It turns out surviving the night was the easy part, because it passed without incident and in the morning all our surviving heroes hook up. Mark finds Ben and tells him about Susan's fate. Matt gives everyone a Vampire Killing 101 lesson and they go find Father Callahan and get cleansed and blessed. Ben, Mark, Callahan, and Jimmy the Doctor mount up, get their gear, and drive up to the Marsten House to get 'er done.
Unfortunately Barlow has fled the vampire coop for a new roosting spot, but he leaves them Susan to play with. Ben is forced to drive the stake through her heart, which is a particularly disturbing scene and not good for our hero's already fucked up psyche. Straker was injured by Mark in his escape and then killed by Barlow for his failure, so all that's left now is the vampire king. And the dozens upon dozens of vampires now infesting the town, if you want to get technical about it.
Because they still don't realize they're in a Stephen King novel, the group splits up after dark, with Callahan and Mark going to Mark's parents to try to warn them about Barlow. Mark's father refuses to believe until Barlow shows up and kills both him and his wife, at which point Callahan stays strong and resists the urge to yell "I told you so!" and do a little dance. Instead he confronts Barlow with his shining cross, but Barlow has Mark and taunts the priest. He causes Callahan to doubt his powers, and this leads to him doubting his faith, and then it's all downhill from there. Mark escapes but Barlow breaks the now useless cross and forces Callahan to drink Barlow's filthy vampire blood, marking him forever. Callahan stumbles off in a daze and hops the first bus out of town, heading to New York, broken and defeated.
This is the beginning of a long endgame section that I both liked and didn't like. It draws out the horror nicely, and we got a sense of the good guys dropping slowly and methodically, helpless against a smarter and more powerful force. But on the other hand it feels like the climax comes in the wrong place. You build toward it slowly through the second half of the book, and then you hit this plateau where it just hangs steady for a while before the climax. It's good, but it feels as though it's not as good as it could have been. I don't know if that's King's fault as a young writer still or if he was purposefully mimicking a structure from another book, like Dracula (I have never read it, so I can't say). There have been a fair few references to Dracula throughout 'Salem's Lot however, so it's not outside the realm of possibility.
Anywho, Mark gets back to the hospital and the group makes it through another night. They set out in the morning to kill as many vampires as they can and see if they can find Barlow's new hiding place. They go about this in a real half-assed and procrastinatory way, and time slips past them far too quickly. Something about the town and the task before them just causes them to drag. Eventually Jimmy and Mark find Barlow's hiding spot but Jimmy falls into a trap involving knives in the floor that he gets impaled on, and it's actually pretty brutal when Mark has to shakily describe it to Ben later. Matt dies of a heart attack back at the hospital and it's just Ben and Mark now, each damaged, daylight fading.
They try to get help from Parkins Gillespie, the police officer, but tragically he turns out not to be a hero after all. He has given up on the town and will be leaving. He has some things to say first though, about how he feels like America is susceptible and attractive to evil things now because the country is dying. He cites violence in movies and people getting used to it. Which is bullshit of course, because even though violence in movies and other entertainment forms has gotten even worse since the 70s, there's actually less violence in the world than there used to be, and less war. But you wouldn't have known that in 1975, when the violent age of entertainment was just beginning.
On their own now, Ben and Mark find Barlow's coffin and drag it out. They manage to find ways to cleverly draw out the tension so that the sun has set and Barlow is literally rising up before Ben finally manages to slam a stake into his heart. After that it's easy. I have to wonder, though, why such a smart and careful vampire king as Barlow wouldn't slap some sort of metal plate across his heart too, just for situations like this. Oh well. Rather than turning to dust Buffy-style, Barlow crumbles down to his bones, and then even his bones crumble until only his teeth are left.
They get out of town, go on the lamb, and become the people we saw in the prologue. But then comes the epilogue, where they return to the now-deserted town and set it on fire to drive the vampires out of hiding so they can go through and stake them all as in the original plan they had back before they chickened out and went to Mexico. The end!
Overall this was a big improvement from Carrie, especially in terms of laying out a first good effort at things that will become familiar King storytelling devices — the great sense of a real small town, a main character who is a writer, and a truly evil and supernatural enemy, all of which were lacking or missing in Carrie. There were some good creepy scenes and a couple — Ben having to stake Susan, Jimmy impaled on the knives — that I will admit were actually somewhat horrific. Some of the characterization felt lacklustre, however, and though the novel's structure started out well it didn't hold together through the drawn-out ending, losing some of its momentum somewhere along the way, reaching the end more through inertia than anything else.
All told, I found 'Salem's Lot to be a solid King novel, and on my Quality Meter (which is a measure of how I feel a book stacks up as a King novel, not how it stacks up to other novels) I give it a 70/100.
Next: The Shining
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