Written by: Emmet O’Cuana
Stephen King was inspired to write his popular vampire novel Salem’s Lot following his experience of teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula to a class of high school students. King found that despite this novel being a product of its time, featuring as it does repressed Victorian sexuality, thinly veiled xenophobia and a strong religious conception of vampirism – the plot itself still resonated with the students. The resulting book Salem’s Lot is itself quite a different story, a typically mammoth novel from the writer, about a man returning to his hometown and discovering his childhood nightmares are all too real. However, King also produces a response to Stoker’s classic book. Even the residents of Jerusalem’s Lot have read it:
One was taught that such things could not be, that things like Coleridge’s ‘Cristabel’ or Bram Stoker’s evil fairy tale were only the warp and weave of fantasy.
It is Dracula’s fame as a horror classic that saves the protagonists as young Mark Petrie, being a fan of the genre, knows the ‘rules’ and recognizes the threat posed by the inhabitants of the Marsten House, the charming Mr Straker and his silent partner Mr Barlow. Whereas Mark’s hobby provides insight into the ways of the vampire, ‘Professor Van Helsing of Amsterdam’ was a respected academic and scholar, whose authority lends his claims of undead damned souls sucking blood some credibility. Stoker cleverly frames Lucy Westenra’s predicament initially as a medical ailment, something which his audience and the characters can comprehend, before revealing that she has been transformed into another of Dracula’s ‘Brides’. King did not have to bother with such audience hand-holding. Mark and Van Helsing both claim the same knowledge, but by the time the seventies roll round that school of thought has become sufficiently devalued to be the stuff of comics and B-movies.
Repeatedly Salem’s Lot inverts the status quo of Stoker’s fiction in similar fashion. Jennifer Wilde’s essay Vampiric Typewriting: Dracula and Its Media makes the compelling argument that Dracula documents how modern communications technology is changing, with the narrative framed by telegrams whizzing back and forth across Europe to inspire the characters to act. Yet almost a century later, the characters of King’s novel seem stranded in a small town cut off from the rest of the country, economically stagnant and culturally deprived. That said, novelist protagonist Ben Mears feels the Lot offers him a dose of authenticity he’s been lacking since he became a writer:
[M]ost of his coffeehouse friends had been noncommittal and most of the critics had clobbered it. Well, that was critics for you. Plot was out, masturbation in.
The exciting land described by Stoker’s Quincey Morris, of cowboys, bowie knives and adventures, becomes a moribund landscape of dying towns under King’s pen.
However, the key reversal of the book and the most interesting point of comparison between Salem’s Lot and Dracula is the status of the vampires themselves. Count Dracula is in effect a provincial country lord, whose upwardly mobile ambitions to become a feature of London high society is what draws poor Jonathan Harker to his estate and sets the plot in motion. In Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula we see what happens when Dracula fulfills his ambition and eventually marries the Queen of England. In the process he converts Britain to vampirism – with the ‘disease’ described by Stoker left unchecked – allowing author Newman to have quite a lot of fun. If we try to forget our contemporary perspective on the book as a classic horror novel and read the book with fresh eyes, it opens as a typical travelogue from the period, with a young lawyer writing a diary about his trip to visit a client who wishes to move his affairs to England. What a shock it must have been to Stoker’s audience when the monstrous truth became clear?
Salem’s Lot on the other hand has a small country town be visited by two urbane European antiquers. Mr Straker charms the townsfolk with his sophisticated airs – Tobe Hooper casting James Mason in his adaptation was an inspired choice – while even Dud Rogers, moments away from being bitten by Barlow, notes how politely spoken the strange figure he meets is. Whereas Dracula was a novel brimming with suspicion towards the East, a product of pre-millennial fears about the stability of the British Empire, in Salem’s Lot Europe is the East!
Barlow, unlike Dracula, has no need of a lawyer to come and handle his affairs, as Mr Straker’s real estate deal with Larry Crockett goes a lot more smoothly. Finally there’s the true horror of the book, that the town itself should be overrun by vampires – and no one notices. The aside in Pet Sematery when Rachel Creed almost makes a stopover in Salem’s Lot, before deciding against it, makes it clear that the turned townsfolk continue to thrive in this tiny little corner of America without drawing attention to their activities. Much as Straker describes in his conversation with Crockett on the proposed antique business, they rely on the tourist trade passing through the area.
King’s novels have over the years developed a shared universe of sorts, with characters from Salem’s Lot appearing in other titles for example, but this novel is itself a companion piece to Stoker’s fervid fantasy, paralleling Garrett P. Serviss’ more optimistic reversal of H.G. Welles with his novel Edison’s Conquest of Mars. King in turn responds to the pyrrhic victory over the Count in Stoker’s novel, by having the hopes of young Mark and Ben Mears of saving the town be cruelly dashed. In that regard the bleak conclusion of the story says a lot about the fate of the countryside America he was describing. The book is just as much a testament to its time, as Stoker’s tale was for its audience staring into an uncertain century.