I picked several short stories collections for the 2019 Hail to the King Reading Challenge because I plan to write quite a few stories this year. I wanted to study stories by the master of the short story. I’ve read Night Shift several times over the years and I continue to revisiting this classic collection that has tapped into so many fears and inspired so many movies (of varying quality).
Introduction, by John D. MacDonald
One of the pleasures of rereading this collection was rediscovering the introduction. I think I’ve skipped it many times and that’s too bad. MacDonald can fucking write! He pulls the reader right in and talks about writing.
“Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.”
It’s a wonderful introduction and highlighted for me a writer that I haven’t read. It caused me to turn to Wikipedia and Goodreads, discovering the titles that MacDonald wrote and noting them on my endless list of books to read. Because he’s absolutely right–if you want to write you need to read. And when you read words written by a person with such obvious skill it doesn’t matter what they’re writing. You’d better pay attention.
Long before Stephen King sat down and keyed the words in On Writing he wrote the foreword for Night Shift. It’s about writing, about fear, and the shape of the body under the sheet. A few years later King came out with Danse Macabre which gave him a chance to dig deeper into the guts of horror. I didn’t put it on my list for the challenge. Next year, maybe. In this foreword King says that most people don’t read a writer’s preface, excepting three groups. I think King missed a group–other writers who want to learn from those further along the path. For those people, King’s foreword is worth the excursion.
If ’Salem’s Lot isn’t a favorite of yours, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. This epistorlary story told in letters and journal entries tells an earlier story of ’Salem’s Lot set in 1890 when Charles Boone comes to take possession of Chapelwaite, his late cousin Stephen’s house near Preacher’s Corners and Jerusalem’s Lot. Charles’ letters and the journal entries of his companion Calvin form the bulk of the story as they discover the terrors that lurk in Jerusalem’s Lot and the house at Chapelwaite.
These feels like an old-fashioned story very much along the lines of Dracula. It also can serve as a sort of prequel to ’Salem’s Lot and is included in the illustrated edition of that book.
Rats. Lots of rats scurry through this story. Not the story for someone who is afraid of rats. Hall, a drifter with some college experience, is working in the textile mill pegging cans at the rats when the foreman Warwick offers him a job with extra pay cleaning out the basement that no one has touched in many years. Not the best job, not by a long shot.
Night Shift stories have spawned numerous movies including the 1990 film Graveyard Shift staring Stephen Macht, David Andrews, and Brad Dourif.
Graveyard Shift, the story, is one of my favorites from the collection. I have a weakness for creepy creature stories.
A group of young people hanging out after an epidemic has wiped out most people. The narrator, Bernie, tells the story.
I didn’t enjoy this one as much, mostly because the characters aren’t particularly likeable. It did bring to mind The Stand.
I Am the Doorway
One of the creepiest, weird stories in the collection, I Am the Doorway is the story of a man with an intimate connection to other-worldly, alternate dimension, beings. A former astronaut who went to Venus and came back changed. I like it for the sheer weirdness of the story.
Campy and violent, The Mangler tells the story of a laundry speed ironer which develops a taste for blood. Officer Hunton investigates the accident with the machine, the impossible and bloody death of a woman pulled into that machine.
Another favorite story of mine in the collection, The Mangler sticks with you.
Lester Billings isn’t a nice man and he has a horrible story to tell Dr. Harper about the deaths of Billings’ three children. He didn’t do it, he says, but he feels responsible. The story explores the fear of the monster under the bed or in the closet.
A sad, strange story about the fate of Richie Grenadine. It starts when Timmy, Richie’s son, comes into the Nite-Owl and asks the owner Henry Parmalee to take Richie his beer. See, something has been happening to Timmy’s dad and he just can’t go back there.
Mr. Renshaw returns from his latest job, he’s a hired assassin, and receives an unexpected package containing a carefully planned revenge.
It’s a fun story, one of many that King writes (like The Mangler) and the next story in the collection that imagines everyday objects taking on a life of their own.
The inspiration for the movie Maximum Overdrive. The narrator of Trucks is in a diner at a truck stop along with other unfortunate victims. Outside the empty trucks patrol the lot. It seems like the end of the world. All of the vehicles are taking on a life of their own, killing people, but keeping some alive to serve their needs.
Trucks turns around our relationship with our vehicles. Every year thousands of people are killed by our cars and many injured. We pour money and time into them, keeping them in good condition, cleaning them, and making more.
The world in Trucks isn’t that different, really. Especially now that we have autonomous cars hitting the roads.
Sometimes They Come Back
This story of childhood bullies returning to torment teacher Jim Norman also inspired a movie of the same name. The bullies here remind me of the bullies that show up in other King stories like The Body and those in It.
Springheel Jack, the nightmare that haunts the campus during the strawberry spring in 1968. The narrator recounts the events that happened all those years ago.
This is a disturbing crime story. Nothing supernatural is going on in the story, which makes it even more unsettling.
This story shows up in the anthology film Cat’s Eye along with Quitters Inc from 1985. It’s a revenge story. The narrator, Stan Norris, confronts his lover’s jilted husband Cressner. The angry husband gives Norris a challenge: make a circuit of the building on the ledge outside and receive money and the woman he loves.
It’s an effective story that teases your fear of heights. I’m sure it would make a terrifying VR experience.
The Lawnmower Man
Sometimes the stories are super weird, especially this one. The 1992 movie with this title had no relation to the story. I’m not sure why they bothered except to try to gain viewers with King’s name on the film. King sued to get his name removed.
The story itself is strange as the typical job of mowing a lawn turns into something entirely odd. It’s a Twilight Zone sort of story, except bloodier.
Dick Morrison wants to get ahead in his career and quit smoking. When an associate, Jimmy McCann drops him a tip of a group that can guarrantee that he’ll quit smoking. Morrison isn’t sure about the whole idea but soon finds that it’s too late–he’s already started the program. There’s no way to back out. One way or another he’s going to quit.
Another favorite story of mine in this collection, Quitters, Inc. doesn’t let you go.
I Know What You Need
A scary story of a stalker targeting a young woman. Bad enough with an ordinary stalker, but there’s more to this one than it seems at first.
Children of the Corn
If there’s a story that has stuck with me the most from this collection, it’s Children of the Corn. It’s a deeply unsettling story. The people–including the children–are caught up by an ancient force out there in the corn. It’s a story of older gods and the out of the way places in America. It brings to mind the ghost towns that have been abandoned.
This story also spawned a franchise of movies with ten movies to date.
The Last Rung on the Ladder
A sad story dealing with the relationship between a brother, Larry, the narrator and Kitty, his sister. Larry receives a letter from Kitty and shares a story of their youth. It’s a moving story without any supernatural horrors, only real-life ones.
The Man Who Loved Flowers
Another real-life horror story in which the only monster is human. A disturbing, effective story.
One For the Road
I said that Children of the Corn stuck with me the most, but this was another story that stays with me. It’s the second ’Salem’s Lot story in this collection. A stranger comes into Herb Tooklander’s bar in the middle of a bad snow storm. He tells the story of getting stuck in the snow near ‘Salem’s Lot. He left his wife and daughter behind to go get help. Reluctantly, Herb and the narrator Booth, agree to run him out to try and rescue the wife and daughter.
Also included in the ’Salem’s Lot illustrated edition.
The Woman in the Room
The final story in the collection is another sad, real-life horror story. I prefer stories with monsters because that’s easier to deal with than these sorts of stories. It’s sad, effective, and the sort of story that you can ask yourself, What would I do in that situation?
King didn’t include an afterword to his dear readers. I think I would have switched the order of the last two stories so that the collection ended with One For the Road. The title, the story itself, and especially the last line of that story would have been a great way to end the collection.
Still, great collection that includes some of my favorite stories by King.