16 January 2014

Salem's Lot, Stephen King

Coming from a self-confessed King fan this might be a shock... I re-read Salem's Lot after a break of almost forty years and found a 'Lot' I didn't like any more. To be fair, this was only King's second novel and there are indeed strong hints of the world-conquering style to come. But... there are many faults.

Plot is forsaken in favour of a simple linear narrative; not disastrous but a more tangential approach could have been engaging. The characters are dull as ditch water, with the exception of young Mark Petrie, a trailblazer for many of King's future teenage heroes. Protagonist Ben Mears, author and Van Helsing wannabe, probably has too much of the author in him, and I couldn't believe in his stake-through-the-heart abilities.

King does a great job of creating his trademark small town feel but he would go on to do even better. Really, there are just too many small town people to keep track of. Dialogue is rudimentary and there were times when I said aloud, "Ridiculous. No one talks like that!"

I'm being very critical here but don't forget King himself would later write a whole book on the craft of writing, in the form of an autobiographical account. I grimaced at the many repetitions of a word within the same sentence. One example: you just cannot get away with saying a road is deserted and that a parked car is deserted in the same sentence. I know this sort of nonsense will be eradicated in later works but it sure spoils this ride. Most of the novel is straight exposition but these days we have been taught to prefer being shown rather than told, hence the experience is jarring.

I wonder how good King's editors were. I read several episodes that just didn't make sense. Here's one: makeshift spikes were constructed by plunging kitchen knives through squares of plywood then breaking off the handles. Try breaking off a knife handle! Here's another: a front door of an inhabited house was secured by fastening a padlock to the OUTSIDE. Maybe on a shed, but a house? Lastly (and this will appear throughout his entire career) King stubbornly calls stair treads 'risers.' Steve, you can't walk on the risers as they stand vertically. I just needed to say that.

The novel is very much of its time and only the relentlessly growing pace leaves it readable by today's standards. My own experience was enhanced significantly by the utterly marvelous performance of Ron McLarty who narrates the audio book. Now, don't get me started on the 1979 TV mini-series. The book's reputation is already in tatters! For balance, I did re-watch my DVDs of the adaptation. The strident 'scary music' is reminiscent of fifties Hammer horror films and the whole cliche-ridden thing is drawn out like a length of floppy elastic.

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