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Stephen Kings Salems Lot Essay Research Paper

Stephen Kings Salems Lot Essay, Research Paper Stephen King s Devices of Tension-Building as Seen through Salem s Lot The novel which we will examine, called Salem s Lot, is among Stephen King s finest novels. From the way he details the gory scenes of the story, to achieve a building of tension throughout every page.

Stephen Kings Salems Lot Essay, Research Paper

Stephen King s Devices of Tension-Building as Seen through Salem s Lot

The novel which we will examine, called Salem s Lot, is among Stephen King s finest novels. From the way he details the gory scenes of the story, to achieve a building of tension throughout every page. Stephen Edwin King was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and then Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS. Stephen made his first short story sale to a mass-market men’s magazine shortly after his graduation from the University. Throughout the early years of his marriage to Tabitha, who he met at the Fogler Library at the University of Maine at Orono, where they both worked as students, he continued to sell stories to men’s magazines. In the fall of 197l, Stephen began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels. In the spring of 1973, Doubleday & Co. accepted the novel Carrie for publication. Renting a summer home on Sebago Lake in North Windham for the winter, Stephen wrote his next-published novel, originally titled Second Coming and then Jerusalem’s Lot, before it became ‘Salem’s Lot. Although he has received his share of criticism, King has always been very good at keeping the readers interested in his novels, from start, to finish, to the next novel. This paper will examine the ways that Stephen King builds tension in his novel Salem’s Lot, through four scenes which successfully manipulate the mood of the story.

The horror story depends on tension, for tension is a matter of time and action passing. We know that some dreaded thing awaits the characters in a horror story – and awaits us as we identify with the characters and their situation. Walter Bobbie described King s characterization perfectly when he said:

Instead of stalking among their dusty antiques, he lets us peek into their souls. (Bobbie, 304)

But the tension is required if that waiting is to be effective as a device of horror. Mark Laidlaw states:

King takes the stance that he should give the reader a hint of the ultimate horror early in the game, then when they re sure to be afraid that it s actually going to happen, give them exactly what they ve been nervously waiting for. (Laidlaw, 34)

The reader must be teased, must be drawn into the story a step at a time, drawn nearer and nearer to the dreadful horror, knowing he is being drawn and participating in his own fright with the author. The horror that eventually comes is measured by the amount of tension which has been built and which snaps violently and dramatically at the moment the horror finally appears full-blown. King is a contemporary master of such tension-building and Salem’s Lot is a fine example of his craft in this regard. Certainly one of the most suspenseful and successful scenes in the book is the one in which Corey and Barlow meet, after Corey has been confronted, humiliated, and terrified by Reggie, the husband of the woman Corey has been having an affair with. The reader feels as if he had been exhausted mentally and emotionally by the previous scene, in which Corey believed that Reggie was going to kill him with a shotgun. Instead, Reggie lets Corey go, and we are led to believe that Corey is headed out of town to save his life and leave his suddenly ex-lover to fend for herself at the mercy of the enraged Reggie. As we see, no scene by itself builds suspense, except perhaps the first scene of any book, for each scene depends upon the one that comes before and the one that comes after. Tension does not simply appear, but is a matter of flowing from one scene to the next, from a more relaxed scene to a more tense scene, and so on. What makes Chapter 9 of The Lot (III) particularly tense is the reader’s sense, entering into the scene, that the tension has been released for the moment when the shotgun’s trigger was pulled and the empty chambers resounded and Corey was let go with his pride shattered but his lifesigns intact. But King has other plans in store, for the suspense has just been released for the briefest of moments as Corey stumbles away, stinking and thinking of the rest of his life. Just then the stranger in the dark – Barlow the vampire – addresses Corey:

Corey gave a stifled scream and stared wildly into the dark… The wind was moving in the trees, making shadows jump and dance across the road. Suddenly his eyes made out a more solid shadow, standing by the stone wall that ran between the road and Carl Smith’s back pasture. The shadow had a manlike form, but there was something… something… (King, 234)

Certainly the tension is about to be released with this frightening set-up, but King knows that tension is a rhythm, not a straight line. Accordingly, this potentially horrifying apparition in the dark – arriving moments after Corey had believed he was going to die by shotgun – is shown by King to be a rather amiable sort, ingratiating himself with Corey, offering him a cigarette and philosophy. Corey “began to feel a little calmer” (King, 234). And so does the reader begin to feel a little calmer. Corey has survived a harrowing near-fatal experience, and now he is having a friendly smoke and chat with an intelligent, helpful man who may be a bit strange certainly, but appears to have no harm in mind for Corey. In fact, the opposite seems true as Barlow the deceiver begins to take Corey under his spell:

Yes, Corey said. Looking into the stranger’s eyes, he could see a great many things, all of them wonderful. (King, 235)

The tension builds in the scene as Corey becomes increasingly oblivious to the danger he is in, and the reader becomes increasingly aware of that danger, until Barlow offers the entranced Corey a chance at revenge and “Corey sank into a great forgetful river, and that river was time, and its waters were red” (King, 236).

Another scene in which King effectively builds suspense is the opening scene of Ben (I). The scene with Corey depends in part on what has come before, and this scene depends to a degree on the strange information imparted in the Prologue. However, more than the Corey-Barlow scene, this opening scene with Ben Mears can be said to stand on its own with respect to its success in building tension. It certainly does not build a tension comparable to that in the Corey-Barlow scene, but then again tension in part depends on our involvement with the characters and the story and the plot. The Corey-Barlow scene operates on the reader after he has become deeply involved in all those elements, whereas the opening scene with Ben Mears driving toward his hometown and trying to decide if he will return or not is a much more introductory scene and therefore its tension-building will necessarily be more subtle and suggestive.

This is not to say that the Ben Mears scene is not effective, for it most certainly is. The point is that tension-building requires different sorts of tension at different points in a story, and King knows that well. It is far from a nostalgic frame of mind which Ben is in as he drives toward Jerusalem’s Lot. Jack Sullivan used a perfect reference to sum up the effect that King created with this scene, when he said:

H. P. Lovecraft once remarked that atmosphere is the all important thing in this genre. A compelling atmosphere can make us forget the clich s. (Sullivan, 8)

Actually, he is remembering the accident which took his wife’s life. He is wondering why he would be coming back to a town where nothing was left for him. He considers driving past, then realizes he has nowhere else to go anyway, nowhere else to call home. The essential tension of the scene is introduced as he looks at the horizon:

What he saw there made him jam the brakes on with both feet. The Citroen shuddered to a stop and stalled… From here the town was not visible. Only the trees, and in the distance… the peaked, gabled roof of the Marsten House. He gazed at it, fascinated. Warring emotions crossed his face with kaleidoscopic swiftness. Still here, he murmured aloud. ‘By God.’ He looked down at his arms. They had broken out in goose flesh. (King, 5)

One ingredient of suspense and tension, of course, is the unknown. The reader certainly has a sense of dread in this foreboding scene, but he does not know the nature of that dread, he does not know the secret darkness power that the Marsten House possesses. This tension in the consciousness of the reader, in his emotional center, is what hooks him, keeps him reading, keeps him wanting to know what is going to happen next, even though he is certain that it is a dreadful set of circumstances which is about to unfurl.

One scene which builds suspense on two levels is the one in which the Constable visits Straker while Barlow is away. On one level, this scene (Chapter 10 in Danny Glick and Others) is fairly straightforward. We know by now that we are dealing, with Straker and Barlow, with unsavory characters, to say the least. At the same time, we identify with the curious and suspicious Constable as he pokes around. Straker is obviously hiding what he knows, and his apparent nonchalance and “distant” (King, 100) response to the Constable’s question about the missing child make clear, on a surface level, that some sort of evil is going on. On another level, however, the slightest brush stroke from King’s pen give the scene a deeper level of tension and foreboding:

The entire shop had been carpeted and was in the process of being painted. The smell of fresh paint was a good one, but there seemed to be another smell underneath it, an unpleasant one. Parkins could not place it; he turned his attention back to Straker. (King, 99)

Of course, this “unpleasant” smell, whatever its earthly or natural source, is more importantly the smell of evil, and particularly the smell of evil disguised by a false front of new carpet and fresh paint. The evil will not be hidden forever, and that of course this is the source of tension in any horror story, and true in this particular tale of vampirism as well.

King is obviously successful in terms of building tension in the novel and in these specific scenes. The Constable-Straker scene advances the novel and its tension in subtle ways, with a brief stroke, a small mention of that unpleasant smell underlying the surface tension between the Constable seeking the truth and Straker trying to keep it hidden. The Ben Mears scene advances the novel by introducing the feelings the house gives Ben, and though the reader cannot know the source of those feelings, he identifies with Ben and the hook is in which leads the reader into the story, dreading what is coming next. The Corey-Barlow scene is tension at its most heightened and horrific, as the reader knows what is happening and Corey falls deeper under the vampire’s trance. Bill Crider gave an honest opinion of King, when he said:

Such stories require a willing suspension of disbelief of course, but they also require an author who is an expert manipulator, one who can make horror seem not only plausible, but almost logical. King is an expert, and many of these stories will not be easily forgotten (Crider, 6)

King is a master at using different tension-building techniques at different points in his novel.

Bibliography

Bobbie, Walter. Stephen King. Best Sellers. January, 1976: 304. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 309.

Collings, Michael. The Many Facets of Stephen King. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1985.

Collings, Michael, and Engebretson, David. The Shorter Works of Stephen King. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1985.

Crider, Bill. Stephen King. Best Sellers. April, 1978: 6 – 7. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 310 – 311.

Crider, Bill. The Dark Half. Kirkus Reviews. September 1, 1978: 965 966. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 311.

Egan, James. Apocalypticism in the Fiction of Stephen King. Extrapolation 25 Fall 1984: 214-227.

Egan, James. A Single Powerful Spectacle: Stephen King s Gothic Melodrama. Extrapolation 27 Spring 1986: 62-75.

King, Stephen. Salem s Lot. New York: New American Library, 1975.

Laidlaw, Marc. Stephen King. Nyctalops. Vol. 2, No. 7, 1978: 34. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 3 11.

Magill, Frank N., ed. Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983.

Magistrale, Tony. Crumbling Castles of Sand. Journal of Popular Literature 1 Fall/Winter 1985: 45-59.

Mewshaw, Michael. Stephen King. New York Times Book Review. March 26, 1978: 13, 23. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 310.

Norden, Eric. The Playboy Interview: Stephen King. Playboy June 1983: 24-26.

Patten, Frederick. Stephen King. Delap s Fantasy and Science Fiction Review. April, 1977: 6. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 310.

Schweitzer, Darrell, ed. Discovering Stephen King. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1985.

Sullivan, Jack. The Shining. New York Times Book Review. February 20, 1977: 8. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 310.

Winter, Douglas E. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York, NY: NAL, 1984.

Bobbie, Walter. Stephen King. Best Sellers. January, 1976: 304. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 309.

Crider, Bill. Stephen King. Best Sellers. April, 1978: 6 – 7. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 310 – 311.

King, Stephen. Salem s Lot. New York: New American Library, 1975.

Laidlaw, Marc. Stephen King. Nyctalops. Vol. 2, No. 7, 1978: 34. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 3 11.

Sullivan, Jack. The Shining. New York Times Book Review. February 20, 1977: 8. Rpt. in LLC, Ed. Carolyn Riley. Volume 12. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. 310.

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