Thursday, October 04, 2018

October 5th, 1975: The Night Salem's Lot Gave Its Life

Dedicated to Sarah Smarsh's mom, Jeannie; Stephen King's mom, Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King; my dad, Roger Elton Alexander and my step mom and fellow King lover, Mary Nettie Alexander

"The town knew about darkness....The land is granite-bodied and covered with a thin, easily ruptured skin of topsoil. Farming it is a thankless, sweaty, miserable, crazy business. The harrow turns up great chunks of the granite underlayer and breaks on them. In May you take out your truck as soon as the ground is dry enough to support it, and you and your boys fill it up with rocks perhaps a dozen times before harrowing and dump them in the great weed-choked pile where you have dumped them since 1955, when you first took this tiger by the balls. And when you have picked them until the dirt won't come out from under your nails when you wash and your fingers feel huge and numb and oddly large-pored, you hitch your harrow to your tractor and before you've broken two rows you bust one of the blades on a rock you missed. And putting on a new blade, getting your oldest boy to hold up the hitch so you can get at it, the first mosquito of the new season buzzes bloodthirstily past your ear with that eye-watering hum that always makes you think it's the sound loonies must hear before they kill all their kids or close their eyes on the interstate with the gas pedal to the floor or tighten their toe on the trigger of the .30-.30 they just jammed into their quackers; and then your boy's sweat-slicked fingers slip and one of the other round harrow blades scrapes skin from your arm and looking around in that kind of despairing, heartless flicker of time, when it seems you could just give it all over and take up drinking or go down to the bank that holds your mortgage and declare bankruptcy, at that moment of hating the land the soft suck of gravity that holds you to it, you also love it and understand how it knows darkness and has always known it. The land has got you....The bank has you, and the car dealership, and the Sears store in Lewiston, and John Deere in Brunswick....There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take." The Lot (III). 
“No one pronounced Jerusalem’s Lot dead on the morning of October 6; no one knew it was. Like the bodies of previous days, it retained every semblance of life.” The Lot (IV)

I wrote a version of this originally as a Facebook status update for Stephen King's birthday, a notation to accompany a photo of the original paperback cover to the first book that changed everything for me, Salem's Lot. I read it the summer I was 12, picked it up at the bus station in McPherson, Kansas (my grandparents’ home) for the six hour ride back to Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It began with a man and a boy against the world, which was one way I saw that period in my life, living in a small apartment with my father, understanding my father in a way that it felt maybe no one else did, one reason he was no longer married.

The book’s boy protagonist, Mark Petrie, was a monster kid like myself; he collected the same Aurora models I collected and read Famous Monsters of Filmland. Perhaps the book's scariest night creature was named Danny, like me, and there but for the grace of something.... I didn't know this author yet, but I would go back and read his previous book, Carrie, and eagerly await the new one, The Shining, which I would buy as one of 6 with a penny through my book club. That book starred another Danny, and his struggle to hang onto his father was central to that book (a huge difference from the Kubrick movie, and one reason many of fans of the book, like myself, didn’t know what to make of the movie when we first saw it).  

My relationship with my father was the solid center to my universe, but he was struggling. My parents had split up, and he and I lived together in a tough neighborhood near downtown. Dad worried about his drinking, and (perhaps unfairly but it seemed like the most natural thing in the world at the time) I counseled him. Once, about a year before I discovered Stephen King, Dad wound up on the fourth floor (the mental ward) of our town’s old Memorial Hospital. I was in a sixth grade assembly when I got the news, and my future disappeared for a moment. All the safety nets were gone.

However, up on the fourth floor, I found a copy of Dracula (the book that inspired the soon to be born Salem’s Lot). No one seemed to care if I took it home, so I did, and I read it for the first time. Bram Stoker filled my head with dread and wonder while my father recovered. I do not remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of horror, starting with the old movie stills of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff I found in my mother’s movie books when I was a child and the stories my grandmother told me about seeing the silent Phantom of the Opera when she was 19 years old. In her early twenties, she would see Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. She told me about seeing these movies in Shreveport’s Strand Theater and I felt like I was not only there but watching the movies with her. Grandma, Nana as I called her, was an important constant in my life, and ghost stories were a huge part of the fabric of her childhood remembrances. And she always emphasized the pathos. I could tell how much pain she felt for Karloff’s monster whenever she recalled the story.

This gothic art helped me face my fears and hang on to my loved ones. When I stumbled across Salem’s Lot, I had gone through this drastic move from a semi-suburban existence to something closer to The Outsiders. Where I lived, I had to be a little harder just to walk down the street. I was also entering junior high, the preying ground for bullies, cliques and petty school administrators. My mother had remarried and divorced again. My brother was off living on his own in an apartment building where one of his roommates would wind up murdering a friend. Within a few years, seemingly half of my friends’ parents would wind up losing their jobs because of downsizing by the town’s oil companies. But though that change reached its peak after I’d gone away to school, I read Salem’s Lot at a time when the death of everything that always seemed it would never change was well on its way. King’s book connected the ghost stories of my childhood to the dreadful changes in my present. And most importantly, it did so in a way that conceded the change was indeed permanent while clinging to a sense of hope, at least for those left behind. That boy and that man, they stood a chance, in large part because they had each other.

As it turned out, honestly, those three years Dad and I struggled together in that apartment turned out to be some of my fondest memories. And, in the long run, Dad never let me down; in fact, he was always there for me. But King knew about the ways love and pain and danger intertwined in the best of relationships. And he kept writing books, and I've eagerly awaited each next one for the 42 years after that bus ride from Kansas to Oklahoma. He never quit talking with me--about where I was, when I was, where I was going and how I was going to get there. He never quit insisting we were okay if we could simply find each other, hold onto each other and face our fears together. King’s relationship with this Oklahoma kid was just such a lifeline. 

Near the end of the book, which I’ve just reread for the third or fourth time and found to be astonishingly rich and terrifying on entirely new levels, there’s a moment when the man turns to the boy and says, “I want you with me. I need you.” He’s speaking for my father, and he’s speaking for me, and of course he’s summing up how I feel about the storyteller and our four decade long relationship. In my heart and soul and mind, when the world’s falling apart all around (which it generally is), I really believe that wanting and needing is what it’s all about.

Other conversations with King—

On The Outsider (2018)—
On The Wind Through the Keyhole (2013)—…/weathering-starkblas…

Pictures--The original paperback of Salem's Lot, The Forgotten Prisoner Aurora Model, my undead friend William, a werewolf and maybe Tor Johnson fighting on the abandoned house down our street (one of those would be my friend Scot), and this blogger looking a bit undead himself.