After a brief prologue where we appear to learn that something bad is going to happen in 'salem's Lot that will cause everyone to either leave or vanish (gee I wonder what that could be in a vampire novel), we join Ben Mears who is coming home to said Lot as an adult whose wife appears to have died in an accident. He lived here briefly as a kid. He finds an old spooky house he used to know and immediately decides it would be a good idea to rent it, which proves that he clearly doesn't realize he's a character in a Stephen King novel. Since he is a writer I can only assume he was the writer in the prologue which would mean he's going to survive, at least for now.
Soon after he meets Susan, a 24-year-old artist with dreams of the big city and getting away from her family. Susan is apparently into older men, she hits it off right away with Ben, who is 33, and we later learn that her current boyfriend is 34 or 35. It doesn't take long before current boyfriend becomes former boyfriend as Susan jumps the Floyd Express and hops on the U.S.S. Ben. No literal hopping yet, just mouth hopping, but I give it 40 pages before King gives in to the urge to write a sex scene.
There's a nice slow burn going here in the first couple chapters that wasn't evident in Carrie. Lots of setup and establishing characters, and also establishing the Marsten House, as we learn that Ben didn't get it and someone else bought it instead. It's probably for the best except for the fact that the new owners are almost certainly vampires, which make the worst neighbours, come and go at all hours of the night, don't cut the grass, all your pets and kids disappear, it's a whole thing. But we learn that the Marsten House was once home to a crazy man who murdered his family and hanged himself, and that once Ben went into the long-abandoned house on a dare and saw/imagined/hallucinated that the hanged body was still there and that it opened its eyes. This is the house he wanted to move into? On second thought maybe the vampires are less creepy neighbours than Ben Mears would have been.
King really does a great job of setting up the town next, giving a full day of all the normal people with their normal problems, all of whom are growing curious about the new owners of the Marsten House, who have now moved in. This section really breathes life into the fictional town, something that would become one of King's trademarks. After reading it I have no trouble believing that 'salem's Lot and a thousand little places just like it are very real.
Someone killed a local man's dog and planted it on a spike on the cemetery gate, but it soon gets worse. Just as King predicted downtrodden students lashing out at their classmates in Carrie, here he perhaps predicts the modern age of watchful parents by scaring the crap out of the parents of 1975. In an age when you let your kids go off and play by themselves, especially when you lived in a small town, here it all goes wrong. Two boys are taking a shortcut across a patch of woods to get to a friend's house, out as darkness falls with their parents' blessing. After a day of normal life, King cranks the tension up without warning as the boys get freaked out and then taken by something stalking them in the woods. One of the boys is then shown at the cemetary, held by a nameless figure invoking something Satanic and then, though the details are left unclear, doing something unspeakable to the little boy. Cue parents everywhere constructing protective bubbles and backyard fences while muttering about that fucking Stephen King guy.
This is the first scene in this King readthrough that actually creeped me out, and soon we have another as two men are hired on the sly to bring a big, heavy package into the basement of the Marsten House. The younger of the two boys has vanished and the older came back but could remember nothing, though his blood count appears to be going lower and lower and soon he dies, which suggests to me that vampires are returning to him and feeding, which in turn suggests to me that they have some sort of vampire hypnosis to control the boy, which in turn suggests that I'm a guessworking assumptioneer. Anyway, the men haul the huge box into the basement and one of them sees a small boy's clothes bundled up against a wall and wonders. The scene is deliciously creepy as the two men freak out the whole time they're in and around the ill-fated and spooky house.
The box though, that's an interesting thing. It's supposed to be a big sideboard dresser inside, but it's not a great stretch of the imagination to think that maybe just maybe this big box that comes from London without going through customs has a coffin inside it, and inside a coffin you'd have a vampire, perhaps the big vampire, perhaps the missing Mr. Barlow who is supposedly the part-owner of the Marsten House.
The other owner, Straker, is the talk of the town. He's not a vampire because he goes out in daylight, but he seems to be the organizer and there are many hints that he's not entirely human. Constable Parkins Gillespie has an eye on him what with the boy disappearing, and he also has an eye on innocent Ben, and I can't help but love Gillespie just a little because of his investigative instincts, his casual but competent attitude, and the great accent King gives him. I happen to think that Stephen King can really screw the pooch with his written accents sometimes, but with Gillespie it just works. The accent by itself gives you the perfect image of a dry-humoured, laid back, casual, but still razor sharp police officer, the sort who does the job and does it well but isn't out to get anyone unless he figures maybe someone ought to get got.
The little town is on the verge of something very bad, and you can feel it between the lines. I get the real sense that these vampires, whoever they are and however they operate, are evil in a way that nothing in Carrie was evil. There you had a lot of misguided people, but here we have something actually evil, here we have monsters, powerful and secretive monsters that can take from you and can never be stopped, and that is a scarier thing than what we saw in Carrie, especially because King has taken pains to wrap it so tightly in normality and a very realistic small town.
Ben and Susan finally do the horizontal hootchie-coo, about 70 pages later than I predicted, but mercifully King doesn't go into detail this time around. Afterward they discuss the nature of evil, which I guess is probably regular pillow talk in a town dominated by an evil haunted house. Ben is writing his book about said house and has all sorts of thoughts about how it could be connected to the missing boy that make him sound even to me like a prime suspect to be a child-murdering lunatic who has obsessed over the house so much that he's now acting it out. Good thing I know this is a vampire novel, not a crazy-ghost-possession-murder novel. But the rest of the town doesn't know it, and some of them have a bad feeling about Ben. Fortunately Susan is in love with him and is willing to ignore the fact that in any other novel he'd be the bad-guy-in-waiting.
The town buries the dead boy who died I suspect from a case of too many vampires in the kitchen, and when the gravedigger goes to finish the grave he instead freaks out, opens the casket, and finds the boy's eyes open and looking alive, so I guess we have vampire kids now. We also meet Father Donald Callahan, local Catholic priest, who has a drinking problem because he is tired of facing boring, grey moral areas of sin and wishes he could face down real Evil, and guys I don't want to alarm anyone but I think he might get the chance. Because we also get to meet Straker's partner, Mr. Barlow, for the first time, hypnotizing and killing the dumpkeeper.
The gravedigger having made a new friend by setting the vampire boy free, does the friendly thing and becomes a walking, talking, bleeding dessert table. The boy feeds on him every night, and when the local English teacher tries to help him, the vampire boy comes to the teacher's house to feed there. The teacher figures out what's going on and is scared shitless.
This book so far feels like the first real Stephen King book, when you combine the well-realized small town, the creepy monsters, and the slowly crawling and growing sense of evil. Plus Ben Mears, who is secretly even creepier than the vampires and will probably win by scaring them away.
Chapterfish — Nate's Writing Blog