Sunday, April 3, 2011

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

Skeleton Crew
By Stephen King
Copyright 1985

King once again defends his craft. This time, it is against those who begrudge him a living from his writing, or criticizing him for having enriched himself with his writing. He recounts how an acquaintance laid it out for him all he really made was approximately the same amount of money per hour writing as a New York plumber.

He says a writer who writes well never writes for the money; he writes for the love of writing. He goes on to say that the money is nice, however. Many of these stories are from early in his career and he recalls how those small checks for stories sold to gentlemen’s publications usually arrived in time to pay the phone bill or buy the kids’ medicine. No matter if you’re a wealthy best seller like Stephen King or a writer scraping by, the money is always welcome.

King goes on to give us some insight into the writing of a couple of the stories and to thank is family, editor, publisher, and readers.

The Mist
A fierce storm strikes a summer tourist lake community and brings with it from across the lake (where there’s a secret military base) a strange mist. After the storm, a man takes his son and neighbor into the town grocery to purchase supplies. While there, they learn that the mist, which has descended on the town contains alien creatures that kill without mercy. They stay trapped in the grocery store, fighting each other and fighting to stay alive against the inhabitants that have taken over the town. Finally, they decide to make a break for it and find that the entire world has changed dramatically.

This was a novella rather than a short story and one of King’s finest works. I enjoyed The Mist as much as I’ve enjoyed any of King’s novella length tales. It tells a straightforward tale that’s a great blend of horror, sci-fi, and post apocalyptic fiction.

In 2007, Frank Darabont wrote and directed a movie based on The Mist. Darabond made a great movie by adding some more action scenes and creating an ending much different than King’s ambiguous conclusion which served him well in his novella, but would have left movie viewers unsatisfied.

This story was originally published in an anthology of horror stories called Dark Forces

Here There Be Tygers
A young man at school desperately needs to take a leak. After embarrassing him over the matter, his teacher dismisses him to the basement lavatory to pee. When he gets there, he finds a tiger has taken up residence in the boy’s room.

This is a short, simple, mildly entertaining tale. King tells us in his notes that it was inspired by his first grade teacher.

Here There Be Tygers was originally published in the Spring 1968 edition of Ubris

The Monkey
Hal Shelburn, his wife, and two sons travel to Hal’s aunt’s country home to start cleaning it out after her death. While exploring the attic, his son’s stumble across a toy, wind up monkey who bangs cymbals together. Hal is shocked and scared, for he was certain he’d put that evil toy where it would never be found. He recalled from his childhood the evil that came when that monkey banged its cymbals. Hal is resolved to see the killer toy primate to a final, watery grave. He ends up making newspaper headlines.

This was a fun take on the age old concept of evil toys. Perhaps it was a bit overlong, but a pleasure to read.

The Monkey was originally published in the November 1980 edition of Gallery

Cain Rose Up
A college student wraps up his final exams and bids adieu to his dorm mates. He then produces a sniper rifle and starts picking off people on the campus.

This is my favorite Stephen King short stories. King lets us know that evil thoughts are squirming around in this guy’s head. Then comes the cold dispassion with which he starts killing people. The story is but a few pages, so the narrative is lean and fast paced. An absolute gem of a short story!

Cain Rose Up was originally published in the Spring 1968 edition of Ubris

Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut
The late Ophelia Todd was a sucker for a shortcut. Her favorite hobby was trying to find the shortest route between her home in Bangor, Maine and her vacation home. It was 116 miles as the crow flies, but Ophelia found a way to shorten that distance – before she disappears along one of those remote Maine country roads. Her former caretaker tells the tale.

The story was ok, but it’s written in Yankee patois that I find distracting.

Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut was originally published in Redbook, May 1984.

The Jaunt
A family waits in a Jaunt station to be instantaneously transported to Mars where the father has a new job waiting for him. As they wait for the gas that will knock them out and make the Jaunt safe for them, the father recounts how the Jaunt was invented many years before, during a horrible energy and pollution crisis in the 1990s. It should have served as a cautionary tale, but for young boy, it does not.

King actually identifies in his story, the inspiration for this tale which is the Alfred Bester’s novella, The Stars, My Destination. It is a well paced story with a great and horrifying twist at the end.

The Jaunt was originally published in Twilight Zone Magazine, June 1981.

The Wedding Gig
Set in the 1920s during Prohibition, a jazz band is recruited to play at the wedding of a notorious gang boss’s sister. Things go bad, but the band survives to tell the tale.

To me, this story really had no point. It had no twist. The characters were not developed enough for us to care about them. There was really no point in reading it when the author himself seemed to lack a compelling reason to make us want to read it.

The Wedding Gig was originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1980.

Paranoid: A Chant

This poem tells the tale of a man taking precautions against the CIA, the FBI, and aliens that are all plotting and planning against him and stalking him.

To my knowledge, King has published little in the way of poetry. It’s not really his medium. I have read very little poetry, not caring for it at all. I know nothing of its rudiments or rules. I am not qualified to critique it. Therefore, I won’t.

This poem was first published in Skeleton Crew

The Raft
Four college students, two boys and two girls, decide to take a swim at a remote lake in October. They swim to a raft near the center of a small lake and notice an oil slick that seems to move of its own accord. But it’s no oil slick; it is a predator intent on taking them one by one.

I saw Creepshow II years ago before I read this story for the first time in 1990. So I already had an idea of what was going to happen. As I read it this time, having viewed several of the just awful films Roger Corman made in the 1950s and 60s, I thought to myself that perhaps some of Corman’s bad movies might have made for entertaining reading like this story. About 15 seconds after having that thought, I read one of the characters telling the oil slick, “go back and audition for a Roger Corman film!”

According to King, he wrote this story in the late 1960s for Adam magazine ( a gentlemen’s publication). They paid on publication and a check arrived in time for King to pay some criminal fines and keep himself out of jail. But King never saw the publication. He asked readers to find it for him. If it was published, I’m sure he has a copy by now. He rewrote it while working on Creepshow in the early 1980s and it was eventually published in Gallery Magazine in 1982. George Romero drafted the screen short that appeared in Creepshow 2

Word Processor of the Gods
Shortly after the death of a beloved nephew, a semi-professional writer finds that his nephew has constructed a word processor for him (back when word processors were expensive luxuries only very successful writers could afford). This word processor, with its odd assortment of parts, has very special powers to alter reality. The temptation for the writer to alter his mediocre life is strong.

King seems to think highly of this story as he describes it in his introduction to Skeleton Crew. It’s a good story, but not great. It’s simplistic, but well written.

Word Processor of the Gods was published in Playboy in January 1983. It was made into an episode of Tales from the Darkside that aired on November 25, 1984.

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands
The member of a private club recounts for his fellow club mates of a strange man that entered their club one evening for a game of cards. The man would not shake hands and shunned all human contact. The game progresses and the mysterious stranger does well through the evening. The last hand is played – with all bet and raise limits removed – and the man wins. Being a gentleman, the man who loses instinctively shakes the stranger’s hand. That hand shake sends him fleeing from the club in terror. The storyteller eventually tracks the well to do stranger to a seedy part of town where he died alone. There, he learns the man’s curse and how his curse is to visit his curse upon all who come in contact with him.

This story is an extension of The Breathing Method from Different Seasons. The Breathing Method is told with the same narrative device of a story teller sitting among friends, recounting events. The story picks up with the telling of the next story which is of the mysterious stranger who would not shake hands. I’ve been privileged to spend time in some ritzy private clubs such as the Capitol Hill Club and the Army Navy Club in Washington, D.C. as well as Toledo’s famed Toledo Club. This story and the aforementioned novella from Different Seasons have made me long to visit King’s fictional Manhattan club.

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands
was originally published in an anthology called Shadows, edited by Charles Grant.

A space ship carrying three astronauts crashes on a world that is made completely of sand. One astronaut is killed upon impact. Another immediately seems drawn to watch the constantly shifting sand. The remaining astronaut fights for survival by placing rescue beacons. When help arrives, the captain of that ship seems willing to risk everything to save his crazy friend so he can collect from the military. That decision proves costly.

This is a rare example of hard science fiction from the master of horror. I don’t know why he didn’t write more. For someone who did not regularly write in the genre, King made Beachworld is a pretty good story. The first part of the story is best. King sets the desolate scene well and makes you believe that the sand itself is a living, sentient being. However, the quality drops dramatically as the action of the escape unfolds. One might say it’s not half bad. He should have written more hard sci-fi and he could have been respected in two genres like the great Ray Bradbury.

Beachworld was originally published in Weird Tales, Fall 1985.

The Reaper’s Image
A collector of rare antiques visits a tourist home in New England to view a rare mirror with a bad reputation. Many who have gazed into its reflective face have disappeared. The collector is taken to the attic where the dangerous relic is stored and sees something other than his reflection in the silver surface.

This is one of the few stories in this collection drawn from King’s early writing career. It can best be described as a filler. It’s not interesting or compelling.

The Reaper’s Image
was originally published in Startling Mystery Stories, Spring 1969.

A man convicted of multiple murders recounts his transition from orphaned college drop out to spree killer. While hitchhiking in the cold of early spring in Maine, he meets a young woman in a truck stop. She convinces him that they should head for the Maine town of Castle Rock. He immediately falls in love with her and they set out on the journey, killing those who get in their way, those who help them, and those who are convenient targets. Finally, they arrive in Castle Rock and she guides them to a cemetery where he learns the true, dark nature of Nona.

This story is perhaps a bit over written and could have been edited down. It’s another example of King providing too much backstory for his characters. But Stephen King is Stephen King and despite the excess verbiage, he tells a great tale.

This story builds upon the novella, The Body, from Different Seasons. While it is a stand alone story, it incorporates into the main character’s backstory Rich Tessier from The Body and Ace Merrill who will become one of the chief antagonists in King’s series of books that tell the story of the people who dwell in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock.

It also has a tenuous connection to the Dark Tower series as well. Ace Merrill’s girlfriend’s name is Betsy Malenphant. The most obnoxious inhabitant of the dormitory in Hearts in Atlantis is named Ronnie Malenphant who is from Castle Rock and has a sister.

For Owen
This is another short poem that tells of King walking his son Owen to school while Owen describes his classmates as various varieties of fruit.

As I noted earlier, I know nothing of poetry and don’t particularly enjoy reading good poetry or bad. I don’t feel qualified to critique it other than to say I didn’t like it any more or any less than I like any other poem.

The poem was previously unpublished.

Survivor Type
A corrupt surgeon is marooned on a reef island after a shipwreck. He has nothing with him other than a small ration of water and two kilos of heroin he was smuggling to the United States from Vietnam. With no food other than a few seagulls, he starts to dine on the only meat available to him – his own body.

I have never read any story remotely resembling this. I’ve often said that King ranks among the greatest writers of our time. The ability to generate completely original ideas such as this is testimony to that greatness. It uses a traditional means of telling a story through diary entries, but is exceptionally written to induce horror. More than one person has told me this is their favorite King short.

Survivor Type was originally published in an anthology called Terrors in 1982.

Uncle Otto’s Truck
A successful business man is driven insane by a derelict truck that sits in field across the rural road from his house. He and his former business partner used to drive that truck to inspect their vast lumber company holdings. Later, his partner would die under that truck after it was put out to pasture and up on blocks. The narrator (the businessman’s nephew) suspects that his Uncle Otto used the truck to murder his partner. In the end, the murdering eccentric gets his just deserts when the truck pays him a late night visit.

This tale is well written and well paced. Not a spectacularly thrilling or frightening story, but better than some of King’s short works.

Uncle Otto’s Truck was originally published in Yankee Magazine, October 1983.

Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)
A milkman makes his morning rounds. Instead of delivering dairy products, he delivers death in various forms.

This is one of those stories where the villain is seemingly without motivation and that’s good. What’s bad is it's not particularly interesting. He drops off poisonous spiders and poison gas to his customers, but we have no idea what the consequences of his actions are.

This story was previously unpublished.

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2)
Two drunken twenty-somethings travel to a nearby town where the owner of the car knows an old buddy who will put an inspection sticker on his jalopy so he can drive it for one more year. On their way home, they are killed by a homicidal milkman from the previous story.

This story is just incredibly dull. As a former drunk, one would think King could write drunk characters beyond the standard cliché. He chooses not to here.

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game was published in anthology called New Terrors, edited by Ramsey Campbell

A young boy is left to look after his bedridden grandmother while his mother goes to the hospital to tend to his brother who has broken her leg. While his mother is gone, his grandmother dies. He then learns the terrible secret that made his grandmother an outcast in her community.

This is King’s homage to H.P. Lovecraft. As she dies, Gramma cries out for Lovecraft’s mythical “old ones.” King also engages in the narrative style Lovecraft used to build tension, using neither dialogue nor action, relying on pure emotion. Unlike those who often imitate Lovecraft, King successfully accomplished what Lovecraft accomplished while not copying Lovecraft’s style of writing, instead, relying on his own narrative style. The tale was overlong, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Gramma was published in Spring 1984 edition of Weirdbook. It was made into an episode of The New Twilight Zone. The screenplay was authored by Harlan Ellison

The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet
An old and retired publisher tells a writer, his wife, and agent a story about a writer who submitted a short story to a magazine that told a humorous tale about going insane. The editor, an alcoholic at the time, accidentally feeds into the writer’s growing paranoia about the nature of his muse which he calls a Fornit. That indulgence in the writer’s paranoid delusions leads to disaster.

This story is interesting because it is about something that very few writers discuss: their muse. Do I have a muse? Yes, but he’s a rather blue collar type. More utilitarian than creative, the little bastard. I don’t think my muse went to college. If he did, he didn’t take creative writing. I don't feed him anything but the cigar ashes that land on my keyboard.

This story was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1984.

The Reach
As she nears death, an old woman begins to hear voices beckoning her to leave the Maine Island on which she lives and cross the frozen ocean to the mainland – something she has never done in all her years on the planet. She sets off in a snowstorm to visit the continental United States just once before she dies.

Like too many tales in this book, this story had too much of that Maine, Yankee style that I just don’t care for. King’s entertaining enough one can put up with the Maine phonetics. But stories ABOUT Maine (as opposed to those that merely take place in Maine) become tiresome.

The Reach was originally published in Yankee Magazine, November 1981.


This section includes short essays on the inspiration for many of King’s stories.

Critics liked Skeleton Crew much more than they liked King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift. They thought this collection much more mature. While the stories spanned King’s career, most of these stories were penned after King was a published author.

I prefer the young and raw talent evident in Night Shift. I like the young writer trying new things to get noticed and get published. Skeleton Crew is not without its charm. The Mist, Cain Rose Up, and Survivor Type are brilliant. But the “mature” King (he was in his early 30s), was trying too hard to earn mainstream acceptance

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I definitely agree with your final paragraph!