Thursday, May 18, 2006

1 Corinthians 13:11

Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King, Read by Ron McLarty, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2004

I was a huge fan of Stephen King from the ages of ten to sixteen. This appreciation was sparked in part because, like a lot of little boys, I was fascinated by the gross. Fangoria magazine, a publication devoted to still shots of the gorey scenes of splatter films, was my childhood periodical of choice, though like many a Playboy reader, I wasn’t as interested in the articles.

It was a photo of a severed head in a refrigerator that so fascinated me into convincing my mother, ignorant of the precise content of the film, to drop me off at the theater so I could attend Friday the 13th, Part 2.The year was 1981. I was nine years old. I nearly pissed my pants when the killer burst through the picture window in the final reel. I was hooked on scares back in the eighties, and if you were a reader, Stephen King was top dog.

The novel that scared me the most as a kid was King’s second, ’Salem’s Lot. The novel has its actual genesis in a short story included much later in the collection of King’s short stories, Night Shift, an H.P. Lovecraft homage about a doomed New England town sucked into madness and hell from beyond. The novel imagines what would happen if vampire moved into a small, isolated Maine village and began biting necks. I must have read my pocket paperback of this book thirty times or so, and by my last trip through it, pages were falling out of its shattered binding.

As we get older and our tastes shift, we sometimes look back on our childhood fancies with fondness or embarrassment or amused condescension. How powerful King’s influence on my youth is a question I have often wondered about because I really, really did love his novels as a child. Why this question is of any interest at all is because so many adults loved his writing and so many still do. This is not a question of why did I love a writer of children’s books whose works can be enjoyed by adults (such as Cormier, Rowling, and others). This is a question of were the writings of any value that I inherently recognized back then or did I simply have a child’s taste (a child’s taste shared by many grownups.)

I decided, now that King’s earlier novels are finally being released as audiobooks, to sample a few of them just to see. It’s been a contention of mine for some time that these earliest books, say the first six or seven, might actually have been decently written novels, but that the elevation of King to celebrity status has killed whatever germ of talent he might have possessed. Once you become a publishing powerhouse, what little pipsqueak agent and editor is going to risk their commission and their livelihood questioning your judgment as a writer? This kind of godhead status fosters bad, indulgent writing, hastily cobbled together works (the man writes nearly a good thousand published pages per calendar year), and there is no one to put the breaks on.

For all of its flaws, there are a few moments where King’s early writing gives real pleasure and demonstrates something other than what made it bestseller material all those years ago. An early chapter of the town waking is a snapshot tour of Salem’s Lot, featuring an abusive 17 year old mother who punches her ten month old baby in the face, an overeducated groundskeeper who finds a dead dog hanging from a cemetery gate, the sizable landlady who wakes before her residents just for the few stolen moments of peace and quiet, the elementary school bully and his skinny bookish target who turns the tables, and the reactionary bus driver who brooks not a single instance of misbehavior. These little sketches have a neat quiet completeness to them, coming together as a whole like a sprint through Sherwood Anderson territory.

This second books features neat little attempts at prose poems on the humming of telephone wires and the aged quality of telephone poles with tarred bases, floured with dirt road dust. When King is going into raptures to these little things, his writing manages to elevate itself over his reputation; you can palpably feel him straining at his limits, striving to write better than he’s able. His reach exceeds his grasp, alas, for when he turns to more dramatic elements, the horror movie drama, the writing goes plump with shopworn cliches and prose of the most purple hues.

When King does move into scary territory, he is wise in the book’s beginning to start with children. Kids out after dark have much to fear: the wolf man, perverts, the bogeyman, ghosts. Everything and anything out in the dark. This quite sympathetic feeling King has for the fears and dread of children is some of his best horror writing. Like other talented practitioners of the scary story, he is wise enough to leave the monster off the page for a long, long time, leaving our imagination to fill in the shadows.

The scene that follows is just two burly moving men muscling some large crates into the basement of the town “haunted house.” The creeps are amped up a bit by them having to leave a ring of keys on the table after they forgot them back in the truck. Nothing happens but suggestion, the fright of grown men at almost nothing at all, but it taps into the irrational terrors of children we never quite fully outgrow. This is mirrored in another scene where a gravedigger shovels dirt on the dead boy’s coffin. He begins to think of the boy’s eyes open in there and from there it spins out a kind of shuddersome madness. King goes a little overboard with the climaxing movement in this scene, but judiciously pulls back just as he reaches serious shocks.

This was where King’s reputation was made: in fears in your head, in creepy feelings, in pricklings at the back of your neck, at the idea of something awful. When the actual creepy moments happen, that fine tension is dissipated and it’s like seeing the zipper on a rubber monster costume. Almost every scene in which the vampire, Mr. Barlow, appears has a kind of subconscious organ music playing throughout and you almost rather expect him to sound like Bela Lugosi. I vant to suck your blood!

The weaknesses of the story itself as a plotted device are the same as nearly all vampire novels. The ease with which one becomes a vampire and the mindless hunger of the newly made vampires are impossible extrapolations. A vampirism that would pass so easily and spread so rapidly would surely have taken over the world by now, leading to global shortages of human blood and an eventual extinction of the vampire population. The sole power invested in Catholic cerements and icons would no doubt lead to mass conversions or at least questionings of faith, though no one at all wonders about the curious powers resident in holy water.

Such logical conclusions are swept away in favor of blood, blood, and more blood. King does kind of toy with this idea in his most viciously cynical character, precisely the one person you need in a vampire story: the Catholic priest. An alcoholic misanthrope, he believes six good punches in the face and a kick in the ass would be a good penance for one of his parishioners. So much for the power of the Church.

’Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel, vastly more assured than his debut, the bizarre revenge of the nerd fantasy Carrie, is a bit of a mixed bag. King would really find his stride in his third published book, the classic The Shining, a novel almost entirely predicated on interior horrors and the terror of suggestion. Critics of the future, one hundred years hence, when grappling with late twentieth century literary epiphenomena will no doubt look to that book as his triumph and lodestone. But that will be a review for the future.

Reader Ron McLarty does a decent job laying out the story here, though there is little special in his delivery or characterization. While King is quite fond of the long dialog sans attribution, his characters speak in such deliberative Character-A-imparting-information-to-Character-B fashion that it’s practically impossible to lose sight of who is who. It’s entirely possible that a more dramatized reading might have made the whole ride a bit more giddy, given it a bit more energy, carried things a bit more and glossed over the novel’s cornier moments, but that’s just speculation.

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