fate of Jerusalem’s Lot far after they’ve finished the book.

Reading ‘Salem’s Lot was a cathartic experience for me. It helped me become at peace with one of the most popular writers in North America. For several years I was waging a war with him inside my head and all it did was cause uncomfortable feelings about popular fiction, my dislike of horror, and an unappealing, obnoxious and incompletely unfounded sense of superiority that I, unlike millions of other people, didn’t read books by Stephen King. In many ways it’s fascinating that ‘Salem’s Lot is the book that made me change my mind about all this negativity. My thoughts and feelings about King and his work were a kind of negative energy or a type of evil that invaded the quite small town life of my usually open and receptive brain. ‘Salem’s Lot is the stake and the holy water used on me to kill those evil (vampiric) thoughts. Now I’m free to enjoy King’s stories to my heart’s content even if it results in occasionally sleeping with the lights on.

1 comment:

  1. Well, it sounds to me like you have come a long way! Perhaps it is your long and complex journey through the years that have made you learn to appreciate King and his works. You doubted, and King was able to discredit that doubt in a very patient and calculated manner. It seems to me that you were finally "worthy" and deserving of the enjoyment brought on by his works. Like you mentioned, many people have failed to truly appreciate his works, when they only failed themselves by not giving in entirely and reading the books till the end. I guess this new found love of King is very rewarding after such an tumultuous journey!