A Contrast Between the Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell and ‘salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Rationalizing the Supernatural in Horror Novels
Stephen King, often declared the greatest and most successful contemporary horror novelist wrote that, “the great literature of the supernatural often contains the same ‘let’s slow down and look at the accident’ syndrome.” (King, Nightshift xv). This refers to the guilty fascination readers feel as they are captivated by the gruesome details of horror literature. Both Alden Bells’ The Reapers are the Angels and Stephen King’s own ‘salem’s Lot rely on the phenomenon to create an enthralling story. Most people cannot deny that they feel compelled to admire a tragic wreck that is completely out of the ordinary, and this same instinct makes horror literature, like those mentioned, so successful. When in a car wreck, survivors are concerned with their safety and survival and can’t fully take in the details of the situation. Others who drive by, however, tend to slow down and look at the wreck, because they aren’t in danger and have the mental capacity to look at the details of the wreck. They can consider and comprehend the terrifying accident that happened. Similarly, horror novels allow readers to experience the supernatural and the morbid without being overwhelmed by their own fear, but rather they can inspect and approach the supernatural and morbid rationally.
Alden Bell’s novel, The Reapers are the Angels takes place in a world of morbidity. Temple fights for survival in a world that has been mostly taken over by the undead, where “slugs” or “meatskins” are hungry for human flesh. She encounters fellow humans, some who help her and some who are enemies, as she moves nomadically throughout the United States. She is distant from characters and rejects living in one home, after the death of her younger brother, Malcolm, who she felt she was solely responsible for. Her world involves constant running and fighting, displaying constant fearlessness as most readers would not survive a day among the undead. Morbid images, involving human flesh, blood and carcasses are a reality for Temple. There are many parts of the horror novel that go into great detail of how a human body is torn apart, something that an ordinary person would never see or experience. One example of this is when part of Temple’s pinky finger is chopped off, and she is fixing it up again. “It’s gone just above the first knuckle, a clean cut through the bone that shows as a yellow twig poking through at the end. She uses her other hand to draw the skin up over the end of the bone and pinch it shut like a foreskin… now just run a thread through there a few times and tie it off. It’ll be okay.” (Bell, The Reapers are the Angels Ch. 4) This is situation is really out of the ordinary for most readers, who most likely wouldn’t be able to thread half their finger closed without getting sick. However, Temple’s tone makes this seem like a very normal occurrence. This tone is also expressed when she kills Abraham Todd, thinking, “Why do the livin and dyin always have to be just half an inch apart? She goes to the desk and takes a ballpoint pen from the drawer and puts the tip of it in his nostril and drives it upward sharp and hard with the heel of her hand to keep him from coming back.” (Bell, The Reapers are the Angels Ch. 3) Most people aren’t murderers and would be extremely shocked in such a situation; probably too shocked to recount memories or make snarky remarks. Throughout the book, Temple is constantly facing dead bodies and other extremely morbid things, which she describes in great detail to readers. Her responses and feelings during these situations are rational and calm, or at least calmer that any regular person would react. She describes horrifying situations with great detail so that readers can understand and experience the situation; neither Temple nor the reader is too overwhelmed by fear to comprehend the situation of fear. Rather, readers are fascinated by the situation, as Stephen King suggests we do in his forward to Nightshift.
‘salem’s Lot exemplifies the author’s own claim about horror novels. Ben Mears, the main character of the horror novel, is an author staying in his childhood town to research for his new novel. During his stay he makes some friends and attempts to protect the people of the town as they transform into vampires. Without success, he leaves with the one other survivor, leaving the town empty of living humans. The detailed explanations that King uses to describe the morbid occurrences of the story create a novel that captivates readers. One of these occurrences was when Ben staked the vampire of Susan, his girlfriend. “Death had not put its mark on her. Her face was blushed with color, and her lips, innocent of make-up, were a deep and glowing read. Her forehead was pale but flawless, the skin like cream. Her eyes were closed, and the dark lashes lay snootily against her cheeks… Yet the total impression was not of angelic loveliness but a cold, disconnected beauty.” (King, ‘Salem’s Lot Ch. 14 Pt. 15) The undead are monsters that we expect to appear frightening, but we don’t understand why we would feel frightened by them, until an author like King describes the beauty of a vampire like Susan and we understand why we feel uneasy. Further in the chapter, as Ben is staking her body, “blood gushed upward from the stake’s point of entry in a bright and astonishing flood, splashing his hands, his shirt, his cheeks. In an instant the cellar was filled with its hot, coppery odor.” This description is fascinating to readers, because in the situation we would not be able to comprehend what was happening, as we would be overwhelmed by fear. When we read about this shocking scene of the story, we experience it without fear distracting us from the details. Readers can slow down the situation and inspect the details of it, similar to how one would slow down to stare at a car wreck.
The style and structure of the book itself is filled with extraordinary detail, even though the conclusion of the story is an empty town void of humans. The novel cycles through several different characters’ viewpoints and storylines. When looking at the storyline, many of the details and additional characters would not have actually been necessary in reaching the same conclusion. For example, the story of Dud Rogers, who lived by and maintained the Jerusalem’s Lot’s Town Dump, was described in painful detail. It described his introverted personality, his appreciation of setting the dump on fire, his angry thoughts and his habit of shooting rats (King, ‘Salem’s Lot Ch. 3 Pt. 10). References and connections between Dud and other community members were very rare and insignificant, and his fate was death and rising as a vampire like all the other people of the town, posing the question of whether his role in the book was important. Although it seems really distracting when following the story line, especially because he is only one of many minor characters that each carry their own complicated story and personality, he played a role in the overall effect of the story, along with all of these minor characters. ‘Salem’s Lot is not a story of some individual vampires or even the horrific death of a group of innocent people, but rather how an entire town died. The detail given to characters like Dud contribute to formation of the town. They are important in making readers realize that this is not Ben Mears and his friends’ story, but the story of ‘Salem’s Lot. The detail also contributes to King’s “slow down and look at the accident” syndrome. With this full understanding of the community, readers can also better comprehend the death of the town. Something so morbid and horrific as the fall of a town to vampires is really irrational and incomprehensible to people, because it is extremely out of the ordinary and in this case isn’t truly possible. The detail that King’s novel features creates an understandable explanation for this town’s unexplainable and terrifying status, and this is what captures readers.
In his forward, King explains why appealing to this obsession with morbidity is effective in attracting readers. Most of our fears are irrational, or the way we approach them is irrational. We know that vampires, zombies and the supernatural do not exist, but we are afraid of them nonetheless. The forward uses an example that most people can relate to; we make sure our entire body is under the covers when we are in bed, in fear of a cold hand reaching out from under the bed, and where this hand may drag us. We can’t comprehend this fear because we feel it despite knowing it is irrational. However, horror novels, like those mentioned, approach these fears in a very rational way, as exemplified by both The Reapers are the Angels and ‘salem’s Lot. The rational descriptions and approaches to supernatural horrors in some horror literature interest readers, because they can finally achieve comprehension of their irrationality. This is fascinating to readers not because they are fascinated by morbidity, death and the supernatural, but because they can understand fears that were previously beyond their understanding. These horror novels are an opportunity for readers to slow down and think about supernatural horrors rationally without being under the influence of their own fear.
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