Monday, January 30, 2012

Stephen King's Night Shift: Does the Early Works Still Have a Place in his Literary Empire?

I've been promising a review of Stephen King's first collection of short stories for several weeks now, and I thought I better write this thing before I completely forget about each story. I did a review of King's second short story collection, Skeleton Crew, over a year ago. I absolutely adored the anthology and thought it was huge proof that King is an extremely talented writer who can compose compelling works in various genres. Night Shift doesn't span as many genres, but rather sticks to mostly supernatural horror stories (with a few exceptions). This also makes sense since the majority of the stories come from the period that King was just trying to scrap by financially and he found a small niche in writing horror stories for the "skin mags" (which paid a really good rate back then). This collection also spans close to 15 years as he included stories written in the ‘60s up until 1976 (collection was published in 1978).

Even though it is easy to peg this as a horror story anthology, it is an unfair label – which is always my stance when it comes to King's stories. He does a great job of exploring the emotions and personalities of the average person and exploring how they respond to supernatural and horrific circumstances. In the end, his stories aren't really about the monsters but rather the humans who are experiencing these events. He is great at creating multi layered, believable people, and with these individuals, he explores a variety of deep issues. I know the literary snobs would disagree that King's work is profound and explores thought provoking issues, but they'd likely not want to admit they’re snobs to begin with. Yes, King admits his works is the fast food of the literary world but it is high end fast food that is delicious and you can still find nuggets of nutritional value (after all, the Big Mac uses real lettuce).

Here is my quick look at each of the stories contained in Stephen King's Night Shift. A collection that contains some of his oldest works, but also has some of his most classic and enjoyable stories to this day.

Jerusalem's Lot: This would have been one of the last stories written that was included in the anthology (may have been written exclusively for the collection), and it provides some background to the eerie village that is the focus of his vampire novel, 'Salem's Lot. Even though this particular story doesn't contain any vampires, it is written in a similar style as the most popular vampire novel, Dracula (it is written completely in the style of diary entries and correspondence). I really enjoyed how this story leaves the reader to doubt if there really is supernatural horrors taking place or if it is just the collapse of one man's sanity (this is why the diary and correspondence style is so effective -- you don't know if it is all coming from a deteriorating mind). Of course, the novel this story is providing a background for would answer the insanity vs. reality question, but I felt the story does a fantastic job of giving you some doubt. Especially since the story ends with an entry by a descendant who seems to question the truthfulness of the prior entries, while also alluding to a possible history of family insanity (or is it the curse that lives within this family home).

The story is legitimately scary. I read this story while my wife was sick and I slept in a separate room to avoid the illness. There was only a lamp on and the room was shrouded in shadows. I got spooked reading it. The walls seemed a little less quiet that evening. It is a good scare, but also an incredibly well written story that pays homage to some classics. The story is mostly based in the 1800s but sets the stage for the novel based in the 70s. I feel the time period allows for the story to become that much darker but also causes you to question what is real because it is happening during a time of great superstition. If you enjoy gothic fiction than this one is a real treat (and if you like sleepless night then read it in the dark right before bed time).

Graveyard Shift: This is an example of how King just uses his "monsters" as a back ground or a way to drive the more important human stories. On the surface this seems like a story about a textile mill that is plagued by giant mutant rats that dwell in the basement. The mutant rats play an important part in making this story disturbing and uncomfortable. The real story is about a drifter who takes on a job at this mill and his volatile relationship with the cold hearted boss. The thing that really makes this story intriguing is that there isn't a clear hero in this tale. The boss appears heartless and maybe even a little corrupt, but the "protagonist" reveals a dark side when he starts to feel like he is being pushed around. I think many readers will get disturbed by this story and not necessarily just because it contains rats the size of large dogs. I enjoyed this story that reveals that there are vile monsters that are hidden in many dark places (including inside the soul of some human beings).

Night Surf: This is actually a "prologue" to King's epic novel, The Stand. A huge portion of the world's population has been wiped out by a dreadful virus, and this story is a small peak at the life of a few survivors. Unlike the novel, this isn’t about warring factions or the attempt at rebuilding society, but rather it is just some young kids trying to make sense of this new world and trying to make the best of the relationships they have left. The strength of this story is the window into the emotions and fears of the characters, and being able to see their authentic and honest deep thoughts on how they must cope and survive. I enjoyed it because the characters are incredibly flawed and in many ways very selfish. It isn't about humans rising above their circumstance or becoming heroes, but just about some people trying to enjoy what they see as their last days on Earth.

I Am The Doorway: One of the original covers of this anthology shows a hand that is covered with eyeballs. This is the story that cover is depicting. It is another story that plays the "insanity vs. reality" card for a long while, as a majority of the story is a character describing some dark events to a friend. This was a written during a time that space travel was a big part of the culture, and there were still lots of debate over what could possibly be contained in the planets surrounding us. This tale talks about a rather nasty side effect an astronaut experienced when he landed on Venus and took home something that would haunt him for the rest of his life. It is yet another dark and disturbing story that might make you queasy at times, but sometimes that exactly what is necessary for a good story. Life is full of unexplainable and nasty things, and it can be relieving to get that cathartic experience from the relatively safe confines of fiction.

The Mangler: They actually tried to make a movie based on this story, and I hear it was absolutely awful. What really were the chances that a movie about a possessed industrial laundry press machine would be of any type of quality? Well, you may answers with, "The same chances that a short story about a possessed industrial laundry press machine would be any good." And you'd be wrong. This is actually a really great story and one of the stand outs in a collection full of fantastic (but horrifying) tales. The big difference is that a movie needs to have constant visual actions and can't properly explore the inner thoughts of a human. A written story can be compelling without constant action and can delve into the inner psyche of a human being. Once again, the strength of this tale is based on the emotions and thoughts of the character. The detective is especially interesting as he tries to solve this bizarre case of a seemingly fine machine causing the most horrid of accidents. The synopsis of this story is over the top and ridiculous, but it is King's ability to create true human emotion that makes it an engaging story. I also know that I never wanting to work at an industrial laundry facility.

The Boogeyman: If you sense there is a dark force or monster, but you do nothing about it, then were you responsible for the death of your children? This is the question posed by this short story. It may seem like a ridiculous question, since we know there isn’t a boogeyman residing in our closet. Even though this is a story that deals in the supernatural, I still think it presents an interesting question. Are there times that we can protect our child, but we fail due to doubts or insecurities? Or what do we do when we fail to protect our children and how do we survived the ever lingering guilt? I find this such an intriguing story, because the main character isn't that likable. He is a bit of a racist and sexist, and he is definite blue collar. The man is flawed. He is forever tormented by his inability to protect his children from the boogeyman. This is something fathers can relate to -- the absolute need to protect your child. This story resonates with me more now that I have a son that I instinctually feel driven to keep safe. I feel this story is more powerful because the character isn't a saint but still loved his children. There isn't any qualification to becoming a father, but also there isn't any requirement to be ingrained with a sense of protection for your child. It is a reminder that you’re a protector of your children even when you're not the world's definition of a hero or even a good person. I feel the story resonates more when the character really is flawed and even weak, and now forever tormented in the feelings of failure as a father (something that many father will wrestle with even if it isn't due to attacks from a boogeyman).

Grey Matter: After reading this story, I've decided it is of paramount importance that I check my beer to make sure no seal has been broken or any evidence of grey residue around the bottle/can. This story was written during a time when there was some widespread panic in America over contaminated food. This is a fear that still exists among some groups. I've never heard of beer or any food items turning someone into a cannibalistic monster, but some of the messages of this tale will still play to the fears of many. This was another one that made it just a little bit harder to be able to have a sound sleep after gobbling up the dark tale right before bed time (and again, I was alone in the guest room while consuming this horror story). It is a fun little story, as long as you feel comfortable using the word "fun" when describing a tale about a man who is slowly turning into a horrible blob-like creature thanks to some bad brew.

Battleground: Not all stories contain a hero. In this story, the "protagonist" is a hit man who just killed off a toymaker. I know the hit man was doing his job, but can you ever really cheer for a guy willing to kill off a person who brings joy to thousands of children? Well, the mother of the toymaker sure isn't a fan of the guy because she sends a rather nefarious package. She created the battleground as the hit man fights for his survival against the most dangerous army toys known to man. It is a creative and exciting little story that not only thrills but also gives you a few laughs. It definitely provides for a different kind of feel and atmosphere compared to many of the other stories in this collection.

Trucks: Another example of an amazing short story that doesn't translate into a good movie. King used the premise of this story (and actually several parts of this actual story) for his directorial debut (and also his directorial finale), Maximum Overdrive. I actually like the movie far more than most critics, but also realize the appeal comes more from the B-Movie style of film watching (how bad can this things truly get?). The short story is a great "group of strangers trapped together and must coexist in order to survive" sort of tale. King perfected this type of story with his 1980 novella, The Mist, (included in Skeleton Crew), but this is an incredible first effort. Actually, the two stories go into very different directions, and this tale works with a much smaller cast of characters. The characters aren't dealing with an unknown entity like in The Mist, but rather are fighting the machines they've controlled and used for years and years. The unknown fear comes from the question of why have the trucks suddenly got a mind of their own and decided to unleash their hellish fury upon their former owners. I also am a big fan of the ambiguous ending and feel it adds some extra oomph to the message. This was being written during the oil crisis of the 70s, and at the time there was a real fear the way transportation existed was going to change drastically. Though demonic trucks seem like a silly concept, the fear and emotions and response of the characters seems genuine and that is what drives this story. It is another favourite of several from this great collection.

Sometimes They Come Back:
This is a story about how eventually your past is going to come back to haunt you. This is a scenario that many could relate to such as a criminal record that gets in the way of a job hiring or a colleague you harmed that now may play a role in your job advancement or a traumatic experience that refuses to leave your mind at night or numerous other events that sneak back into your life. Of course, it is unlikely that the teenagers that murdered your brother would come back from the dead to haunt you and eventually try to kill you. This would also be why this is a short story about supernatural horror fiction rather than real life. The protagonist is one you can relate to you, and he has a past he wants to be able to erase. He can't, and it returns to haunt him. This is something that I know many can relate to, even if the actually scenario is hopefully something no one has gone through. This story has a message you can discuss and ponder about, but it also provides the necessary action to be incredibly entertained. I don't want to spoil this story, but the ending was excellent and maybe the most disturbing "happy ending" you could imagine.

Strawberry Fields: It has a harmless title, which of course means it is one of the darkest tales. An intriguing and well written tale (which is about a series of serial murders) that will definitely get you thinking.

The Ledge: Not all "monsters" need to be supernatural. This is the tale of cold hearted crime boss who seeks revenge on the man who was having an affair with his wife (he wants revenge despite the fact it is pretty clear the marriage was entirely loveless). This story reminds me of a classic short story I absolutely adored as a kid "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, which (along with "The Lottery" by Mary Jackson) is what got me hooked on wanting to write fiction. The concept is similar in that the villain makes a deal with the protagonist where the protagonist will be able to survive (and in this case, walk away with money and his wife) if he can win the challenge. In this case, the challenge is navigating around the building on the ledge. The story does a great job of capturing the human fear of extreme heights while also playing to the despair of trying to effectively accomplish this bet so that the protagonist can survive the fury of the gangster while also return to the arms of his lover. Of course, the whole time the protagonist has to question if he can trust the mob boss and hope that his girl did get safely away. It is the type of plot with some additional elements that could make a more than thrilling popcorn muncher, and is the type of story that is able to capture the type of emotions and peril that has made me fall in love with fiction. The story mixes playing to the type of nightmares I am tormented with but also the type of scenario that I would pretend I was in as a child (of course, I always came out the victor in my little imaginary world). I love this story, and one day will definitely write something that is a tribute to this (which I feel is a tribute to the awesome "The Most Dangerous Game").

The Lawnmower Man: You might read this and think, "Oh, they made an awful movie about this short story too." Well, that isn't exactly true. They made a movie that used the title of this short story and even deceptively called it Stephen King's Lawnmower Man, but the movie has absolutely nothing to do with this awesome story. This is actually one of the stories that initially made me a Stephen King fan. In Grade 9, a friend of mine recommended that I check this story out and kept on going on about how awesome the ending of it was. I think he may have even spoiled the ending. I won't do that to you, even if this story is now over 35 years old.

I fell in love with this short story back in Grade 9, because I loved the vivid and dark imagination while also the fact it could create authentic humans. This really is the power of Stephen King. The protagonist isn't virtuous or some super hero, but your regular and flawed average person. He gets thrown in this very scary and very supernatural situation. I love the balance of characters who are incredibly realistic along with situation that is absolutely absurd (a lawnmower company owned by the god Pan). This is another really fun story -- as long as you find guts and entrails to be fun, of course.

Quitters Inc - There really isn't a villain in this story. It isn't exactly horror. But there may be characters you despise and there are events that will make you gasp. You have a character that feels his addiction to cigarettes is ruining his life, and so he joins this program with can't miss results. Let's just say the techniques are a little controversial, but would definitely make most promise to never use a cigarette again. It is another story that will cause some heated discussions, and in this case, question how far should a company be allowed to go even if it has been agreed upon by the customer. Can you justify evil means if it leads to positive ends? This really is what the story is asking and I like that it doesn't necessarily try to give you a straight answer. I am sure the reader will think it gives an answer, but that is more an example of one's beliefs rather than what the story truly presents. I think a great story should have a message, but should also allow the reader to decide for themselves based off how things play out. This is exactly what is allowed to happen here, and this approach creates a strong story with a more effective message.

I Know What You Need: You ever see a close friend in a relationship that you know is completely bad for her but she can't see it because she is clouded by the emotion of being in a relationship? Well, this story is exactly like that except more Stephen King than 90210 -- likely because it was written by Stephen King rather than produced by Aaron Spelling. You can definitely see analogies to girl who traps herself in a dangerous relationship despite protests from friends, but it is wrapped into a supernatural mystery story. You'll be busy trying to figure out how this nerd was able figure out all the girl’s thoughts and desires while always having luck end up his way rather than bother analyzing the issues the story is trying to present. That is what a good story should do, get you wrapped into the story while you read and then leave the message to be debated after the fun has all been had.

Children of Corn:
This is a pretty well-known short story, and has been made into about 2 billion awful B-movies (and one decent early 80s big budget film starring Linda Hamilton). I am sure you can find a message about the dangers of organized religion or extreme ideologies, or you can just decide it is a message about why you shouldn't have kids. No matter what message you want to debate, it is a pretty chilling story. I also like the fact that the entire build up is a dissolve of a marriage and that both are in emotional ruin even before the horror begins. Again King takes the time to really develop the characters and flesh them out rather than just make perfect cookie cutter versions of something that resembles humans. You get involved in their relationship before you get thrust into the horror that is this cult village known as Gatlin, Nebraska. This story is popular and considered a classic for a reason, and has inspired many other interesting stories about cult like towns.

The Last Rung on the Ladder: Though Night Shift isn't as diverse as Skeleton Crew, there are a few stories that prove King can write more than just horror. This sad and tragic tale about a brother reflecting upon his once close relationship with his sister is evidence of the range of stories King can create. It is a sentimental tale, but not written in an overly gushy way. The characters are still fleshed out in a realistic way and it creates a believable situation you find real people could get into. The man reflects upon a day in his childhood where he saved his sister's life, and then starts lamenting how he allowed their relationship to drift apart. It is a great story about the importance of family without being preachy or didactic.

The Man Who Loved Flowers: You're either going to despise or love this story. You may be able to finger out what the story is about, but I think it still provides an interesting message on how human's tend to view each other.

One for the Road:
A return to a story about Jerusalem's Lot, but this time with far more vampires. It a cautionary tale about why you should never stop your car in an abandoned town in the middle of a blizzard in a Stephen King story. Luckily, most of us are not in a Stephen King story. Or so we think.

The Woman in the Room: Stephen King wrote this while his mother was dying from cancer. I am pretty sure this fictional story was a way for him to cope with the loss and pain he was experiencing. I read this just weeks after Emily's dad passed away. I found this was a beautiful but emotionally draining story to read. This is proof that King has a softer side. It is definitely one of his more powerful and emotional pieces, and you can just feel the passion that must have gone into this story.

This is a collection of some of Stephen King's oldest works. He has written many masterpieces since this collection. I think, this anthology still stands up to almost anything he has written since. It is a great showcase of his talents and contains some of the scariest stories he has ever written. This is a definite must read for anyone who wants to see why Stephen King has become a mainstream literary icon.

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