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Stephen King's Salem's Lot and the Theory of Time

By Edited Sep 12, 2016 0 2

Salem's Lot


In Stephen King's vampire novel Salem's Lot (1975), Ben Mears contemplates the history of his hometown; reviewing the names on the local war memorial he decides 'This town has the wrong name. It ought to be Time' (p. 170). Before the vampire infestation, time in Jerusalem's Lot was seen to operate on a different schedule: a predictable timetable in which everything stayed the same and nothing nasty ever happened. While the names of the dead stretched from the revolutionary war to Vietnam, the Lot's knowledge of the country's history and torment remained 'academic' (p. 42). But as Ben discovers to his cost, the Lot's veneer of virtue and historical stasis masks an inner corruption; beneath the bucolic surface of the old-fashioned republic lurks a community in the throes of decay.

Revolution War Memorial

Commercial progress in the form of conglomerates had slowly 'eaten up the last of the independents' (p. 64) consuming the town's industry while behind closed doors, infidelity, domestic violence, infanticide and religious doubt festered and burst. Initially, the signs of rot are only palpable in the air, in the smell of 'something bad, like spoiled meat' (p.50); in the odour of 'old corruption' (p.137), and in the ghost of Hubert Martsen. But with the arrival of Kurt Barlow and Richard Straker, the town's final trajectory toward degeneration is complete. Weakened by corruption from within, it is invaded by an Old World terror: the urbane and courtly vampire.

King's narrative of the downfall of small-town America is organized around a theory of history which views civilization as perpetually threatened by corruption and the corrosive effects of time. As the prologue suggests, history is not static or progressive but cyclical:

"It is not the first town in American history to just dry up and blow away, and will probably not be the last, but it is one of the strangest. Ghost towns are common in the American Southwest, where communities grew up almost overnight around rich gold and silver lodes and then disappeared almost as rapidly when the veins of ore played out, leaving empty stores and hotels and saloons to rot emptily in desert silence" (p. 6).

Because Jerusalem's Lot remained inattentive to the outside world and therefore to the insidious infiltration of power and corruption, it begins and ends as a ghost town, a movement affirmed in the progression from virtue to corruption which the vampire cynically exploits. Ben's task is to return to the past, to search history for the cause of the Lot's degeneration and the return of the vampire. As the narrative reveals, whether moral corruption or the unbridled quest for power unleashed the vampire, the cause of the infestation invariably lies within.

The view of history as a perpetual cycle of birth, growth and inevitable decline has been a part of the narrative of America since the revolution and a central theme of the nation's Gothic fiction. During the cold war period, in particular, narratives of invasion or infestation registered the widespread fear of totalitarianism and nuclear erasure. Popular narratives often portray America in the grip of an emergency or what Susan Sontag calls the 'imagination of disaster', dramatizing either the need for group consensus or the lone maverick sacrificing himself to save humanity. Post-war tales of vampire infestation, on the other hand, often begin in the fatalistic aftermath of disaster where no hero or group cohesion can emerge.

The vampire, by its very nature presents a pessimistic view of history as inevitable and repetitive. Charles Beaumont's 'Place of meeting' (1953), imagines a world in which 'gas bombs', 'disease' and 'flying pestilences' cover the earth in 'three days and three nights'. In this tale, national degeneration is the result of man's scientific hubris and quest for power; the only survivors in this destroyed civilization are a collection of vampires who, after scouring the earth for signs of life, return to their graves until humanity rebuilds: 'It ain't the first time. It ain't the last . . . it'll start all over again and folks'll build their cities-new folks with new blood-and then we'll wake up (pp. 374–5).

Like King's Salem's Lot, Beaumont's tale begins where it ends: the narrative, like history is cyclical; only after total destruction can the process of regeneration or rebirth ensue. Richard Matheson's 1954 vampire novella I Am Legend reveals a similar theme. Employing the popular metaphor of infection in its depiction of a world overrun by vampires, Matheson's text engages with the contemporary fears of communist takeover, while enacting for a new generation, the theory of civilization perpetually under threat by corruption and the movement of time.

Sources:

King, Stephen. Salem's Lot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975).

Michaud, Marilyn. Republicanism and the American Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009).

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Comments

Jul 9, 2010 11:45pm
Introspective
Hay Maat; Wow! As I was opening your article, that picture of the dead person really popped-out. Freaked me out a little, lol!
Jul 10, 2010 9:08am
Maat
I hear ya. That character scared me senseless when I was a kid.
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