Hands up anyone who did anything stupid as a teenager.
Got your hand up? If not, you’re probably lying to me (and yourself). In those years between 13 and 19 common sense is muddled, no, eradicated by all those hormones, so that you end up doing things you later regret. And I am no exception. On my thirteenth birthday, I had received a book token from my parents. My friends at school had been raving about Stephen King, and in particular ‘Salem’s Lot’ and, as far as I was concerned those book tokens were my ticket to the literary paradise that they described. And so, I had happily planned a leisurely trip into town to the Waterstones. Until my father decided to come with me.
An any self respecting teenager will know, it is a deep and abiding humiliation to be seen in public with a parent. Worse still was the fact that my father regarded Mr King as an agent of the devil (see link
for an intriguing essay on this) and as a religious man this was never going to sit easy with him. Any chance of buying a SK novel with him present were negligible.
But stubbornness is (as my wife often says) a characteristic of mine. I had a plan and I was going to carry it through if at all possible. So as soon as I got into the bookshop I slipped Salem’s Lot (cover price £4.99) beneath my jacket and waited for my chance. Maybe my father would get bored and wander off to another shop, maybe he would be distracted by a chance acquaintance, maybe… But maybe never happened and though I procrastinated for the best part of an hour in Waterstones, thumbing through book after book in an unconvincing show of indecision, my father waited patiently until there were only a few minutes left before our last bus left. So, thinking that I didn’t know what to buy, he came over to me with a copy of ‘Brave New World’. ‘It was a good book, he himself had read it when he was my age,’ he explained helpfully.
Now I’ve got nothing against Aldous Huxely. ‘Brave New World’ is, in my humble opinion, one of those books that everyone on this planet must read. But it wasn’t Salem’s Lot.
So I walked up to the till holding my father’s recommendation but with ‘Salem’s Lot’ still tucked beneath my jacket. I exchanged my precious book tokens for BNW with a mixture of fear and resentment (an interesting combination that doesn’t come along too often in life,) and walked out of the shop expecting any moment to feel the hand of a security guard upon my shoulder. In fact, it was not until I was home, with the Lot under my mattress that I felt I could breathe again.
I lost my SK virginity with the Lot. After the Lot I devoured Carrie, The Shining, The Green Mile, Dolores Clairborne, all the rest of Mr King’s prodigious output. But the Lot was, and is still my favourite. Funnily enough, I’m not alone in that opinion. Stephen King himself has said in two separate interviews that ‘Salem’s Lot’ is the favourite book he has written. "In a way it is my favourite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!" link
The first reason why I love ‘Salem’s Lot’ is the most prosaic and the most personal. For almost the entire first half of the book, nothing happens. Nothing of note, anyway. Ben Mears comes home to a small town that quite frankly couldn’t seem to care less about him, meets a nice girl and does a bit of writing. That’s it. And yet, I was fascinated for all of those 200 odd pages. Not because of what King’s writes about, but how he writes about it. You can taste those ice-cream sodas and root beers, feel the dry heat beneath those empty blue skies, sense the insidious evil that slowly grows. You are that story; you are living the lives of those characters. That is why my greatest professional thrill came when a review compared my prose (favourably, I hasten to add), to the master. If you’re interested, here is the link; link
The second is more personal. Stephen King writes about how difficult it is to escape our past. Now I’m not saying that shoplifting a book is going to compare to returning to ride a town of vampires. But often our past defines us; that is why my hero Mark has to exorcise his past mistakes because it is, (quite literally) haunting him. Letting go of the past often involves forgiving yourself your past mistakes. But sometimes you need someone else to forgive you, and so I hope Mr King, you won’t begrudge a foolish teenager that £4.99.