Reservation Sunsets and ‘Salem’s Lot
Every year, PEN America asks PEN members, supporters, and staff—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. Check out this year’s Banned Books feature here.
In 1982, when Banned Books Week originated, I was in high school, though I don’t recall such a movement occurring in my school. But that doesn’t mean I was untouched by the issue, if only peripherally. Recent justifications I’ve read by censorious people tend to be ornate and sensationalized. Pro-banning testimonials often start with assertions like: “My 13 year old son handed this book to me, saying it wasn’t appropriate for him because it mentioned masturbation.” Seeing these, I first thought: “hyperbole-prone conservative parent.” Mulling over that narrative later, a different possibility occurred to me. The narrative could have been true, an overture made by a smart kid, keeping gullible parents in the dark with a full frontal attack. I was immediately envious of this shock and awe strategy that never would have occurred to me at 13.
Anecdotes like this get to the heart of the Banned Book philosophy. Who, exactly, is being protected by book banning and on what grounds? The prudish parents would be easy targets. Maybe the banning advocate truly is the 13 year old, terrified that his secret life is out, that some novelist had looked into his private world and reported from the front lines. Writers of my generation often say they didn’t encounter organized censorious adults when they were young. Maybe that’s true for them, but I surely encountered one assertive banning advocate in my younger years, and my world would have been a decidedly worse place if she’d had her way.
Being the only pleasure reader in my sports-obsessed family, I largely had free reign in my choices. Yet one older relative kept her eye on me. It started when under the influence of evangelists, she insisted that the band name KISS was an acronym for “Kings in Satanic Service” and forbade her kids from harboring any KISS content. The banning in her own house was not quite enough, though. She believed I, a huge KISS fan in the proximity of her kids, was being seduced into either Satanism or witchcraft. When she saw my copy of ŒSalem’s Lot on our dining room table, she insisted the book was secretly about witchcraft, the novelistic equivalent of the “back-masking” she so worried about in rock music —it had the word “Salem” right in the title! Though my mother either trusted my judgment or was indifferent to these banning attempts, this relative maintained a vigilant eye on the bad influence I might be on her kids. Through adolescence, I was a human Banned Book by proxy.
To be fair, I’d been a designated Family Weirdo long before Stephen King entered my life. My first pleasure books, escapes from my life, were extensions of my established interests: horror movie “novelizations,” slightly embellished screenplays, discovered on grocery store magazine racks. My early reading had consisted of comics and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Who knows how we come to love the things we do? Maybe I’d grown to love monsters because their lives were invariably tougher than ours. We had no running water, and a single electrical outlet box wired our entire house with extension cords. I believed then that this Book Deficit was true across the reservation, but now I recognize we lacked books because they were luxuries we couldn’t afford. Because there weren’t many books in our house, mine were conspicuous.
The summer I was fourteen, ŒSalem’s Lot’s was my first book not originating in a drive-in movie screenplay, but I didn’t know that. Its cover, a dark mask with a little drop of blood in the corner of its mouth, looked sufficiently enough like the other horror movie books I’d bought. I wasn’t judgy with my monsters. Opening it, I discovered the joy of reading a gifted novelist who wrote what I wanted to read. I hadn’t really been explicitly aware of Young Adult novels at that point; I’d read a few in school and learned about style and craft, but those books were rarely about topics of my interest. Admittedly, a novel including suicides, murders, the deaths of children, a variety of sexual encounters, adults with major personal failings and of course, vampires, wouldn’t exactly be considered a Young Adult novel. Yet for many writers of my generation, Stephen King was our first literary touchstone.
Before ŒSalem’s Lot, my reading life was neatly divided into two slightly disappointing directions. I could have the satisfying realist grace of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, or the workmanlike zombie action of John Russo’s Night of the Living Dead, but never both. ŒSalem’s Lot delighted me in both its plot and its craft. In the first few pages, a youthful Ben Mears splashed milk on his cornflakes as well as facing the undead. It seems maybe hard to believe that something as simple as an unexpected exciting verb in a novel could lead a young person toward the eventual life of a professional writer. The vampires hooked me, but the verbs made me stay.
The novel began with a man and a boy living on society’s fringes, the way we did. When their troubles caught up to them, these protagonists expressed love and loyalty, and they faced their fears together. They were alive for me, and I cared deeply about their lives. I fell so hard into the world of ŒSalem’s Lot, I didn’t even notice that the promised vampires showed up only after the halfway point. I didn’t care, for I was discovering a writer who understood my world. The small town culture of ŒSalem’s Lot, ethnicity aside, was nearly parallel to the reservation’s. A nosey writer like Ben wouldn’t be tolerated, but the reservation would have held a bounty of opportunities for an industrious vampire like Barlow. Some folks disappeared for days on end without raising anyone’s eyebrows, and a few roads were home to only one or two houses.
I regularly tramped woods like those where the Glick boys met their fate. Mark fended off a vampire with a gravestone cross from an Aurora monster model, the same kind I’d built. Mark was a young monster-lover like me. We even read the same magazines, embracing our weird selves. Ben and Mark watched as folks, knowing something was wrong, closed their windows and stayed inside, rather than confront self-destructive behavior. They raced against the setting sun and its growing shadows and still, they lost loved ones to horrifying circumstances. King had made an image as familiar and lovely as a sunset into a beacon of terror.
I felt Ben and Mark’s fatalism and fear, their frustration with others’ disbelief. I’d been in that familiar, panicky place. Late one afternoon the winter before, I’d noticed my one-legged uncle stopped on the path between our houses, leaning into his crutches. When I ran out, he told me he thought he was dying. I tried awkward, impossible, vertical CPR, pounding his chest. Smelling wine, I worried that I’d knock him down, I weighed maybe eighty pounds and would never be able to pick him up if he went down. I begged for help at my aunt’s next door. No adults were home and my cousins concluded he was just drunk and would be fine.
At the path, I encouraged my uncle to keep walking while there was still light. He had no electricity and generally went to bed at dusk. The sun crept down below the wooded horizon as we made it into his shadowy house where I tried chest compressions again. I was twelve, unskilled, and just hurt him. He climbed into bed and sent me home. Walking the darkened back path, I feared I’d seen him for the last time and could do nothing to change that progression any more than I could stop the sun from setting. I hated our chaotic lives and thought: this shit wouldn’t happen to white people! Like the people in the town of ŒSalem’s Lot, I went to my room, closed the curtains and hoped my world would still be intact when the sun came up. The next morning, my uncle was hungover and ornery but alive, our world, back to normal. But it wasn’t, really. I’d glimpsed how easily it could fall apart, that heroes didn’t always come. In ŒSalem’s Lot, the survival bond between Ben and Mark allowed me to understand this shit could happen to white people. They struggled, had heartbreaks of their own, and they got on with the business of living.
Though I evidently required vampires to accomplish a basic human goal, ŒSalem’s Lot was my first, if unexpected, lesson in empathy. My life became less lonely because of this novel and its writer. Stephen King—another man who’d embraced his weird self—articulated a universal I recognized. Awful things could and did happen to decent people. I’d go on to find other writers who offered me more observations and articulations I hadn’t acquired on my own, like S.E. Hinton and her Outsiders, but ŒSalem’s Lot was the novel that made me excited about the world of books. King acknowledged that terror was possible in our small, intimate worlds, even in the beauty of a setting sun. He also offered that sometimes the right people, beyond our families, could find us. I sought other books by him—the first book purchases I’d ever made because I loved the writer. In those other novels, I continued to find ways of understanding and better coping with my world. The grace in his books kept me going, aware of the possibilities, that people could and did rise to the occasion even when hitting otherworldly challenges.
When I think of that period, I wonder if kids in my extended family would have come to love books if they’d been allowed to discover their own passions where they sought them. I can understand that some young people might not want to see their private lives reflected in the books they read, that they might not be ready to see their own self-discoveries articulated on the page. But I worry about those young people closing themselves off from experiences and ideas because their parents have told them censorship is good. I wonder if they’ll grow up to be those people advocating book banning, fueled by their own bigotries, those people who insist they’re afraid of what they might find. In a book where the villains are vampires, sucking the life out of unsuspecting innocents, maybe they fear they’d find their own reflections.
I can’t imagine how dreary and different my life would be if I’d been allowed access only to safe books, those that didn’t reflect and articulate the real concerns I had as a young person. Discovering through books that I wasn’t alone in both my desires and my fears, was the greatest gift I could have ever hoped for. I was granted a window on a world of possibilities, knowing there was a place where I might not be the Family Weirdo, or at least be valued for having taken that path. How a whole group of adults feels no qualms about stealing chances for growth from the young people under their influence is beyond me.
Every year when Banned Books Week arrives, I am thankful for my mother’s indifference, but maybe it wasn’t indifference, but instead a covert calculation. My mother, as a young person, had spent her summers as a live-in domestic for wealthy white families in a neighboring village, and when she returned home before her next school year started, she turned her summer earnings over to her parents, so she could contribute to the family’s income. Pleasure reading wasn’t a part of her world, but she left the door open for me. She encouraged me to get a job when I’d turned twelve. As her pay had when she was young, most of mine went to helping pay the bills, but sometimes I had discretionary money left toward the end of August. By the last week of summer the year I was 14, I’d bought and read every book Stephen King had published, in paperback. Just before school started, instead of a couple of albums, I purchased my first hardcover book: King’s The Dead Zone, another frequently banned book, it turns out. As I read it, I continued to leave it on our dining room table, as I had ŒSalem’s Lot. Despite the warnings of our censorious relatives, I had not become a King in Satanic Service, and my mother would not bow to their pressure. My books were safe in our house. She allowed me to make my own choices, knowing I’d be invested in my own self-education through the books I sought out, driven by my own passions and not someone else’s intrusive desires.