Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Night Shift by Stephen King
by Stephen King
Night Shift is Stephen King’s first published collection of short stories. Many are new for the book and several are drawn from his early publishing history when he was publishing short stories in “gentlemen’s magazines” and horror pulps. The collection contains some very early King writing where we see the young man learning his craft. Other stories show us a writer who has learned, and is now honing his craft. Not all of the stories are good. But as a collection, the book is a gem!
Introduction by John D. MacDonald
John D. MacDonald introduces us to Stephen King. For readers of that time, this was King’s first formal introduction. Night Shift being his fourth book, he was a quickly rising star in the field of horror writing.
MacDonald introduces King with a narrative about the motivation, the process, and the excitement of writing. He scoffs at those who say, “I’ve always wanted to write,” for he argues that if you want to write, you write. If you’re a writer, you have to write. That is how he describes Stephen King.
MacDonald also says that King, whose works at the time were pilloried by critics as schlock horror, writes for an audience of one: himself.
For a writer of King’s youth, it had to be high praise and high honor to be feted by the likes of John D. MacDonald who had been publishing short stories in a variety of genres before King was born. MacDonald published short stories and novels in horror, sci-fi, traditional thrillers, and hardboiled detective stories. His name is not well known in the mainstream, but many writers in these genres were inspired by him.
This is Stephen King introducing himself to his readers for the first time in his books. King’s “constant reader” knows that King often includes afterwords in his books to talk to the Constant Reader about where the idea of the story came from, about the writing process for the story or novel, and how he felt about it.
However, in this introduction, King seems a bit defensive. Well he should at that time. While giants of genre fiction like Bradbury and Asimov were starting to gain some legitimacy in the mainstream in the late 1970s, writers like Stephen King, Ira Levin, and Richard Matheson were still considered hacks writing dreck that no reputable connoisseur of literature would be caught dead reading. King talks about how people apologize for liking his books, saying they must be a little ghoulish for enjoying works like The Shining. King is defensive of his chosen genre and defiant of his critics. As the years have passed since Night Shift was published 32 years ago, we now know that that young, defiant Stephen King was replaced by a writer that, even though he would not admit it, wanted to be accepted by the mainstream as a “legitimate” writer of fiction.
Told through a series of old letters and a recovered journal, we learn the history of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine – known to movie and book fans as ‘Salem’s Lot. In the early 1850s, a young man has just inherited his family’s palatial estate in Cumberland County, Maine. He is shunned for his family and its estate has a reputation for being haunted and his family in known for being bringers of evil. He and his manservant travel to a nearby village called Jerusalem’s Lot which is feared by local inhabitants. They find the town deserted and an unsettling feeling of death pervades the village. They go the church where they find a blasphemous and evil book on the alter. Our hero comes to learn that it was his ancestor who brought this ancient tome of evil to Jerusalem’s Lot and invited the hosts of an ancient race and religion to this former section of Massachusetts. These old ones are familiar to scholars of horror fiction.
In a review of a collection of works by Ramsey Campbell, I panned his efforts to capture and imitate the voice of the legendary H.P. Lovecraft. Where Campbell failed, King succeeded and brilliantly! Using the story telling device of correspondence, King employs a Lovecraft device. Using the formal letter writing style of an earlier age, King captures Lovecraft’s voice. In invoking Yogsoggoth – one of the “nameless ones” of the Lovecraftian Cthulu mythos, King links one of his most famous “strange little towns” to the master of modern horror. It’s an absolutely brilliant imitation of Lovecraft that I can’t help but feel the old master would consider a homage and high compliment.
A transient college dropout finds himself working in a New England textiles mill that is infested with rats. Down on his luck and needing money, he agrees to help his foreman on a crew to clean out the mills basements over the Fourth of July holiday. Down there, he and his fellow works find a different breed of rats; rats who do not know and do not fear men. . .
This is old fashioned pulp horror. King gives us no backstory. The characters are simple, bordering on clichés – the mouthy college dropout, the abrasive foreman who is the consummate company men, the cliché of the blue collar, working class slob who work in the mills. The horror is simple and straightforward and made me feel as if I were reading a comic book story. That’s not necessarily bad. A story need not be meaningful it is fun to read, and this one was fun.
A movie was made based on this story in 1990. I have not seen it, but I know it was panned by critics and King fans alike. I shall watch it and add a review to my blog.
This story was originally published in Cavalier October 1970
As Captain Trips, the fatal flu virus from The Stand rages across the country, a loose community forms on a New England beach to see what happens next. A small group feels that they are immune to Captain Trips because they have all had a strain of the flu earlier that’s antibodies seem to provide defense against the more lethal disease. But when one of the supposedly immune contracts Captain Trips, the crew on the beach is left pondering whether or not the immunity really exists and if they’ll survive much longer as fall approaches.
The publication of this story precedes publication of The Stand, so we might consider this a prequel for King’s crowning work. The characters are weak and we are given scant few clues as to what Captain Trips really is. Perhaps were I not so familiar with Captain Trips and its transcontinental swath of destruction, I would have enjoyed this story more.
This story was first published in Cavalier August 1974.
I Am the Doorway
An astronaut barely survives a splash down after returning from the first manned orbital probe of Venus. As he lounges in retirement, his hands become afflicted with strange blemishes. Those blemishes quickly evolve into eyes; eyes of a creature bent on killing.
In his halcyon days, King made a few attempts to crossover from traditional horror into a Bradbury type cross of horror and science fiction. He did this with uneven results. I didn’t enjoy this story as much as some others in the book. While King is able to recreate the narrative prose of Lovecraft, he misses the mark in trying to mix two genres as Bradbury was so able to do.
This story first appeared in Cavalier March 1971.
A police detective investigates a horrific industrial accident where a worker was pulled into a mechanical laundry presser and crushed to death. As his investigation proceeds, there are more unexplained accidents. When he and a college professor determine that the cause is a curse brought to life by the spilled blood of a virgin, they take action to break the curse and exorcise the ghost from the machine.
This story is representative of King’s early work. It is taut, honed, and tells a good story in a short period. There was a movie made based on this story that was universally panned. I have not yet seen it and will review it at a later date. Alas, I fear that seeing the movie may make me appreciate the story less.
This story was originally published in Cavalier December 1972.
A man recounts for his psychologist how he each of his three children die over a decade because he failed to check the closets for the fabled creature. The psychologist becomes a believer in the end.
This story, like many others in the book, had a comic book feel to it. It is wordy for the little bit of story it tells. King develops the main character as a narcissist for no other apparent reason than to make him interesting. Kudos for that!
This story was originally published in Cavalier March 1973.
Country town retirees become concerned when one of their local drunks quits coming in for his daily ration of beer. Instead, he sends his son in to the store to be his canned beer. His son says that his father is slowly turning into something not human. The retirees go to investigate.
This story really doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. While I’m a firm believer that over-explaining a supernatural event in horror or science fiction is a bad idea. But I think the reader needs at least a hint of its origins. That’s the missing element in this story. There is a lesson in it, however. Don’t drink skunky beer!
This story was originally published in Cavalier October 1973.
A hitman returns home after a job to find a package waiting for him – a gift from his next target, a toy maker. The package contains toy soldiers and military equipment. Being replica of Vietnam era equipment, the toy soldier package contains some bonus items sure to be enjoyed by kids and hitmen of all ages.
This story very closely resembles Richard Matheson’s Prey. The notion of children’s toys being malevolent attackers can be frightening. Matheson’s toy is. King’s is not.
This story was made into an episode of the TNT network series, Nightmares and Dreamscapes. This was the only story drawn from Night Shift for this series. This was a rare case where the screen adaptation exceeded the original story. Perhaps it was because it was none other than Richard Christian Matheson, the son of the horror and sci-fi master.
This story originally appeared in Cavalier September 1972.
Several people are trapped in a truck stop diner by semis that have developed will and intelligence and want to kill all living things. The semi trucks are soon joined by smaller trucks and construction equipment. Their fuel is running out and they demand that the humans trapped inside come out and refuel them. The trapped people must decide if they will fight and die or become servants of the machine.
This was a fun story. None of the characters had an iota of development, but the story moved rapidly with a satisfying, but nebulous conclusion. The young Stephen King was not prone to using allegory or metaphor, preferring to tell stories for the fun of it. But, as the main character reflects on the future, he concludes that men have made machines that make it possible to access any point on earth, assuring that no place is safe in a world dominated by machines.
This story was made into a bad movie called Maximum Overdrive that was Stephen King’s first attempt at a full length screenplay. It was also directed by Stephen King. I will not be reviewing it since Netflix does not deem the film worthy of being in their collection of movies. I have seen it and it forced me to conclude that King should stick to books and leave screenplays to screenplay writers.
This story originally appeared in Cavalier June 1973.
Sometimes They Come Back
A young teacher takes a job at a upper middle class high school. Soon after taking the job, he starts having a recurring nightmare that recounts how his brother was murdered by some street toughs when they were young kids. When those same street toughs show up, one by one, in his seventh period lit class having aged not a day, he fears he’s having a breakdown. After his wife is killed, he decides to meet them head on.
This is a well told tale. It’s longer than most in the book, but it probably has the deepest, richest character in the book.
This story originally appeared in Cavelier March 1974 and was made into a made for television movie in 1991.
Strawberry Spring comes once every eight to ten years in New England. And when the dense fog rolls into Maine, it brings out Springheel Jack, a serial killer who has a taste for college co-eds. A male student recounts Springheel Jack’s activities in the Strawberry Spring of 1971.
The twist, such as it was, was pretty apparent early because there was no other character in the story. For what the story lacks in plot, it makes up for in atmosphere. King makes the fictional college campus into the Scottish moors.
An aging tennis pro is confronted by the wealthy man with whose wife he is having an affair. The man offers him the opportunity to gain not only the wife, but $20,000 cash if he will simply walk around the ledge of his high rise apartment building. Should he choose not to accept the wager, he will be framed for heroin possession. The tennis pro starts out onto the ledge and begins his trek, forty stories above the city with his wealthy antagonist making it difficult for him.
This story was a lot of fun. I’m certain that the story has been told in different ways over the years, but King’s rendering is exceptionable. Instead of character development, King focuses his words on developing physical pain, which lends an urgency to the prose.
This story was originally published in the January 1976 edition of Penthouse. It was adapted to film as a segment of the movie Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye starring Robert Hays.
The Lawnmower Man
A man, concerned with how he has let his suburban lawn go hires a landscaping company to mow his grass and clean up the mess. The crew of one arrives with a strange lawnmower and a strange way of disposing of the yard waste.
This story was pure foolishness and is the weakest in the collection. There is nothing terrifying, mystifying, or even intriguing about the monster, such as it is. We do see another appearance of a haunted piece of machinery bedeviling a King hero, but that’s not enough to save this bad story.
This story first appeared in Cavalier May 1975. It was made into a movie in 1992 starring Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan. It does not remotely resemble the King story, but isn’t any better and perhaps much worse.
A hopelessly addicted smoker tries a radical program implemented by a radical company. One must stop smoking cold turkey, or his or her family will suffer increasingly painful punishments. The punishments get worse if the subject gains weight. The hero struggles against his addiction, knowing one slip will lead to agony for his wife.
King’s addiction to cigarettes is well known. I, too, have known the power cigarettes can have over one’s life. This is my favorite story in the book simply because, I can identify. The story telling is fabulous and this tale stands as one of his most brilliant short works.
This story was also a part of the Cat's Eye anthology and starred James Woods.
I Know What You Need
A college girl is approached by a fellow student while studying in the library who simply tells her “I know what you need.” Amazingly, he does. After her boyfriend is killed in a highway construction accident, she falls for the mysterious young man. But her nosy roommate finds out the young man has a bizarre past that might make him dangerous.
This story was two-thirds character study of the heroine. King wrote few character studies. He includes just enough story to keep this character study interesting.
This story originally appeared in Cosmopolitan January 1976.
Children of the Corn
A feuding couple decides to drive across the country from Boston to California to take one last shot at saving their marriage. As they travel along a rural Nebraska road, they strike a boy who runs out of the cornfield into the path of their car. A little investigation reveals that the boy’s throat was cut before he was hit by the car. The couple take him to the town of Gatlin which is seemingly deserted. They soon meet the young residents of Gatlin and the Old Testament demon they worship.
I saw the movie several years before reading the story, so the characters were already formed in my mind. Upon reading the story, I found King’s characters much different than George Goldsmith’s screenplay characters. The hostile relationship is a great backdrop against which to play out this terror.
This story was originally published in Penthouse March 1977. It was made into a movie in 1984.
The Last Rung on the Ladder
A corporate attorney receives a one sentence letter from his sister living in California. That letter’s contents remain a mystery to the reader as the attorney recalls an event from their childhood when the two of them were playing in a hayloft. As his sister ascends a ladder to the high rafters of their hayloft, the last rung breaks, leaving her hanging. Big brother is there to save the day. . .
When I read Stephen King, I read his tales for the horror or the fantastic tales he tells. It’s always been my judgment that whenever King tries to be politically or socially relevant, or tries to tell a story that has some other goal than to scare or intrigue, he falls short. This story is the exception and may be his best piece of mainstream fiction. I’m a big brother to a little sister. I understand that role and cherish the memories of it. This story really moved me with its profoundly sad end.
The Man Who Loved Flowers
A neat, prim fusses over what flowers to buy his sweetheart on his way home from work. Things go wildly awry when he shows up to deliver them.
We’re given a clue that is easily overlooked in the narrative, and I’ll give King credit for burying that seemingly innocuous piece of information in the narrative. However, there just wasn’t enough story or character development to make the story work.
This story was originally published in Gallery August 1977
One for the Road
Stephen King takes us on one last journey to ‘Salem’s Lot. A man staggers into a rural Maine bar during a blizzard. His car is stuck on a rural country road about six miles away. The bartender and patron recognize that the man’s family is in trouble, being left alone so close to the doomed village. They head out into the storm to find them.
This story was a nice exclamation point on one of King’s finest novels.
The Woman in the Room
A man plans to help his terminally ill mother die. He goes through the tedium of planning and plotting and . . .
What a horrifically weak ending to a great collection of short stories. This is the worst story in the book. It is dull beyond imagination. Characters are not interesting. The story is one dimensional.