Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The First Paperback I Ever Read

When I was eleven years old, I saved my allowances and went a few weeks without comic books, because I was going to buy my first paperback novel.

I don’t know what it was in me that decided that I wanted to read something more concrete, and maybe comic books were not in-depth enough. Maybe comics as a medium suffered with me because the subsequent serializations were not readily available. I had to wait a month for each new release and to find how the story continued after the last page cliff-hanger. Maybe I felt that a novel game the ability to immediately read next month’s installment today. It’s a lot like watching television series on Netflix. All I have to do is click the button that reads “Watch Episode 23” and I can see what happens next without waiting.

Reading stories outside of comic books, up until that point, was a drag. We had to read stories in school. And they were horrible. Here’s a clue: when making a child read a story in school, how about making it something that they will enjoy and want to read? My grade school syllabus consisted of reading short stories by authors whose names I still can’t pronounce today, and the old standards of things like Wuthering Heights. I can’t remember if I had been assigned WH by this time, but it was like torturing me with little needles to my head. I know that there are people that will defend WH and have me quartered for this statement. But I hated, and still hate, the type of stuffy writing that makes up the classic genre of WH.

Somewhere I decided to find something that I wanted to read for fun. So, I started searching to paperbacks at the Acme to select the perfect book. If you’ve ever shopped for books with me, it is an arduous thing. This is something that I will be hitched to for a month (I don’t read a lot at one time, so it takes me a long time to read something). I can never have someone buy me a book to read, because I have no skin in the selection and it is potentially doomed to failure because of that.

I selected Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I thought the name sounded really cool and the cover was great. It released in the previous year, and I’d seen it on the bestseller shelf for a year. I actually thought it was going to be about witches (with the title including the word “Salem” and all).

In reviewing what I liked about this book, I’m struck about how much I learned about writing from it, and how much I’ve patterned my own writing based on it.

My first reaction to the book was noticing King’s casual style of writing. There were no arcing descriptions of the moors every couple of pages. It was as if the writer was sitting with me telling me the story. I was sold on this type of writing, as I was enjoying it. A casual writing style is something that kept with me for many years.

And there was swearing in the book! To an eleven year old, whose reading list was supervised for its classical elegance, it was exciting to see a bunch of four-letter words in print. This was a particularly bad habit that took me a long time to shed. Now, I am almost four-letter word free in my writing (a few Gaelic one’s thrown in there). But, bad words in a book that I was reading had the desired effect that a choice word should – it shocks the reader into understanding either the character or that they situation is critical. Swear words are like salt. We know that too much salt will turn the impact of the creation into something that is overpowered by it. So, we know to use just a bit of salt. But, when you’re younger, you like salt a lot, and use it so often it can turn off people or turn your work into something bitter. That was how it was with swearing in my stories, I needed the years of aged wisdom to realize that salt wasn’t good for my stories. (Okay, now I’m hungry.)

For those who don’t know, ‘Salem’s Lot is a story about a writer named Ben Mears who goes back home to a small town in Maine, called Jerusalem’s Lot or ‘Salem’s Lot for short, to face his fears and write a book about it. His fears revolve around a creepy mansion called the Marsten House on the hill above the town. The house was the setting of a grizzly murder/suicide back before WWII. As a child on a dare, he snuck into the vacant house to remove an object to join the Bloody Pirates. He ventured farther into the house than he needed to in order to prove to the boys his worth. It was there that he saw the bloating, hanging body of Hubie Marsten. We don’t know if the boy imagined the body, saw a ghost, or was the victim of a prank. Ben returns to town at the same time that two men also appear and buy the Marsten House. Two boys quickly go missing, and people begin to act strangely as the town becomes inhabited by vampires.

‘Salem’s Lot is less of a horror story and more of an adventure that contains vampires. The pace is at breakneck speed, and it is as exhilarating as it is scary. It reminds me of the classic horror story, Dracula, which was paced like an adventure story with characters trying to keep up with what is going on around them. This is another aspect that appeals to me and my writing over the years. I love adventure stories: the setup, the ride, and the payoff. My horror stories are much less about gore and violence (the modern horror movie and book) and more about adventure and excitement.

Another aspect I loved about this book is that it contained a lot of characters, in fact the town itself became like a character. I liked that different attitudes about the day and the town are displayed by different people. The town had a distinctive feeling of its own, you could almost see the map in your mind. From the opening chapter when Ben Mears sees the sign that read:

Route 12 Jerusalem’s Lot
Cumberland Cumberland Ctr

Then you can feel yourself in a New England country back road in the fall as Route 12 became Jointer Avenue and led you into the Lot. King did not spend a lot of time describing the countryside, as a certain gothic English classic set on the moors might. But, you get the feel for the setting in the description of the action and dialogue, as listening to a filling station attendant describing how to get downtown.

The thing that King did better than anything else, and I learned a lesson from this book that I’ve tried to use in everything that I’ve written, is his sense of suspense. King ends chapters or sections of ‘Salem’s Lot with scary and suspenseful cliffhangers.

Part one of ‘Salem’s Lot, titled “The Marsten House” ends in Matt Burke’s house, a high-school English teacher. Matt ran into Mike Ryerson at the pub and noticed that he looked ill. Later that night, Matt hears some unsettling things in the guest room.

And in the awful heavy silence of the house, as he sat impotently on his bed with his face in his hands, he heard the high, sweet, evil laugh of a child –

- and then the sucking sounds.

At eleven years old (what am I talking about? Even at forty years old), this is a chilling passage. The suspense really sets in as this is the end of the first section of the book. Leaving it standing like this, I could not stop reading.

Later in the book, Ben has teamed up with several others that he has just met, and they enter the Marsten House in the daytime in pursuit of the vampire named Barlow. They come upon a coffin they think belongs to Barlow. Lying on the closed surface of the coffin is an envelope with a letter in it. In this letter is one of the most chilling sections of any book I’ve ever read:

My Dear Young Friends,

How lovely of you to have stopped by!

I am never averse to company; it has been one of my great joys in a long and often lonely life. Had you come in the evening, I should have welcomed you in person with the greatest of pleasure. However, since I suspected you might choose to arrive during daylight hours, I thought it best to be out.

I have left you a small token of my appreciation; someone very near and dear to one of you is now in the place where I occupied my days until I decided that other quarters might be more congenial. She is very lovely, Mr. Mears – very toothsome, if I may be permitted a small bon mot. I have no further need of her and so I have left her for you to – how is your idiom? – to warm up for the main event. To whet your appetites, if you like. Let us see how well you like the appetizer to the main course you contemplate, shall we?

My good friends – Mr. Mears; Mr. Cody; Master Petrie; Father Callahan – enjoy your stay. The Medoc is excellent, procured for me especially by the late owner of this house, whose personal company I was never able to enjoy. Please be my guests if you still have a taste for wine after you have finished the work at hand. We will meet again, in person, and I shall covey my felicitations to each of you at that time in a more personal way.

Until then, adieu.


I still get chills reading this passage. Ben’s group thought they were catching up with the ancient vampire, when in fact, he was steps ahead of them.

‘Salem’s Lot remains, to this day, my favorite book, along with The Bourne Identity. I’ve compared every horror book I’ve read since to ‘Salem’s Lot. Most horror books do not have the sense of adventure that this one does, replacing it with dreary settings and violence. The state of the vampire story has completely gone in different directions. Starting with Interview With the Vampire, the vampire turned into a flowery bore. I got so sick of reading about how wonderful the sights and sounds of being a vampire is, and page after page about the inner monologue of moody vampires. I struggled with IWTV, and found that I couldn’t even finish the second book, The Vampire Lestat.

Don’t even get me started with sparkly love-sick vampires who can go out in the daylight. The bloody daylight!

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