The story is essentially that of a Dracula-esque figure moving to a small Maine town and bringing it slowly under his thrall, and the small band of people who oppose him. A moderately successful writer comes back to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where he spent a few years in childhood, hoping to write a blockbuster horror novel about the Marsten House, site of a murder infamous in town history and gossip that has haunted his dreams since he moved away. He falls in love with a local woman. A priest, an aging english teacher and a young boy obsessed with movie monsters form his primary allies as more and more of the townspeople are killed or turned into vampires.
King is often called a modern Dickens; that is a prolific popular writer whose work will, in the minds of some, continue to be read long after the Roths, Wallaces, Franzens and the like are largely forgotten. (I love that King takes a shot at Phillip Roth early on as the writer character says, concerning his second or third book and the mixed and negative reviews it received: “Plot was out, masturbation was in.” That line had me in stitches). I don’t like to predict things like that, but I do think the Dickens comparison is apt in at least one sense; King, like Dickens, is very good at giving minor characters a sense of reality. There are so many characters in this book that I confuse many of them mere days after finishing the book. That being said, when a character becomes a vampire, you get a real sense that it was a person whose life ended, not just one dimensional monster fodder. It makes it more horrible when they are killed or turned.
In the preface, King says this is his favorite of his early books, despite, to his mind, it showing him to be a “man of his time.” I take this to mean that he regrets some of the language his characters use, particularly in regards to women. He’s not wrong. It’s a term usually applied to dead authors; it’s interesting for an author to have a long enough career to be able to bestow that title upon himself. I like the self awareness. I don’t know how that stuff would play to other people, but it works for me. King doesn’t tie himself in knots to make it clear a character is not one of the good guys; he trusts the reader to figure that out. There are a couple of abusive husbands here, whose portrayal is nearly as horror-laden as the vampires.
Overall, I think this really works. Given the volume of his output, I doubt I will try to go completist with King, but I will certainly read many more of his books. This is an excellent straightforward vampire novel with emotional heft. After all the variations on vampire stories, it is nice to find a more straightforward one that really works.