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Introduction to "'Salem's Lot"

I first read Dracula when I was nine or tenaround 1957, this would have been. I cant remember why I wanted to read it, something some kid at school had said, or perhaps some vampire movie on John Zacherleys Shock Theater, but I did, and my mother brought it home from the Stratford Public Library and passed it over without comment. My brother, David, and I were both precocious readers, and our mother encouraged us greatly by forbidding us only a little. Quite often she would hand us a book one of us had requested, adding Thats trash in a tone which suggested she knew that the news wouldnt stop us; might, on the contrary, actually encourage us. Besides, she knew that trash has its place.

To Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King, The Blackboard Jungle was trash; The Bat, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, was trash; The Amboy Dukes, by Irving Shulman, was serious trash. None of these books were forbidden to us, however. A very few others were. These our mother described as bad trash, and Dracula wasnt one of them. The only three in that category I can remember for sure were Peyton Place, Kings Row, and Lady Chatterleys Lover. I had read all of these by the age of thirteen and enjoyed them allbut none of them could match Bram Stokers novel of old horrors colliding with modern technology and investigative techniques. That one was in a class by itself.

I remember that Stratford Library book clearly and with great affection. It had that comfortably sprung, lived-in look that library books with a lively circulation always get; bent page corners, a dab of mustard on page 331, a whiff of some readers spilled after-dinner whiskey on page 468. Only library books speak with such wordless eloquence of the power good stories hold over us; how good stories abide, unchanged and mutely wise, while we poor humans grow older and slower.

You might not like it, my mother said. It looks like nothing but letters to me.

Dracula was my first encounter with the epistolary novel as well as one of my earlier forays into adult fiction, and turned out to be comprised not just of letters but of diary entries, newspaper cuttings, and Dr Sewards exotic phonograph diary, kept on wax cylinders. And after the original strangeness of reading such a patchwork wore off, I loved the form. There was a kind of justified snoopiness to it which exerted tremendous appeal. I loved the story, too. There were plenty of frightening sectionsJonathan Harkers growing realization that he has been imprisoned in the Counts castle, the bloody staking of Lucy Westenra in her tomb, the burning of Mina Murray Harkers forehead with the holy waferbut what I responded to most strongly (I was only nine or ten, remember) was the intrepid band of adventurers which takes off in blind, brave pursuit of Count Dracula, hounding him first out of England, then back to Europe, and finally to his native Transylvania, where the issue is resolved at sunset. When I discovered J. R. R. Tolkiens Rings trilogy ten years later, I thought, Shit, this is just a slightly sunnier version of Stokers Dracula, with Frodo playing Jonathan Harker, Gandalf playing Abraham Van Helsing, and Sauron playing the Count himself. I think Dracula was the first fully satisfying adult novel I ever read, and I suppose it is no surprise that it marked me so early and so indelibly.

A year or two later (by this time my mother and my brother and I had left Connecticut and moved back to our native Maine), I discovered a cache of comic books (with torn-off covers) for sale in a local notions store called The Kennebec Fruit Company. These could be had for a nickel apiece. Some were Classics Illustrated (bad), some were Donald Ducks (good), and a great many were E.C. titles such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror (best of all). In these comics I discovered a new breed of vampire, both cruder than Stokers Count and more physically monstrous. These were pale, paranoid nightmares with gigantic fangs and fleshy red lips. They did not sip delicately, as Count Dracula sipped at the ever-more-wasted veins of Lucy Westenra; the E.C. vampires created by Al Feldstein and brought most gruesomely to life by the pen of Graham Ghastly Ingels were prone to tearing and ripping and shredding. In one story, vampires running a restaurant actually installed spigots in the necks of their dying victims, suspending them upside down and drinking splurting red streams of hot plasma like kids quaffing from the backyard hose. And the victims didnt just moan or sigh, like Lucy in her maidens bed; they were more apt to scream in long strings of repeated Es and Ys and Gs, making soundsEeeeeeeahh! Arrgggggh! Eyyyyyyyggghh!that looked like terrible phlegmy expectorations. These vampires did not just scare me; they fucking terrified me, chasing me through my dreams with their lips peeled back to show their monstrous cannibal teeth.

My mother didnt approve of the E.C.s, but neither did she take them away; they were trash, and she often said so, but they were apparently not bad trash. Eventually I gave them up on my own (as she probably knew I would, and all the quicker if I wasnt nagged about it), but those vampires remained with me all the same, as vivid and as vital in their own way as Stokers Count. Perhaps even more vivid and vital because, unlike Count Dracula, they were American vampires. Some of them drove carswent out on datesand there were the ones that owned the vampire restaurant (where, I remember, one of the specials was French Fried Scabs). Why, if owning a goddam beanery wasnt good old American free enterprise, what was?

I reencountered Dracula in 1971, when I was teaching a high school English class called Fantasy and Science Fiction. I came back to it with some trepidation, knowing that a book readnot just read but studied and taught, even at the high school levelat twenty-four looks a lot different than one read at the age of nine or ten. Usually smaller. But the great ones only get bigger and cast longer shadows. Dracula, although created by a man who never wrote much else of lasting worth in his life (a few short stories, such as The Judges House, still bear scrutiny), is one of the great ones. My students enjoyed it, and Id say I enjoyed it even more than they did.

One night, the second time through the adventures of the sanguinary Count (I only taught high school for two years), I wondered out loud to my wife what might have happened if Drac had appeared not in turn-of-the-century London but in the America of the 1970s. Probably hed land in New York and be killed by a taxicab, like Margaret Mitchell in Atlanta, I added, laughing.

My wife, who has been responsible for all of my greatest successes, did not join my laughter. What if he came here, to Maine? she asked. What if he came to the country? After all, isnt that where his castle was? In the Transylvanian countryside?

That was really all it took. My mind lit up with possibilities, some hilarious, some horrible. I saw how such a mansuch a thingcould operate with lethal ease in a small town; the locals would be very similar to the peasants he had known and ruled back home, and with the help of a couple of greedy Kiwanis types like real estate agent Larry Crockett, he would soon become what he had always been: the boyar, the master.

I saw more, as well: how Stokers aristocratic vampire might be combined with the fleshy leeches of the E.C. comics, creating a pop-cult hybrid that was part nobility and part bloodthirsty dope, like the zombies in George Romeros Night of the Living Dead. And, in the post-Vietnam America I inhabited and still loved (often against my better instincts), I saw a metaphor for everything that was wrong with the society around me, where the rich got richer and the poor got welfareif they were lucky.

I also wanted to tell a tale that inverted Dracula. In Stokers novel, the optimism of Victorian England shines through everything like the newly invented electric light. Ancient evil comes to the city and is sent scatting (not without some struggle, it is true) by thoroughly modern vampire-hunters who use blood transfusions and stenography and typewriting machines. My novel could look through the other end of the telescope, at a world where electric lights and modern inventions would actually aid the incubus, by rendering belief in him all but impossible. Even Father Callahan, the man of God, cannot really believe in Mr Barlowno, not even when the evidence appears before his very eyesand so Callahan is sent hence, into the land of Nod which lies to the east of Eden (in Salems Lot, Detroit serves as a stand-in for Nod). I thought that, in my story, the vampires would probably win, and good luck to them. Drive those cars, boys. Run that restaurant. WELCOME TO JERUSALEMS LOT, BLOOD SAUSAGE OUR SPECIALTY.

The story didnt quite turn out that wayas you will see for yourselfbecause some of my human characters turned out to be stronger than I had expected. It took a certain amount of courage to allow them to grow toward each other as they wanted to do, but I found that courage. If I ever won a single battle as a novelist, that was probably it. Writers have found it so much easier to imagine doom in the years since World War II (and especially in the years since Vietnam), easier to imagine characters who grow smaller as a result of their trials rather than bigger. Ben Mears, I discovered, wanted to be big. Wanted, in fact, to be a hero. I let him be what he wanted to be. I have never been sorry.

Salems Lot was originally published by Doubleday in 1975. It is dated in many ways (I have always been more a writer of the moment than I wanted to be), but I still like it well enough to number it among my favorites. I like the picture it draws of a small New England town; I like its sense of deepening menace; I like its strong, intended echoes of Dracula and of the EC comics where the vampires ripped and snarked and tore instead of sipping delicately like wine-snobs at a vicarage tasting party. Most of all I like the moment where it takes off like a big-ass bird into a world where all the rules have become moot and anything is possible. Carrie, the book which came before it, seems almost fey by comparison. There is more confidence here, more willingness to be funny (The world is falling down around our ears and youre sticking at a few vampires, one of the characters says), more pushing of the envelope. In a way, this book was my coming-out party.

The woman who brought me Dracula from the Stratford Public Library never saw Salems Lot. By the time the first draft was completed, she was too ill to read muchshe who read with such enjoyment over the course of her lifeand by the time it was published, she was dead. If she had read it, I like to think she would have finished the last hundred pages in one of her marathon chain-smoking readathons, then laughed, put it aside (not without some affection), and pronounced it trash.

But maybe not bad trash.

Stephen King
Introduction to "'Salem's Lot", Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2004.

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