Roseville Beach Reading: Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot

This is a series about beach reads in the summer of 1979: pop fiction and pulp fiction that might show up on the shelves of Sandy Perez’s Paperback Exchange & Newsstand in the back of The Market in Roseville Beach. These aren’t formal reviews, just quick read-throughs with an eye to how ideas from the book could inform your Roseville Beach game.

So until I started this project, I'd never read Stephen King's novels from the 70s. I’ve seen the film versions of The Shining and Carrie and the miniseries versions of ’Salem’s Lot and (both) of The Stand. But now that part of my prep for the first Roseville Beach mystery book, I’ve been going back and reading the big four that might show up in a vacation town’s paperback exchange in the summer of 1979: Carrie, ’Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand. (The Dead Zone is also a 70s novel, but it came out in Fall 1979, and I’ll already be cheating on release dates later in this series with Joseph Hansen’s Skinflick.) Because ’Salem’s Lot directly inspired one of the adventures in the upcoming Dim All the Lights: A Roseville Beach Mystery Book, I’m starting here rather than with his first novel, Carrie.

Spoiler Warning: This series of posts are about books at least 40 years old, sometimes older, specifically looking at what kinds of game sessions they might inspire. That means there will often be spoilers. I won’t try to mark them individually: if you prefer to avoid spoilers, you’ll want to skip this post.

The Author

It’s laughable to think I could introduce Stephen King to anyone. Now the State of Maine’s most beloved literary figure, he started writing novels in the early 1970s and by the end of 1979 had seven published novels (two as Robert Bachman, a secret identity he’d keep until the mid–80s), and by 1980, two of those had become movies (both considered classic horror films, though King hatred Kubrik’s Shining) and one was a TV miniseries. With Thomas Tryon, Ira Levin, and William Peter Blatty, he restored the loosely-defined horror/thriller/suspense genre to the best-seller lists and went on to be one of the U.S.’s most prolific novelists. He’s still writing, and of the writers I plan to cover in this series, I think only Tanith Lee has published more book-length works.

King has become something of an icon of the left-leaning social-democratic curmudgeons, and you see some of that show up in his 70s work: he mistrusts authority figures and establishment politicians, and while landlords, bosses, and cops are rarely the villains of his work, they’re never the heroes either. But he’s also not at all timid about having sympathetic characters express racism, sexism, and homophobia, and while King’s ’70s narrators are usually clearly distinct voices of their own, it’s not hard for me, as a queer reader in the 2020s who’s come to love King’s 1970s novels, not to balk at the casual way King’s characters drop words like “faggot”—the anti-queer/anti-gay slur that still cuts me the deepest. I say that not to steer you away, but to make sure you know that ’70s King—especially, ’70s King characters, can be challenging in ways that often don’t pay off or deliver other than to remind you of that the racism, homophobia, and sexism of our living memories (and our present) weren’t confined to the South or Midwest.

The Book

The story begins with Ben, a 30-something novelist, and Mark, a pre-teen, in southern California, on the run from a vaguely defined threat somewhere back east, running from something, and vaguely discussing when it might be time to go back.

Most people reading this don’t need a summary of what’s next: much of the rest of the novel is an extended flashback, beginning with Ben Mears returning to ’Salem’s Lot, a bedroom town with no industry of its own (now we’d call it an exurb). About the time Ben arrives in town, a powerful vampire (Kurt Barlow) and his minion (Mr. Straker) do as well. In the ‘90s, King will give us a lot of lore about how vampires work in stories that overlap with ’Salem’s Lot, but right now in this text, we know almost nothing other than all the blatant and clear foreshadowing of who and what Barlow is: the imported coffin, the bodies drained of blood, the sacrifice of Ralphie Glick that allows Barlow to take the Lot as his home. The horror here doesn’t come from what the reader doesn’t know, but from what we know that no one else seems to realize. But that’s not the only place the horror comes from: it also comes from the way King flips back and forth from seeing the Lot as a bucolic, Rockwellesque image of small-town America and seeing it as a collection of the residents’ abuses, cruelties, and sins.

Before Barlow even arrives, the Lot is dying slowly from its own moral and spiritual failings. This is the first place I know of that King uses the head-hopping game tag to take us through the town’s residents—it’s used even more skillfully in The Stand to explore the way the Captain Trips virus spreads across the U.S. What we discover on this tour isn’t pretty, but it’s also rarely surprising: an abusive mother, an alcoholic priest, a horny phone company employee, a sexually unfulfilled housewife, and a handsome cemetery groundskeeper. He’ll return to and revisit them throughout the novel as they slowly succumb to the vampiric presence overrunning the community. People break in ’Salem’s Lot break and lose touch with the personhood of themselves and the people they love (or at least want to try to love), but while Barlow’s presence exacerbates and plays on this, Barlow isn’t the cause. Susan Norton’s mother comes to mind here: over the course of the novel, she becomes increasingly paranoid and irrationally angry, but it’s not a confrontation with Barlow or supernatural forces that does it: It’s a realization that her daughter is an individual who isn’t beholden to living her life in a way her mother never anticipated or approved of (moving out on her own, planning to relocate to New York, dating a man her mother doesn’t know). The heroes of the Lot (and bystanders, too) are often terrified to confront forces they don’t truly understand, and those confrontations change and sometimes harden them, but what breaks characters in the Lot is their relationships with other people. This is what makes the range of new vampires that Barlow recruits so disturbing and powerful, especially pre-teen Danny Glick who, as a new vampire, feeds from and slowly kills his own grieving parents who are mourning both Danny, who they think they buried, as well as his younger brother Ralphie.

Eventually, an almost D&D-like party forms to hunt the vamps—it only occurred to me as I’m writing this that 1974 is the year that gave us both Stephen King and D&D—including Susan, Mark (a 12-year-old obsessed with horror films), the local Catholic priest, Ben, and an English teacher who relies heavily on the novel Dracula to figure out how to fight the exponentially-growing nest of vampires. After some initial confrontations and dungeon-like traps, only Mark and Ben are left. They manage to destroy Barlow and Straker, but they can’t fight the viral spread of “vampirism” in the town and have to flee from the newer vampires Barlow created.

There’s some beautiful stuff in this book, including solid insights into how suburban and exurban communities work. At one point, the characters’ realize that, in many ways, The Lot is the ideal place for a newly formed vampiric nest: a bedroom community that sends its children to a consolidated school district and has no industries of its own will hardly be investigated or missed until it’s too late to do anything. But there’s disturbing stuff here, too: in the epilogue, long after the events of the novel, Ben has an eerily dominant relationship with Mark, who is still in his early teens.

RPGs & The Lot

I won’t talk too much about the influence of ’Salem’s Lot on the upcoming Dim All the Lights. I’m already working on a one-shot mystery scenario set in a gay bar on the US Gulf Coast, where the regulars are celebrating Halloween and slowly realizing that their town is being overtaken by vampires, inspired both by King and the 1973 film Messiah of Evil.

But I’m intrigued at the dominance that Lovecraft has on horror and supernatural investigations gaming, and I am curious what might be different if games’ horror influences more explicitly included King rather than HPL. There’d be equally weird horrors, to be sure, and much messier cosmology. But there might also be a less obsessive focus on “madness,” and a greater interest in how terrors threaten communities rather than psyches. In King (or at least in ’Salem’s Lot), the true horrific break isn’t an unwilling descent into psychosis—as terrifying as that is in the novel The Shining—but an informed choice to prefer manipulation, control, and cruelty. King’s ’70s monsters aren’t going to destroy someone’s soul, but they’re going to use the ambitions, obsessions, and anxieties that are already there to direct them to their own ends.

Dim All the Lights, the first mystery book for Moonlight on Roseville Beach, will include new scenarios from Richard Ruane and Sharang Biswas, new stand-alone mini-games from Ezakur and Richard, creatures and mystery starters from Noora Rose and Richard Ruane, and new fiction from Bendi Barrett and R.J. Ryan. Sign up to follow along!


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