On Reading Stephen King’s “‘Salem’s Lot”

alabama-smallby David Browder

When I say I’m from Alabama, people assume I was raised in a religiously conservative, church-going family. “Southern Baptist” is the most common diagnosis because, of course, everyone from Alabama is a Baptist (this is not actually true—at least in my experience). I was raised in Southside Birmingham, which is quite secular relative to the rest of the state. My household was rationalist, dismissive of the Christian doctrine of original sin, and generally uncomfortable with the supernatural.

As I began to live life, I began to realize how innovative and insufficient the secular upbringing in which I had been hard-boiled was. It didn’t have an answer for acts of great horror other than the political assignment of blame and it did not believe that everyone was capable of such things. Those were the people “over there” with “wrong beliefs”–very much disembodied from our experience and status. With the proper amount of shame, reformation of character, and enlightenment, they, too, could join with us as we progressed to a better future and civilization.

salemslothardcoverIt was shocking for me to realize how naïve and half-baked that way of thinking was. Occasionally, I revert back to such thinking, as we all do. The adage “our archaeology determines our teleology” certainly holds true for most of us. This is why reading Stephen King’s book ‘Salem’s Lot was so helpful to me. After watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, I began to hanker nostalgically for all things 1980s. Remembering how popular King, the author, had been, I ordered the book and began my journey into popular horror.

The horror genre and I have always had a mixed relationship. Slasher films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween were all the rage when I came of age in the 80s. I probably saw some at too young an age and I became unable to sit through those movies. But I remained fascinated by them and was forced to watch them on fast-forward while backing them up to real time after I knew what was going to happen. I also went to gothic horror (like The Phantom of the Opera (1925) which we will all see together on October 30th) which was much more digestible for a boy my age. ‘Salem’s Lot is gothic horror in the modern (1970s) era.

The reading of that novel (though not Dostoevsky or Percy) was quite an epiphany for me and jerked me back out of rationalistic optimism and into the Bible, the reality of the human condition, and the dominion of Jesus Christ over the truly dark. Perhaps most importantly, it put me face-to-face with embodied evil, an idea that might seem quaint to some—certainly to rationalistic David Browder. It is logically inconsistent, though, to believe in the God of Christianity without even countenancing the possibility of embodied evil, namely Satan and the demonic.

The book follows the biblical view of human sin so well that I wonder if King derived a lot of his thought from Scripture. The setting is a small town in Maine near enough to Portland for a day trip. The citizens of the town are remarkably realistic. There is no whitewashing here. We see anger, adultery, child abuse, dumb malice, greed, and gossip in the townsfolk as well as love, care, friendship, tenderness, fidelity, and courage. The former is bracing and the latter is touching.

salems-lot-masonA powerful vampire and his human facilitator move into town and slowly begin preying on the residents. The vampire does this in a very interesting way. Through a kind of vampiric hypnosis, he leverages the already-present sin into enthusiastic compliance. The victims literally walk over and give themselves to this ancient predator. For example, the vampire promises revenge to the one who cannot forgive. To the one who lusts, he promises the object of his desire. He delivers, too, but the cost is joining the ranks of the undead! All of the basest and darkest parts of he human heart are fanned into flames by the vampire, who represents embodied evil (and, by the way, Satan is indirectly referred to as “lord of the vampire”).

The vampire is an evil that leverages an already-present darkness in the human heart into full-blown self-destruction. Imagine the horrors you have witnessed on the news (and perhaps in your own life) and, now, imagine ordinary people doing them. Most of them are ordinary people, not people “over there”, outside of our sphere. The Rwandan genocide, Jim Crow laws, the Marxist murders of Stalin, Cambodia, and Mao, human slavery and trafficking–they were and are all inflamed expressions of an already-present condition of sin. Tribalism, resentment, avarice, racial superiority, greed, and dumb malice… dare we say an embodied evil was not there fanning the flames of human sin into a roaring inferno? And doing so to our own self-destruction? That is what Scripture tells us is the goal of the demonic: the unraveling of God’s good creation and its resulting halt to human flourishing.

jesus-legionIn our Thursday Bible Study, we just studied Jesus’s exorcism of Legion from the demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). Jesus believed in demons and the demons certainly believed in Jesus. Legion pleads with Jesus in verse 7 (ESV): “And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’” He even invokes God in his plea! This passage shows us the lordship of Christ over all things that vex human existence: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The things that most horrify us–the real things–are cast down by Our Lord so that we might be raised up, creation may be restored, and human flourishing might be won back.

This is our great hope and confidence regarding embodied evil: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High, is greater than Satan and all of his legions. Legion included. So indulge yourself in a little horror this Halloween season. Join us for The Phantom of the Opera, read Salem’s Lot, binge on some gothic horror like the Hammer films or the old Universal classics. It might snap you into the same epiphany I experienced. You will be grateful for it. It will help you make sense of some things and see other things clearer. You can also understand why we can mock the demonic on Halloween because they have been cast down by the Son of the Most High, Jesus Christ.