Analysis of ‘Salem’s Lot

‘Salem’s Lot is a vampire horror novel written by Stephen King and published in 1975. It’s his second novel, as well as his personal favourite of all of those he’s written. There have been two made-for-TV adaptations: the 1979 one starring David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, and Bonnie Bedelia; and the 2004 adaptation starring Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, and James Cromwell. While the first adaptation took many liberties with King’s novel, he felt no animus against it, unlike his reaction to Stanley Kubrick‘s version of The Shining.

Here are a few quotes:

“…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.”        –Chapter 2, 4 (page 44)

“The town knew about darkness.

“It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.” –Ch. 10, 1 (page 321)

“These are the town’s secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face.

“The town cares for devil’s work no more than it cares for God’s or man’s. It knew darkness. And darkness was enough.” –Ch. 10, 1 (page 327)

In the Prologue, part 3, we come upon a newspaper article, ‘GHOST TOWN IN MAINE?’, referring to two ghost towns: Jerusalem’s Lot and Momson (page 8; also, pages 594-5). Some kind of evil has emptied both towns of their residents. By the end of the story, Ben Mears has started a brush fire as the only way to rid ‘salem’s Lot of its vampires. A fire to rid a city of its evil; two cities laid in desolation by some horrible evil; ‘Salem and Momson seem redolent of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Indeed, ‘salem’s Lot sounds like a pun on ‘Sodom’s Lot’. Is Ben Mears the ‘Lot’ of Jerusalem’s Lot? A fiery destruction is certainly ‘salem’s lot (i.e., fate). What’s more, ‘Salem sounds like fairly nearby Salem, Massachusetts, where the infamous witch trials took place.

Jerusalem is a most holy city (the fighting and controversy over it notwithstanding), as opposed to most unholy Sodom. ‘Salem’s Lot comes off as a quaint, wholesome town…on the surface. The Marsten House (a pun on monster, and almost an anagram, phonetically) is a magnet for evil, having been the home of a murder/suicide before housing master vampire Kurt Barlow and his human assistant, Richard Straker.

Is the contraction, ‘salem, removing Jeru (a pun on Jesu?), meant to indicate a removal of the outer veneer of goodness, leaving only evil? Indeed, the horror of this novel, as with The Exorcist and The Omen, lies in the presence only of evil, and the absence of good.

Jerusalem was originally the name of a pig that escaped the confines of its owner, Charles Belknap Tanner, then ran wild into a forest. Tanner then called the forest (part of his property), ‘Jerusalem’s Lot‘, and warned kids not to go into it, lest they be killed by the wild pig. The town was later named after the forest. The history of the town included a cult that practiced witchcraft and amoral sexuality, including inbreeding. Hence, we can easily see how the town has always been associated with outright bestial evil; hence, in turn, my association of ‘salem’s Lot with Sodom.

Before I go further into my comparison of ‘salem’s Lot with Sodom, let’s consider the story of Lot in Sodom. He was accommodating two angels, in the guise of men, when all the men of Sodom crowded around Lot’s house, demanding he bring the two men out so they could “know” (yada’) them, i.e., gang rape them (Genesis 19:5).

The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah included flagrant inhospitality, overweening pride (Ezekiel 16:49-50), and most controversially, male homosexuality (though it is only male-on-male gang rape that is explicitly dealt with in this story, not that that makes any difference to bigoted Bible fundamentalists, who use this story to justify intolerance of LGBT people).

Lot, demonstrating his duty to be hospitable to the angels, refuses to bring them out for the sexual sport of the Sodomites, who then try to force their way into Lot’s house. The two angels blind the Sodomites and warn Lot to take his family out of the city while the angels destroy the cities with fire and brimstone.

To show the parallels between the Bible story and ‘Salem’s Lot, I must start by pointing out how eroticism is all over the place in vampire fictionCarmilla and Dracula are two well-known early examples of this. Those phallic fangs’ biting into flesh and sucking out blood powerfully suggests sexual predation, and many, if not most of the significant vampire attacks (including attempts) in this novel are male on male, symbolic of male homosexual rape.

Remember that no victim of a vampire bite consents to it, and I’m not at all agreeing with the Bible-beating bigots’ notion that consensual gay sex between adults is a sin (I don’t even believe in God). I’m not trying to moralize about gay male sex, but rather my concern is with the novel’s vampirism as symbolic typically of (attempted or successful) male-on-male sexual assault, which is every bit as indefensible as male-on-female rape, or any other kind of rape.

I’m just seeing an interesting parallel between the Sodomites wanting to get into Lot’s house to rape the angels, on the one hand, and the vampire Danny Glick biting Mike Ryerson, Randy McDougall (page 327), and Jack Griffen, and wanting to get Mark Petrie to open his bedroom window, so he can enter Mark’s room and bite him (pages 367-371). Petrie, of course, scares Danny away with a crucifix, just as the angels thwarted the Sodomites’ plan to push their way past Lot’s doorway and gang-rape them.

In this connection, remember also the Glick boys’ fear of “preeverts” while passing through the woods on the night Ralphie goes missing (pages 119-121). Remember also Hank Peters and Royal Snow wondering about the two new residents of the Marsten House: ‘Hank…looked up toward the Marsten House, which was dark and shuttered tonight. “I don’t like goin’ up there, and I ain’t afraid to say so. If there was ever a haunted house, that’s it. Those guys must be crazy, tryin’ to live there. Probably queer for each other anyway.”…”Like those fag interior decorators,” Royal agreed.’ (page 143)

Now, the homophobia of Hank and Royal aside, whatever Barlow and Straker are doing in the privacy of their own house is no one’s business but theirs; but their vampirism on the males and females of the whole town (a symbolic sexual predation), including such female victims as Marjorie Glick (pages 331-335) and Susan Norton, will be a major worry for Ben Mears. The vampire victim is hypnotized (or at least an attempt is made to hypnotize: pages 316-318) into allowing the vampire to bite him, just as a rape victim may be ‘hypnotized’ by alcohol or drugs into allowing a sexual predator to enjoy him or her.

What is of far greater importance, though, for the sake of my comparison of ‘Salem’s Lot with ‘Sodom’s Lot’, is how the blatant inhospitality in Sodom and Gomorrah was due to the excessive pride and arrogance of the inhabitants of those two sinful cities (i.e., their refusal to help the poor); for the vampirism of ‘Salem’s Lot can be seen as symbolic of narcissism.

Narcissists can be inhospitable in the extreme. Bullies by nature, they try to manipulate and control their victims (like vampires getting their victims to look in their eyes, to hypnotize them), even to the point of controlling their victims’ finances. They lure a victim in with fake, superficial charm (like the suave Barlow and Straker, with their charming furniture shop), then they idealize, devalue, and discard their victims (as Barlow does with Susan Norton after biting her, not caring at all that his ‘bride’ will be staked in the heart by the man who truly loves her…Ben Mears! [The Lot IV, 15, pages 514-520]).

Matt Burke notes several times that Barlow has a big ego (pages 525-527). Narcissists don’t necessarily brag overtly, however: having mastered their craft at manipulating others, they learn to present a False Self of goodness to the world (of the sort that Straker shows everyone [page 249], that he and Barlow are just business associates), while hiding their egotistical True Self, even from themselves (as Barlow must be hidden, sleeping during the day, and coming out only in the shadows at night).

This sleeping in the day, and coming out only at night, suggests that the day represents the conscious mind, while the night represents the unconscious. Heinz Kohut wrote of how narcissists will either repress their grandiose self (push it down into the unconscious) or disavow it (split it away vertically–Kohut, page 185).

Straker can thus represent this False Self: ‘”Mr. Straker?…Well, he’s quite charming,” [Susan] said. “Courtly might be an even better world…”…”Did you like him?” Matt asked, watching her closely… [Susan said] “I’ll give you a woman’s reaction. I did and I didn’t. I was attracted to him in a mildly sexual way, I guess. Older man, very urbane, very charming, very courtly.” […but,] “I think I sensed a certain contempt under the surface. A cynicism. As if he were playing a certain part, and playing it well, but as if he knew he wouldn’t have to pull out all the stops to fool us. A touch of condescension…And there seemed to be something a little bit cruel about him.” (pages 306-308)

Narcissists need narcissistic supply to be regularly provided. The vampires’ hunger for blood represents this craving for narcissistic supply. This supply, which feeds the narcissist’s ego, comes at the expense of the victims, who are drained of self-worth and energy, just like Barlow’s and Danny’s victims. Remember how sick Mike Ryerson feels after his bite at the graveyard (Chapter 7, part 3, pages 252-258).

If a narcissist feels threatened, that is, if his False Self is exposed as such, thus revealing his True Self, he’ll react with narcissistic rage and injury. When Barlow discovers Mark has infiltrated his house and killed Straker, the head vampire vows revenge (pages 510-512). He doesn’t bite Mark’s parents: he kills them by cracking their skulls together before the boy’s eyes (pages 535-539). When a narcissist feels a wound to his ego, his only way to feel better is to inflict pain on others.

Barlow has a special way of disposing of Father Callahan: he makes the priest drink his blood (page 542). By making the priest into a vampire of sorts, having Callahan drink his devilish blood, Barlow projects his evil onto him. Again, narcissists are known to project their vices onto the victims of their abuse. The tainted priest can no longer enter a church (pages 549-550).

Barlow enjoys having humiliated the priest, having stripped him of his ability to be a man of God. Similarly, the Sodomites’ wish to gang rape the angels may have had more to do with the desire to rob them of their holiness than to satisfy homosexual lust; indeed, when (often straight) men rape other men, it’s often to humiliate their victims, rather than just to get off. Narcissists humiliate and abase as just another way to get narcissistic supply.

Examples of narcissistic abuse can be seen on a normal, human level in the everyday lives of the people in ‘salem’s Lot, before they’ve even been attacked by the vampires. Consider Richie Bodden, the school bully, whose proud mother wants everyone to know “what a huge young man her son was” (page 83); then Mark Petrie puts him in his place (pages 86-7).

Then there’s hunchbacked Dud Rogers–the custodian of the Lot’s Town Dump–whose grotesqueness and strength remind me of that “dog”, that “elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog”, that “bottled spider”, that “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” (I, iii), the Duke of Gloucester, the hunchbacked Richard III, a man who “cannot prove a lover”, and so is “determined to prove a villain” (I, i, lines 28, 30); in Shakespeare’s play, the duke’s narcissistic ambition drives him to kill his way to the throne.

Dud gets his jollies firing his .22 target pistol at rats (pages 88-92); but when he encounters Barlow, whose “hypnotizin'” eyes are “like dark pits ringed with fire, pits you could fall into and drown in”, the vampire assumes correctly that “The girls laugh at [Dud]…They have no knowing of [Dud’s] manhood…[and] strength.” (page 233) And when Barlow bites him (page 234), Dud is as determined to be a villain as the duke was.

Also, there’s Mabel Werts, the town gossip (page 122)…and narcissists are notorious gossips. Susan Norton’s mother, disapproving of Ben (page 188), has a relationship with her daughter bordering on dysfunction (page 395). As an example of this troubled relationship, Mrs. Norton prefers “That nice boy, Floyd Tibbits” to Ben…and Floyd “put Ben in the hospital” (page 301).

Then there’s Sandy McDougall’s irresponsible treatment of her and Roy’s baby Randy (pages 71-73, 224-227, and 327-330), who ultimately dies, having not only Danny Glick’s vampire bite on his neck, but also Sandy’s bruises. Again, narcissistic mothers are known for putting their own needs before those of their children, and Sandy is the epitome of narcissistic inhospitality, before the vampires have even struck.

Back to Ben. The author has returned to ‘salem’s Lot, his childhood hometown, to “exorcise all his demons” (page 648) by writing about them in a new book. When he was nine, his friends dared him to go inside the Marsten House and take something from it, as initiation into their club, the Bloody Pirates. Inside the house, he saw the hanging corpse of Hubie Marsten, whose eyes opened for the boy (pages 56-58, 221, and 310)!

Young Ben stole a glass snow globe from the house, and has kept it as a memento until the end of the novel (pages 636-7), when, after seeing his own face in it (implying his fear that he, too, embodies the evil of the house), he destroys it, along with burning the manuscript of his book on the Marsten House. The only way to get rid of his trauma is to destroy it.

Another trauma of Ben’s is the death of his wife, Miranda, in a motorcycle accident, one for which, we sense, he blames himself (pages 482-484). Since I consider Ben to be the Lot of (the Sodom that is) ‘salem’s Lot, I find it apposite at this point to remind us of Lot’s own guilt. Lot offered his two virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8) to satisfy the lust of the Sodomites (making nonsense of John Boswell‘s claim [1980] that the Sodomites merely wanted “to ‘know‘ [another meaning of yada’] who [the two angels] were”, which in itself would hardly be a heinous sin for the Sodomites to have committed; the point in the Biblical narrative of offering, and rejecting the offer of, the daughters is to emphasize the Sodomites’ taste for male-on-male rape over male-on-female rape).

Though Lot and his family were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked back on the burning cities, then turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Lot must have imagined himself to be, on at least some level, guilty of her death (as Mears must have blamed his carelessness on his motorcycle for the death of Miranda), having incurred God’s wrath for the offer of his daughters (as Robert Alter believes: Alter, page 85, note 8).

Lot must have incurred the girls’ wrath, too, since they later shamed him by getting him drunk and having sex with him (Genesis 19:31-38), to impregnate them and bear the ancestors of the despised Moabites (Mo-ab, “from the father”) and the children of Ammon (see also Alter, page 90, note 30-38). Lot’s daughters’ sexual predation is like vampiress Susan’s attempt to bite Mark (Ben’s double: more on that later) at his bedroom window (pages 449-451).

Evil occurs in cycles throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Ben’s book on the Marsten House is “about the recurrent power of evil” (page 181). First, there was the evil, sexually perverse cult of James Boon back in the 18th century, as well as the myth of the dangerous wild pig, Jerusalem, in his “Lot”, the forest within Tanner’s property. Then there were the Hubie Marsten crimes in the house. Next came Straker, Barlow, and the vampires.

Other cycles include Mears’s traumas: first, his seeing Hubie’s ghost and its opening eyes; then, Mears’s return to the Lot, only to find himself battling vampires. Then, he returns again, with his double, Mark, to burn down the whole town in a brush fire. First, Ben accidentally killed Miranda; then, he’s forced to destroy the vampire version of his next love, Susan.

One of Mark’s traumas is watching Barlow smash together the heads of the boy’s parents, killing them (page 535). Earlier, Mark went into the Marsten House with Susan, only to find himself tied up by Straker (pages 438-440) and, failing to protect her (as Mears failed to protect Miranda by failing to turn a non-fatal corner–page 483: “in some parallel world he and Miranda had taken a left at the corner one block back and were riding into an entirely different future.”), Mark has let her be turned into a vampiress. Mark kills Straker (pages 445-6), Barlow’s presentable double (as Mears, of whom Mark is the innocent double, destroys Barlow), then runs out of the Marsten House (page 448) in a repeat of nine-year-old Ben’s frantic escape from the house twenty-four years earlier.

A fire occurred in 1951 (page 326), spread by the winds to incinerate so much more; then, Ben starts a fire to destroy the Lot at the end of the novel.

There are two pairs of destroying visitors, the younger of each pair either more innocent or more presentable than the older: good Mark and Ben, and evil Straker and Barlow, paralleling doubles of each other. A good casting choice was made in the 1979 adaptation, with Lance Kerwin (Mark) and David Soul (Ben), both actors possessing a conspicuous blond youth, to emphasize how the boy is a cyclical repeat of the man.

Straker, similarly, has an urbane suaveness like Barlow’s in the novel, though you wouldn’t see that in the 1979 adaptation, with James Mason (Straker) contrasted with the Nosferatu version of Barlow. On the other hand, during the scene of Barlow’s confrontation with Mark and Father Callahan, Mason’s Straker speaks for the snarling Nosferatu (instead of Barlow speaking for himself, as he does in the novel), thus showing how the servant (the False Self–see above) is the double of his master (the True Self).

Mears’s guilt feelings, and demons to be exorcized by writing about his childhood trauma, make him wonder if that magnet of evil, the Marsten House, has attracted him in the same way as Barlow (David Soul’s Ben asks this of Lew Ayres‘s Burke in the 1979 adaptation). Is Ben a double of Barlow? In destroying Barlow, is Ben killing the evil in himself (i.e., that exorcizing), or at least trying to?

Victims of narcissistic abuse often ask themselves if they, too, are narcissists. Have they themselves been infected by the disease of their victimizers? When Barlow’s hiding place has been discovered, he has to find a new one: the basement of Eva Miller’s boarding house…where Ben is staying. Rather than equate Barlow thus with Ben, we can see this move as symbolizing Barlow’s introjection into Ben’s psyche, something narcissists do to their victims.

The Marsten House symbolizes the narcissistic psyche, with its evil hidden in the unconscious id of its shadows. The boarding house can be seen as representing Mears’s psyche, the hiding vampires in the basement representing Mears’s repressed, unconscious trauma–Barlow’s introjections into him. Mark’s house is his own psyche. (Lot’s house can be seen as his own psyche, too.) Evil (be it in the form of vampires or Sodomites) infects all of these places by forcing its way in (or at least trying to), traumatizing its victims.

Even when Ben and Mark have gone as far away as “a small California town on the Mexican border” (page 3), they’re still affected by their trauma. They must go back to ‘salem’s Lot, and finish the town off for good. In the end, both ‘salem’s Lot and Momson, like Sodom and Gomorrah, are left in desolation, just as those psychological vampires known as narcissists leave their victims in a state of emotional desolation.

Stephen King, ‘Salem’s Lot, Anchor Books, New York, 1975

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