Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Entering October Country

{Purported nineteenth-century kit for killing vampires, made by a Professor Ernst Blomberg.}

After seeing Stephen King slagging Fox Sports during Friday's Red Sox-Indians game, I decided to honor his forthrightness by reading 'Salem's Lot (1975). Back in high school, I plowed through thousands of pages of King's novels, but aside from The Colorado Kid (2005), the novella he published with Hard Case Crime, which I wrote about here, I hadn't read anything by him for fifteen years. As a teenager, I had found his books terrifying, impossible to put down--even brilliant. But what would I think as an adult?

The verdict? Still frightening. Still hard to put down. And, while 'Salem's Lot certainly isn't brilliant, I'm not disappointed.

King made his name by injecting horror into carefully drawn scenes of everyday life. The nightmares in his novels are frightening precisely because he's locating them in the most innocuous of small towns--but, as writers from Sherwood Anderson on have reminded us, small towns teem with dark secrets. (King even name-checks Anderson and Edward Arlington Robinson--an odd coincidence, since I'd just been reading about both in Edmund Wilson.) He shows how easily an uncanny, supernatural evil can prey on, exploit, or even arise from the ordinary meanness and evils of small-town life. In the case of 'Salem's Lot, that evil takes the form of a millennia-old vampire, the perfect creature, metaphorically, to feed on the late-night, basement, and close-shuttered underbelly of a town.

In the early part of the novel, King depicts a Maine town that despite its 1970s setting seems trapped in the late '50s: boys still build models of Universal movie monsters, teens still hang out at the soda shop, men still live in a boarding house. Yet, as King himself acknowledges in his Introduction, where he admits, "I have always been more a writer of the moment than I wanted to be," the creeping malaise and toxicity of the early '70s are never far from the surface.

King spends a lot of energy and pages establishing the town and its people, and though his dialogue frequently ends up sounding a bit too much like Sheriff Tupper telling Miss Fletcher about the strange doings in Cabot Cove, for the most part his work establishing characters pays off. His creations don't always come to life--the three primary male characters are essentially interchangeable--but when they do they nudge us just enough farther in our suspension of belief to tip the scales from shock to horror. This line from a boy whose father has just been killed is a good example, rendered simultaneously sad and chilling by the fact that we've come to trust the boy's precocious perceptiveness:
It's better this way. My father . . . he would have made a very successful vampire. . . . He . . . he was good at everything he tried. Maybe too good.

Once the action starts, King slathers on the gore, as he is wont to do. But what's much scarier are the quiet moments when fear first enters a room. Take this scene, where a young woman sits in the kitchen of her old English teacher's house, trying to convince him that he had not heard a vampire sucking dry his houseguest the previous night. As they talk, he breaks in:
"Be quiet."
He had cocked his head forward. She stopped talking and listened. Nothing . . . except perhaps a creaky board. She looked at him questioningly, and he shook his head. "You were saying."
Moments later, midsentence,
He ceased again, listening.

This time the silence spun out, and when he spoke again, the soft certainty in his voice frightened her. "There's someone upstairs."
The "soft certainty" of those moments when the trustworthy and rational convince us that it's time we start believing the unbelievable are King at his best.

I was surprised to find that King is also quite good at describing the landscape and the play of the seasons. Though his prose in these passages sometimes tiptoes to the edge of purple, it rarely crosses over, despite his efforts to invest the whole of nature with a human dread. Here he writes of a Maine autumn:
It stays on through October and, in rare years, on into November. Day after day the skies are a clear, hard blue, and the clouds that float across them, always west to east, are calm white strips with gray keels. The wind begins to blow by the day, and it is never still. It hurries you along as you walk the roads, crunching the leaves that have fallen in mad and variegated drifts. The wind makes you ache in some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die--migrate or die. . . . And if there are no cars or planes, and if no one's Uncle John is out in the wood lot west of town banging away at a quail or pheasant; if the only sound is the slow beat of your own heart, you can hear another sound, and that is the sound of life winding down to its cyclic close, waiting for the first winter snow to perform last rites.

'Salem's Lot gets less interesting as the ratio of humans to vampires begins to fall; it becomes a race to an end that we can see coming--there are only so many ways to kill a vampire, after all. But that's nothing like the galactic disappointment I felt at sixteen at the end of 1,100 pages of It, nor is it a disingenuous abjuration of the very idea of an ending, like he employed in The Colorado Kid, so I won't complain.

But now it's a drizzly, windy October night, and it seems wrong to read something that's not scary. Time to curl up with my well-loved copy of The Oxford Book of the Supernatural and some M. R. James. No sneaking up on me, please.

No comments:

Post a Comment