Friday, November 9, 2018

Vampires and Philosophers: 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King and Stephen King and Philosophy, edited by Jacob M. Held

I've been on a Stephen King kick lately, but 'Salem's Lot was never near the top of my list until recently.  Vampires aren't my favorite horror trope (they're overdone, not that original, and kinda boring most of the time).  But I changed my mind about 'Salem's Lot a few months ago when I read The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (see my review!).  To avoid spoiling two books at once, I won't say more about that connection except that it made 'Salem's Lot sound a lot more interesting to me.

So is 'Salem's Lot any good?  It is!

There are vampires, sure, but they don't show up right away.  You get some in-depth character building and establishing the setting. The town of Jerusalem's Lot is in a sense the real main character of the novel.  The human characters maybe aren't King's best, but the Lot (as they call the town) contains a pretty interesting lot: we have an author (typical Stephen King projection...), the local woman he falls in love with, a high school English teacher, a doctor, an owner of a boarding house, etc., but my favorite is the alcoholic priest who longs for the days before a kinder, gentler Catholicism.

The inhuman characters (when they finally show up) are terrifying.  These are not the brooding, sympathetic, sexy vampires that have been popular in recent decades.  These are stone-cold murderous monsters set on wiping out the entire town.  The fact that we don't really know what they're up to for the first half of the book just makes it that much creepier when they arrive on the scene.

I love the way the novel handles the absurdity (in the philosophical sense) of something as old school as vampires just showing up in a small town in Maine in the 1970's.  How could undead creatures of European folklore exist in our rational age? Most of the characters deny it (most until it's too late), but I can't blame them.  King captures the Lovecraftian absurdity of vampires better than I've seen anywhere else: the very existence of vampires undermines everything our modern, scientific worldview is based on.

At another level, the way the town itself becomes undead as a ghost town reflects the reality faced by many small towns in America in the late 20th century.  Have similar towns been sucked dry by the forces of consumerism and the greed of far-flung capitalists?  Is this economic vampirism every bit as scary as the vampirism of old?

See also my Goodreads review.

I originally picked up Stephen King and Philosophy out of personal interest with the vague thought that I might use it in a class someday.  This semester I'm teaching a class on horror and philosophy, so I thought this book might provide some interesting material for that class.  And I was right!  I assigned the Littmann chapter on why people like horror and the Allen chapter on Pet Sematary, The Tommyknockers, deathism, and posthumanism.  Those both worked well in class (the students read Pet Sematary, and the Allen piece gave us a nice framework for discussion especially after discussing denial of death and Frankenstein earlier in the term).

I skipped or skimmed some of the chapters (especially those on the Dark Tower series, which I haven't finished yet but plan to pick up with book six soon).  Other favorites were the Byal article on Carrie and female subjectivity, the Mannien piece on friendship in the superb novellas Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body, Hornbeck on The Shining and heterotopia, Bane on the death of the author in The Shining (dealing with the novel and the film), and Held on Schopenhauer, compassion, The Tommyknockers, and Desperation.

Books on philosophy and pop culture can often be hit or miss, but this one was mostly pretty good.  I have (as I like to say) rekindled my relationship with Stephen King in recent years after not reading him much since high school.  Jacob Held has edited a volume that has enriched my love of Stephen King as both a fan and a philosopher.  It makes me appreciate all the work I have read and excited to read all the books I haven't gotten to yet (Held's pieces, for example, make me keen to read Desperation, which never sounded all that intriguing to me before).  Who knows?  There might even be an iteration of a universe with a future in which I teach a whole class on Stephen King and Philosophy with this as the main text.  Maybe we live in that universe now and don't know it yet?

There are some spoilers in most of the chapters, but I'm not the kind of person that minds them much.  As King himself says somewhere, if you really love reading for the experience of reading, spoilers shouldn't bother you that much.  I think he's right, which is a good thing as I embark upon the last few Dark Tower books having been spoiled by some of the chapters here.  After I finish the Dark Tower series I may revisit some of the essays in this book, and then revisit the Dark Tower, and then re-revisit this book, and ....

See also my Goodreads review.

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