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The (im)Permanence of Death in ‘Salem’s Lot

Photo by Wade Newhouse

Stephen King originally conceived his second novel to be a vampire story that would “bounce” off the myth established by Dracula almost a century before.   “It took,” he says in Danse Macabre, “some pretty interesting bounces” (25), and the relationship between these two novels usually forms the starting point for any serious discussion of King’s book (or its two television film adaptations). [1] It is difficult to remember today, almost fifty years after ‘Salem’s Lot was published in 1975, that the concept of vampires operating in contemporary American society was new at the time.  The end of the Hammer Studios Dracula franchise, films like The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Dracula A.D. 1972, had placed Dracula into a new, hip Britain, and two movies about “Count Yorga” in 1970 and 1971 had thrown a Dracula-like character into urban California, but these films do not even pretend to think realistically about what a confrontation between “real” vampires and modern life might be like. [2]  Until ‘Salem’s Lot came along, perhaps only Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, published when King was just seven years old, fully juxtaposed the trappings of vampire lore with the lived reality of middle-class America.  In both books, and only distantly reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s narrative strategy in Dracula, the ontology of the vampire emerges from the day-to-day rituals and routines of its victims.

In fact, any thoughtful reading of ‘Salem’s Lot must begin, as the novel itself does, with an analysis of the American small-town culture at its center.  As most readers immediately notice, and as almost every character in the novel seems to intuit from the start, The Lot “knows darkness” long before the supernatural monsters move in; social vampirism sets the stage for the epidemic that Barlow unleashes. [3]  Great vampire stories always work this way, insisting upon a parallel between human trauma and undead predation that pushes us to examine the society underneath the bloodsucker.  In the list of “interesting bounces” that ‘Salem’s Lot takes from Dracula, this element appears near the top:  King’s tale is simply a more conscious social analysis of community than Stoker’s is.  This comparison is not an offhand one, because King intends the intersection of social and supernatural to be the real subject of the book (another bounce:  the shift in title from the name of the vampire to the collective name of setting-as-victim).

A creepy turn-of-the-century mansion in stark black and white.
Photo by Wade Newhouse

King’s interest in dark communities is of course a through-line in his career:  ‘Salem’s Lot dies but Derry and Castle Rock live on, and a good amount of his horror-themed work examines as wide a social net as he can throw over such towns.  The very fact of vampirism, of course, means that the connection between community evil and individual corruption is literal—one by one, the bad people become vampires, and the nature of victimhood simply evolves.  The great beauty of the novel, therefore, lies in its ability to let its reader understand that horror is both personal and universal, to demonstrate repeatedly that the terrible things that happen to its characters COULD be available to anyone.  Unlike Bram Stoker’s Jonathan Harker, who goes far from home to practically seek out evil, or Lucy Westenra with her THREE marriage proposals from more-than-eligible bachelors, King’s blue-collar characters are practicably interchangeable save for their jobs.  In fact, part of the clever effect created by King’s wide range of characters is that the reader can’t quite keep them apart at first.  Many of them become most recognizable from the rest of the cast when they meet the vampire plague as logical extensions of their basic distinguishing features—such as abusive mother Sandy McDougall finding the undead body of her baby and vengeful school bus driver Charlie Rhodes being set upon by the student riders he terrorized.

This dramatization and democratization of vampirism, this willingness to explore how it would really be experienced by a wide range of everyday people, is what grounds ‘Salem’s Lot in a contemporary realism; this is the effect that jolts its readers out of the high Gothic baroque of novels like Dracula and Carmilla and the Hammer films of the previous fifteen years.  While the novel ultimately pulls many elements of those traditions down into the rugged working class, the most visceral departure from the tradition established by the Dracula franchise is King’s willingness to tackle the simple fact of death itself.  Danny Glick, Mike Ryerson, Marjorie Glick—the most visceral scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot arise (so to speak) from a depiction of vampirism as an extension of an already-harrowing awareness that all living people eventually become dead bodies.

The presence of death haunts the town of ‘Salem’s Lot before the action of the story begins, in the memory of Hubie and Bertie Marston’s gruesome murder-suicide.  While legends of Hubie Marston’s unsavory business dealings lurk in the background, it is his death that really anchors the town to his haunted house—and, more specifically, it is the vision of his body that keeps protagonist Ben Mears anchored to the house and to the possibility of evil.  While Hubie Marston’s role in the plot is vague and tenuous (he apparently inspired the vampire Barlow to come to town via a long-ago correspondence), the recurrence of his hanging corpse in Ben’s imagination establishes the novel’s horror upon a specific image not of dead characters returning to life but dead bodies rising and pursuing the living.

This tension between people and bodies does have its roots in Dracula, but Stoker’s novel collapses it into a single episode:  the death, resurrection, and staking of winsome debutante-turned-monster Lucy Westenra.  Stoker uses Lucy’s fate—her transformation from being “sweetly pretty” to embodying “voluptuous wantonness”—to represent most of the social and emotional threats posed by vampirism to polite Victorian society; as Dracula himself appears primarily only in the opening and closing scenes of the novel, Lucy’s body becomes the vehicle by which readers come to understand what is truly at stake (as it were) when vampires come to town.  The male characters in the novel need Lucy’s body to act out their roles respectively as caretakers, scientists, repressed lovers, executioners, and saviors, and the readers need Lucy’s body to satisfy their own fascination with the evolution Dracula promises from staid life to unrestricted appetite. [4]

‘Salem’s Lot intuits the fascination with bodies as the locus of vampirism that Dracula places on Lucy and expands it to an entire community.  The bodies of the afflicted townspeople become the engine that drives the novel’s plot, providing both mysteries to solve and tangible, rather than merely psychological, evidence of evil.  Unlike Lucy’s body in Dracula, which cannot escape either Victorian idealizations of appropriate femininity or horror at transgressing it, King’s bodies are studied with cool detachment; we see the supernatural through the lens of the actual.


Christ, what a dead little place


The burial of Danny Glick announces King’s technique of lingering on the facts and ritual of death in order to bring a gothic formula into contemporary American culture.  Readers and scholars have long noted King’s “updating” of castles and crypts to neighborhoods and ranch homes as central to his cultural appeal, but his insistence on staring death in the face forces this juxtaposition (a similar narrative tactic lies at the heart of Pet Sematary).  In this episode, Mike Ryerson prepares to bury Danny Glick in the Harmony Hill cemetery, but a growing obsession with the body first distracts him from his job and then drags him literally into the grave to meet his fate.  This is the novel’s first extended description of how it feels to be drawn into the vampire’s influence, though its emphasis on body over soul begins in the previous scene, when Father Callahan’s rather bland liturgical words are drowned out by grieving father Tony Glick’s insistence that Danny “ain’t dead, he ain’t dead . . . He’s only twelve fucking years old” (209).  Preparing to fill in the grave, Mike Ryerson finds himself unable to resist “the feeling of being watched” by “Danny Glick lying on that little satin pillow with his eyes open” (211) and thinks “Stop looking at me” (212).   As the shadows lengthen and the vampire’s power lures Ryerson in, “the sense of being watched seemed to grow rather than lessen” (214).  His attempt to comfort himself with “the resurrection and the life” from the Lord’s Prayer is thwarted by images of “spoiled meat and reeking flesh” (215).

King cuts away, and whatever happens between Mike Ryerson and Danny Glick remains only imagined, but the fundamental fact of this scene—the forced confrontation with the knowledge of the dead body as in fact dead—shapes the rest of the novel’s structure.  Unlike Stoker, who allows Van Helsing to spout the facts of vampire lore as theory just waiting for evidence to appear in the real world, King lets the dead bodies themselves announce what the good guys are up against.  His kindly version of Van Helsing, high school teacher Matt Burke, does plenty of research from his hospital bed, but he admits that “This may not happen in real life” (491).  Since King knows that his readers (and his characters) already know how vampires in the Dracula paradigm are supposed to work, he lets the accumulation of bodies teach us how the myths manifest in the contemporary world.

Mike Ryerson’s own corpse narrates the vampire’s cycle from life to death and back again. Discovered dead in Matt’s guest bedroom, Mike’s body first reveals the seductive power of the undead to appear alive:  “Light color bloomed in his cheeks, and his body held none of the deathly pallor Matt had mentioned—only healthy skin tones . . . . Ben couldn’t believe it.  He was sleeping, had to be.  The good color, the obvious suppleness of the muscles, the lips half-parted as if to draw breath” (272).  Then, visiting Matt Burke in the night as a vampire, Mike’s body shows off “the heavy industrial stitchwork where the M.E. or pathologist had repaired the work of his autopsy” (317).  Matt notices that Mike’s “smile itself was a mere flexing of the muscles around the mouth; it never touched the eyes.  They retained their original dead blankness” (317).  King refers to this monster as “Whatever had been Mike Ryerson” (317), echoing Seward’s diary entry in Dracula in which he struggles to describe the risen Lucy Westenra:  “I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape.”  After Matt revokes his invitation, Mike Ryerson falls out the window and Matt sees that “The pallid body gleamed like marble, in hard and depthless contrast to the black stitches that crisscrossed the torso in a Y pattern” (318).  The vampire remains, first and foremost, a dead body, but in King’s hands that body retains and in fact announces its participation in what Ben Mears calls the “machinery” (276) of the modern American death industry.

The rising of Marjorie Glick thrusts the reader behind the scenes of this machinery in which, unlike in Stoker’s novel, there are authorities to deceive and almanacs to consult.  Dr. Jimmy Cody joins the vampire-hunting heroes as the voice of medical science and claims that he “can’t conceive of” dead bodies rising from the morgue table (388), and his expertise ensures that the impossible task of getting into a mortuary to catch a vampire in the act is “handled . . . quite neatly” (401).  Dr. Cody (and Father Callahan in a parallel role representing the contemporary Church) ensures that the supernatural events remain tied to the late 20th-century bureaucracy that provides a system of checks and balances; only when Jimmy comes up with a plan to view Marjorie Glick’s body cam Ben articulate the overall Stephen King maxim that “Fantasy and reality had merged” (391).  The tongue depressors that Jimmy tapes together to form a cross represent the need for adaptation and middle-class ingenuity that Stoker’s characters never have to master.  When the risen Marjorie Glick manages to briefly scrape her fangs into Jimmy’s throat, he saves himself by pouring a bottle of disinfectant into the wound and then getting a tetanus shot—emphasizing the idea that vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot obey at least some of the physical rules of epidemiology, sanitation, and pharmacology.  At the same time, their power taps into fundamental psychological tropes of the modern era.  As Jimmy explains to Ben:

“For just a couple of minutes there, I thought I was going to go nuts.  Really, clinically nuts.  Her lips on me . . . biting me . . . . And when she was doing it, I liked it, Ben.  That’s the hellish part.  I actually had an erection.  Can you believe it?  If you hadn’t been here to pull her off, I would have . . . would have let her . . .” (413-4)

The vampiric Lucy in Dracula has a similar power over her fiance Arthur Holmwood, but it is expressed in that novel as a type of Victorian mesmerism attached to his status as her lover:  “As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell; moving his hands from her face, he opened wide his arms.”  Again, King’s effect arises not merely from “updating” the Victorian account but from establishing supernatural metaphysics as fundamentally grounded in modern understandings of human physiology.

An old brick school building, its windows boarded up.
Photo by Wade Newhouse


I wouldn’t look at that, if I were you


The final act of ‘Salem’s Lot hurtles through the collapse of the town under the vampire epidemic, emphasizing consistently that while the heroism of Ben Mears and Mark Petrie comes from an almost cosmic, pre-Christian Goodness, the struggle between that goodness and what Father Callahan calls “EVIL” (240) must be waged within the bodies of the townspeople rather than the souls that Callahan originally signed up to save.  King has written that his own understanding of the genre depends on a tension between terror and horror, with horror representing a more visceral physical reaction to terror’s heightened emotional response (Danse Macabre 23, 25), and here he uses the victimized bodies as vehicles for horror over terror.  Eva Miller, naked and fondled “with firm and lustful insistence” (566); Corey Bryant, his “flesh that was not really flesh at all” unmarked by a shotgun blast (574); Roy McDougall, his skin “sagging and yellowing” when struck by sunlight (591); and Jimmy Cody, sheared to death by Barlow’s kitchen knife booby-trap—each new death, natural or unnatural, provides a visual testimony of the quickly-moving transition from life to life-as-death that the vampire represents.  There are, however, no towering speeches or appeals to something holy:  Callahan’s cross becomes only a broken piece of plaster, and even Ben manages to waste a vial of holy water simply by dropping it in his excitement.  In the end, the living and the undead remain everyday people.

Ben’s final task, both as the novel’s protagonist and as the avenging vampire slayer, is to account for the bodies of the fallen.  He is the only character in the novel to actually kill vampires (both Susan and Barlow), and he takes responsibility for covering up the bodies of Jimmy and Mark’s parents—thus symbolically attempting to restore order in the wake of the horror.  King reminds us, however, that such a direct confrontation with the after-effects of evil is ultimately an extension of life’s vicissitudes rather than an exception to it:  stooping to pull the blades from Jimmy’s body, Ben thinks of the way this moment is another in a long line of deaths:  “Matt was dead.  Susan was dead.  Miranda was dead.  Wallace Stevens was dead, too.  I wouldn’t look at that, if I were you.  But he had looked” (617-8).  In the end, King’s great achievement in ‘Salem’s Lot—as a horror novel and as a social commentary—is that he looks and he encourages us to look as well, not merely at the seedy parts of small-town life but at the naturalistic details that make life and death part of the same story.  Preparing for his final confrontation with Barlow’s coffin, Ben sees “leading up to it like railroad ties . . . the bodies of the people [he] had lived with and broken bread with” (622-3), and the easy recognition of the vampire bodies as the remnants of his friends, rather than as something alien or Other, closes the circle by which (again, largely unlike Dracula’s comparative Victorian optimism) a story about vampiric evil today must locate fear within the most intimate of ordinary relationships.

Nina Auerbach begins her masterful study of literary vampires by reminding us that, in the genre’s Byronic roots, “Intimacy and friendship are the lures of Romantic vampirism” (14). [4] This observation holds true for ‘Salem’s Lot, where undead family members prey first on one another and friends come to the window to be let in as they would have in life, but again King’s ultimate concern is with the comprehensive ethics of the larger community; in ‘Salem’s Lot true intimacy (such as the one that develops between Ben and Mark) is hard to come by until after the vampires arrive.  The bonds that exist between King’s townspeople, beginning back in the dark days of Hubie Marsten, grow not from idealism or aspirations but from common experiences of small achievements and largely constant struggle.  In life, in death, and in un-death, human bodies take on the character of these struggles—for belonging, for confidence, for a satisfaction just short of happiness.  In a little American town like ‘Salem’s Lot, the vampire’s time is merely an extension of the years already lived in bodies that are weak and fragile, and in which death (physical and emotional) is inevitable and always present.



  1. King, Stephen. Danse Macabre.  New York:  Berkley, 1981.
  2. See the “Introduction” to Celluloid Vampires for a summary of vampire fiction and film as always invested in updating and modernizing its own mythology. Abbott, Stacey.  Celluloid Vampires:  Life After Death in the Modern World.  Austin:  U of Texas P, 2007.
  3. King, Stephen. ‘Salem’s Lot. 1975.  New York:  Anchor Books, 2013.
  4. Stoker, Bram. Dracula.  1987.
  5. Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves.  U of Chicago P, 1995.

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Written by Wade Newhouse

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