A review by bklassen
'Salem's Lot by Stephen King

dark mysterious tense slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? No
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated


Having read this book now in two modes: 10% at a time with long breaks for about 50% of the book, then the last 50% of the book in a day, I would say that Salem’s Lot feels like two separate books in one book. The first half is extremely slow. Like,  e x t r e m e l y    s l o w.

I think part of that was why it took me so long to read half of a book. It shows the extreme talent of King as he throws so many characters at you, every single one of whom feels like they belong in that town and has a distinct personality and usually voice. The depth in this town is insane.

Although given how much King loves to set his books in Maine, where he grew up, I have a feeling he either has been to this town many times or knew enough about it to basically recreate it fictionally in this book.

There’s some good creepy factor in the beginning, but most of the first half is just set up of half the characters and their relationships to each other. And setting up Ben Mears as the main character of the book.

If you can get past the slowness of the first half, the second half is great fun. There are some seriously spooky and tense scenes in the second half, and a lot of that is because you truly have no clue where this book is going to end up, and mostly because no character is safe. It raises the stakes a ton when any character can get picked off, even those with significant “screentime” or “lines”, to borrow Hollywood terminology. It’s like watching Game of Thrones and realizing that plot armor does not exist in this book, and it’s better off for it. 

The tension and pace certainly wrap up in the latter half, and while it never feels full “horror” to me, like “sleep with the lights” on type of horror, it does feel like a suspenseful thriller toward the end. 

To me, there are two main things that are against King for this book, and they’re both products of time. The first is that vampires have not been scary since … I can’t even remember when. Every since they’ve popped up in too many movies to count and usually are depicted as the love interest or comedy, vampires feel more like satire fodder than actual Big Bads. It’s not King’s fault – he wrote about them before they were cool overused. 

At least in the book the characters catch on faster than the characters in Dracula when Lucy Harkness would wake up every morning pale and weak and displaying bite marks on her neck and everyone says “huh, weird, guess we should leave the window open for some fresh air” and you’re screaming at your book “CLOSE THE WINDOW AND STAND GUARD, A VAMPIRE IS SUCKING HER BLOOD EACH NIGHT YOU DOLTS”. It’s not their fault. It’s because of the proliferation of vampires in common fiction. Or maybe that was just me. 

Regardless, it was nice for most of the main characters to reason that although it’s crazy, there’s something supernatural and villainous going on and they should proceed with caution. 

The other major count against King is the representation of women, or should I say, lack thereof. This was written in the 70s, when every book was about white dudes and women were either damsels in distress or she would be fridged to motivate the main character to pursue his journey. Or she was a sexy lamp with literally no impact on the plot. It’s frustrating to continually read books with either 1 woman in it, or so poorly women that you might as well just not have them in there because they certainly don’t serve a point to the plot. 

The point is that this book fails miserably when it comes to the Sexy Lamp Test or the Bechdel Test or literally any test that measures representation or characterization of a female character in fiction. 

If that doesn’t bother you, great. Have at it. I was able to push past it, ultimately, but at best it was something I noticed and at worst it annoyed me. King gives you 6 “main” characters and only 1 of them is a woman, and she’s also Ben’s girlfriend. And she does not appear on the page or have as many lines as nearly any of the others.

It goes without saying that the rest of the book is pretty lacking in diversity, both for race and sexual orientation, and these are both due to setting (rural Maine) and time period (in the 70s, you could apparently make mention of gay characters, but only in passing and some characters are allowed to use slurs when describing them. 

It’s hard to imagine someone who prioritizes reading diversely and expecting quality representation will choose to read Stephen King, especially his older stuff, but hey, I don’t know everyone’s reading habits and preferences. I figured it would be a good idea to give a heads up in case those are important reading issues for you. 

I have read a few books of King’s now, and I can’t say this is my favorite of his. I’d rank The Shining, Misery, and even Joyland higher than this one. I haven’t read all of his most notorious novels, but I’m working my way through them. I probably wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who was a seriously scary book, but I also don’t think I’d recommend it to someone who wanted a fast paced thriller. It just kind of feels like a book of its own, part in depth character study of an entire town and part thriller.