I'm not a Stephen King fan. I find nearly all his novels wordy and over-long, with little plot and pointless rehashes of older works. But his early works are, quite honestly, masterpieces. These include Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Christine, Cycle of the Werewolf, It, and Misery. Very few of his later works, perhaps with the exception of Dolores Claiborne and The Green Mile, are anywhere near as good as these earlier works.
My first exposure to King was The Stand, perhaps his best novel ever. I read it in high school, and while not very scary or horrifying it utterly fascinated me with its endless collection of quirky characters, its superb portrayal of a society which has completely collapsed, its depiction of mental illness, and its human personification of evil (in both Harold Lauder and Randall Flagg). Shortly thereafter, I saw the filmed version of Carrie and The Shining, and I quickly read both novels. Neither scared me much, but in the summer after my senior year of high school I read 'Salem's Lot.
I locked the windows against the hot summer air, I put a chair against the door, I hung a cross over my bed, and I kept the lights on for a week.
The novel terrified me.
It took me years to understand what King did in 'Salem's Lot, and why the novel was so uncanny.
'Salem's Lot is about a small town in Maine. It's nondescript, not even quaint. The town has two claims to fame: First, that in the 1930s a gangster lived in a large Victorian house built atop a small hill overlooking the town. The gangster killed his wife and committed suicide after nine years, and the house has stood empty ever since. Second, a forest fire almost burned the town down in 1951, but the fire was diverted at the last moment by an enterprising young man (who died in a freak accident less than seven years later). The town of Jerusalem's Lot (hyphenated to "Salem's Lot" by everyone) is like many small towns in the mid-1970s: A large section of town is now mobile homes, occupied by the exploited working poor; the town is mostly older people who have little to do but gossip and social climb; most of the young people leave as soon as they can; the town's leading citizens are corrupt in both large and small ways; and social ills fester beneath the bucolic surface. There's no real community in Salem's Lot, even though everyone thinks there is. King later writes that "No one pronounced the town of Jerusalem's Lot dead on the morning of October 6"; in fact, the town died a long time ago, if you think about it.
For King, as for Alfred Hitchcock and Henry James and Charlotte Brontë, bucolic settings are the hiding place of the most twisted and horrifying evil. It's King's oeuvre. There can be problems with this, as King rarely discusses or confronts the evil of cities. He is a seemingly critic of the modern economy that has torn the heart out of small towns like Salem's Lot, and yet he rarely goes beyond that to criticize the way the modern economy has changed cities as well.
Ben Mears is the foil in 'Salem's Lot. Most people would say "hero", but for reasons below I don't think he is. Rather, Ben is the person who stands in for King, at least in part, because he has problems that he thinks can be solved by "going home" to that bucolic setting that he so loved as a child. Now, King is no nostalgic. He knows full well that the past was never this sunshiney-The Music Man-Pepperidge Farms past of perfect goodness and joy that is far too often depicted in lesser novels. Ben Mears has suffered greatly as a child during his say in Salem's Lot, and he largely either ignores this or so compartmentalizes it that he nonetheless returns there to exorcise his demons.
'Salem's Lot is a vampire novel, which should surprise no one. King wrote it because he loved Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, but found Stoker's work too positive and too confident that modern technology would save the day against a medieval terror like Count Dracula. King's wife gave him the idea of having a modern vampire settle in a small town in America, as that would be far more like the peasant background which he was used to in Europe. King's other goal in writing 'Salem's Lot was to bring back the horror people felt about vampires. Because of their portrayal in film and changing morality about sexual taboos, King felt that vampires had long lost any of the terror that they once held. (The vampire mythos would be completely undermined by Anne Rice a year after the publication of 'Salem's Lot with her first novel, Interview With the Vampire. Twilight and its sick, deformed, pathetic ilk are linear descendants of Rice's novel.)
There are a million spoilers behind here, so if you've not read 'Salem's Lot -- don't go further.
So let's have a a brief review of the book: The town of Jerusalem's Lot was founded in 1765 AD. The original name of the town seems lost. Its current name, however, derives from an escaped pig named Jerusalem. After it went feral in the woods, children were warned to "stay out of Jerusalem's lot". (A short story, "Jerusalem's Lot", published in the anthology Night Shift in 1978, reveals more of the town's backstory: The town was originally called Chapelwaite, and overseen by a huge mansion. Founded by Puritan heretics who worshipped the Cthulu "Old Gods" -- King's homage to the influential horror writer H.P. Lovecraft -- and then interbred incestuously with one another, the story follows one Charles Boone and his valet, Calvin McCann, who return to the town in 1850 to reclaim the family past. He discovers two undead ghouls in the basement, and then finds a profaned church in the town. They discover an occult book, The Mysteries of the Worm -- another Lovecraft mention -- and return to the satanic chapel to burn the book there. But a host of undead, including Boone's ancestors, emerges. Boone mysteriously utters occult spells against his will, McCann is killed, and Boone snaps out of his stupor in time to burn the book and stop a hideous demonic worm from emerging from beneath the church. Boone then commits suicide.)
In 1923, all the people in the town of Momson, Vermont, disappeared. It is implied by the novel that this was the work of a vampire, although whether it was Karl Barlow is unclear. (Salem's Lot is very close to other towns, so once all the townspeople are dead the vampire plague slowly begins spreading to nearby communities within a year. Momson, however, was not near any other town, and the vampire plague there appears to have been unable to spread.)
In 1928, Boston gangster and hitman Hubie Marsten moved to Salem's Lot with his wife, Birdie. They took up residence in an existing, large Victorian mansion overlooking the town. (Who built the mansion, when, or who lived there before the Marstens is not revealed.) Recluses, their bodies were discovered in the house in 1939: Marsten shot his wife in the head, then hung himself in the upstairs bedroom. The house was full of magazines and newspapers, and booby-trapped extensively. What no one knows (except the reader) is that Marsten engaged in satanic worship designed to consecrate the house for the arrival of Karl Barlow. He forced his wife to assist in these. Birdie later begged Hubie to kill her because she was so horrified at the evil she'd committed. (This evil goes unmentioned by King.)
In 1951, a forest fire nearly destroyed the town. At the last moment, Ralph Miller -- a worker at the local Gates textile mill -- formed a squad of workers who hosed down the mill buildings to protect them from fire and who quickly built a firebreak at the edge of the mill property. Miller's work succeded not only in saving the mill but the town. Ralph died seven years later in a shredder at the mill in a freak accident. (What no one but the reader realizes is that the fire was arson, set by a straight-A student and compulsive arsonist who attended the local high school. He later was class valedictorian, made hundreds of thousands of dollars as a stockbroker, and died at the age of 38 from a stroke -- haunted his entire life by what he'd done.)
By 1970, 1,319 people lived in Salem's Lot. The town's richest man, although no one knows it, is Larry Crockett. He's a real estate agent who helped build the town's vast mobile home park (whose residents are alcoholics, wife-beaters, adulterers, drug addicts, child rapists, lazybones, and so on). Through shady deals, he manufactured and then sold himself mobile homes, selling them at steep prices to desperate people. Through insider information, Crockett has become wealthy in land speculation. He's a womanizer and misogynist, and his daughter is a slut. Salem's Lot is relatively undeveloped, with the townspeople unwilling to tax themselves to build water, sewer, or provide electricity through a public utility. Massive electrical towers march through town. Most of the people gossip, there are plenty of scandals going on (adultery in the Sawyer house, child-beating in the McDougall house, alcoholism in the Roman Catholic church), and nearly all the townspeople work for two large, impersonal corporations (the Gates Mill on the edge of town or Grant's department store in nearby Falmouth).
The novel's protagonist is Ben Mears, age 33. Ben father died when he was young, about age eight or so. His mother had a nervous breakdown, and he was sent at the age of nine (that fact is definitively stated) to live with his mother's sister, Cynthia "Cindy" Stowers. The first year Ben lived in Salem's Lot, some older boys induced him to go into the "haunted" Marsten House and steal an object from it. Ben did so, and retrieved a glass snowglobe from the living room. Deciding to prove his bravery, he went up the steps to the second-floor bedroom. There, however, the ghoulish body of Hubie Marsten -- undead -- hung from the rafters. Ben fled the house, and has been unable to forget the vision ever since. During times of stress, he still dreams about it. He kept the snowglobe, however, as a symbol of his bravery. When Ben turned 13, in 1951, the Great Fire struck the town. It burned down his Aunt Cindy's home, and he was sent back to live with his mother (who'd recovered her sanity). Cindy committed suicide the following year for reasons that are never explained. Ben subsequently became a writer, having published three novels about the modern condition: Air Dance, Conway's Daughter, and Billy Said Keep Going. Although none have been wildly successful, they were enough for him to live on. Ben married a girl named Miranda, and about a year ago (the time frame is not very specific) Ben and Miranda were in a terrible motorcycle accident. Miranda died, although Ben walked away with only a scratch. Ben is haunted by Miranda's death, which is why he has returned to Salem's Lot. He hoped to live in the Marsten House to purge not only his memories of it, but his grief. He intended to write a book about Hubie Marsten.
Ben arrives in Salem's Lot on September 2. He immediately meets pretty Susan Norton, a Boston University art major recently returned to town to live with her parents. Just why Ben falls for Susan is not entirely clear. She's intelligent, yes. She is creative, yes. She's funny and she likes Ben. But the real reason for his sudden interest in her and the real reason for his falling in love with her are just not clear at all.
In many ways, Susan is a blank slate as well, despite her presence in two-thirds of the novel. Susan has an apparently good relationship with her parents, although her mother, Ann, is controlling and judgmental. Indeed, Ann quickly becomes so fanatically moralistic (in part, her mind poisoned by town gossip Mabel Werts, and but more so by her own desire to seek out Werts and control her daughter's life) that she seeks to trap Susan in a loveless marriage with bored, unambitious, lower-middle-class local boy Floyd Tibbits. Ann would rather drive Susan from her home than see Susan happy with someone imperfect. In many ways, Susan's growing fondness for Ben Mears seems reactive, not loving. Susan wants out of "The Lot" because it has nothing to offer her. Ben's smart suggestions about how to begin an art career, Ben's creativity, Ben's intelligence, Ben's handsomeness (slick black hair, thin but strong body, classic good looks), and later Ben's seeming courage all attract her. But is it because she is truly in love with Ben, or is it because she's simply clinging to the first "real man" she's met in a year? Is it because she's reacting to her mother's suffocating manipulation, or because she really loves Ben?
I myself am suspicious of Susan's feelings. As Mark Petrie insightfully points out later, Susan is actually fairly stupid. She doesn't think things through, she does not believe anything that lies outside her range of experience, and she's somewhat over-rational. Indeed, even though Susan allegedly loves Mark, trusts Father Callahan, and admires teacher Matt Burke, she wants to prove for herself that everything they say is true. This leads directly to her death. Now, it is true that Ben Mears is deeply broken up by Susan's death. He can barely bring himself to stake her later in the novel. Father Callahan asks Ben to be Susan's lover, even her husband, in freeing her soul from the curse of vampirism. (King lifted that almost directly from Dracula, by the way.) But Ben's first admission of love is to 12-year-old Mark Petrie. Ben's final admission of love is to Mark Petrie. And as Ben leaves Salem's Lot on October 8 after burying Jimmy Cody and the Petries, the unseen narrator of the story tells us that Ben "began to drive south toward Mark, toward his life." Isn't it odd that Ben's life finally begins with his love for Mark, not his love for Susan? The reader is really left questioning whether Ben's love for Susan was real, or whether both people were just fooling themselves. Was Ben even capable of love in the wake of Miranda's death? Even after a year, could he really have loved Susan? You have to wonder.
About 10 or 11 days after Ben arrives in Salem's Lot, Richard Throckett Straker arrives in town, too. Straker is the 58-year-old son of a furniture maker in Manchester, England. Tall, bald, somewhat odd looking, courtly, thin (but immensely strong), and with a slightly forced or stilted way of talking, Straker is the vampire's human familiar. He approaches Larry Crockett and asks to buy two properties in town for just $1: The Marsten House and the old laundry, the Village Washtub. Straker reveals that he knows about Crockett's shady dealings (he implicitly threatens to expose him), and also offers Crockett insider knowledge of a massive shopping mall that is soon to be built on the outskirts of Salem's Lot. Crockett, he suggests, will make a million dollars by purchasing this worthless land now. But to "buy in" to the project, he must essentially pay $25,000 for the Marsten House and Village Washtub himself and give them to Straker.
What's fascinating about 'Salem's Lot is just how swiftly the events of the novel occur. Between September 16 and October 6, just 20 days pass. Yet, within those not-quite three weeks, the town becomes overrun with vampires.
The first incident is the kidnapping of Ralphie Glick, a young boy (his age is not specified, but he's assumed to be only about nine or 10 years old). The date is September 21, and it's Straker who hunts Danny and Ralphie Glick in the woods not more than a few hundred yards from their home. That night, Ralphie is held upside down by his ankles in the Harmony Hill Cemetery (close to the spot where Cindy Stowers' house used to be) and gutted alive as an offering to Satan. This prepares the way for Barlow's arrival in Salem's Lot, which occurs on the evening of September 22. (Hank Peters and Royal Snow pick up his crate at the Portland docks at 7 PM.)
Danny Glick is bitten, probably by Barlow, on the night of September 22-September 23. Danny collapses on September 23, and is bitten and killed by Barlow shortly before 1:00 A.M. on September 24. Danny is buried on September 28, and rises from the grave at sunset that same day to bite Mike Ryerson (town groundskeeper and gravedigger). Because the Glicks are Jewish, Danny is cosmeticized but not embalmed. It takes him four days to become a vampire.
Events quickly spiral out of control:
- Night of October 2-October 3: Danny Glick bites Floyd Tibbits. Tibbits gains incredible strength, but also a severe allergy to sunlight. (Ben later incorrectly assumes that Mike Ryerson bit Floyd. But with Mike dead less than six hours, and his autopsy not yet begun much less finished, this seems impossible.) Danny Glick also bites his mother, Marjorie Glick, the same night. Mike Ryerson dies the same night, four days after first being bitten.
- Day of October 3: Floyd Tibbits assaults Ben Mears for stealing away Susan Norton. Ben is hospitalized. Susan sees him in the hospital, then travels back to Salem's Lot to see Matt Burke -- who convinces her that there are vampires in town. Before midnight, Mike Ryserson rises from the grave after less than 24 hours of death. He bites and kills undertaker Carl Foreman, and appears to Matt Burke -- giving him a heart attack.
- Night of October 3-October 4: Danny Glick bites and kills the 10-month-old baby Randy McDougall. Floyd Tibbits dies in jail.
- Day of October 4: Ben Mears and Susan Norton confer, and agree there are vampires in town. Marjorie Glick is seriously ill from being bitten. Dud Rogers is missing (dead, sleeping beneath his shack at the dump).
- Night of October 4-October 5: Reggie Sawyer catches 22-year-old telephone lineman Corey Barton in bed with Bonnie Sawyer. He humiliates Barton, then beats his wife mercilessly and rapes her repeatedly. Barlow bites Barton, leaving him alive. Danny Glick appears at 12-year-old Mark Petrie's window, but Mark fights him off with a cross. Frustrated, Danny returns to his home and kills his mother, Marjorie Glick. Floyd Tibbits and baby Randy McDougall both rise from the dead while in the morgue.
- Day of October 5: Ben, Matt, and Susan confer in the morning. Matt convinces his physician, Dr. Jimmy Cody, that vampires exist in Salem's Lot. Ben is released from the hospital. Mark Petrie and Susan Norton go to the Marsten House, where they are both kidnapped. Mark escapes at sunset, and goes home suffering from shock. Susan does not escape, and dies at Barlow's hands. Later that evening, Barlow hangs Straker by his ankles in the second-floor bedroom and disembowels him for allowing Mark to escape. At about 7 P.M., Dr. Jimmy Cody and Ben Mears watch as Marjorie Glick rises from the dead in Maury Green's funeral home. She attempts to bite Cody, but he fends her off and she escapes. Matt Burke convinces Father Callahan that there are vampires in Salem's Lot.
- Night of October 5-October 6: Susan Norton appears at Mark's window, but he fends her off with his cross. (She has been dead only a few hours before rising.) Mrs. Crockett is already dead and lying behind her pantry shelves in the cellar. Ruthie Crockett is kidnapped by Dud Rogers in the night, and killed. Librarian Loretta Starcher, garbage worker Virgil Rathbun, town drunk Ed "Weasel" Craig, and millworker Mickey Sylvester are also killed. Garbage worker Franklin Boddin is bitten but is alive. (Eva Miller notices that millworker Grover Verrill is missing. But Verrill either is bitten and survives, or just left early for the day.) Danny Glick bites and kills 14-year-old farm boy Jack Griffen, who dies and rises immediately to bite and kill his 18-year-old brother, Hal.
Much of October 6 is spent vampire-hunting. Interestingly, Susan Norton can appear during the day. First thing in the morning, she bites and kills County Sheriff Homer McCaslin, and bites but does not kill her mother, Ann Norton. Ben sleeps in after his assault, so Mark is unable to tell him about Susan's death until late morning. They go to look for her. Ben and Mark discover McCaslin's revolver in the grass outside the Marsten House just hours after McCaslin's death. That afternoon, Father Callahan hears confession from Ben, Mark, and Dr. Cody. Callahan arms himself with some holy water, communion wafers, and a crucifix. The four go to a grocery store to buy garlic. They try to buy white roses (a traditional means of warding off the undead), but learn that Straker had purchased all the roses in the tri-city area on Friday, October 3. Late in the afternoon, they enter the Marsten House. They find Barlow gone, Straker disemboweled, the vampiric Susan's body, and a letter addressed to the four of them. In his letter to the vampire hunters, Barlow mocks the efforts of the vampire hunters and claims to be more than 2,000 year old. He makes only two threats: First, to castrate and then kill Mark, and second to kill Mark's parents. Ben stakes Susan. Dr. Cody and Ben decapitate Susan, fill her mouth with garlic, and bury her under the running water of the Royal River. Father Callahan blesses the basement of the Marsten House with holy water, and seals the doors with holy wafer.
The night of October 6 is a hellish one. Dr. Cody and Ben head back to the hospital to confer with Matt. By dividing their forces, they leave themselves open to attack. Shortly after dark, Barlow bursts into the Petrie household and kills Mark's parents by crushing their skulls. He captures Mark, but Callahan holds him off with the cross. Barlow agrees to release Mark if Callahan will engage in a test of faith with him. Callahan agrees. Mark is freed, but spits on Barlow (enraging him) and flees. Callahan begins to reason his way out of the battle, losing his faith. Barlow makes Callahan drink his vampiric blood. Now unclean, Callahan flees Salem's Lot. Meanwhile, half-vampiric Ann Norton arrives at the hospital to kill Ben Mears. Mark gets there just in time to warn someone, and she is stopped. She dies hours later. Later that night, school kids slaughter vindictive bus driver Charlie Rhodes; milkman Irwin Purinton is killed; Corey Barton takes revenge on Reggie Sawyer by killing his wife and then him; and boardinghouse owner Eva Miller is killed by Weasel Craig, and her house taken over by Barlow.
The horror deepens on October 7. Mark remembers that Barlow had two tiny blue chalk marks on his sleeve. The vampire hunters assume he is now hiding in a school or pool hall. Ben, Mark, and Dr. Cody go back into town to find it almost dead. Dr. Cody argues with Ben about what they can do. He points out that Matt Burke thinks there are now 300 to 500 vampires in the town. Given the immense emotional stress involved with killing Susan, just how does Ben think he's going to handle killing another 200 to 300 vampires without having an emotional breakdown? And what about Mark? He'll be a "nutjob" within days, Cody says. There seems no way to stop the vampire plague. The two agree to put off the discussion while they work on Barlow. The three go to the Petrie house, where Ben stays behind to make stakes while Cody and Mark go off to locate vampires. Ben suggests that vampires are basically not very intelligent -- a theory taken from Dracula -- until centuries have passed, ad their blood-hunger overrides thought. Finding the hiding places first, and then attacking them on October 8 is probably better...
Dr. Cody and Mark go to the McDougall house, discovering Royce, Sandy, and baby Randy there. They experiment with dragging Royce into the sunlight, but it does not kill him. Dr. Cody suddenly remembers that Eva Miller had a billiard table in her basement. He convinces Mark to go with him to the boarding house to investigate. If Barlow is not there, nothing lost. If he is, they get Ben and come back and stake him... Unfortunately, Barlow has imitated his old lackey, Marsten, and rigged the house with a booby-trap that kills Dr. Cody in a grisly, excrutiating, and bloody way. Mark goes catatonic for an hour, then finally wakes and finds Ben. Ben, meanwhile, learns that Matt Burke has succumbed to heart problems in the hospital. With just Mark left, Ben goes back to the boardinghouse. They discover Barlow's coffin, and Barlow manages to hypnotize Mark briefly. Ben knocks Mark out, and then kills Barlow. They escape the town just in time.
Ben holes up with a catatonic Mark in a small town in New Hampshire. On October 8, he drives back to Salem's Lot. He destroys the snowglobe and book manuscript he was working on. Then he retrieves Dr. Cody's body, and buries him and the Petries in the woods. He leaves town just as the sun is going down.
Nearly all the novel is told in flashback. Ben and Mark drive to Rhode Island, where Ben works for a while in a textile mill. They stop again in Youngstown, Ohio, where Ben works for three months in a tractor assembly plant. They then drive to California and live in a small town on the Mexican border, where Ben works in a garage fixing cars and pumping gas. Mark remains uncommunicative most of the time, not speaking much. He is anxious any time Ben leaves his sight. Only in California, after several months, does Mark begin to claw his way back to normalcy. Ben, meanwhile, keeps buying the Maine newspapers wherever they live, and looks for mentions of Salem's Lot. He occasionally finds tiny articles about missing people or strange occurrences. While in Rhode Island, Ben wrote an outline for a book. The content is not mentioned, but the reader is probably correct in assuming it was about Salem's Lot and vampires. After some time, Ben finished a manuscript and sent it to his publisher. It was accepted, earning Ben $12,000.
But Mark sometimes screamed in the night. Ben worried that their lifestyle was not helping.
Ben and Mark crossed the border into Mexico. They spent several months in Mexico in a tiny town near the Pacific Ocean. Mark became a Catholic. Two weeks after Mark decided to convert, a major story about Salem's Lot and its missing citizens appeared in a Maine newspaper. Two months later, during his first Catholic confession, Mark tells the local priest about the vampires. The priest asks Ben if it is true. Ben tells him it is. The priest accepts their story.
A week later, Ben tells Mark he has to go back. Mark asks him if he loves him. "Yes. God, yes," Ben responds. Mark weeps. A week later, they returned to Salem's Lot.
They arrived in Portland, Maine, in mid-September 1976. After waiting for three weeks, the weather turned incredibly dry. They set the town on fire, just as happened in 1951. But with no one to stop the flames, Salem's Lot would be destroyed this time. Ben tells Mark that they have a life of vampire-hunting ahead of them, a life that may drive them both mad.
"They have their places. But they could lose them. A lot of them could be killed...or destroyed. That's a better word. But not all of them. Do you understand?"
"They're not very bright. If they lose their hiding places, they'll hide badly the second time. A couple of people just looking in obvious places could do well. Maybe it could be finished in 'salem's Lot by the time the first snow flew. Maybe it would never be finished. No guarantee, one way or the other. But without...something...to drive them out, to upset them, there would be no chance at all."
"It would be ugly and dangerous."
"I know that."
"But they say fire purifies. Purification should count for something, don't you think?"
"We ought to go back."
"Tonight they won't be running sheep or visiting farms. Tonight they'll be on the run. And tomorrow -- "
"You and me."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Much of the praise for 'Salem's Lot is directed at the novel's descriptive power, particularly the way it makes terror and fear come alive for the reader in ways few other books have. The emphasis is not in describing something really horrific, such as bloody teeth or red-rimmed eyes, but rather at describing terror itself. In many ways, critics argue, King's novel is less about horror and more about terror. Terror is anxious and deep fear at something one anticipates seeing. But horror is about the revulsion one feels at seeing the terrible thing. Both may include the feeling of fear, but terror encourages the individual to flee through fear alone while horror invokes the flight-instinct through both fear and disgust.
A number of critic have also praised 'Salem's Lot for its neo-epistolarly format. The epistolary novel first arose in 1485. This is a literary format in which the story is carried not by straightforward narration but told to the reader view letters, interviews, documents, and other written elements that normally are not considered literary. Dracula, for example, is an epistolary novel in its entirety. It consists primarily of diary entries, newspaper articles, private letters, medical records, transcriptions, and similar allegedly non-fiction forms of writing. Stephen King very much liked the epistolary nature of Dracula, but did not want to imitate it for his vampire book. Instead, the narrative style of 'Salem's Lot shifts wildly. Some chapters or sub-chapters are mere dialogue. Others are third-person omniscient, and still others are written almost as an aside by the author to the reader. The tense of the novel frequently shifts from past-tense to present-tense, and occasionally slips into future-tense. Much of the novel is explicitly in flashback, with two bookends -- the first being Ben and Mark's flight from Salem's Lot to California and then Mexico and their decision to return, and the second being their return and burning of the town. These two bookends are told without referencing first names, with the characters being referred to as "the tall man" and "the boy". But even so, the final bookend shifts from the nondescript to "Ben" and "Mark" once the two return to Salem's Lot. This shift in "voice" is done so subtlely, and with such precision, that it is widely praised.
There is quite a lot of praise for the deep characterization of Ben Mears, Susan Norton, Matt Burke, and Father Donald Callahan as well. Critics find these characters heroic, and thus tragic, and love them.
Quite frankly, though, I think a lot of that is misplaced.
Let's consider Ben Mears. Here is a guy who has been running from his personal demons his entire life. He's never been able to get past the experience with the ghoul Hubie Marsten, and even though he's mentally and emotionally well-balanced -- he's little more than a little boy who ran away from his fears. He's never confronted what happened to him, and in some ways this has left him bullied. One doesn't doubt that he loved Miranda Mears. But his somewhat... infantilism? immaturity? fear?... may well have left him too afraid of real intimacy to go as far with his love as he might have. It's clearly left him incapable of handling her death. Ben has returned to Salem's Lot claiming to want to exorcise his demons. But as he himself admits, he has no intention of ever going up those stairs again.
What I find most interesting about Ben is the way he carries that snowglobe around with him. It's a sort of talisman, a symbol of his bravery. It is, in fact, no symbol at all. But Ben clings to it as if it were, as if looking at it could reassure him that, yes, once upon a time, he was, in fact, brave. But I find that the snowglobe acts more like a "Red Badge of Courage" -- a claim to bravery, but one which the possesor knows is false.
Ben destroys his snowglobe the his last day in Salem's Lot. Why? Because, I think, he's learned that the fears of childhood are nothing compared to the real fears of adulthood, of the real world. Whatever he saw in the Marsten House is nothing compared to the real terror of vampires, of staking Susan, of knowing that there are worse things than death.
Does this novel have a hero?
Yes, it does. It is 12-year-old Mark Petrie.
Mark Petrie. Even the name means "rock". And throughout the novel, Mark remains the rock on which all the other vampire hunters rely. At best, Ben Mears has to confront Barlow, an immobile Susan, an immobile Mike Ryerson, and six vampires in the Miller boarding house that cannot touch him (because he's washed in holy water). Ben does so days after coming to the intellectual realization that there are vampires in town, and thus being able to accommodate himself to the knowledge. Ben does so in the company of Dr. Cody when he sees Marjorie Glick rise and in a large number of friends when he confronts his first vampire (the immobile Susan), and with friends again when he confronts the last vampires (Barlow and the six in the boarding house).
Mark, on the other hand, encounters his first vampire alone. He has no time to prepare mentally or emotionally, and lacks any of the moral support of friends (much less adults). Mark goes alone into the Marsten House to confront Barlow when not even Ben or Dr. Cody will do so. Mark alone knows how to prepare to handle a vampire, which none of the others do. Mark also confronts vampiric Susan Norton alone, and then confronts the McDougalls -- including the baby, Randy, as well as the flopping, grotesque, wet body of Royce when it is exposed to the sun. Mark, like Ben, confronts an immobile Susan and Mike, and Mark, like Ben, confronts Barlow and the six vampires in the basement of the boarding house.
The simple fact is, Mark has confronted vampires on his own, vampires without preparation, more vampires, and more dangerous vampires, than Ben or Dr. Cody.
Furthermore, it is Mark who shows the most knowledge and thoughtfulness of any of the characters (except, perhaps, Matt Burke). He has the foresight to see how me might escape Straker's bondage. It is Mark who has the foresight to identify a means of killing the much taller man, and Mark who has the courage to go a few feet down the stairs to try to save Susan before Barlow gets to her. (Despite having been tortured and just having killed a man twice his size, Mark descends, weeping and trembling, into the basement to try to save Susan. Only when Barlow calls out to him in his own father's voice does Mark flee.) It's Mark who realizes that Barlow is gone from the Marsten House (the smell of wet, rotting flesh is much reduced) when the vampire hunters seek out Susan. And it's Mark -- who has fled Barlow, seen the death of his parents, and spent most of the last hour near-catatonic -- who sees Ann Norton entering the Central Maine Hospital, realizes she is insane and has no reason to be there, and alerts a man and the hospital staff to the fact that she has a gun -- thereby saving Ben Mears' life. And it's Mark who spots the two small blue chalk marks on Barlow's sleeve that provide the clue to where the master vampire is hiding, and it's Mark who in the depth of despair and terror almost immediately identifies Barlow's hiding place behind the Welsh cupboard in the basement of the Miller boarding house.
It's Mark who also has the most courage. Imagine just how difficult it must have been for him to tell an adult (Ben Mears) that his lover (Susan Norton) has been killed by the vampire. When the vampire hunters return to Marsten House and find Barlow's letter to them, Mark is among them when they see the disemboweled and profaned body of Straker hanging in the upstairs bedroom. Unlike Ben did after seeing Hubie Marsten's ghoul, Mark doesn't scream or run. Mark shows equal courage in the basement when the vampire hunters seek out Susan's body. Indeed, Mark doesn't tremble; Ben does. Mark also has the courage to listen to Dr. Cody's stethoscope to verify that she's dead, not Ben.
I find it surprising just how highly praised Mark's courage and skills are by everyone else. When Susan dies, Barlow tells Mark that he admires him for having escaped and put Straker out of commission. In Barlow's letter to the vampire hunters, the vampire threatens them all with death. But he singles out two: Father Callahan and Mark. Callahan he picks for mockery. But only Mark does he threaten with revenge: First, with castration, and then, with the death of his parents. (To a boy just entering puberty, the castration threat may have seemed particularly grotesque.) Later, when the vampire hunters meet with Matt Burke to discuss the staking of Susan, it's Burke -- the Van Helsing of the group (as both Ben and Dr. Cody agree) -- who calls Mark "remarkable". No one else seems to realize that.
The scene which best demonstrates Mark's courage, willpower, and maturity is the one in which his parents are killed. Barlow bursts into the Petrie home (uninvited, it should be noted), and kills Mark's parents by crushing their skulls. In a rage, Mark rushes at Barlow. On the face of it, it seems foolhardly. But look at it again: Mark does the one thing no one else seems capable of, which is attacking the vampire head-one. Moments later, even though Barlow has held him in a vise-like grip and threatened to slit his throat, Mark still turns and spits directly into Barlow's face -- the one act in the entire novel that causes Barlow to practically go mad with rage. And Mark twists the knife further by threatening to kill Barlow!
What is Barlow's assessment of all this? He tells Callahan that Mark is worth 10 of the other vampire hunters.
Mark is also one of the few people in the novel to show grief. When Ben Mears learns from Mark that Susan is dead, he shows no emotion. When Ben finishes staking Susan, the woman he ostensibly loves, he rushes up the stairs, into the back yard, and cries out just once. But he does not weep for her. Mark, on the other hand, rushes out of Marsten House with Susan's screams in his ears, weeping. When Mark's parents are killed, he exhibits rage, then catatonia, at their deaths. Comforted by the fatherly Matt Burke, he weeps bitterly for them in the hospital.
It's interesting that Ben shows little concern for Bill and Ann Norton's feelings. He knows their daughter is dead, but he does almost nothing to warn them about any coming attack from Susan. When Ann Norton, Ben's nemesis in the Norton household, dies, one doesn't expect Ben to grieve. But he does nothing to warn Bill Norton, with whom he has a warm relationship. Indeed, Bill Norton is last seen in the novel driving to the hospital to see his dead wife -- who, one presumes, will rise within hours and undoubtedly kill her husband.
Mark Petrie, on the other hand, shows immense concern for others. When he is brought to his parents' home the morning after their murder, he asks Ben to ensure that they are dead and to cover their bodies with a sheet (one assumes to provide them with a kind of dignity). When Ben tells Mark that his parents are dead and not undead, Mark shows little emotion. What is there to say about such a fact? It's human beings Mark cares about. Mark acknowledges that his father, whom he loved but wasn't close to, would nonetheless have made a good vampire. Then Mark momentarily pushes aside his grief and helps the vampire hunters locate both wood and machinery to help them with their task. He then sits in the car, alone, weeping.
* * * * * *
Foresight. Courage. Emotion. Concern for others. Recognition of his skill and willpower.
These are the critical elements which King builds for Mark Petrie, and which nearly all the other characters lack.
And yet, it is these characteristics which put Mark at the most peril by the end of the novel. It is as Dr. Cody tells Ben: Driving stakes into what appear to be living bodies, hundreds if not thousands of times over the next months... It will drive the 12-year-old Mark stark raving mad. At some point, the police will discover what it is they have done and the authorities will accuse them of murder.
Mark is already in an emotionally fragile state. Now, in some ways, Mark's youth protects him. As King points out after Mark has driven off Danny Glick, boys can more easily accept realities that their adult friends cannot. Mark goes to sleep after almost being bit by a vampire, while Matt Burke sits terrified in his bedroom, sleepless. And yet, at the same time, Mark is not immune. Mark feels love and grief that most of the adults are no longer capable of. While Mark shows a distinct presence of mind after the encounters with Danny Glick, Susan Norton, and even Barlow (when he and Susan enter the Marsten House), later he begins to suffer a great deal emotionally. The hour it takes to hitch-hike to the Central Maine Hospital he spends nearly catatonic. (He's unable to remember anything of the driver who picked him up, or the trip there.) He collapses, weeping, on Matt Burke's bed, shortly thereafter. The following day, Mark has Dr. Cody experiment with vampires by dragging Royce McDougall out from under his mobile home trailer and subjecting the vampire to daylight. It is a hideous thing to see:
Roy McDougall began to writhe as soon as the light struck him full, almost like a man who has been disturbed in sleep. Steam and moisture came from his pores, and the skin underwent a slight sagging and yellowing. Eyeballs rolled behind the skin of his closed lids. His feet kicked slowly and dreamily in the wet leaves. His upper lip curled back, showing upper incisors like those of a large dog -- a German shepherd or a collie. His arms thrashed slowly, the hands clenching and unclenching, and when one of them brushed Mark's shirt, he jerked back with a disgusted cry.
Roy turned over and began to hunch slowly back into the crawl space, arms and knees and face digging grooves in the rain-softened humus. Jimmy noted that a hitching, Cheyne-Stokes type of respiration had begun as soon as the light struck the body; it stopped as soon as McDougall was wholly in shadow again. So did the moisture extrusion.
When he had reached his previous resting place, McDougall turned over and lay still.
Mark is so disgusted by the mere brush of McDougall's tortured, half-living flesh that in the next home they visit he removes his shirt and launders it in the sink to remove the vestige of it.
Mark's mental condition only deteriorates from there. When he and Dr. Cody enter the Miller boarding house, King describes Mark's haunted, twitchy behavior as "battle fatigue". When Cody falls into the trap set by Barlow and is impaled on six knives, screaming and dying slowly, Mark goes catatonic again. It takes him nearly an hour to climb down into the basement, find Dr. Cody's body, and then climb out again. A whole hour passes, and when he finally emerges from the basement -- he begins screaming, and does not stop screaming for several minutes. After he stops screaming, he stumbles into the back yard and lies in the earth for several more minutes. King describes Mark's bravery and strength of will by noting that "the steel in him came up" again, which is the only way Mark was able to get up, get Dr. Cody's car, and get Ben's help. Even so, Mark weeps uncontrollably as he drives to get him.
Only twice times does Stephen King call something brutal. The first is when Richard Straker binds Mark and purposefully tortures the boy's testicles by making sure the cord is tight around them. The second is when Ben Mears -- unable to go into the Miller boarding house and kill Barlow himself -- forces Mark to go with him. As they approach the house, Mark says he can't go in. All the terrors, horrors, grief, and agony of the past three days has caught up to him, and he admits he is too scared to go in. Ben knows full well that the only way to get Mark to go forward is to brutalize him. He reminds Mark that he lost Susan (but also says he may not have loved her), that they both lost Jimmy, and that Mark lost his parents. Like a football coach urging on his team, he demands that Mark "get mad" by going to go look at the dead bodies of his parents. Ben sees the agony and horror he's caused Mark, but he keeps going. Ben admits he may not succeed, essentially admitting he is dragging Mark to his death. But Ben also admits he needs Mark with him. "And that was the truth, pure and naked", King writes. Mark's internal turmoil is symbolized by the twisting of his fingers and hands, which he holds in his lap. But Mark agrees to go.
Notice what's happened here? The 33-year-old man admits that he has none of the knowledge, insight, instinct, hope, presence of mind, skill, courage, or bravery to take on Barlow. To take on the vampire the way Mark did two days earlier, or even that afternoon. Ben NEEDS Mark to stiffen his spine and his resolve. He also knows that he's going to destroy that kid in the process. But he does it anyway. And Mark has the gentleness of soul and unashamed feelings for others that submits to such brutal manipulation.
That's not to say that Mark's mental state is better. To the contrary: When Ben and Mark encounter Constable Gillespie on their way to the Miller boarding house, Gillespie informs them that he knows what's happening to the town, and he's too frightened to do anything about it. He's leaving town, and abandoning everyone to their fate. This unnerves Mark. I don't think it's the collapse of adult authority that terrifies him so much as the complete and utter collapse of the social order. Mark has faith, you see. Faith that good people, banding together, can have hope for the future. That even if people are scared and flawed, by holding on to one another things can be set right. Or partly right.
Mark believes in hope, you see.
No one else does.
It's not entirely clear what Ben does when he and Mark finally re-enter the Miller boarding house to confront Barlow. Seeing the doorway through which he had fled after Jimmy Cody's death leaves Mark almost catatonic again. It's not Barlow or vampires that does it to him. It's the thought of once more seeing poor Jimmy Cody's body lying there, impaled by numerous blades, his life blood covering the floor, his last words warning Mark to look out, beware... His last words trying to care for Mark, not take advantage of him. Ben tries to give him hope by handing over a vial of holy water, but Mark recoils from them. This is would make Mark a believer, a person like Father Callahan. And as Mrs. Curless reminded him just minutes earlier, the last time Mark saw Father Callahn, the priest was holding a brilliantly glowing cross up in the air to keep Barlow at bay, to keep Barlow from pursuing and killing Mark. But Mark knows that Father Callahan failed. Taking the holy water will make Mark (again, as Mrs. Callahan unwittingly reminds him) "about the same work" as the now-lost priest. The holy water represents loss for Mark, failure -- another failure of good against evil, just like Gillespie failed.
Ben is able to get this frightened, despairing, but very, very human boy to fight this all-powerful vampire by appealing to the one thing Mark is: Human. "Mark, I need you. You and me, that's all that's left." His appeal, whether he knows it or not, is to the deep humanity which Mark has exhibited throughout the novel. It's not clear that Ben understands what the holy water represents to Mark, nor just what he is asking of the little boy.
But there is one thing Mark has that Ben does not, and it is a deep and abiding commitment to other people. He takes the holy water, rubs the vials across his chest, and agrees to go inside the house.
In the end, it is Ben's first and only admission of love that wins the day. The two vampire hunters are confronted with a padlocked, stiff wooden door behind which they know Barlow is hidden. But they cannot hammer the lock off. Seeing an axe on the wall, Ben takes it up. Merely dousing the blade transforms the axe into a weapon, glowing with power, that easily chops open the door. The power -- described as a "column of fire", "possession", an "elemental" force, like "ore, like something coughed up out of the ground in naked chunks", something "that moved the greatest wheels of the universe" -- completely takes over Ben, invest him with a power and energy which Ben has never felt before. It imbues Ben with humanity again:
A hard sense of sureness clasped him, a feeling of inevitable rightness, of whiteness. For the first time in weeks he felt he was no longer groping through fogs of belief and unbelief, sparring with a partner whose body was too insubstantial to sustain blows.
But even though Mark sees this transformation of the axe and of Ben, even though he begs Ben to break down the door quickly, Mark's mental and emotional state is still too fragile to allow him to enter the vampire's lair. He sees Ben's blazing eyes, but when Ben reaches out to take him by the hand, like a father to a son, Mark flinches.
Only Ben's naked statement, "I love you", gives Mark the strength to proceed.
The final confrontation is more than Mark can take. Barlow has the capacity to wake before it is dark, and Mark is caught staring directly into Barlow's eyes. Instantly, the vampire has Mark try to kill Ben with Constable Gillespie's riot gun. Ben is able to stop Mark only by kicking him in the gut and punching him, as hard as he can, in the mouth, twice.
It is too much for Mark. He collapses on the floor. The vampire floods his eyes with darkness so he cannot see, and Mark piteously begs over and over for his mother.
Ben kills Barlow. But he nearly doesn't... The violence directed at Mark draws the power of goodness from him, and he remains nothing more than Ben Mears again. Barlow's thoughts mock Ben, denigrate him. Ben despairs, telling the soul of Jimmy Cody that he is not strong enough.
But notice something. Barlow once more threatens to castrate Mark. And that, and only then, does Ben grab a stake from his belt, lift it high in the air, and thrusts it physically into Barlow chest.
It is Ben's love for Mark, and his desire to save the boy he loves from both castration and death, that enables Ben to overcome his despair and even Barlow's gaze -- and destroy the millennia-old vampire.
The six other vampires, Eva Miller and members of her boarding house, come out. Darkness has finally fallen. But since Mark and Ben washed in holy water before leaving Mrs. Curless and St. Andrew's Catholic Church, the vampires cannot touch them. Mark is so terrified, he cannot move. Ben, in the sort of loving motion a father makes to a son, turns him toward the exit and slaps him on the rear end to get him going.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The whole experience is too traumatic for Mark. Despite his knowledge, his skill, his insight, his humanity, Mark is still a 12-year-old boy. After Mark climbs out of the cellar and into the ground floor kitchen, he becomes catatonic again and lies face down on the floor. Ben carries him to his Citroën. Mark remains curled up on the seat, his eyes open but his mind far, far away. The sight of Jimmy Cody's body, the sight of Barlow, the sight of the six vampires is too much for him. King tells the reader that Mark no longer sees, and his mind holds only images of blank and grey.
Mark wakes but once that night in Ben's Citroën. He starts awake, locks the car doors, then sinks back into catatonia.
The night of October 7, Ben and Mark spend in a motel in a small town across the New Hampshire border. Ben returns to Salem's Lot the following day. With only a few people still living there, Ben goes to the Miller boarding house. He destroys his manuscript, and shatters his snowblow -- the false symbol of his false bravery. He goes to the cellar and scatters Barlow's vampire teeth, then retrieves Cody's body. He goes to the Petrie house, and in the woods behind the home he buries Jimmy Cody and Mark's parents.
As Ben Mears leaves Salem's Lot near sundown on October 8, he begins to cry. They are the only real tears he's shed in the novel.
As Ben leaves Salem's Lot, he "began to drive south toward Mark, toward his life." At last, Ben Mears has a real life. And only because he loves a 12-year-old, very human little boy who is better than any adult in the town.
* * * * * * * * * *
It's not clear when Mark's catatonia ends, but it is probably after Ben returns to New Hampshire. Ben and Mark spend an unspecified amount of time in Rhode Island, where Ben works in a mill. But for reasons not made clear, they leave after a short while and move to Ohio. (The reason may be that they fear the vampires will track them down.) Again, Ohio proves too close for their sanity, and they flee to the seaside California town near the Mexican border.
During the time spent in Rhode Island, Ohio, and California, Mark stays introverted. He responds when spoken to, and is polite. But his mind remainds "gray, blank, nothingness". Only in California does Mark return to a sense of normalcy.
Ben, however, becomes disturbed by the life he and Mark are living. Ben tutors Mark, Mark is a bright student, Mark loves books. But Mark has nightmares, and Ben begins to think that not-talking about Salem's Lot is doing more damage to Mark than anything else.
Note the sudden change. Mark is no longer in control. Now that Ben loves someone, truly loves someone, and has taken on a fatherly role toward Mark, Mark sinks back into childhood. More: He sinks into childishness.
Ben knows, deep down, that they must return to Salem's Lot and finish the job they started. He's known it since they left, as evidenced by his constant purchase of Maine newspapers and his retention of newspaper clippings about the town and the odd events there. The earliest of these is from November 19, 1975, which indicates that Ben made his decision to return very early after leaving Maine.
Ben's new-found humanity and even adulthood enables him to cope with what happened in Salem's Lot more easily than Mark does. We know it because it's Ben who apparently makes the decisions to cross the country and flee -- for Mark's sake. Mark can barely function, and Mark becomes frightened and anxious if Ben even goes to the bathroom or is out of the room for a few moments. In the 2005 illustrated special edition of the novel, Stephen King included some deleted and changed scenes which readers might find interesting. One of these is an extended discussion between Susan and Ben after they have sex in the town park at night. Ben tells Susan that writing is an act of exorcism, and he's going to get rid of the Hubie Marsten vision from his life once and for all. Ben says that he's going to use the Marsten murder-suicide as the basis of a book he titles Night Creature. Hubie Marsten will kidnap, torture, sexually abuse, and murder a number of children as part of horrific satanic rites. Susan accuses Ben of being too clinical about violence, and Ben admits that he is. Ben tells Susan that the murders in the book end with the maniac's suicide. But they begin to recur years later. The hero of Ben's novel is a 10-year-old named Jamie Atwood, who sneaks into the house on a date (sound familiar?) and finds the dead, rotting body of the maniac. It seems the town librarian stole the corpse and began re-eneacting the crimes...but not before killing the boy. Another excised section of the book is extra dialogue between Matt Burke and Ben Mears the night Ben has dinner at Matt's house. Ben tells Matt that "someone close to me" (Miranda Mears, one assumes) died shortly after Ben's second book came out. Ben spent most of the money he had, blew wads of cash in Las Vegas, and rented a cabin in the woods to nurse his emotional wounds. He then went to Mexico, and wrote his third novel.
If we assume that these discussions still occurred, a lot of my descriptions, assumptions, and conclusions about Mark and Ben make sense. But even if we assume that they did not, much of King's thinking about the two characters remains the same.
After many months in California, Ben writes an outline of his fourth book. One must assume it deals with his experiences in Salem's Lot. Although his publisher refuses an advance, Ben writes the book anyway. The publisher is happy with it, and offers an advance of $12,000 immediately. (We know from the excised material that this is about a quarter less than Ben got for his first novel.) Writing, as the reader learns in the deleted text, has exorcised Ben's demons. Unlike Ben's previous novels, however, the publisher believes that the novel will get a Book Club deal -- which means tens of thousands of copies sold.
The sale of the book appears to drive Ben and Mark across the border into Mexico. Why? To flee the vampires, who might learn just where the two were living? I think so. King's description of the small Mexican town of Los Zapatos is one of complete disconnection from the modern world. They cannot even get radio there.
There, in Los Zapatos, Mark begins attending church and converts to Catholicism. And there, after some months (at least two, maybe three and possibly four), comes the extended newspaper article about Salem's Lot. It is the only newspaper article about Salem's Lot that Mark has looked at since their flight from Maine. And the article frightens Mark, the one person with the insight and instinct and knowledge about vampires to save them.
Two months after the newspaper article came out, Mark formally converted. A week later, Ben announced his intention to return to Salem's Lot. And this time, instead of brutalizing Mark and bullying him emotionally into assisting, Ben Mears gently and honestly asks Mark if he will help.
Once more, Mark asks Ben if he loves him. And for the second time in the novel, Ben says he loves Mark.
It makes Mark weep.
Within a week they were back in Maine. Within four weeks, they had torched the town.
Why does Mark weep? Is he merely overcome with joy that someone loves him? Or does he realize just what Ben is asking of him? I think the latter. Mark is 13 years old now. It's taken him the better part of a year to recover, and he still isn't there. Furthermore, even if he and Ben destroy most of the vampires with fire, there is the likelihood of months or years of vampire-hunting during the day. There is every likelihood that they will be charged with murder for staking corpses. Mark is likely to go insane from the sheer emotional weight of it all, if he is not killed first.
Mark weeps, because he loves Ben as much as Ben loves him. And Mark knows that that love will impel him to return to Salem's Lot, and destroy himself. All for love of Ben.
Mark holds a vial of holy water as he and Ben re-enter Salem's Lot. It is the same as the two vials he rubbed against his chest before he accompanied Ben into the Miller boarding house to stop Barlow.
The novel does not end on a downbeat, however. One thing seems to give Mark hope for the first time in a year, even though Ben says that it might take years to kill off all the vampires. And that is that he and Ben will be together. For the first time, the color comes back into Mark's face and his eyes blaze. Confronting the terror that almost consumed him is giving him life again.
The humanity that made Mark Petrie the hero of 'Salem's Lot is what saves him in the end, even though he may be doomed.
That's an upbeat ending.
It's why I like the book.