The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, July 2, 2012

Return to Salem's Lot

OK, we go off into the world of pop fiction again. Now, when I was a boy (11), I stumbled on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and was riveted by it--better than any movie version to date, I still think, especially that first Transylvanian sequence. (The book lost m when perspective shifted to Whitby, but a couple of years later when I re-read it, that was all right.) At 14, I watched the Tobe Hooper miniseries adapting Stephen King's novel Salem's Lot. Naturally, I got a copy of the book, stat. King's writing in that novel grabbed me; the depiction of the small town got me caring about (most of--a few had it coming) the secondary characters, and all of King's main characters. King's wit (Salem's Lot has several laugh-out-loud moments that serve as great tension-breakers) and his riff on the classic vampire story--he kills off (among others) the leading lady, leaves the story open-ended, and hints in a subsequent short story that the vampires may prevail in the end, and tossed in my introduction to the Lovecraft Mythos--surely enough to make the book memorable.

But that's not what engraved it in my memory. No, King had to ratchet it up by introducing a genuinely tragic character in the local Catholic priest, Father Donald Callahan. An alcoholic, Fr. Callahan is eaten away by his fear that there is no grand scheme, no sweeping spiritual epic worthy of committing one's life to; that evil is banal, leaving only a watery ethic of niceness to deal with the broken, unfixable, imbecile face of evil. And then, he is presented with the chance to live exactly the meaningful, hero struggle he'd always been drawn to, only to fail, due only to his own fear and lack of faith.

The idealist's worst nightmare, no? To answer the call you've been preparing for all your life, and mess it up, solely through one's own fault. Haunting. It's T.H. White's young Arthur, wishing to take on all the evil in the world, while Merlyn winces at the child's boast, knowing how things will play out. Except Callahan knows his weakness, and it's, in part his own self-contempt as well as his guttering faith that dooms him. He goes in with eyes open...and fails anyway.

Recently, when I hit a boring patch in another novel I was reading, I realized that I wanted to re-read Salem's Lot, and bought a copy of it on the Kindle (including a new forward, an afterword, and the two short stories related to the novel). I burned through it; the book holds up quite well.

And Father Callahan broke my heart again.

So much so that I overcame my old presumption against all epic fantasy not authored by Tolkien himself or Ursula K. LeGuin, and decided to follow Father Callahan's trail into King's novel cycle, The Dark Tower.

OK, I was wrong. The books are uneven, brilliant and--er, less so--in parts, but they have a life to them, and, as the story advances, King's handle on his epic--pastiche, metafiction, what-you-will--gets stronger and surer. Ultimately, it works.

And Callahan's redemption is very, very satisfying. Not orthodox, mind you, and the CDF might want a word with the good Pere Callahan, but what would you? Satisfying as well is King's tribute to Robert Browning, and the last twist of the novel--so quick you could miss it if you blink--which holds out the promise of--

"Spoilers, sweetie."


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