I read somewhere (probably in one of Stephen King's introductions, though it might have been an interview) that, after the success of Carrie, Mr. King brought two ideas to his editor - or his agent, the memory is fuzzy for sure - for his next novel. Whomever it was said they preferred the vampire idea, but without enthusiasm. They were worried that King would be labeled a 'genre' writer and limit himself in future works. Fortunately, King took that risk, and wrote a pretty awesome book about vampires invading a small town in Maine...
To call 'Salem's Lot a vampire novel is severely limiting, however, as it is more about small towns and how they work - the dark secrets they keep and pass on. To accomplish this, King greatly expands upon not only the number of characters, but how deeply he looks into their lives. Primarily focused on Ben Mears, King delves into all sorts of major and minor characters and what makes them tick. He creates this small town's character by looking at the histories of various residents. Whether it is the child-beating young mother in a trailer park or the rich town selectman involved in shady real estate dealings, King doesn't just pull back the veneer, he rips it off and envelopes the reader in the thoughts and emotions of any resident he focuses on.
The result is a portrait of a a town in shambles, perfect for the dark invasion that occurs when Barlow and Straker come to town.
And we have to discuss Barlow. While I have far too many King books to read to say he is King's greatest villain, he is damn near the top. For a character that doesn't appear until the latter half of the book, he still radiates menace once he does arrive. His chilling intellect and patience is unnerving, made all the more formidable by his strength. Straker pales in comparison, though he does an adequate job as the 'front' man for the business venture that sets up the introduction of the two into the town.
King does a fantastic job on the 'good' side of the equation: Ben Mears, Matt Burke, Susan Norton, and Mark Petrie are all rich characters with a great blend of heroism and fallibility. While Father Callahan and Jimmy Cody get less attention to detail than the others, they are still well-written. And Callahan gets much improved-upon in the Dark Tower books (where he also makes an appearance).
It is slightly disappointing that King fridges Susan Norton, and I feel like he glosses over Mark's grief in the immediate aftermath of what happens to his parents, but these are minor quibbles in a stellar book. I could easily see this placing near the top of my favorite Stephen King books, which isn't bad for a sophomore novel. Not bad at all.
Movie?: 2 made-for-TV movies, one in 1979, and the other in 2004. The '79 version managed 3 Emmy nominations and the '04 version got 1.
Dark Tower?: Father Callahan plays a rather important part in Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah.
Child Deaths?: Many. One is sacrificed at the start to allow Barlow into town, and many others are turned into vampires throughout.
Penis Talk?: Jimmy Cody talks about having an erection while being bitten.