The Stephen King Project – Night Shift (1979)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
Night Shift was the first of King’s short story collections to be published, although several more would follow. Most of the stories contained in the collection were first published in various magazines, and fully half of them were published prior to Carrie so this is some of his earliest published work. One of the things I noticed is that many of the threads in these stories would go on to feature in novels over the coming years, which I found absolutely fascinating.
There are twenty stories in this collection, so I’m not going to do a detailed review of each one or this will get really long. What I’ll give you is at least a few sentences on each story with more detail about the ones that I feel most strongly about. One of the stories that inspired strong feelings was the first one.
Jerusalem’s Lot – This is a classic piece of Lovecraftian fiction, set in the town Jerusalem’s Lot in the 1800s. For me, this story would have worked better if it had been set in a different town rather than trying to lay the mythos over the top of an existing story. In the short story, the town has a frightening past and, at the time of the story, has been abandoned, the entire population having disappeared under mysterious circumstances. This history, and the events of the story itself, are not reflected in the book, Salem’s Lot. In light of the fact that Ben was researching town history, it seems unlikely that he would have had no knowledge of these events. I enjoyed the use of language and the epistolary structure, although I felt the final entry didn’t quite work with what had gone before. Structurally, I think it would have been improved if the writer of the final entry had framed the other letters.
Graveyard Shift – This has a good, creepy build up. If rats freak you out you might want to skip this one!
Night Surf – As a writer, you’re often told you need to hook the reader from the very first line and there are people who have spent weeks trying to craft the perfect first line. This story has an excellent opening line. “After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach.” Who wouldn’t keep reading to find out what on earth was going on? This story introduces the illness that will cause the events of The Stand, the novel that King was working on when the collection was put together. Post-Apocalyptic stories are definitely a recurring theme in King’s work.
I Am the Doorway – This is a really creepy idea. An astronaut sprouts alien eyes in his hands, eyes that may be able to do more than see…
The Mangler – A machine with a taste for blood. This story has a great set up and made me think of Christine, although the ending didn’t quite work for me. There is a reference to a fridge in which a dog, some birds and a child mysteriously got trapped in. This reminded me of Patrick Hockstetter’s fridge in IT, although in that book, Patrick is the reason for creatures becoming trapped in the fridge.
The Boogeyman – This was brilliant. Really creepy with a clever twist at the end. The main character is a terrible father – another common theme in King’s work. We’ve seen it already in The Shining and it carries through many of king’s books. The father is a bully, judges his wife and children, never himself. Dr Harper touches on that within the story, which I appreciated.
Gray Matter – Never drink beer that smells bad. This story had a good ambiguous ending and was very atmospheric. It featured older men sitting around chatting in the small, family-run store. This is something we see many times throughout King’s work – so often that I’ve internalised it as something to expect to see in Maine, if I ever make it there for a visit!
Battleground – Miniature soldiers. Quirky. Dark. Competent.
Trucks – This was a clever story with echoes of Christine – trucks come to life and take over the world. The cause is different to The Mangler but there’s a theme of sentient machinery, turning against humans.
Sometimes They Come Back – A teacher visited by the hoodlums who killed his brother many years ago, boys who haven’t aged at all. Well set up and a good sense of threat. The policeman who investigated the murder was named Mr. Nell, sharing a name with the police officer in IT.
Strawberry Spring – Brilliant line: ‘It was Strawberry spring and on the morning of March 17th we all knew Gale Cerman’ and later ‘…I passed many shadows, heard many footfalls clicking dreamily off down the winding paths. Who is to say that one of those shadows was not the man or the thing that came to be known as Springheel Jack? Not I, for I passed many shadows, but in the fog, I saw no faces.’ Clever ending. Very good story. This was one of my favourite stories in the collection.
The Ledge – This is a great, tense little story. Strong ending.
The Lawnmower Man – Weird fiction at its finest. This was such a surprising little story, well-crafted and compelling. Featuring another husband who thinks of his wife in less than flattering terms, a theme that runs alongside the bad fathers in King’s work.
Quitters, Inc – Brilliant. The best thing about this story is that I could absolutely believe in an organisation like this existing.
I Know What You Need – What if your secret admirer had psychic powers and could use them to manipulate you into loving them? That’s the question this story asks. If someone could anticipate your every need, they might make you deliriously happy – but would they really have your free and enthusiastic consent?
Children of the Corn – Excellent, creepy story. Would have worked even in a longer form. I’m one of the few people who has not seen the film based on this story, so I had no idea what to expect. Common theme – marriage in trouble. Husband who thinks of his wife with contempt. Husband who dies because he didn’t listen to his wife.
The Last Rung on the Ladder – so sad. Beautiful and sad. Read this one with tissues handy.
The Man Who Loved Flowers – Good. Unexpected twist.
One for the Road – Good story, set close to Jerusalem’s Lot after the events of the novel. Love the way the narrator speaks to the reader at the end. The narrator refers to hearing the deathwatch beetle – something that’s mentioned in the later novel Insomnia.
The Woman in the Room – Keep your tissues from ‘The Last Rung on the Ladder’, you may need them again here. A very powerful story.
Overall, I think this is a strong collection of short stories and a fascinating insight into King’s early work. If you happen to enjoy writing short fiction, you could do worse than study these for how and why they work.
Next up, it’s The Stand, which I will be starting over the next week or two. For many King fans, The Stand is the pinnacle of his work and while I don’t agree with that sentiment, I have read it twice before because it’s a brilliant read. I’m really looking forward to getting into it again, especially with the wider goals of this project in mind.