By JESS PEACOCK
Since the publication of his first novel Carrie in 1974, Stephen King has been a publishing and wider entertainment mainstay with a career that has experienced massive book sales, a body of work that has persevered through substance abuse and recovery, a horrifying near-death experience that nearly prompted the author’s retirement, and a recent popular culture resurgence that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Aside from the author’s steady stream of novels and short stories, both television and cinema have been inundated with adaptations from the Master of Horror. From the two-part cinematic adaptation of IT, to the critically acclaimed Netflix one-two punch of Gerald’s Game and 1922, as well as the recent adaptation of In the Tall Grass, to the JJ Abrams produced series Castle Rock, the Pet Semetary remake, HBO’s long-form adaptation of The Outsider, and, of course, up to the recently announced cinematic adaptation of ‘salem’s Lot from James Wan, Stephen King is still a pop culture powerhouse forty-five years after the publication of that simple yet terrifying story of a young woman with extraordinary powers.
And with regard to ‘salem’s Lot specifically, King’s sophomore novel has proven to be one of lasting endurance. The author’s sophisticated deconstruction of American life married to the mythology of Bram Stoker’s Dracula melded together to create a literary work that has given birth to innumerable book printings, two broadcast television mini-series’, the aforementioned Wan adaptation, a cinematic pseudo-sequel, King penned prequel and sequel short stories, and a three-book denouement in King’s Dark Tower series featuring Father Callahan from ‘salem’s Lot.
Of course, one might wonder why this particular story of vampires ~ non-romantic blood-suckers modeled after the horrific EC Comics from King’s youth ~ has resonated with the wider culture to the point of being adapted for the screen for the third time in forty years.
“A lot of the frights…that we get in books and in movies really are symbolic.”
While speaking with an audience in 1983, King said the following:
“A lot of the frights, a lot of the nightmares that we get in books and in movies really are symbolic…Underneath or between the lines, in the tension, where the fear is, there’s something else going on altogether…All the time I was writing [‘salem’s Lot], the Watergate hearings were pouring out of the TV… During that time I was thinking about secrets, things that have been hidden and were being dragged out into the light.”
King’s story about vampires systematically consuming a small town in Maine reflects an existential mistrust that had been metastasizing within the United States in the mid-1970s. The monsters within the novel served as the embodiment of that mistrust, making palpable an encroaching sense of dread within the culture, a fear that, despite the appearance of a society filled with vitality and life, actually reeked of rot and death just beneath the surface, embodied in the ramifications of the Vietnam war and the Watergate hearings. And this is a theme that has just as much resonance today as it did forty years ago with a country perpetually at war, and with a presidential administration facing impeachment.
King’s rendering of a town that shares in the collective darkness of sin, oppression, and misdeeds ~ a world burdened by unspoken wickedness residing just under the surface of its pastoral façade ~ resonates even louder today. Whether the bodies buried in the shallow graves of racism and police brutality that have once again clawed to the surface in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Columbus, and countless other cities, or our collective national indifference to the othering and demonization of undocumented immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution, these national monstrosities rot us from within as utterly as the decomposing husk of the Marsten House. Or our persistent march into the unforgiving apocalypse of global climate change that threatens to annihilate us even as people deny its very existence, just as the townspeople of Jerusalem’s Lot refused to believe in vampires until they were scratching at their windows. While written in 1975, the chills that King weaves throughout his dark tapestry are timeless and enduring, a fairy tale of ultimate evil basking in the idyllic mosaic of an imagined “real” America that has never really existed.
Of course, the literary figure of the vampire has, throughout history, stood as primarily a theological figure, rife with spiritual symbolism and metaphorical power, warning readers and viewers of the dangers of failing to abide by the precepts of the perceived moral, social, political, and religious good. And it is through this lens where ‘salem’s Lot finds its resonance and durability.
In many respects, the literary figure of the vampire succeeds at cutting to the essence of what it means to struggle with the concept of sin. In her book The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero, Susannah Clements subscribes to a commonly held predominantly individualistic view of sin, one that relegates the matter to that of personal choice, privatizing it, transforming the idea of sin into a moral hierarchy: avoid pre-marital sex, don’t lie, don’t cheat on your taxes, etc.
For Clements, the vampire as embodiment of temptation and sin was never more explicit than in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where, according to her, we see “the figure of the vampire as a representation of sin, temptation, and spiritual torment.” Clements argues consistently for the literary figure of Dracula serving as a direct metaphor for sin, particularly sin as a knowing disobedience of religious law. And there is indeed ample evidence for her stance. Throughout the novel, the vampire often proves impossibly seductive to a number of characters, particularly, at the opening of the novel, for Jonathan Harker, who comes face-to-face with the overwhelming power of the vampire. Clements writes, “Harker is tantalized by the allure of sin, hypnotized into failing to fight against it, victimized and imprisoned by it, and finally threatened to death by it.”
This view of temptation and sin as a kind of spiritual fly-paper that lures victims into a deadly trap with promises of forbidden pleasure and earthly satisfaction showcases a popular understanding of sin and the seemingly willing powerlessness of the individual to thwart it. Clements argues throughout her research that to submit to the dark power of the vampire is to symbolically give into the influence and dominance of sin.
Her particular view of the allure of the vampire is somewhat reflected in the vampires that inhabit both the town and the novel ‘salem’s Lot, which King has stated is a literary homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And in many ways, the vampires of ‘salem’s Lot do indeed display the magnetism of the vampires of Stoker’s imagination. Barlow, the overlord vampire within the story, personally approaches and victimizes several townsfolk, most notably the supervisor of the town dump Dud Rogers and Corey Bryant, the young lover of the very married Bonnie Sawyer. In the case of Dud, Barlow dangles the promise of erotic consummation with the underage Ruthie Crockett, while Corey is tempted with avenging his humiliation at the hands of Bonnie Sawyer’s husband.
However, what of young Mark Petrie who is confronted at his bedroom window by a vampiric Danny Glick, a terrifying image forever immortalized in the 1979 mini-series adaptation from Tobe Hooper? On the surface, Mark is tempted by the lure of the vampire, and is only saved by snatching the tiny plastic cross from his Aurora graveyard model ~ praise Jesus! But what if Mark were unable to snatch the plastic cross from his model at the last moment, would he have been doomed to roam the streets of the Lot as a member of the undead? And if so, what sin had he committed to end up forever damned?
While any serious critical analysis of the traditional vampire narrative should speak to its theological implications, there often remains an unaddressed religious ~ and thus sociological ~ problem: Victims of the undead in vampire narratives are routinely depicted as specifically undeserving of their fate and ultimately as enslaved by a power far greater and more oppressive than any individual can tackle. For this reason, models of sin fashioned after the teachings of religious figures such as Augustine, who emphasized sin as a structure of individual moral choices, are ineffective frameworks for fully and adequately disclosing the subversive theological and social themes contained in vampire narratives, especially ‘salem’s Lot.
Alternatively, with its characteristic focus on the impact of oppressive social structures within the world, liberation ethics and theology provide a much more adequate and effective theological and sociological framework for understanding the repressive forces dramatized in King’s novel specifically, as well as in the western vampire narrative generally. Centered on tearing down unjust social and economic structures, liberation theology, as described by the originator of liberation theology Gustavo Gutierrez, “attempts to reflect on the experience and meaning of [religion] based on the commitment to abolish injustice and to build a new society.”
Liberation theology was borne out of the political and economic unrest of 1950s & 60s Latin America – and relies heavily on a Marxist critique of society, focusing on radical social transformation through an emphasis on the Divine’s preference for the poor. In other words, this form of theological thought filters religious and sociological ideology through the eyes of the oppressed in society, focusing more on providing freedom from institutionalized systems of inequality than some kind of moralistic personal salvation.
In ‘salem’s Lot, vampirism is most certainly a metaphor for very real systems of dominance and oppression, as Barlow gradually enslaves an entire town. In this sense, the narrative could serve as a shockingly apt metaphor for Black, Feminist, Environmental, or Queer justice movements expressed through efforts such as Black Lives Matter, the DAPL water protectors, protests that emerged in resistance to Trump’s Muslim ban, Climate Strike efforts, the battle for transgender acceptance, the fight for women’s reproductive rights, or justice for immigrants; any movement that develops as a response to the subjugation of an entire group of people.
Liberationist ethics and theology plants both feet in the present work of resistance, with an eschatological perspective that seeks to transform the very structure of society and subverting whatever dominant hierarchies exists, whether that be capitalism, white supremacy, the patriarchy, Christian exceptionalism, or any entrenched cultural system that seeks to prevent people from experiencing the full depth of their humanity. Once could argue that ‘salem’s Lot provides us an important blueprint for this liberationist movement and could be read as a form of resistance literature, as the protagonists in the narrative ~ the activists if you will ~ serve as a catalyst for resistance and come to embody a praxis of liberation, serving deeply and fully in the present, confronting physical and cultural tyranny with a confidence in a transformative future.
Scholar Sharon Welch, provost at Meadville-Lombard in Chicago, writes in her book A Feminist Ethic of Risk:
“The function of telling particular stories of oppression and resistance is not to find the ‘one true story’ of subjugation and revolt but is to elicit other stories of suffering and courage, of defeat, of tragedy and resilient creativity.”
And while Welch used Womanist writings such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt-Eaters, it is difficult not to see strains of this resistance within the movements of the intrepid, though quite outmatched, protagonists from ‘salem’s Lot, who emerge audaciously out of a system of subjugation to stand against the vampire tyrant Barlow.
The collective telling of stories of resistance to oppression and injustice is the foundation for recognizing and then challenging patterns of systematic inequality. And it is through these stories, even horror stories, especially horror stories, as the horror genre is imbued with an aura of resistance to cultural normativity, that a rich literary and cinematic tradition of the struggle for emancipation against unspeakable oppression emerges.
In ‘salem’s Lot, the unmistakable theme is that resistance to oppression is only achieved through the transformation of individuals into a community who not only identify with the victims of the oppressor, they take active steps to address and ameliorate said oppression. For those resisting, this solidarity and empathy with the oppressed is crucial to any movement against the overwhelming oppression Barlow inflicts upon the town, and individual acts of heroism are muted next to unified communal strategies. In other words, the novel clearly demonstrates the need for solidarity among those who resist and fight oppression. Described by mujerista scholar Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz as “understanding the interconnections among issues and the cohesiveness that needs to exist among the communities of struggle,” she goes on to state, “Solidarity with the oppressed and among the oppressed has to be at the heart of [our] behavior because the oppression suffered by the minority affects everyone.”
Barlow and Straker are survived only when characters forego working separately and take active steps together. These groups of disparate individuals find that their communal identity forged amidst oppression is stronger than its parts. As such, King is constructing survival or resistance literature through the lens of the phantasmagorical, stories that might promote other narratives of suffering and the courage it takes to combat such forces of overwhelming evil. This may be why ‘salem’s Lot has endured and continues to be reimagined for newer generations.
Ben Mears, Matt Burke, Mark Petrie, Susan Norton, Dr. Cody, and Father Callahan form a community of faith and action that only fails when solidarity is fractured, represented in the separation of the group both physically and ideologically, agents working individually versus together. Susan, Cody, and Callahan are all easily dispatched due to their eagerness to operate outside the solidarity of the community, and Ben and Mark only survive through the communal bond of love forged between them as a result of the oppression that has befallen the town and the rest of their team.
The protagonists of ‘salem’s Lot are oppressed, afraid, and in pain – yet they don’t give in. They find meaning and value in life and in each other. They struggle, they resist, and they do so with no promise of success. Echoing these sentiments, King stated in 1979, “I think this bravery in the face of horror is one of the things that people respond to in my work.”
In addition, it should be noted that the vampiric takeover of Jerusalem’s Lot was only made possible by the utter lack of communal solidarity within the community before the arrival of Barlow. The town is filled with child and spousal abuse, predatory financial schemes, alcoholism, and murder, all shielded from view by a thin film of emotional and spiritual malaise blanketing the inhabitants, a malaise given flesh in the iconic Marsten House, an ominous structure that overlooks the town, its power summarized in Susan Norton’s belief that the house’s presence acted on her like a wizard’s spell.
This house, where Barlow takes up residence, ultimately comes to symbolize the town itself: decrepit and rotting, with untold secrets and evils hidden within. Early in the novel, Ben Mears describes the house as “Perhaps even something alive. A monster, if you like.” The demonic immanence of the Marsten House echoes within the townspeople and the very land underneath Jerusalem’s Lot, perhaps symbolizing the soil under our own feet today, land that is haunted and stained by the blood of African slavery and indigenous genocide. Much like how these historic atrocities cast an unrelenting shadow over our claims of American exceptionalism, the Marsten House is an ever-present reminder of the physical and spiritual subjugation of the townspeople.
Of course, it is important to note that Ben and Mark actually fail to overcome the enemy in ‘salem’s Lot, which is an important observation when exploring the idea of the novel serving as a form of resistance literature. In fact, despite Barlow being destroyed, the town of Jerusalem’s Lot never quite emerges from its oppression, and vampires still roam the countryside as evidenced in King’s short-story sequel entitled One For the Road found in the Night Shift collection. However, this is not to argue that the efforts of the vampire hunters were futile. Gutierrez argues that the work against oppression is long, difficult, and oftentimes fruitless, requiring what he describes as a theology of hope. He writes:
Hope fulfills a mobilizing and liberating function in history. Its function is not very obvious, but it is real and deep…[T]his will be true only if hope in the future seeks roots in the present, if it takes shape in daily events with their joys to experience but also with their injustices to eliminate and their enslavement from which to be liberated.
This hope in the future rooted in the present is evidenced in the last pages of ‘salem’s Lot as Ben and Mark, having returned to the town after hiding out in Mexico, are determined to end the vampiric oppression which has fully engulfed the town. Ben observes, “Maybe it could be finished in ‘salem’s Lot by the time the first snow flew. Maybe it would never be finished. No guarantee, one-way or the other. But without…something…to drive them out, to upset them, there would be no chance at all.” Here we see two oppressed characters, Ben Mears and Mark Petrie, who have no promise for the future, no expectations of victory, but nonetheless are mobilized by hope, mobilized by the gift of their solidarity, mobilized by a systematic oppression from which an entire population needs liberated.
‘salem’s Lot is literature and cinema of survival, and is meant to remind us of the unrelenting political, religious, and corporate vampires that seek endless power and consumption within society. In other words, it’s a novel that teaches us how to be human in the face of remorseless forces that seek to dehumanize us. A thoughtful examination of the novel as well as the continued sharing and adaption of the story can become an act of resistance that challenges social patterns of oppression; horror literature as praxis if you will. King’s sophomore novel conveys the ongoing story of unspeakable oppression and the marginalized characters who, often at great cost, choose to resist. King leads us to a larger consideration of not only what it means to be alive in the face of death, but what it means to be alive together. ‘salem’s Lot speaks to our national condition, serving as a roadmap of solidarity and resistance against the forces that seek to dominate and destroy.
And, of course, it’s still scary as hell.
“Hope fulfills a mobilizing and liberating function in history.” – Gustavo Gutiérrez