NIGHT SHIFT by Stephen King – 30 Years of Fear
Well, one cover leapt out at me – artwork of a creepy figure emerging from a cornfield, brandishing a sickle – with the words "Night Shift" written on it, together with the author’s name - which of course I recognised. I picked up the book and flicked through its pages, realising that it was a collection of short stories, vaguely assuming that this was perhaps a little inferior to a novel, but deciding to plump for it anyway.
Over the next week I read "Night Shift" in the same way I always read anthologies and collections (and still do to this day) – from front to back, starting at the introduction (by John D MacDonald - who, at the time, I’d never heard of), onto the Foreword by King himself, through all the stories in order. After I’d finished the book in its entirety I made pencil marks on the contents page – numbers from 1 to 20, which listed my favourites in order from best to worst.
For the record, here’s what I wrote – Jerusalem’s Lot 18, Graveyard Shift 12, Night Surf 20, I Am the Doorway 11, The Mangler 4, The Boogeyman 3, Grey Matter 7, Battleground 1, Trucks 6, Sometimes They Come Back 10, Strawberry Spring 19, The Ledge 5, The Lawnmower Man 9, Quitters Inc 2, I Know What You Need 16, Children of the Corn 8, The Last Rung on the Ladder 14, The Man Who Loved Flowers 13, One For the Road 15, The Woman in the Room 17.
Upon re-reading "Night Shift" in 2014, I can only wonder at what sort of 14 year old kid I must have been. Fairly typical, I expect, based on my ratings of the stories. And, as you’ll find out shortly, though my opinions on the stories might have changed in the 29 years since I first read the book, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that every single story is an absolute delight. I think of the collection as comparable to my favourite album ("Disintegration" by The Cure, for those interested) in that the whole of the thing is much more than the sum of its parts. Even the running order seems crucial, and there’s a definite rhythm to the stories that benefits reading them from first to last (although I’m going to discuss them here in quite a different order).
So how has Night Shift fared in the near-three decades since I first read it? Come with me now, constant reader, and we’ll embark on a journey together through some of the greatest short horror fiction ever written.
Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about Night Shift.
The first tale, Jerusalem’s Lot, is a rather unusual choice with which to open the book; its epistolary style and restrained tone is very different to King’s usually ultra-readable prose. Through a series of correspondences between two characters it details the events surrounding a deserted town in Maine in the mid-19th century. There is evidence of the occult, a mysterious book, supernatural forces and a gigantic entity referred to as The Worm. The story is suitably macabre and solid enough to represent a fine opener to the collection.
Graveyard Shift sees King on more familiar territory. The central character, Hall, works at a crumbling textile mill in a small New England town. Several of the mill’s employees are recruited into a huge cleaning operation over the course of a weekend. The mill is suffering from a terrible infestation of rats and, as the group of workers descend into the basement, they come across various mutated specimens including a grotesque blind queen-rat as big as a calf. The interplay between the narrator and his boss is engaging, and the denouement is incredibly nightmarish.
There is a very melancholy tone about Night Surf – predictably so, given the fact that the story is about the end of the world. A group of teenagers hang around a beach in New Hampshire, seemingly immune to a virus that has decimated the planet. There are echoes here of King’s later novel, "The Stand", and the story centres around a grisly human sacrifice which the teens conduct in an effort to appease the spirits and thus remain immune to the virus. In the latter part of the story they begin to come to terms with their own encroaching mortality. There is a delightfully downbeat tone to the proceedings and, in a very brief word-count King does an excellent job of depicting a world on the brink of extinction.
A retired astronaut recounts the physical effects of a trip to Venus in I Am the Doorway. His body has undergone a series of mutations – tiny eyes have sprouted on his fingers – allowing an alien species a portal through which they view our world. The astronaut is also forced by them to commit murder. Back when I read this story the first time round I was fooled into thinking that it was science fiction. It isn’t - it’s a horror story in its purest sense, touching on themes such as cosmic terror, psychological suspense and extreme body horror, reminiscent somewhat of the work of ray Bradbury. The final line is about as frightening as it gets.
The plot of The Mangler sounds fairly ridiculous – an industrial laundry press machine becomes possessed by a demon after certain ingredients are spilled into it – yet it spawned a trilogy of films. Thankfully the story doesn’t outstay its welcome. King pulls off the difficult trick of making the machine sentient, both in showing us the physical capabilities of its desire to do harm, and instilling the thing with a considerable amount of threat. The sideline about the cursed ice-box does enough to suggest that there may be other manmade objects that harbour a yearning to do us harm.
The same can be said for Trucks, later filmed as "Maximum Overdrive", directed by King himself. Here, a handful of strangers have taken refuge at a roadside truck stop. They are being held at bay by a murderous assortment of vehicles, which have been brought to life by some unknown power, and seem intent on killing every human. There is a superb feeling of malevolence about the trucks – the way they communicate and appear aware of their own limitations with their dwindling supply of fuel – which injects the story with a strong sense of purpose and lurking threat. The consciousness of the mechanical vehicles is constant presence, and the way the group’s escape attempt proves futile is a superb exercise in suspense. At the end, the narrator speculates as to what will happen to the world once the humans have given in to the mercy of the trucks, and are forced to build new vehicles so that their domination will continue.
There is a similar theme of inanimate objects coming to sentient life in Battleground. When I first read "Night Shift", this was my favourite of all the stories. A professional assassin called Renshaw returns to his apartment from a recent ‘hit’ in which he executed a toymaker. There is a parcel waiting for him, containing a collection of toy soldiers - including infantrymen, weapons, helicopters and a jeep. These miniature figures promptly escape from their box and launch an assault on Renshaw’s life. There is little more to say here, other than there is a nice twist at the end. Again it’s a fairly ludicrous plot, but King manages to pull the whole thing off with a great sense of humour and some finely written prose.
The Boogeyman takes place in the office of a psychiatrist called Dr Harper, whose client, Lester Billings, explains the details surrounding the death of his three children. Billings appears possibly unhinged – he talks about his belief that a monster called The Boogeyman crept out of his closet and murdered his kids over the course of a few years – and the psychiatrist tries to reason with his paranoia. We are made to dislike Billings by being shown what a shallow bully he is, so much so that King cleverly misdirects us before pulling the rug from beneath us in the twist ending. Whilst not exactly subtle, it has a macabre charm that harks back to the old portmanteau horror films of long ago.
Speaking of which, there are two stories from this collection that were dramatised in the feature film "Cat’s Eye", directed by Lewis Teague, both of which appealed to me on my initial reading. Firstly there is The Ledge, in which a gangster called Cressner offers a bizarre wager to Stan Norris, a man with whom his wife is having an affair: if Norris is able to circumnavigate the outside of the 43rd floor penthouse apartment in which Cressner lives using just a 5 inch ledge, he will be free to leave with Cressner’s wife and $20,000; if he refuses he will be framed for heroin possession and never see his lover again. King wrings every ounce of suspense from this story, throwing in difficult weather conditions, the narrator’s anxiety over Cressner’s integrity, even a persistent pigeon that makes a nuisance of itself. Yet again the ending is satisfying, drawing things together but not over simplifying everything. I can see why I loved this so much first time round – the plot itself is a great hook – but there is little there that lingers in the mind once you finish it and move on. Although, I expect, it was never written to do anything more than entertain.
The second "Cat’s Eye" adaptation is Quitters, Inc, in which the central character, Dick Morrison, contacts a company recommended to him by a passing acquaintance in an effort to quit smoking. This is an organisation that takes its job very seriously. There’s a wicked escalation of events, and the story lurches from mildly curious to incredibly sinister in a few sharp moves before leaving us with an unforgettable killer ending. It’s a neat idea, one that juggles the realities of trying to deal with addiction with the extreme horror of how much it ultimately costs.
The Lawnmower Man was also made into a feature film in 1992, but it bore little resemblance to the story other than its title. This is possibly the most surreal of all King’s stories, one that I confess totally leaves me cold (although I notice I originally scored it ninth out of the twenty!) The characters don’t seem to make much sense and the violence feels contrived. It’s certainly a memorable story, but not exactly for the right reasons.
Almost at the opposite end of the scale is Gray Matter, which is as subtle and creepy as The Lawnmower Man is loud and direct. A group of old timers are sitting inside a New England grocery store, sheltering from the snowstorm outside, when a young boy enters in a state of fear. He speaks to the owner for a few minutes out back, who in turn comes out and announces that he’s required to visit the boy’s father - a recluse, who lives nearby. The store owner tells the story as they venture out in the snow. Something unsettling has happened to the old man; a physical transformation has begun which has left the son terrified. We are treated to a series of narrative snapshots which foreshadow what is to come, and this is an effective way to fuel our imagination because this is a story more about what we don’t see than what we do. It touches on fear of the dark, body-horror and even plain old urban myths, and is a superb example of restrained horror. One of the highlights of the book.
Sometimes They Come Back is a rather traditional ghost story with a dark undercurrent in which the ghosts are not at all ethereal, but as real as you or me. There are few surprises, but the outwardly hostile students - now long dead - are chillingly malevolent.
Another fairly routine tale is I Know What You Need, in which a female college student is courted by a socially inept loner called Edward Hamner Jr, a man who seems to possess an unnatural ability to understand what makes her happy. King does a neat job of building elements of the story in a suspenseful way, and paints a sad picture of Hamner’s background and childhood, yet the introduction of black magic does it a slight injustice and feels unwarranted. The possible psychic ability of the male character serves as sufficient explanation for the supernatural elements; the occult angle adds very little other than offering us an element of escape in the final paragraph.
Strawberry Spring was a story that meant very little when I first read it in the 80s, yet over the years it seems to have taken on a very different prominence in my mind. The tone of the prose is near-perfect, with an unnamed narrator recalling a time eight years before, when a serial killer nicknamed Springheel Jack terrorised the college in which the narrator attended, preying on female students. There’s a wonderful claustrophobic sense to the proceedings, with lyrical descriptions and a poetic rhythm to the writing which grounds us in that college in the late 60s. Paranoia, murder, rumours and fear abound. And the final paragraphs shift to present tense in an ending that suggests we might need to reappraise all that we have learned. It’s sparing - with a clever usage of words, enough to hint at what we don’t want to believe - and is one of my favourite short stories of all time.
The Man Who Loved Flowers is deceptive. At first it paints a romantic picture of New York City in the early 60s, a young man strolling through the streets, buying flowers from a vendor, moving with the assured grace of someone clearly in love. We’re fed snippets of news from the flower-seller’s radio – King deftly providing a piece of information here that will have a bearing on things as we reach the story’s catastrophic end. Not a supernatural tale but nevertheless there’s an element of horror present, both in the unhinged mental state of the protagonist and the violent events that occur. There’s nothing groundbreaking here but it’s confidently executed, and nicely balances the tone of the stories that sit either side of it.
A whole franchise of horror films was spawned from Children of the Corn, in which a bickering couple are driving through rural Nebraska and accidentally run over a boy after he darts out in front of their car. They discover that the boy’s throat had already been cut. In an effort to report the crime they drive to a nearby town, Gatlin, which appears to be deserted. There is an eerie sense of neglect about the place, and the church is decorated by strange iconography. They come to a terrifying realisation about what has happened at Gatlin. Children of the Corn is a fantastic short story, one that rightly stands as among King’s most famous. There are several scenes which are incredibly frightening, and the whole idea of ‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows’ is a powerful one. Whilst at first it seems like a clichéd ‘wrong turn’ trope, the tale takes an unremitting swerve into supernatural territory with the demonic force in the surrounding cornfields. It also touches on our misgivings about religion, and alludes to the belief that evil can lurk in the most innocent of places.
There’s a return to a familiar place in One for the Road, which acts as a nice counterpoint to the opening story. We venture back to Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, several years after the events covered in King’s novel, "Salem’s Lot". This story is supremely atmospheric, with a great sense of unease as we journey back to the town gone bad. Two locals from a neighbouring town try to help out a stranded traveller, whose wife and daughter have been trapped in their car due to the snowstorm. We share the anxiety because we know a little about what happened there. We’re aware that Salem’s Lot is a town you do not visit after dark. The first-person narration works well, with King leaving us with a chilling final paragraph to act as a warning.
Neither of the final two stories in this article are horror in the traditional sense, yet they appear to be the ones that have left me with the most disquieting impression. The Woman in the Room is a powerful tale of guilt, remorse and moral uncertainty, where a young man takes the irrevocable decision to help his terminally ill mother. I found this almost too difficult to read. My own father, who died in 2008, spent a great deal of his final years in hospital so I recognised the truth in King’s words, saw the honesty in what he was saying. He pulls no punches in showing us not the just the helpless shell the mother has become, but also the chilling inevitability of death and its impact on those that are left behind. We take each hesitant step with Johnny; we experience his fear as he struggles to decide what to do. By anyone’s standard, this is horror. Horror is real life, and King holds up a mirror to show us things we do not wish to see.
I believe that The Last Rung on the Ladder might just be one of the finest short stories Stephen King has ever written. It opens with the protagonist, Larry, receiving a letter from his estranged sister, Katrina. There is but a single sentence written on the paper, but it’s enough to prompt Larry to recall an incident from their childhood. He and his sister were playing in the barn while their father was away, climbing up to the rafters via a wooden ladder and leaping off into the haystack below. Over the course of several tense pages we are told in fine detail what happened that day, but we are left in no doubt that they love each other just as siblings should. Then the sucker punch – King hits us with a piece of devastating information that makes us sit up straight. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be the end of the story; a shock ending to subvert what has gone before. But then we are told how the intervening years have been a struggle for Katrina; how her life has spiralled out of control, and how Larry maintained his focus on concerns like work and his own failed marriage. By the time the letter’s content is revealed to us we’re already understanding what has happened, but none of that lessens the heartbreak because we recognise the truth within the fiction. We know that time is precious, but that life intrudes on us in a way that demands so much yet gives little back. And here again lies the horror in the story – regret, missed opportunity, denial. Frail human characteristics that mean more than vampires, ghosts or giant rats ever will.
So just for the record, here’s my 2015 rating for each story - Jerusalem’s Lot 18, Graveyard Shift 7, Night Surf 6, I Am the Doorway 4, The Mangler 16, The Boogeyman 15, Grey Matter 10, Battleground 19, Trucks 11, Sometimes They Come Back 17, Strawberry Spring 2, The Ledge 12, The Lawnmower Man 20, Quitters Inc 8, I Know What You Need 14, Children of the Corn 5, The Last Rung on the Ladder 1, The Man Who Loved Flowers 13, One For the Road 9, The Woman in the Room 3.
In the 30 years since I first read "Night Shift", much has changed in the world. I am now a husband and a father. I know how it feels to lose a parent. I understand how things work a little better than I did when I was 14. Society’s fears have also changed. The threat of nuclear war has been replaced with terrorism and extremism. Somehow the world feels smaller, yet we appear to be more alone than ever.
The one thing that struck me upon rereading "Night Shift" was that, although my favourites had changed over the last 30 years, the one thing that hadn’t altered was the question of their quality. What appealed once to a teenager no longer appeals to a middle-aged man, yet there is so much to admire in every single one of the stories - the earliest of which was written in 1969, the latest from 1977. They represent a writer still learning his trade, honing a talent that would soon see horror pushed into the mainstream and change the face of publishing.
"Night Shift" is an absolute delight, and works on so many levels it’s a book to recommend to anyone who enjoys horror fiction. Arguably, Stephen King published better short story collections later on in his career, but this book is evidence that the foundations were firmly laid right from the start.
Stephen Bacon's fiction has been published in magazines and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic, including Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Shadows & Tall Trees and Crimewave, and has been selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year. His debut collection, Peel Back the Sky, was published in 2012 by Gray Friar Press.
He has been a fan of Stephen King for most of his life. He lives in the UK with his wife and two sons and his website can be found at www.stephenbacon.co.uk