Study Guide

'Salem's Lot Memory and the Past

By Stephen King

Memory and the Past

What was he doing, coming back to a town where he had lives for four years as a boy, trying to recapture something that was irrevocably lost? What magic could he expect to recapture by walking roads that he had once walked as a boy and were probably asphalted and straightened and logged off and littered with tourist beer cans? (1.12)

Ben's thinking about recapturing the magic of his childhood. He does find magic in Jerusalem's Lot, though maybe not the magic he was looking for. Or maybe it is the magic he was looking for: Ben, as a writer, is a stand-in for Stephen King himself, and King picked the magic to put in the book. He could have gone with happy sparkly elves (or happy sparkly vampires even, like in Twilight), but instead he liked Dracula. Maybe that's really Ben's preference, too.

Small towns have long memories and pass their horrors down ceremoniously from generation to generation. (2.222)

The vampires seem to come from outside (Barlow's a foreigner), but they're also horrors that were already lurking under the surface in 'Salem's Lot—comfy horrors, sitting in the rocking chair knitting, with home-cooking on the stove. You never know what's behind the curtains.

"On the other hand, there may be some truth to that idea that houses absorb the emotions that are spent in them, that they hold a kind of… dry charge. Perhaps the right personality, that of an imaginative boy, for instance, could act as a catalyst on that dry charge and cause it to produce an active manifestation of… something." (2.262)

Ben remembers seeing Marsten's corpse hanging in the room. He's not willing to say that it was just his imagination. For him, imagination is real—and you can see why, since he makes his money from his imagination. Those childhood nightmares go into the dry cell of your brain and come out as prose that makes money. You don't get more real than that.

The town has a sense, not of history, but of time, and the telephone poles seem to know this. If you lay your hand against one, you can feel the vibration from the wires deep in the wood, as if souls had been imprisoned in there and were struggling to get out. (4.481)

King seems to be seeing the town as a kind of graveyard, with people buried in the telephone wires. Maybe the town would have been saved from vampires if they only had cell phones.

"Essentially, it's about the recurrent power of evil." (5.89)

Ben is describing his book, and also King's book. Both are about the recurrent power of evil, in the sense that both are about the Marsten House, which seems to draw evil to it. But the Marsten House for Ben is also about his own childhood—it's a pretty alluring memory. So maybe King's book is also about the idea of evil coming back again and again as an enjoyable recollection of childhood.

"Houses are only houses. Evil dies with the perpetration of evil acts." (9.192)

Susan is arguing that the Marsten House isn't really evil. Interestingly, her second sentence doesn't follow from the first. Houses may be only houses, but doing evil things can have repercussions for a long time. For instance, if you chat with a vampire long distance, the vampire may show up in your backyard. Or, if, like Larry Crockett, you make a shady land deal in your hometown, everything might go to hell. Evil acts have legs. And sometimes fangs.

If you met Franklin's pickup on the road, you forgot it the instant it was gone from your rear-view mirror. If you happened to see their shack with its tin chimney sending a pencil line of smoke into the white November sky, you overlooked it… Franklin's brother was Derek Bodin… and Derek had nearly forgotten that Franklin was still alive and in town. He had progressed beyond black sheepdom; he was totally grey. (10.201)

Franklin is a kind of vampire himself: people don't see him or remember him, because they've decided he's not there. The town's memory is selective; bits get rubbed out. Ben remembers bits that have been forgotten, which is either his doom or his salvation, depending on how you look at it.

Corey Bryant sank into a great forgetful river, and that river was time, and its waters were red. (10.341)

This is Corey turning into a vampire—which means he's dead. The past in this vision is a kind of shoal of dead bodies, hungry for company. But it's appealing, too, just like Ben finds the Marsten House appealing. The past is a comfort, and also it wants to eat you.

Where had he seen a face like that before? And it came to him, in the moment of the most extreme terror he had ever known. It was the face of Mr. Flip, his own personal bogeyman, the thing that hid in the closet during the day and came out after his mother closed the bedroom door. (14.476)

King, in this book and others, often cuts between whatever nasty thing is happening to his characters and links it to some childhood fear. These memory glimpses are disjointed: Mr. Flip could be Ben's memory, or Mark's, as easily as Callahan's. The flashbacks are less about character development and more about showing you where the book is coming from—the sort of childhood terrors that power the adult imagination.

"You would welcome the oblivion of my death now, I think. There is no memory for the Undead; only the hunger and the need to serve the Master." (14.520)

Barlow says the undead don't remember, but that doesn't seem true to the rest of the book. Marjorie Glick calls for Danny as soon as she rises, and at the end of the book we see Glynis Mayberry using her memories to get Mabel. Maybe Barlow means there's no guilt or regret? Or maybe he's just forgotten what it's like to be a spanking new vampire. It was a long time ago; you can't expect a busy vampire to remember everything.