Edition: Paperback collection with the cover pictured above.
Also, basically everything in the book is spoiled.
I. The Craft
All writing, I'd say, is difficult. Rather, all good writing is difficult. It doesn't matter what genre or subject, what your main character or conflict is, to create a story and then express it through the means of the written word requires thousands of hours of practice and a natural affinity for language. Now I don't think the ability to write is exceedingly rare - in fact I'd say a good majority of people have at least some ear for the widths and depths of storytelling, even if they don't know it - but it is difficult, and it comes with its own unique challenges. And one of the most difficult subjects to transcribe effectively is fear.
It's no surprise why. It's easier to write something dramatic than it is to write something scary. We all know that "Billy killed his wife" is dramatic, most everyone's going to agree on that. But is "Billy killed his wife with a meat cleaver and then threw her in a wood chipper" scary? Maybe to some. But since we all have different tastes, different definition of what horror is, appealing to a mainstream audience proves a challenge. You have to get to the primal to do that, and Stephen King, fortunately for us, has that ability.
Night Shift is his first short story collection, and is by far the most horrifying group of works from him I have ever read. I'll shock a few people on here by stating that I believe King's short stories are more effective than his novels as far as pure horror is concerned. They might not be as deep, but they are more terrifying. His tales are reminiscent of a more refined form of the campfires story, and steal into an atavistic urge of the unknown, a need to flee from darkness. People, this is very hard to do. Unfortunately for artists, the link between the horror and hilarity is closer than it first appears, and many fall into the trap or confusing gore and jump scares with true fear.
It demonstrates King's writerly skill that he's able to skirt the edge of this pitfall, because the subject matter of many of these stories actively lend themselves to being mocked and laughed at. Haunted washing machines! Beer that turns people into slugs! Your car, it's alive!!! In less talented hands, these are gleeful parodies. But King makes the notion of a demon-possessed ironing press chill-inducing. The ways in which he accomplishes this not-unsubstantial feat are very complex and nigh-ethereal, garnered from thousands upon thousands of hours of reading and writing. But I'll list a couple of the main ones I notice here:
There is a kinship between horror and comedy, and it's fitting that King's stories function on a similar basis as a blackly humorous joke. There's a set up, a climax, and a release, just like a punchline. Oftentimes said release is one line that chills you, or a shocking revelation, or a "Twilight Zone" -esque twist ending. But in structure and form, the layout of King's stories and the layout of your average joke are about the same, and King takes full advantage of this startling similarity.
It makes sense if you think about it. Jokes function on a plane of building tension, just like any scene in a horror movie, except (hopefully) much funnier. You have the introduction of the conceit, the building of said conceit, and then the punchline, which takes the setup and twists it in a humorous or unexpected way. In Night Shift, the standards are much the same. Take Gray Matter, for instance: we're introduced to the conceit, with a man's son claiming said man is turning into a slug monster. We've got the buildup of the conceit, where we learn the details of the transformation and what the characters are going to do about it, and finally we have the punchline: "I hope it's Herb coming back. I surely do." Except instead of laughing, we shudder to our core. The sinister quality and hopelessness it seems to imply accomplishes the same goal of the perfectly executed punchline in a joke.
And this is why King's jokes have a tendency to make you check under your bed at night. Just in case.
"The Mangler," one of the stories in Night Shift, is about an ironing press that eats people.
It would be very simple to mess this up. It either becomes ridiculous, or intentionally funny, or just plain stupid. The major way King avoids this pratfall is by treating a demon-possessed ironing press with the same seriousness he'd treat breast cancer or genocide.
This is no mean feat, especially in our postmodern world, where every movie seems to have a wink to the audience assuring them that yes, they're in on the joke too, and that this is all a bit silly isn't it? While this conceit has its place and is many times done in exceedingly clever ways, it would have only hurt the stories in Night Shift had King given the slightest inclination that was he was writing was fluff or mock-worthy. He treats these concepts with an deadly grimness. You get the sense that King is absolutely afraid of these things. Like they're nightmares he can't shake. That sincerity comes across to the reader and drags us into the world he's creating. Suddenly we too are terrified of beer that tastes bad; it's only when we pull back and examine the contours that we realize we can't sleep because of a story about the bogeyman.
Short stories, I believe, have a lot in common with poetry. There needs to be a rhythm and a unity, but most saliently, both forms require definite economy of language. You have to manage to tell a complete story in often 7,000 words or less. Some great writers manage to do so in 1000 words or less. This is quite a task, because oftentimes said stories still require the same attributes that a 100,000 word novel would. Namely plot and character. It's easier to establish a character when you have endless reams of paper to do so. It takes finely-tuned skill to effectively establish a character when you have 5,000 words to complete not only the characterization but the story in its entirety.
Again, it's a skill that only comes about after years of practice and, yes, some modicum of talent, but King effortlessly gives us a steady character picture in each of these stories. Depending on what type of story's being told, a character may be more fleshed out than another one, but even so, in almost all these stories the characters are not only established, but we get a definite sense of who they are.
Take this examples from "Children of the Corn": "Burt turned the radio on too loud and didn't turn it down because they were on the verge of another argument and he didn't want it to happen. He was desperate for it not to happen" (King, 250).
One paragraph. Two sentences. And we already know who Burt is.
Now that's not to say Burt is a deep character at this point. We don't know his life story, his likes and dislikes, who his parents were and what his occupation is. But what we do know is that he's under stress, probably with an significant other, as the "they" implies. We can tell from his attempts at deflection that he and this significant other are having issues, and that he's almost at his wit's end with the whole shebang. We see Burt here as a worn-down, sad and almost pathetic figure, and it only took thirty-six words to do it.
There are many types of short stories, and not all of them require characterization. But in horror, the need to have good characters is much more pronounced, much closer to an outright requirement, than it is in many genres, simply because horror - at its most gut-clenching, primitive form - is felt much more viscerally when it's happening to people we connect with. This is why the greatest, most beloved horror movies - the kind that more or less transcend their traditional boundaries - almost always feature if not great characters, than at least characters you feel some sort of emotion towards, because it makes the terrible things occurring to them seem much more present and much more real, as if you're watching this happen to a close friend. King's basically grasped this for his whole career. Rarely are his atrocities happening to nameless nobodies, but to people - often within their very heads. And that's not just scary. That's horrifying.
As far the rest of it? Well, folks, if it were that easy to understand what makes a good writer good then everyone would be doing it. A lot of is is tone, though. King's always had a down-to-earth, blue collar flavor to his writing, very salt of the Earth, and it gives the words and unique dimension. Not expansive and glorious like H.P. Lovecraft, but the language of the characters he's writing about. Normal, everyday people - if I were a betting man, I'd say this is one of the many facets of his popularity around the world. The word choice, the sentence structure, it all comes together to create some of the most chilling tales I've ever read. It's hard to be truly nightmare-inducing with the written word. King himself rarely pulls it off in his longer works. But this? This is the stuff of hell people. These are the tales told before night, when you see eyes peeking out at you from the closet, and hear the creak of the bedroom door as someone, something, slowly pushes it open.
II. The Stories
Epistolary story regarding the long past of everyone's favorite vampire-infested haunt. King writes a really effective 18th century English vernacular here. I've always admired writers that are able to do that without making it come of pretentious or fake. I also appreciate how little the story actually has to do with the book. A couple of vampires arguably appear, though even then they're referred to as nosferatu, but half the story doesn't even take place in Salem's Lot, and when the menace in the town is discovered, it's much more Lovecraft that Stoker. Excellent story with the first case of a chilling ending, this time at the expense of a, shall we say, "nonbeliever?"
Rat clean-out week at mill goes horribly, horribly wrong. This one is based off King's own experience in a mill that he worked at, when a co-worker told him about, yes, a rat clean-out that actually occurred where rats were found as big as dogs. Was the co-worker exaggerating? Maybe. But rats as big as dogs? That's a terrifying notion, and the genesis of this tale, which culminates in a rat-city in the basement of the mill. Truly grotesque stuff. Another instance of the chilling twist ending, this time at the expense of the uninformed other employees, but a much weaker version, in my opinion.
I really like stories that focus on a smaller circle of characters but hint at much larger world and history. Night Surf is very obviously proto-The Stand with the tale taking place after much of the world has succumbed to the virus Captain Trips. I don't think the two stories are in the same canon, however.
The tone of the story is beautifully elegiac. You can practically feel the world dying around the characters, especially when one they thought was immune starts showing signs of the virus. The main guy is just kind of shuffling around, lost, with nowhere to go, and it ends more or less on that note. What do you do when the world ends and the survivors are just waiting for death?
I Am the Doorway
An actual science-fiction story, with a horror twist. Astronaut comes back from manned trip to Venus and discovers eyes bursting from his hands. Yeah. One of the most frightening tales in this collection, and that's saying something. Body horror always has freaked me out (just wait until we reach The Tommyknockers) and the idea of you being transmuted into some...thing in order to bring virulent aliens into our universe just makes me shudder. Again ends with a twist, and a far more effective and creepy one.
An ironing press is possessed by a demon and comes to life. Enough said.
One of King's interests is taking post-modern looks at ancient nightmares, transforming them into a more modern figments, or approach them from a different sensibility. So vampires are not only sexual creatures but a consequence of small town decay; the haunted hotel is much more sinister than it first appears, and maybe isn't haunted at all, or is it? Childhood stories are twisted into tales that make adults wet the bed. The Boogeyman's very effective at this, reminding of why we, indeed, feared the open closet door as children, and why it's dangerous to forget it.
Remember what I said about body horror? Suffice it to say that Gray Matter is one of the stories in here that disturbs me the most.
This ridiculous tale demonstrates how effective King can be in other genres. A mark sends his would-be assassin a box of toy soldiers that come to life and start attacking. Thermonuclear weapons become involved.
King doesn't truck much in the realm of magical realism (no pun intended) - I mean, you might think that's an odd comment, but even the most horrific of his imaginings usually have a reason, even if it's grossly fantastical - but Trucks, oddly enough, might just be an example of it. Not a classical example, of course. Not in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the idea that every motorized vehicle suddenly gains its own agency with no given reason does seem to enter the realm of that genre. The characters' reactions to it - they're just as baffled as we are - is probably the only thing disqualifying it. A chilling story that reminds us why it's imperative to treat our cars nicely. Was also the basis for the film Maximum Overdrive. Less said about that the better.
Sometimes They Come Back
Excellent story about past traumas and conquering them, with a bit of a King twist. A teacher, recently returned to the workforce after a mental breakdown, discovers three students are the same ones that killed his brother some decade before, and haven't aged a bit. You have to wonder if King's own experience with the public school system didn't provide some basis for this.
Really good story that showcases just how articulate King can be in his prose. Wonderful descriptions of fog, and scenery: "And when night came the fog came with it, mewing silent and white along the narrow college avenues and thoroughfares. The pines on the mall poked through it like counting fingers and it drifted, slow as cigarette smoke, under the little bridge down by the Civil War cannons. It made things seem out of joint, strange, magical. The unwary traveler would step out of the juke-thumping, brightly lit confusion of the Grinder, expecting the hard clear starriness of winter to clutch him..." (King, 172). So effective that it does two things: one, it makes the twist at the end catch you totally off guard, and two: makes said twist make perfect sense upon a reread.
One of the only non-horror, non-fantastical stories in here. Man gets dared to encircle the ledge of a high-rise. If he wins, he gets the (rich) bet-maker's wife, with whom he's been having an affair. If he loses, well, he dies.
The Lawnmower Man
I'd honestly classify this as horror-comedy, and it's probably the worst story in here. Man hires a lawn crew to mow, but eponymous lawnmower man strips down and starts eating the grass. He's rather disgustingly fat, too. While huge lawnmower is chugging along. The circumstances of the story, its insanity, even the tone of the police officer at the end, it's all wild and crazy and will make you laugh, while you're not throwing up.
Another non-fantastical story, but definitely not non-horror. King was obviously deeply addicted to cigarettes at this time, and part of me wonders if he was subconsciously wishing that this company actually existed to make him quit. Not help him quit. Make him quit.
I Know What You Need
Girl meets guy who treats her like she's always wanted to be treated. A little too much like she's always wanted to be treated. One thing I didn't buy about this one is the friend who's able to hire a private detective behind her friend's back to check out this new guy; but otherwise its an...actually kind of sad tale about how the perfect someone may just be covering up who they really are. Works as a criticism of the patriarchy and "friendzoning" (a criticism of the concept that guys who are nice the girls are owed said girl, that is) as well, if you want to read it as such.
Children of the Corn
Probably the most mainstream famous story of this collection. A bickering couple on the last bits of thin, cracking ice in their marriage stumble upon a town of children all below the age of nineteen who have crafted a religion dedicated to He Who Walks Behind the Rows, which necessitates blood sacrifice and the death of every child who reaches nineteen. Eighteen by the story's end.
Hard to say why this one captured the public consciousness. Not that it's bad - it certainly is not - but why this one and not, say, Gray Matter? My guess? Appealed to midwestern corn-based towns. Also managed to show the dark side of religious fundamentalism, even if the god you worship is real. Also reveals the children are not quite so dumb and naive as we make them out to be, and I think that, in some perverse way, really got at people. Like a subversion of expectation.
Also made into a movie. Haven't seen it.
The Last Rung on the Ladder
Non-horror, non-fantastic. No less disturbing. If you have siblings that you care about, this one's going to really bother you.
The Man Who Loved Flowers
Insane guy buys flowers for long dead love-of-life. Throws them in hands of poor, unsuspecting girl and beats her to death with a hammer. Entertaining...er, you know what I mean...story, but one whose twist is the meat of the story, making it a poor reread.
One for the Road
Another story about Jerusalem's Lot, this one in the present day. I really like this one. I like the picture it paints of the Lot after the ending of the novel that bears its name. I like the characters, and how the people who live next to the Lot deal with the knowledge of what's happened there (answer, you don't really talk about it). And the story itself's a fair shake as well. Tourist mistakenly tries to take Jerusalem's Lot exit in a blizzard. Car gets stranded, and he looks for help at the local hangout. A couple of the townsfolk try to help him retrieve his family despite their fear of the Lot. Doesn't work out that well.
The Woman in the Room
A terribly depressing note to end the book on. Again, non-horror and non-fantasy. Well, non-horror depending on your definition. Man contemplates the pros and cons of helping his desperately ill mother along towards death. The language and tone of the story is very visceral, and I can see people who've watched a loved one waste away with cancer have a hard time reading it. I'm not sure what it means that King left us with this story. As far as general "tone" goes, I think One for the Road would have been a much more "fitting" end. It would be keeping with the genre that dominates most of the collection, and it would have served as a nice bookend with the first story Jerusalem's Lot. You wonder, indeed, if King's own experience with his mother and the manner in which she died had anything to do with it, if it affected him more than he himself lets one. As it is, Night Shift ends on a tone of frank hopelessness - and that's an emotion far more unsettling than simple fear.
IV. In Conclusion
If you want to write horror stories, study Night Shift. If you want to write, period, study Night Shift. It's basically a text book on the use of language, characterization, dialogue, and how to put the audience in a frame of mind to make them feel hope, hate, fear, despair, etc. It shows a wide range of King's talents, and that he can do more than scare the bejesus out of people, which, in turn, is what has always separated him from most genre fiction writers.
I looked at the Stephen King bibliography right quick to see which book was up next, and my heart skipped a beat. Fitting, as the pseudo-prequel, somewhat-related birth of the idea was collected in Night Shift.
It's going to shock no one that The Stand is regarded as King's greatest work by many, and that it's exceedingly long. Odds are it's going to be a wait, is what I'm saying. Not just because the book is long, however. But because I've got to work of the courage to read it again. Nothing in the King canon has troubled my sleep at night than this one novel. Read it and you'll see why.
Until next time,