King's second collection of short stories, Skeleton Crew, begins (much like Night Shift) with an introduction in which he describes some of the history and motivations behind the tales: it's not so much the money - although that was obviously important to him during the early years - as the compulsion to write, to turn an idea into something concrete, which drives him. As I mentioned in my review of Night Shift, there's something quite satisfying about King's forewords - you get the sense that he is sometimes puzzled by his imagination and his ability to translate it into a good piece of prose, but the overwhelming impression the reader is left with is that he simply loves writing. The collection ends with a 'Notes' section, in which King gives a little more detail on how some of these stories came into being - this includes an amusing aside about the retired doctor next door, who, when asked how long a man could survive if he was forced to eat his own body, "looked doubtful at first (the year before, in pursuit of another story, I had asked him if he thought it was possible for a man to swallow a cat)".
As King states in his introduction, these stories span seventeen years, running from the year before he went to college ('The Reaper's Image') to 1983 ('The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet'). While it would perhaps be trite to draw conclusions about King's development as a writer during those years, the material gathered here certainly shows that he is not the one-trick pony many have accused him of being. Stories range from short, sharp shockers to lengthy character-driven pieces, covering a range of topics and styles.
Skeleton Crew opens with 'The Mist', a novella which - by King's own admission - "got a little long". But don't let that put you off, because it's one of his most memorable yarns, a B-movie monsterfest set in a supermarket which matches gruesome shocks with the swift breakdown of societal norms under stress. 'The Mist' is textbook King: packed with detail about its characters, tightly paced and filled with strong set pieces. The microcosm of the supermarket is as well realised as any of his small-town settings, and allows King to crank up the tension as the trapped shoppers confront mysterious aberrations which might attack at any moment.
He follows 'The Mist' with a brief piece of wish fulfilment, 'Here There Be Tygers', in which a young boy and his teacher discover something nasty lurking the washroom. This story contrasts harshly with 'Cain Rose Up', in which a college student finishes his exams and starts shooting passersby from his dorm room window. The former is enjoyable fantasy, a 'what if my mean teacher got eaten by a tiger somehow' daydream become real, whereas the latter leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. I would tentatively guess that King wrote 'Cain Rose Up' while at college himself, as it has a ring of youthful bitterness to it (but perhaps I'm projecting here).
Other stories fall into a variety of categories. Classic horror comes in the form of a demonic, doomladen toy ('The Monkey'), a Lovecraftian grandmother ('Gramma'), a deadly mirror ('The Reaper's Image') and a self-cannibalising castaway ('Survivor Type'). We venture back to the mysterious storytelling club of the author's earlier 'The Breathing Method' (see Different Seasons), where another nested tale-within-a-tale introduces us to 'The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands'. Unusually, Skeleton Crew contains a couple of poems, one dedicated to King's son, 'For Owen', while the other, 'Paranoid: A Chant' - filled with the dark imagery of conspiracy theorists and mental breakdown - seems to have something in common with 'The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet', a story about a writer on the verge of insanity and a publisher in the depths of alcoholism. King also ventures into eerie science fiction with 'Word Processor of the Gods', 'Beachworld' and 'The Jaunt', the latter a chiller that has been branded into my memory since I first read it in my teenage years.
Harder to classify are two companion pieces: 'Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)', in which a milkman - Spike Milligan by name - toys with the lives of a neighbourhood, leaving them bottles and cartons containing deadly creatures or substances; and 'Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2)', in which two drunks persuade an old acquaintance to inspect a car and then meet their ends. These related stories are funny and sinister by turns, but there's something weird about them - I'm not sure if it's just the tone or the unexplained 'bug' that various characters seem to see from time to time, but they seem off-kilter somehow. Far more normal is 'The Wedding Gig', which recounts a mismatched, mob-related wedding and its disastrous results - there is nothing supernatural about the story, and instead King paints a vivid picture of the 1920s jazz scene. Returning to the mysterious, however, we come to 'Uncle Otto's Truck' (in which an abandoned truck with no wheels gradually creeps up on its increasingly paranoid owner) and 'Mrs Todd's Shortcut', which is one of my favourite stories from the anthology, an engrossing and touching tale of shortcuts shorter than a straight line.
King weaves a motif - "Do you love?" - and its response - "Yes, and true love never dies" - through several of the stories in Skeleton Crew, with varying degrees of success. 'The Reach' is a sweet study of an old woman who has never left her island home, but who gradually realises that her departed friends and family are waiting for her out on the ice. In 'The Raft', a quartet of students take an ill-advised trip to a nearby lake at the end of summer, only to fall victim to a nameless, remorseless creature floating out on the water (this contains moments of truly grotesque gore, and is powerfully horrible). Finally, in 'Nona', a hitchhiker hooks up with a beautiful girl, and only learns too late that she is not what she seems, by which point he has been driven to murder and madness.
While a few of the stories in Skeleton Crew may not linger in the reader's mind much beyond the turning of the final page, others will (if my experience is anything to go by) be far more difficult to shake. This is another great collection, and one which I have forced on a number of people over the years. As with Night Shift, I still find myself revisiting these tales every few years, and it has been a genuine pleasure to do so once again.
Next: The Bachman Books.