Ben Mears: King’s murderous moralist


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Ben Mears: the ultimate selfless hero and most delectable of discourse dudes.

Mears is the protagonist of Steven King’s 1979 novel Salem’s Lot, which uses horror to turn the tired cliché of the ‘tragic love story’ into something bold and belligerent. When vampires run the show, there can only be one ending: calamitous catastrophe and, as master story teller, King is the expert of all things experientially cataclysmic.

Ben Mears is a successful writer who grew up in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Cumberland County, Maine (or “The Lot”, as the locals call it). He returns home after 25 years to lay some demons to rest by writing a book about the Marsten House, an abandoned mansion, after a bad experience inside it as a child. Mears is tall, black-haired, lanky, and agile-looking, with what King describes as “finely-drawn features” – and he attracts the attention of Susan Norton, a young college graduate, with whom he strikes up a romantic relationship. Not only does Mears fall in love, he joins a team of locals in an effort to fight the spread of the vampires, whose numbers increase as the new vampires infect their own families and others – all in a day’s work.

As lives and relationships are destroyed by the curse of the vampire, a tone of tragic and desperate despair grasps Salem’s Lot by the throat and resonates with inescapable and unfathomable depth.

The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. These are the town’s secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face. – Stephen King (Salem’s Lot)

The novel’s love affliction materialises when Susan is captured by Barlow (the vampire leader) before Mark has a chance to rescue her. Susan becomes a vampire but is eventually staked through the heart by her lover, Ben Mears. Unlike the usual ‘tragic love story,’ Ben Mears’ killing of Susan is no Romeo-and-Juliet romantic liebestod-esque love-in-death act; it’s brutal and barbaric. Ben stakes Susan through the heart; with destructive force he pierces the organ that has come to represent the spirit of all things romantic and the embodiment of love’s life – the act is deeply symbolic. As Susan’s heart is destroyed so too is the hope of their love and the romantic notion of ‘love preserved’ is thus undermined.

Perhaps Ben and Susan’s love defies death in the sense that Ben does not stop loving Susan after she has ‘turned’ and even after he has killed her. But Ben does not join Susan in death; he chooses not to martyr himself for love and in so doing their love is arguably tainted. King thus paints a picture of imperfect love. He imbues the ‘tragic love’ of Ben and Susan with an innate realism that unabashedly defies the perfect romance inherent the act of ‘love united in death.’

But Ben contextually choosing life over love is no cop out. The writer has been charged a purpose that transcends his love for Susan. Ben is commanded to love mankind – his purpose is to protect ‘The Lot’ (and potentially the world) from falling prey to vampire evil. Ben Mears, in killing Susan and protecting his own life, succumbs to his higher purpose and in so doing the tragedy of lost love is rendered all the more tangible.

By killing Susan, Ben inflicts separation upon himself and is left alone, which, in the context of King’s novel, is the epitome of torment, pain and suffering:

Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym. – Stephen King (Salem’s Lot)

Ben rejects the peace of death and the vague torment of hell in favour of alone, the most horrific state of being in which to exist, and in so doing he commits the ultimate sacrifice. Although Susan and Ben’s love is not perfect, the tragedy of its discontinuance is still agonising. By acceding to a torturous existence of aloneness, the gravity of the choice Ben has made, what he has given up, is made all the more poignant. King’s protagonist, unselfishly, takes the moral high ground. Mears is not granted the comfort of joining Susan in death; his actions force him to exist within the memory of his love – a love that will remain unfulfilled and never-nurtured for all time.

The act of moving forward at all became heroism. – Stephen King (Salem’s Lot)

The players in the game of ‘tragic romance’ are often described as hopeless victims of fate. In Salem’s Lot Stephen King does afflict Ben and Susan with an iota of ‘star crossed lover’ syndrome and Ben Mears is also existentially apportioned the seemingly inescapable title of small town saviour. But within the bounds of fate’s prescriptions Mears has a choice, albeit a choice enveloped in tragedy no matter the path chosen. In a confrontation with destiny, Ben Mears makes his choice and becomes a tragic and reluctant hero.