Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, short stories
I read it: September 2018
Now that’s the kind of paperback that’s fun to find at Goodwill! Spine-battered and yellow and smelling of age, with creepy cover art to boot (from the story “I Am the Doorway”). In continuing the pendulum swing from trying out King’s latest to ticking off the classics, I knew that this October was the right time to work the Night Shift.
Or “Graveyard Shift,” rather, if we’re to be specific about the actual title of the included story. I suppose Night Shift was a tad catchier in the end… although the next story in the list is “Night Surf,” further complicating the titles at hand, although I kind of like the shifting combinations now that I consider them. “Night Surf” is a mere sketch of an idea, a ten-page feeling, a seed of a story. The characters are slowly succumbing to a virus known as Captain Trips, and yes, here is the precursor to the epic novel The Stand.
And that’s not all for title wordplay: the opening story is none other than “Jerusalem’s Lot,” a supplemental tale to the hugely popular novel ‘Salem’s Lot. I remember being lukewarm on the long-play version of the tale, though I’d give it another go someday. The short story in this collection is great, though, taking place in both 1850 and 1789. It’s a good old-fashioned Protestants-vs.-the-devil yarn, Nathaniel Hawthorne through the warped lens of Lovecraft.
Apart from the tales that spawned or spun off from larger works, several stories in this collection became the basis for movie attempts. I’ve never seen the infamous incarnations of “Trucks” (turned into Maximum Overdrive) or “The Lawnmower Man” (apparently a movie version in name only), but both of those tales are solid. “Trucks” is pure suspense, with realistic characters dropped into a nonsensical highway hell, and “The Lawnmower Man” is a fantastically gruesome tale. I recalled “Battleground” from the early 2000s “Nightmare and Dreamscapes” TV series, and the page version plays out how I remembered it, a brutal version of Toy Story. Finally, there’s “Children of the Corn,” a classic I couldn’t wait to read, although it’s frustratingly shorter than I had hoped (this should have been a novella at the very least). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the movie, although it’s possible I caught glimpses of it and confused it with some scenes from Lord of the Flies.
The less popular stories are all page-turners, from mad machines in “The Mangler” to the bleakly grim child deaths in “The Boogeyman.” “The Ledge” uses a literally ledge for suspense, “Gray Matter” includes grotesque transformation, “Quitters, Inc.” tackles the nature of addiction (tackling smoking from a different angle than the later King story “The Ten O’Clock People”), and “Sometimes They Come Back” reads like a teacher’s nightmare put to page. The book is overstuffed ever so slightly, with the core idea of “Strawberry Spring” being inexplicably duplicated in the inferior “The Man Who Loved Flowers.” Even “Strawberry Spring,” with its wistfulness of college campus life, could be dropped in favor of “I Know What You Need,” another campus story and a memorable one because it has a young female protagonist, as opposed to the stock array of older men who feature in almost all the other stories.
The end of the list brings one last misstep, which is the inclusion of “The Woman in the Room.” In its way, this non-supernatural tale of the death of a loved one is touching and effective, but its placement is peculiar. That’s because right before it is “One for the Road,” a solid spook story that returns the reader to Jerusalem’s Lot, and a perfect counterbalance to the opener. A blizzard brings a family man stumbling into the local tavern, and he recruits a couple old-timers to come rescue his wife and daughter who are back in the car. But “there’s death in the throat of a snowstorm wind, white death—and maybe something beyond death.”
In Night Shift, King brings us death in many forms, but also life, and above all else, a hell of a good collection of creepy tales. Although the thrillers do their job to thrill with no hint of the supernatural, the best stories by far are those that feature monstrous plotlines. That’s because we get to follow the characters as they approach these impossible realities and try to come to grips with the madness unfolding—only to find out that perhaps the people aren’t insane at all, and instead the slithery, bloody cracks of the universe are starting to show. Some later King starts with the presumption of a fantasy world, but these early tales where characters start grounded in a hard reality and are slowly pulled into the grotesque are very effective, and tactile, pieces of horror. King recently focused hard on the same strategy while mapping out The Outsider, so after reading Night Shift I can even more confidently say that his latest novel is a fine return to form.