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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

King’s second published novel and first best seller was ’Salem’s Lot. It is a variation on the famous vampire novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), but is set in the modern world and, like most of King’s novels, in a remote area of rural Maine. The main character is...

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King’s second published novel and first best seller was ’Salem’s Lot. It is a variation on the famous vampire novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), but is set in the modern world and, like most of King’s novels, in a remote area of rural Maine. The main character is Ben Mears, an author who has recently lost his wife in a motorcycle crash. Unable to conquer his grief after many months, he returns, after an absence of twenty-five years, to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, known by most of its inhabitants as “’Salem’s Lot.”

As a child, Ben had spent four years in ’Salem’s Lot, which he remembers fondly with the idyllic images that most Americans have of life in a small town. He hopes to rekindle pleasant memories, regain a sense of home, and find some peace of mind. Entering the village, however, he is startled by his sight of the Marsten House, a great mansion built on a hill overlooking the town. Ben is filled with foreboding, and the reader knows that the Marsten House is going to be a central factor in the events to come. King describes the mansion as if it is alive, almost conscious, and full of evil. It had been built many decades before by a mobster named Hubie Marsten, who shotgunned his wife to death and then hanged himself. When he was nine, Ben had visited the abandoned building on a dare and had seen an apparition—Marsten’s spectral corpse swinging from a roof beam. Now, he feels almost as if the house has been waiting for his return.

Despite his memories and fears, Ben settles comfortably into ’Salem’s Lot. He soon meets a young woman, Susan Norton, and a romance begins. A cast of interesting characters who live in ’Salem’s Lot appears, and the reader is lulled into believing that this is simply a nice little town like a hundred others. Yet something is wrong; there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, a sense that nothing and no one are going anywhere in ’Salem’s Lot, a kind of “deadness.” These feelings seem to be prophetic, for two young boys, Danny and Ralphie Glick, become the first victims of the vampire Barlow, who has occupied Marsten House and is served by his oily assistant Richard Straker. Converted by Barlow into undead zombies, the Glicks begin attacking others, including young Mark Petrie, a former playmate. Though Petrie drives the Glicks away with a cross-shaped toy tombstone, Barlow’s flock of vampires begins to grow as spouses, friends, and relatives spread the plague.

On an impulse, Susan Norton goes to Marsten House, where she meets Mark, who has figured out that the house is the source of the evil. Susan and Mark discover Barlow and attempt to kill him, but they are captured by Straker. Mark escapes to tell Ben what has happened, and Ben teams up with Mark and two friends, Dr. Jim Cody and the alcoholic priest Father Callahan, to raid Marsten House. There they find Straker, hanged and drained of blood by Susan, who is now a vampire. Ben is forced to kill her; Barlow, however, is nowhere to be seen.

The following evening, Barlow attacks and kills Mark’s parents and confronts Father Callahan. The priest brandishes a cross at Barlow, but it fails to drive the vampire away because Father Callahan had long before lost his faith in its power. Callahan leaves the town in shame, but Ben, Mark, and other friends yet untouched by the vampire go throughout the town, driving stakes through the hearts of every vampire they can find. Though Dr. Cody is killed by Barlow, Mark and Ben succeed, in a violently bloody scene, in killing the chief vampire.

This is not the end, though, for Mark and Ben cannot be sure that all the vampires have been eliminated. They flee across the country, winding up in Mexico, where they hope they will be able to rebuild their lives. Ben, however, keeps up on events in Maine by getting old copies of a Portland newspaper. When he reads a report of strange goings-on in the area of ’Salem’s Lot, he decides he must once more return to finish the job of destroying the vampires. He and Mark burn the town, yet the reader is left with the uneasy feeling that the vampires may yet come again.

’Salem’s Lot is a relatively straightforward horror story that succeeds primarily because it is well crafted and very frightening. King’s carefully wrought descriptions of physical details, as well as his fascinating, often humorous, outsider’s view of small-town characters, bring the village to life and render the horrors of its creeping vampirism all the more gripping and terrible in their irony. Especially poignant is the agonizing necessity Ben faces of having to destroy Susan, who had begun to repair the damage caused by his wife’s death. In the end, Ben’s fury at Barlow as the chief vampire is compounded by the fact that Barlow has stolen his love and second chance at happiness. As with any good scary story, at its conclusion King leaves the reader in doubt about whether evil has really been vanquished.

’Salem’s Lot is also one of the grimmest of King’s novels. Though most of King’s works involve horrific violence, copious quantities of blood, and human weakness in the face of almost overwhelming evil, ’Salem’s Lot is one of the few that do not offer the reader some kind of catharsis through the redemption or victory of the hero. In interviews, King attributed the novel’s dark tone to the background of what he felt were frightening political events occurring at the time he was writing. His own fears about the future of the country are supposedly reflected in ’Salem’s Lot. The degree to which a writer’s psychological moods are related to his writing is debatable, but the effectiveness of ’Salem’s Lot as an outstanding horror novel is not.

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