Study Guide

'Salem's Lot The Supernatural

By Stephen King

The Supernatural

"He says there are strange things in the world. Forty years ago, a peasant from El Graniones brought him a lizard that screamed as though it were a woman." (Preface.46)

Right up front, in the preface, 'Salem's Lot is assuring you that the supernatural is really real. Really. Okay, we get it! Lizards scream, vampires vamp, and Shmoop's Internet laughs like a hyena if you don't keep a close eye on it.

A house was a house—boards and hinges and nails and sills. There was no reason, really no reason, to feel that each splintered crack was exhaling its own chalky aroma of evil. That was just plain stupid thinking. Ghosts? He didn't believe in ghosts. Not after Nam. (4.165)

Hank Peters is getting scared by the Marsten House. He contrasts ghosts with the time he spent in Vietnam—war is real (and evil). Houses are just houses. Hank's unwillingness to believe is so great he doesn't even quite believe it when he sees Ralphie's clothes in the basement. Here, as throughout the novel, belief is the first line of defense; disbelief gets everybody in trouble.

Of course monsters existed; they were the men with their fingers on the thermonuclear triggers in six countries, the hijackers, the mass murders, the child molesters. But not this. One knows better. The mark of the devil on a woman's breast is only a mole… Some clergymen had proclaimed that even God, that venerable white warlock, was dead. (7.196)

Father Callahan here toys with the idea of that God might be a superstition. This is not far from how the novel treats God: as a kind of supernatural whammy that can be deployed against the forces of darkness. Theologically, 'Salem's Lot is kind of a mess, though no one's here for a theology lesson. Still, it's no wonder Callahan comes to such a bad end.

"When the victim dies, the marks disappear."

"I know that," Ben said. He remembered it both from Stoker's Dracula and from the Hammer films starring Christopher Lee. (8.95)

'Salem's Lots vampires are oddly eager to stay true to pop-culture precedent. After belief, the best defense against the supernatural in this novel is an enthusiasm for horror fiction. We're betting that Stephen King, who read lots of horror fiction and saw lots of horror films in his time, would do pretty well against the vampires.

And you couldn't explain that to your mother and father, who were creatures of the light. No more than you could explain to them how, at the age of three, the spare blanket at the foot of the crib turned into a collection of snakes that lay staring at you with flat and lidless eyes. No child ever conquers those fears, he thought. If a fear cannot be articulated, it can't be conquered. And the fears locked in small brains are much too large to pass through the orifice of the mouth. (9.220)

Childhood and the supernatural go together like vampires and sucking blood in King's books. 'Salem's Lot is in touch with childhood fears—and it's arguably articulating, or telling, them in order to conquer them. Supernatural terrors make the book go, and knowing about those terrors is how you stop them.

"But this… this other is lunacy, Ben."

"Yes, like Hiroshima."

"Will you stop doing that!" she whipcracked at him suddenly. "Don't go playing the phony intellectual. It doesn't fit you! We're talking about wives' tales, bad dreams, psychosis, anything you want to call it—"

"That's s***," he said. "Make connections. The world is coming down around our ears and you're sticking at a few vampires." (10.154-157)

Susan's right: comparing vampires with the Hiroshima bombing seems pretty crass. No one ever said these characters had to have good taste, we guess.

"The best-educated doctor in the world is standing on a low island in the middle of a sea of ignorance. We rattle our medicine sticks and kill our chickens and read message in blood. All of that works a surprising amount of time. White magic." (11.125)

Jimmy Cody is here explaining the limits of science, and arguing that medicine is little more than white magic, rituals performed without really knowing why they work. His idea is that science is just another kind of supernatural, and reason is just accepted superstition. Why not believe in vampires if you believe in headache cures? This is probably the best version of the "there could be vampires" argument in the book.

She found herself thinking of those same drive-in horror movie epics where the heroine goes venturing up the narrow attic stairs… thinking: What a silly b****… I'd never do that! And here she was, doing it… (11.220)

Again, the supernatural takes its cue from movies. Susan has seen horror movies, but it turns out that even while she's watching, she's skeptical. If only she'd taken them more seriously… or, alternately, if only she weren't a woman. The supernatural only has a limited number of roles for women, it seems. Susan's stuck with hers.

"How do you know so much?"

"I read the monster magazines," he said, "and go to see the movies when I can." (12.57)

Mark knows a lot about monster movies, which is why he's so knowledgeable and so prepared. The supernatural obeys rules, and those rules are the geek rules of monster magazines. Thank goodness the vampires watched Hammer movies; if they didn't, Mark and Ben would really be in trouble.

He was a straight arrow, confident in himself and in the natural laws of physics, mathematics, economics, and (to a slightly lesser degree) sociology. (14.411)

Mark's dad, on the other hand, is a total believer in what Jimmy would see as scientific superstition. Also, he doesn't watch monster movies. No wonder he gets his head bashed in.