Thursday, April 18, 2013

Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)

Night Shift by Stephen King, containing the following stories:
The Woman in the Room, One for the Road, The Man Who Loved Flowers, The Last Rung on the Ladder, Children of the Corn, I Know What You Need, Quitters, Inc., The Lawnmower Man, The Ledge, Strawberry Spring, Sometimes They Come Back, Trucks, Battleground, Gray Matter, The Boogeyman, The Mangler, I Am the Doorway, Night Surf, Graveyard Shift, and Jerusalem's Lot (Collected 1978):

Stephen King's first collection of short stories spans a decade of his writing life, more than half of it before he broke big with the sale of the novel Carrie. Overall, it's his best collection of pure horror, though there are also studied, moving, non-horror outliers contained here, "The Woman in the Room" and "The Last Rung on the Ladder."

King shows his early range, as the horror stories range from the Lovecraft pastiche "Jerusalem's Lot" through the fairly straightforward thrillers "Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge" to the loopy tale of beer gone bad, "Gray Matter." There's also a quasi-sequel to Salem's Lot, "One for the Road," and a dry run for The Stand, "Night Surf," inspired in part by a line from a Bruce Springsteen song ("The kids are huddled on the beach in the mist").

The scariest stories showcase King's early mastery of fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's committment, all those years ago, to trying to come up with a formula for new horrors for the industrial age in the 1940 short story "Smoke Ghost" and subsequent efforts. In stories like "The Mangler" and "Sometimes They Come Back", a matter-of-fact approach to the supernatural that recalls Leiber's Conjure Wife is super-collided with modern technology.

So we get a possessed industrial steam-press in "The Mangler" or magic that partially relies on recorded sound and visual effects in "Sometimes They Come Back." "Gray Matter," while straightforwardly horrific, has as its sinister contaminant a bad can of beer -- this itself a play on a 1970's incident involving beer that had seaweed extract intentionally put into it, with dire (but non-lethal) results.

The scariest story here, and maybe the scariest story King has ever written, is "The Boogeyman." It works perfectly on the surface level of horror, but it also could be a case study for King's occasionally misguided belief that horror is really all about subtext: the monster seems to be a metaphoric stand-in for a child-abusing, wife-hitting husband. But it also isn't. Or is everything in the protagonist's head? In any case, the damn story has made me afraid of closets ever since. All in all, I think this is probably one of the ten best, non-best-of horror collections in English ever assembled.

There are occasional stretches of clumsy prose and a couple of laughable mis-steps in the description department ("The Last Rung on the Ladder", otherwise excellent and understated, gives us dimensions for a barn that would roughly be the size of NASA's vehicle assembly building. Coupled with the ladder shenanigans in The Shining, this makes me wonder if King has never actually climbed a ladder, or at least been told how high those ladders actually were). But like Robinson Crusoe's amazing disappearing-and-reappearing pants, these mistakes simply add a bit of rough charm to an otherwise terrific performance. Highly recommended.

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