I was introduced to Stephen King at 10 years old, by way of an old dusty copy of Salem’s Lot that I had found in my grandfather’s basement. Having been purchased nearly 20 years prior, it was in fairly bad shape but readable none the less, albeit a little yellowed and wrinkled. I took it upstairs and asked my mom where it came from, and she had told me that someone had bought it for her but she hadn’t been able to finish it. She was never a fan of anything scary; even to this day she closes her eyes at scary movie previews. She told me to see what I thought. That night I started reading, in the dark with a little light on overhead, and what followed was one of the most frightening reading experiences I’ve ever had.
Stephen King has always had the ability to pull readers into his books by creating genuinely relatable characters, but it’s what he does with these characters that captures the readers’ imagination – as he often goes in the direction less travelled with their plot resolutions. Generally, main characters aren’t safe as King weaves his storytelling magic, leading to difficult and sometimes downright maddening endings. Salem’s Lot is no different. The vampires in the story are ruthless, preying on women, children and the elderly. Kids even prey on their own parents, turning them into vampires. Nearly all of the main characters die. I remember this because this was the first story that I had been exposed to where anything like this had ever happened. I was used to happy plot resolutions where good triumphs over evil and everyone lives happily ever after. I was so intrigued by the unpredictable way in which King killed his characters with little regard for the readers’ attachment to them, that it kept me glued to each page as I continued through the book. I literally didn’t know what was going to happen next.
King adds such a human aspect to his characters that you really feel for them and what they’re going through. Ben – the lead character – is returning to Salem’s Lot to write an article on the Marsten house, an old house for which he holds particularly nasty memories. He is an everyman (a common theme in King’s novels) that is completely relatable. It puts the reader into the shoes of the protagonist, and further develops the connection needed to envelop the reader into the story. The way that King introduces characters like Straker, turning him from an ominous looking antiques dealer into the child-hunting vampire, really invests you into his story, and creates a genuine interest – and hatred – in the character, and has you rooting for his demise. Reading his books is akin – for me – to watching a movie. His ability to tell a scary, gripping story is nearly unmatched.
Character narration isn’t the best part of Kings writing though. It’s the way he describes every terrifying detail. As a reader, the Salem’s Lot world I had created in my own head using his descriptions was much more terrifying than what would later show up in movies and on TV. The world I pictured was much more dark and brooding, and the characters were infinitely more frightening. With one exception. The way King described the scene where Danny Glick visits Mark Petrie stayed with me for a long time after I was finished reading the book. The way his pale face and eyes slowly came into view in the window, the way he floated. His nails scratching at the window, the way his lips quivered…”Let me in Mark, its ok, he commands it.” I had concocted a scary scene in my head, but it paled in comparison to the film version, which was one of the most frightening scenes that I had ever seen, and made me sleep with the curtains closed for a few years afterwards.
The resolution left a bit of an opening for a sequel, but King has recently stated that – although Salem’s Lot is his personal favourite of all the books he’s written – unfortunately, no sequel will be penned.
Although I’ve read many of King’s books since, I’ve never been as truly frightened as I was as a 10 year old boy, in the dark, reading Salem’s Lot.