Pity poor Ben Mears. He has a lousy time of it in 'Salem's Lot. As the book opens, he's recovering from the loss of his first wife, who died in an accident when Ben's motorcycle slipped and ran into a truck. Then he gets to Jerusalem's Lot, meets Susan Norton, falls in love, and shortly after they have sex for the first time and declare their love, she gets turned into a soul-sucking vampire.
Then he has to stake her.
So that's not one, but two dead soul mates, both of whom he effectively killed himself, one by accident and one because she was a nightmare monster from the pit. Shmoop has heard of folks who are unlucky in love, but this is a little ridiculous.
A little too ridiculous, maybe. Ben has so many troubles heaped on him they start to seem a little unreal. The death of his wife, for example, never has much emotional resonance, in part because just about the only thing the novel says about her is that she's dead. The novel shows that death in some detail; it describes "one of Miranda's flat-heeled shoes" which Ben picks up in the aftermath, an empty cast-off (14.58).
That empty cast-off is supposed to indicate her absence after death, but it also suggests, inadvertently, the extent to which she wasn't there to begin with. Ben's wife is an empty shoe and a couple of random, often negative details, like the fact that Ben didn't tell her about his novels while he was writing them (5.52).
Susan Norton is more of a presence. But that presence is so stereotypical that it almost might as well be an absence. She's a small-town girl star-struck by the famous author (whose book she's conveniently reading when they meet), and their love seems more fated than lived. As soon as they see each other the novel starts babbling about "prophecy" (2.8), right? She's a nice, pretty girl in a kind of two-dimensional way.
The book isn't especially interested in the romance plot, and doesn't do much to sell us on falling in love with Susan; the beer and badminton friendship of Ben and Sue's dad feels more real. Like Miranda, Susan becomes more a presence in her absence. The most vivid scene with her is when she's a vampire in the coffin. The novel all but says she was boring—"calm and unremarkable" (14.326)—until turning evil gave her beauty.
So if Ben's romance plots don't matter, what does? If Miranda isn't that important, and neither is Susan, then who is?
It's Mark. The novel isn't coy about this. As soon as the two meet, it says,
… [T]he moment seemed to undergo a queer stretching, and a feeling of unreality swept [Ben]. The boy reminded him physically of the boy he himself had been, but it was more than that. He seemed to feel a weight settle onto his neck, as if in a curious way he sensed the more-than-chance coming together of their lives. It made him think of the day he had met Susan in the park, and how their light get-acquainted conversation had seemed queerly heavy and fraught with intimations of the future. (14.49)
Mark is Ben's younger self. both physically and mentally. For example, Mark is obsessed with movie monsters and horror films; Ben is writing a horror novel. Moreover, Mark is Susan's replacement, just as Susan was Miranda's replacement. And where the fate with Susan is derailed, the fate with Mark is fulfilled. The two stake Barlow and then drive off to live their lives together. Then later they come back to 'Salem's Lot to stake more vampires. The romance with Miranda is empty and shortened; just as it is with Susan. But the romance with Mark lasts.
So this book is, in a lot of ways, about Ben coming to terms with his own younger self. Which is precisely what he claims at the beginning of the book that he is going to do. He comes to Jerusalem's Lot to try to "recapture" his boyhood with his Aunt Cynthia, to re-find the "magic" of childhood (1.12).
That "magic" is not just nostalgia; it's also horror. Ben's most vivid memory from 'Salem's Lot is of entering the Marsten House and seeing the corpse of Hubie Marsten hanging from the rafters. His childhood is a ghost story, pretty much. And so 'Salem's Lot is not just a horror story; it's also, in a truly weird way, a nostalgic reclamation of childhood.
From this perspective, Ben's story isn't a tragedy. It's a deft wish fulfillment; an imagined escape from adulthood. Miranda and Susan, two boring, barely-there characters, are gotten out of the way, and the whole town is destroyed so that Ben and his younger self can reunite and indulge in a monster-movie romp. The book's ambiguous, uncertain conclusion, in which Ben and Mark plan to burn out the town and stake all the vampires for some undetermined future period of weeks and months, isn't, as Ben says, "ugly and dangerous" (Epilogue.40). Nope: it's supposed to be a happy ending.
We mean, after all, what could be a more joyful future than staking vampires in your hometown for all eternity? Anyone?