21.7.08

Night Shift (1978)


Night Shift is the first of King's short story collections, and was an early favourite of mine. The foreword is the first instance of the author addressing himself to his readers, discussing - among other things - the nature of fear, the compulsion to write, and the audience's relationship with the horrific. King fans will recognise the warm, friendly tone instantly, as it has come to characterise his written interactions with the reader in numerous forewords and in his forays into non-fiction. King's self-deprecating comment here that "no-one reads a writer's preface" (apart from those with a vested interest) is starkly at odds with the following that these chatty epistles seem to have developed among fan groups. And - without wanting to sound too much like a creepy stalker - there is something almost comforting about them; it's a little like meeting an old friend after a few years of lost contact. I'm guessing this is the effect he was hoping for. Anyway, let's move on to the book proper. There may be a few (fairly minor) spoilers ahead.

The book is a mixture of outright horror tales, suspense stories and other, less easily defined pieces. In the first category, King includes two companion pieces to 'Salem's Lot, one a prequel of sorts ('Jerusalem's Lot') and the other ('One For The Road') a chilling coda to the novel. 'Night Surf' is a brief glimpse at the horrors of King's huge, apocalyptic plague novel, The Stand, offering a bleak picture of teenagers on a beach pondering their future (if any). Other terrors in this category include rats ('Graveyard Shift'), demonic machinery ('The Mangler', 'Trucks', 'The Lawnmower Man', 'Battleground'), voodoo ('I Know What You Need'), gruesome transmutation ('I Am The Doorway', 'Grey Matter') and overly religious children ('Children of the Corn'). There are also a couple of stories ('Sometimes They Come Back', 'The Boogeyman') in which adults are forced to deal - in very different ways - with the perils of childhood.

The suspense tales include two stories used in the anthology film Cat's Eye - 'The Ledge' and 'Quitters, Inc.' - both of which are very hard to read without putting oneself in the protagonists' place. These, together with 'Strawberry Spring' and 'The Man Who Loved Flowers' (the latter a wonderful piece of economical, twisty writing), nod towards the unsettling quality of The Twilight Zone or some of Ray Bradbury's short stories.

It's easy to see why so many of the stories mentioned so far have been filmed - the vivid descriptions paint chilling snapshots which remain in the mind long after the words themselves have faded. But this is the art of the short story: to create a fully realised world in a short amount of space to the fullest effect possible - and it is an art on which King has a firm grasp. Even remembering (most of) the endings from previous readings, I was still gripped by the majority of these tales. There are moments which have remained in my brain since I first read this collection, aged 13, and which still make me shudder if they happen to pop unexpectedly into my thoughts ('The Boogeyman' probably being the prime example).

But there are also a couple of stories I have not yet mentioned; these are unsettling in a different way, in that they are much more difficult to categorise. 'The Last Rung On The Ladder' is an affecting description of a childhood game played between the narrator and his sister - a game which is mirrored in their adult lives. It's a story suffused with regret, hearkening back to the innocence of youth. 'The Woman In The Room' describes the pain of losing a parent, and the moral dilemma between hoping for (and perhaps helping towards) a swift death and letting things run their own, hard course. I am surprised to find that, this time around, these stories are the ones that linger in my mind. Perhaps this is down to my age (31 rather than 13), or perhaps the other, more actively horrific, stories are now so ingrained in me that I don't need to think about them all that often. Either way, this is an excellent collection, and one to which I will no doubt return many more times.

Next: The Stand.

5 comments:

Sasha said...

Dammit, you win. You've got me interested now, so I'm tempted to go and read some King. You'll probably appear in my nightmares ...

the guvnor said...

Thanks for these, excellent reviews and now I'm going to have to re-raid my mum's King collection! Looking forward to more, especially Dead Zone...

Alex F

Dan said...

Thanks for the comments, glad you're enjoying reading the reviews and/or reading some King yourselves! The Dead Zone (excellent) will follow The Stand, which I'm now about halfway through and am really caught up in - work is starting to suffer as a result. Ho hum, I've made my choice...

Lesli said...

It's a shame that King's short stories are some of his best and, yet, have had some of the worst film treatments of any books ever written.

Or maybe I'm just biased because the made-for-TV adaptation of The Langoliers, staring Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, is indelibly marked on my brain.

Anonymous said...

I want to read this again now...

TW