Simon Kurt Unsworth: The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With…

August 23, 2010 by
Filed under: Bury Me With This Book, Interviews 

One of my favourite short story writers, the very personable Simon Kurt Unsworth, gives us his Book To Be Buried With, in this, the twenty fourth instalment…

salem-nel“Let’s sort out our terms of reference here. I’m assuming by ‘the book I’d like to be buried with’ that we’re granting me some kind of zombified afterlife in which I can read, and that I’ve been buried with one of those booklights, and maybe some peanuts to keep me going when I get peckish? I’m also assuming that we’re meaning ‘a book I’d like to read again’, which helps – it means I can discard all those books I’ve enjoyed but am unlikely to tackle more than once (Danielewski’s House of Leaves, for example, which I thought was great, but I really can’t be bothered doing all that ‘holding the book upside down and reading great long lists of stuff’ again). In the end, this came right down to the wire in a all-out scrap between three books, all of which I’d have been perfectly happy to read in my coffin at leisure as the Rapture happened around me. The two losers (let’s not call them that, actually: let’s call them the two equally wonderful books that I didn’t pick this time) are The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James and Junji Ito’s three-part graphic novel about a town cursed by spirals, Uzumaki. Both of these are superb, nigh-on faultless, pieces of art which have brought me hours of pleasure, but in the end, I didn’t really have a choice. So, the book I’d like to be buried with is Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot.

I think I was about 12 when I first read ‘Salem’s Lot; I’d read Carrie previous to it, which I’d enjoyed but which hadn’t done too much for me, so my buying it wasn’t because I was a King fan per se. No, I bought it for three reasons: firstly, I was on holiday in Wales, in a rainy caravan park, and just before we’d left home, I’d seen the first part of Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot on TV – I was concerned that my parent’s very basic video wouldn’t tape the second part, and I wanted to know what happened, damnit! Second, the cover had a big, bald creepy vampire face on it, which intrigued me. And, thirdly, it had a cover quote by the Manchester Evening News, my local newspaper (“Triple H for horror!” was another quote, if I remember correctly, although not the one from the Evening News, I don’t think). I mean, how could I not buy it from the camp shop? Despite my mum’s misgivings, I used some of my own money and bought the book, and read it over the course of the week’s holiday. As the rain boinged on the caravan roof, I became entirely immersed in Maine, and in the goings-on in a small town, and I was genuinely, absolutely entranced.

For me, in ‘Salem’s Lot, King does so more than tell a vampire story (although he does, and a damn good one at that); he paints a town. I loved (and still do) the way King allows his characters (the town included) to unfurl, opening out before our eyes. It feels, somehow, like we’re not so much being told a story as let into a series of secrets that, almost accidentally, form a narrative. For an imaginative young boy just beginning to expand his reading choices into the world of ‘adult’ fictions, it was almost revelatory, that you could spend time over the small details, could let things happen at their own pace. It seems so obvious now (and I also know King wasn’t the first to do it; after all, ‘Salem’s Lot is, according to him, simply Peyton Place with vampires), but at the time it was a major lesson in how stories could and should work. As an adult, I can analyse why ‘Salem’s Lot is so good, and tell you that it’s because the set-pieces are thrilling, that it’s both creepy and moving, that the characters are complex and believable, that it never tries to make the vampires anything less than alien and vicious, that King’s eye for the details of a small town, and the lives that small town contains, has never been finer, but none of that really matters. No, what matters is this: at the time I first read it, ‘Salem’s Lot felt real.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means (how does Barlow get into the Petrie’s house without being invited? Huh? Huh?), but all of the faults that (for me) came to characterise some of King’s later work are held in check – the plotting never gets flabby, the authorial voice never gets too folksy, the characters are likeable without being contrived and, perhaps most importantly, despite its length, it never contains simply too many unnecessary words or feels too big. Sprawling and grandiose, yes, but always manageable. And in Straker and Barlow, of course, you have one of the greatest villainous double acts created, both urbane and violent, selfish and driven by lusts and yet veneered with charm and able to intellectually rationalise the horrors that they perpetrate. Before them, the human frailties King gives his other characters seem tiny but are never insignificant, which is how it should be: humans are worked upon, twisted and reformed by exposure to something evil, made into something new and less pleasant. Barlow and Straker are Evil, and when our heroes go into battle against them, it makes the stakes (no pun intended) as high as they can be.

I’ve reread ‘Salem’s Lot fairly regularly between that first experience and now (most recently listening to it as an unabridged audiobook on my iPod, which was a new and fun way to experience it), and whilst I’ve never quite caught that anything like that initial rush of sheer enjoyment that the first time delivered, each subsequent reading has given me something new and something good. Barlow and Straker, Ben Mears, Susan Norton, Mark Petrie, all may have aged since I first found that paperback in a dreary shop in Wales, but they haven’t dated a bit.”


simon-kurt-unsworthAbout Simon Kurt Unsworth:

Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in 1972 somewhere in the northwest of England, on a day during which no mysterious signs or portents were seen. He spent most of the following years growing, and hasn’t stopped yet, although he’s swapped upwards for outwards these days. He lives in Lancaster (just below the Lake District) with his wife and child, which is a good place to live if you like that sort of thing – it has a river, some pubs and roads of varying quality. He writes when he’s not working, spending time with his family, cooking, walking the dogs, watching suspect movies or lazing about.  His stories have appeared in the Ash Tree Press anthologies At Ease with the Dead, Exotic Gothic 3 and Shades of Darkness, as well as in Lovecraft Unbound, Gaslight Grotesque, The Black Book of Horror 6 and Black Static magazine. His story ‘The Church on the Island’ was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #19 and The Mammoth Book of the Very Best of Best New Horror. His first collection, Lost Places, was published by the Ash Tree Press in March 2010.

  • Visit Simon’s blog


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