The plan is to reread all of Stephen King’s novels. Richard Chizmar of Cemetery Dance had the vision. I’m doing it because I am a writer and I want to improve my long fiction. I think there is something to be learned through this challenge. As Richard Chizmar and Bev Vincent put up their posts on the official site, I will link those in the corresponding ones of mine on this blog.
These posts will all strive to be spoiler free while still going in depth into what I learn from the experience in a way that will hopefully be interesting for those that have read the books. Even still, be warned that I am discussing the content and the writing of the books in these posts. NOTE: This probably does not apply to most people who would be reading this, but if you have no idea what type of trope/ form of evil/ nature of monster King used in this story, Salem’s Lot, which you could possibly go a ways into the book without knowing for sure, you might want to skip this blog before you read. I don’t give away any plot points, but I do talk about the particular species of evil, so if you are trying to remain entirely virgin to the story prior to reading, be warned.
There is a line in Salem’s Lot from one of the characters that demands, “Why the hell would you read a novel more than once after you already know what will happen?” #StephenKingRevisited indeed. Also, King’s writer protagonist has a first novel that was a hit and two more that went nowhere. I imagine Stephen King was exercising a few of his own self-doubts in that little bit. This was not the man that knew he had 55 hit novels in him. At one point, the narration declares, “Plot was out, masturbation in” according to the critics. This might be King’s view of the state of literature in 1975. Of all the time specific bits in the novel, as a former teacher, I miss chalkboards. I remember the day they took my chalkboard out to install a dry erase board. All the discussion of chalk and schools in the novel made me miss that aspect of those days. Also, roast beef, a dozen prime rib, hamburger, a pound of calf liver, flour, sugar, beans, and several loaves of bread for less that 30$ stung a little to read.
Out of curiosity, I checked around to see if I could get a rough count on the number of times King used a writer as a character. These numbers are from Internet fan sites and they don’t always match. They include short stories as well as novels. They include secondary as well as main characters. King uses writers 28 times. This is topped, however, by 32 teacher characters. Both make sense from King’s experience. We note the writers more. A number of the teachers are support characters. 18 Doctors come in third, followed by baseball players, and then gunslingers/fighters. Interesting spread.
This is an insignificant point, but King uses the name Gary Coleman in a one line reference. Gary Coleman, the actor, would star on Different Strokes a couple years later. If the novel had been written later, the name probably would have been changed. There is also a passing reference to characters discussing Boston’s post season chances. In 2004, King would co-write a book about Boston’s World Champion season after so long without. I was getting my Masters Degree that season and post season. I remember getting home just as King was being interviewed in the stadium. It was when Boston was on the ropes on the verge of elimination before their insane comeback. He wasn’t expressing too much hope in that moment. It’s a funny bit to look back on now.
From the first line of Salem’s Lot: “Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son” I had a flood of memory come back from reading this novel. Opening lines are so important and this one does not jump out as a grabber, but it carries a weight above its apparent value and strikes an interest to unravel the mystery.
King has a prologue which is frowned upon these days. This one, however, builds a sense of foreboding before the first chapter and actually gives the first chapter more weight. Glimpsing the future succeeds in making real darkness in the opening of the narrative here.
Los Zapatos for a town name is great.
He uses newspaper articles again. It is not as prominent as in Carrie, but it is significant. The medical reports and articles do serve a bigger narrative purpose.
“He made his first confession and confessed everything.” It is a powerful line that tells a lot without really telling anything. Later, a character quotes Mark Twain, “a novel is a confession to everything by a man that has done nothing.” The writer character also confesses, I think on behalf of King, that he sometimes imagines himself giving a Playboy interview, but decries that those are reserved for authors popular on college campuses.
I think there are two characters in this story that represent King. He is probably infused into more of them, but I believe he wrote two as himself specifically. One is a boy. He deftly handles a bully and smacks of a Mary Jane character a little. Certain mannerisms and hobbies hint that it might be King as a boy. An adult character then seems to represent King as a man and they interact with one another over the struggle in the story.
The house that haunts the characters is deftly written. A small detail about the steps creates a sense of dread before the real evil is ever shown. The description keeps adding new punches of fear during the course of the novel. Few houses in literature are as scary as what King accomplishes here. After small hints early, a long, scary history of the house is run through between two characters and contains a chilling double punch which is well delivered. The house is emphasized a geographical freak in terms of the town and its significant position. King describes its power as a dry charge waiting to be set into an active manifestation.
King spends a considerable amount of time early in the novel describing the town down to the configuration of the streets. I imagine an editor reading that now and thinking that it would be the first thing cut. He takes a long trip around the town and through a day with routines and rituals by time and by character. His research into dairy farming for one bit had to be extensive. The reader goes through these scenes waiting for something to jump out. Another section describes telephone poles to get to the hum of gossip. It is pure art with words. The description of the bar’s men’s room is artfully done too. Seasons are described in a way that is frowned upon in using weather, but turns the region into its own character in the story.
In another section, King switches to second person present tense. As in “you load your truck up with the rocks and haul them away knowing you’ll just have to do it again.” These are long paragraphs in walls of text with no breaks. He has already described the town, but he describes it again in this odd section in a more harsh tone. This is just as the action is getting ready to kick into high gear and he takes time to do this. It oddly reminds me of a bit around the beginning of Moby Dick where the author goes through an unusual section on whales in general terms. Maybe we are seeing two masters using the same unusual trick in a masterful way. “You ponder why King would do this at a moment like this even as you read his books over and over again.”
King delivers a powerful description of abuse. In more than one way, he punctuates the darkness in the everyday. Every small town has hidden evil. “Indifference spiced with evil” is how he describes it offering that this brand of evil can come as vapid or conscious. “In the Lot muggers have to be in by 7.” Protective parents feeling the danger of the town moving in on them. From town gossip, he discusses certain secrets that are up for discussion while other darkness employs a governor that hides the real truth in an almost tribal way.
King uses the word zest. He tells of a terrible short story he read as a youth in his nonfiction piece ON WRITING. The offending writer used the word zest/zestful/zestfully too many times. King said he despised the word and to his knowledge, he had never used it. He used it once in Salem’s Lot. I think he did it on purpose. He used it once at the right time for the right effect and never again in the entire story. I think he did so to prove it could be done and then forgot he had done it by the time he wrote ON WRITING nearly 30 years later. If you write this much, you eventually have to use the words you hate too. He does use the phrase “patine of dust” a lot in Salem’s Lot. King does tend to fixate on words from time to time. In 11/22/63, he uses the word obdurant a lot.
King uses a character of a bus driver that takes no shit. This potentially shallow character is written with motivation and depth.
Alcoholism plays a big role for a number of characters. Its curious how much of this King was working out for himself at this point in his life with his darkest days of addiction and his sobriety a number of years still down the road. Some of the most powerful lines in Salem’s Lot play off this. “There goes a wreck of a fine man.” “If he had still been holding the bottle instead of the other way around …” “His breath alone could have made Milwaukee famous.” “You can train your hand not to feel the weight of the bottle anymore.”
In Carrie, I noticed a underlying, unaddressed theme of racism over the town. It wasn’t expounded upon. It was just purposefully, and subtly dropped in. There were no characters of color in Carrie to address that theme. It was just left on the readers. In Salem’s Lot, race is not mentioned at all, but that same relentless, but unexpounded theme is used with homosexuality. There are no characters that are clearly gay, but the accusation as insult is dropped constantly. This “gay as insult” theme which is still common in many places in real life is not seen in Carrie at all, but is heavy in Salem’s Lot. Faggot, queer, cocksucker, sissy, prissy, and more make multiple appearances. As the evil rises, the town talks about “preverts” everywhere. A bully uses the accusation against a tall kid with glasses. In a morgue scene, a gay man is murdered and mentioned in passing, but the story moves on with business without a pause. The priest mentions gay rights in a litany of modern causes and moves on without comment. As with Carrie, King leaves these seeds for the readers to cultivate as they see fit.
King has a great character moment where he uses a near telepathic transfer of expressions between mother and daughter. He has a great narrative bit about how father’s never really ever achieve full comfort with men interested in their daughters. In a recent interview, King says that he likes to introduce characters and story in the safety of the light before taking the reader into the darkness. These moments serve that purpose in Salem’s Lot, I think.
In one of the scariest scenes in any book for me, King creates all the dread and fear from snapping branches and a detailed description of the distance to the road and the light. All horror writers could learn from this scene.
In another scene with the great line of people would “buy a bag of cow shit if it was an old enough bag,” King creates foreboding in unloading boxes by creating the threat from simply having two characters with two slightly different agendas to emphasize the tension. The use of taillights infuses a scene with great dread. “I didn’t see nothin’ and I never want to see it again.” Beautiful. He presents that the basis of all human fears is a closed door slightly ajar and he demonstrates this more than once.
In the first season of the television show Hannibal, there is a moment where a body ends up back in a bed after it already went missing. This technique of fear is here in Salem’s Lot. It disorients the reader in time and sequence in a very powerful way.
“God Grant that He Lie Still” Stephen King should write the inscription for all tombstones. He brilliantly works in a father’s grief with shock, counterpoint with the comfort intended by religion in moments of grief, and rips back the veil on death. In another moment, King makes a fascinating choice during the examination of a body. Where King draws horror in common moments, he chooses to touch on comedy and clinical interest in moments others would take the obvious route of horror.
King plays the lines between skeptics and believers perfectly. This is so tough to do in horror and he takes the time to use the nuance of each character’s individual make-up to work the tone for each of those moments differently. One character who would normally be the perfect skeptic, but must become an early believer and evangelize others puts on a crucifix to deal with the evil. As another character sees this out of place change, it is described as “a five and dime corpse against his flannel checkered chest.” King presents the debate question: If you put a psychologist in a room with a man that thinks he is Napoleon for enough time, do you end up with two Skinner men or two men with their hands in their shirts. His conclusion is that there is insufficient data.
King contends in this book that people aren’t as leery of the supernatural as writers make them. Writers of the supernatural tend to be more hard-headed on the subject. A character notes that Lovecraft was an atheist, Poe was a half-hearted transcendentalist, and Hawthorne was only conventionally religious.
On that note, King achieves something I strive for in my writing which is trying to write well the beliefs of characters which I don’t hold myself. Adding King to the list in the previous paragraph, he believes in God, as he puts it he chooses to believe because it makes it easier. It is a question of sobriety for him. But he is outspokenly negative on organized religion. Still, as an old Catholic priest, he writes the character’s view of the Church in loving detail even from the mouth of a priest struggling with the nature of the world and the Church’s response to it. After the fundamentalist fervor in Carrie, this shows a range in revealing the mind of characters that believe different things.
In contrast, a democratic, economics professor who voted for Nixon in 1972 and doubted the counter culture on an economic basis is equally well fleshed out in his moment. The beliefs are real in the character and sold by the author to the reader.
Writing a traditional monster such as a vampire in a traditional way with the rules of the trope, forces one to infuse “truth” and power into the Church and Christianity. The logical extension of this form of the trope requires it. King handles it well even while predating the Church in his exploration and in examining the nature of faith and its power under these conditions.
There are Lovecraftian implications in the story of sights that can drive a person mad. The ancient creatures in King’s story have an interesting perspective on American abundance and capitalism.
King carries on with some of his old shadow games again. _______ died of ________ just as his son _________ will die later in this story. He loves throwing these pieces in to jar us out of the story at just the moment and just the way he wants.
As an author that writes zombies, I’m struck by King’s approach to describing the spread. Whether that is evil, disease, zombies, a madness, etc., there is a pace and a rhythm to that type of description. King does this with changing tempos, altered directions, fits and starts, and redirection. He does not allow the text to become monotonous for the sake of achieving the spread.
King indulges in flowered language that does not communicate concrete specifics in one moment of high action and emotion. The beauty in this approach is seldom tolerated in literature now, especially genre literature. The moment is followed by an equally powerful description of a sunset that does use specific details also to powerful impact.
Stephen King has long espoused the philosophy of putting characters into the positions they least want to be in and then watch what they do. Salem’s Lot does that well without being obvious or predictable in any moment. King utilizes moments of isolation and separation. I noticed in my first reading years ago that King in this and in many of his stories pits the more powerful evil against the flawed heroes.
At different points in the novel, I saw hints of Needful Things in one of the shops. The makings of the Dead Zone is hinted in a throwaway line about the real maniacs have their fingers on the thermonuclear triggers. The physical details of the clown in IT are touched on in a very direct description. Also, “he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts” appears here and will be reused in IT. The type for the hero in Under the Dome is present in this story, I think.
Through the story, King has a good stretch of hinting at an answer, but then forcing characters through a slow discovery of it.
He creates a tone perfect ending. The seeds and set-ups are placed into the entire course of the story in a natural and unforced way. Without overplaying his hand, he draws the story to a close on that set-up making the novel feel complete without having to give up anything he created.
I hope you found at least parts of my ramblings interesting. Next will be THE SHINING. Here is my Before The Shining post.
Join me and follow along as I go.
I’ll keep you posted.
— Jay Wilburn, writer