Short Tale Excursions to
Horror and Dread
(A Book Review of Stephen King’s Night Shift)
The short story is a literary form I rarely read, appreciate and enjoy. A handful of writers, O. Henry, Ernest Hemingway and — in light of the book I’m reviewing — Edgar Allan Poe, are some of the authors whose short fiction I’ve liked over the years. Since the short story deals with few characters in one setting that makes a single impression or impact, it’s a tricky form to work a story with and sometimes in hands of less-skilled writers a reader might have this “left-hanging” reaction to a story not fully fleshed out. Recently added to this expanding roster of authors I’ve mentioned above is Stephen King whose collection of short stories equally impressed and stunned me. And the man is in the league of his own writing “in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings.”
Published in 1978 Night Shift is King’s first collection of short stories that previously appeared in men’s magazine such as Cavalier, Penthouse, Cosmopolitan, Ubris and Maine Magazine. King’s foreword — the very first he has written for a book — gives us a glimpse to know more of the man (during the 70s when King wasn’t a household name yet and lords over all media pertaining to horror) behind the runaway best-selling debut about a girl with telekinetic powers in the small quiet town in Maine and why he choose to write in his chosen field. His erudition and palpable love for the horror genre’s current state during the 70s is evinced as he deftly brings in its inner working with authority — being one of its foremost writers. In this early stage of his career we see how King updated old horror ideas into modern milieu with some complex concepts he’s going to explore later in his work; yet in this volume he’s keeping it simple and right on target and that’s all it matters, folks.
I’ve often found myself asking why this sudden interest in horror to which I answer just as fast “to scare myself silly” but that answer doesn’t seem enough. To us Filipinos there’s this mysterious spell that horror stories cast, making us all the more attracted to it every time we have the opportunity to read of it or when occasions arose where one is willing to tell of his “scary experiences” when all talk of gossip has suddenly run out. Pondering it, I found out what magnetizes us to this kind of stories; because it reminds us of our fear of death, for when we’re scared shit makes us aware of our own mortality for in such horrific situations, depicted in either brutal, gory or any other awful circumstances one can think of, we’re here…alive, breathing. But to me the scariest of all is when seemingly everyday things unexpectedly turn for the weird; frightening occurrences where we find ourselves subjected into. And that what relates me more to King’s characters in this collection: they are ordinary people plunged into extraordinary horrific circumstances the least of which they can’t comprehend. Told in the gripping “fire-side storyteller tone” that is King’s hallmark style, it isn’t a far cry from how our superstitious lolas (granny) tell folk tales of ghouls when we were just mischievous, misbehaving kids.
Now, onto the stories. To know literally nothing about the stories in this splendid volume is the only way I think to fully relish its horrific snags of surprises. A fair warning: Stephen King will leave you gasping, wondering and losing a good deal of sleep. Below are some of my short notes for individual stories in no particular order:
- Jerusalem’s Lot – Said to be a prequel of ‘Salem’s Lot (which I haven’t read yet) the story can be read and stands on its own. The epistolary way with which it is told reminds of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A great opening salvo!
- Graveyard Shift – A strange and surreal tale. Least favorite of mine among the bunch.
- Night Surf – a supposed precursor of King’s gigantic post-apocalyptic extravaganza The Stand. Rambling and aimless in a way it’s told, which I think King deliberately did for this story.
- I am the Doorway – the most creepy story and the very first one that I liked. Written in a style reminiscent of the 50s sci-fi chiller.
- The Mangler – a tale of modern characters suddenly encountering old evils. This has a unique Poe-ish feel to it but the ending is a bit of a strain to our suspension of disbelief.
- The Boogeyman – One of the best in this collection. King employs implied horror to his maximum advantage and is good at it. Two words are just about enough to make the hairs at the back of your neck stand on end when you reach its surprising, twisted ending.
- Gray Matter – A dark tale of greed and consumption of ordinary “things” destroying people bit by bit. What makes it work is King’s crafty use of weather to enhance the story’s mood.
- The Battleground – Brilliant! Imagine Small Soldiers with vengeance and the end is explosive, to say the least, that makes you go “Wow!”
- Trucks – Another tale about common “things” i.e. trucks and other vehicles, gone haywire that surprisingly developed a mind of its own with the objective to kill, kill, kill. Not that great but still a good one.
- Sometimes They Come Back – King’s completely different take on ghost story that seeks retaliation with the elements of black magic.
- Strawberry Spring – Unarguably Springheel Jack is one of Stephen King’s best creations. Once again the use of weather to add a dimension is used effectively. Though a bit predictable for my taste just the way it is told is a good lure to keep you reading.
- The Ledge – Acrophobic and atmospheric, one of King’s purely original ideas. One of my favorite among the lot in a kick-ass kind of way. And I’m telling ya, this one’s intense.
- The Lawnmower Man – The first time you read and thought it bizarre and downright weird then your in good company, mister/missus. This one’s use of Greek mythology reference is so subtle I don’t blame you in case you missed it. And by circe! about the third time I read it did I fully understand what the story’s all about.
- Quitters Inc. – If you found that you really, badly need to quit smoking and doing cold turkey is futile, then this program is what you might need. This story proves that aside from nicotine, heroin and other deadly narcotics love is the most pernicious drug of all. The best short story for me with a shocking, stunning ending.
- I Know What You Need – Another tale involving dark magic with King’s favorite theme of young adults given powers beyond their comprehension. A story of obsession and loneliness, primarily told in the only female point-of-view in this collection, of love that comes along so easily sometimes you can’t help but wonder if it’s too good to be true.
- The Children of the Corn – the single most iconic of Stephen King’s short story notorious for the various sequels it has spawned. I say stick true to the story babe and you’ll do yourself a favor if you stay away from those campy adaptations. This is King’s commentary on organized religion and its power to corrupt the mind. Just plain all out horror.
- The Last Rung on the Ladder – If you thought that all of the stories here are merely about all matters of spooks, then think again. This is here a gem of story telling: poignant, heartfelt, immediate and ruthlessly real. I promise if this one didn’t even made you misty-eyed then you’re a stone. A prime example that proves why King is a master of short fiction.
- The Man Who Loved Flowers – Short, sweet and brutal. That’s all I’m saying.
- One for the Road – A sort of coda or a sequel of sorts to ‘Salem’s Lot. A deserted town, a furious snowstorm, and of course the monsters are the perfect concoction to scare the heebie-jeebies out of you; to chill you and make you shudder with fright. As they say in the town of Falmouth: stay out of the Lot, kid.
- The Woman in the Room – the final tale in this volume ends not with a shocker but with a soft whisper and whimper. . .for love. Suffused with pain, this is King’s most autobiographical story about his mother’s death. The lingering question is: can he do it? Read and find out.
This is the second book of Stephen King that I read and it’s not a bad place to start if one wants to explore his earlier written work. Like George Romero’s zombies, the short story form leaped and clawed its way to my heart with its unforeseen resurgence. Night Shift holds its place among King’s excellent and important creations. As I wrap up this review I promised — signed in blood during midnight — that I will be back for more as I once again enter another dark room hand in hand with the Modern Master of Horror and talk yet again of fear.
Published by Signet
(Mass Market Paperback, 1979 Edition)
Started: April 28, 2010
Finished: May 11, 2010