People still like to dress it up, though. Years ago, somebody told me that Stephen King was a uniquely clear-sighted chronicler of the American condition, that his books lay bare the corruption and fear that lie at the heart of the American dream and allthe other things that American novels are supposed to do. I've always assumed that there was at least a grain of truth in this, and there may well be; but how Stephen King's Salem's Lot (R4, Thursday) fits into the thesis is anybody's guess . The story - about a nest of devil-worshipping vampires threatening a small New England community - is really just an addition to a long paranoid tradition, one that stretches back to the Fifties, and films like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. But where Cold War science-fiction had obvious political applications, the targets in King's work are harder to pin down. If there is a big target in this story, it's probably "evil", but this is such a big target that hitting it doesn't seem very impressive, and King doesn't have much to say about the subject apart from "Whoops, here it comes again."
Of course, it's possible that his target actually is vampires and devil-worship, in which case he really would be in tune with contemporary America - this week's enjoyable File on 4 (R4, Tuesday), about the rise of the religious right in the States, offered a familiar catalogue of credulity and bad thinking (creationism is a scientific theory just like evolution, and so forth), but now combined, worryingly, with tight organisation and low cunning, and gradually winning control of school boards in small towns across the nation. For these people, most forms of dissent can be related to devil-worship; indeed, where King falls down is in failing to realise how far an awareness of the satanic is already ingrained in small-town America .
For a commentary on the American condition, this serialisation doesn't always place the action as incontrovertibly across the Atlantic as you'd like, despite the country rock that blares out of the car radio every time anybody drives anywhere. Although most of the actors are actual Americans, one or two accents are only fitfully convincing, notably John Moffatt as a saturnine villain who mostly sounds English but at times slips in a slurred vowel that sounds suspiciously like stage Yankee. You get someidea of what it might be like to be menaced by Alistair Cooke.
As far as meaning goes, you're better off looking in P G Wodehouse - not that there's any put there deliberately, but you can find in the moneyed frivolity and social isolation some idea of why we lost the Empire. The Oldest Member (R4, Wednesday) probably isn't the best place to look, though, if only because, like John Moffatt's accent, it's set in a mid-Atlantic Neverland, a stockbroker-belt golf club that could be anywhere. Edward Taylor's serialisation removes any ambiguity, placing it firmly in Pri or's Heath, England, with Maurice Denham at his most genial as the clubhouse sage who narrates stories of lost love and muffed approach shots. It's all a bit too genial, in fact, a jokey tone standing in for Wodehouse's baroque imagery and elaborate sole mnity. It's pleasant enough, but stripped of the prose it does feel a bit as though one story can stand for all, and the rest of the series is redundant. Worse than literature, in fact.