PICKING THE BONES
Hearts in Atlantis film review
Picking the Bones
Night Shift (1978)
by David Carroll
First Appeared in SKIN#2.5
Stephen King's short stories never seem to receive the same attention as his novels, by the readers or the critics, which is simply part of a trend in the horror genre itself. As I have said in a previous article, the horror novel only came to be the dominant form in the late 1960s, a trend that would receive no small help from Stephen King himself, and since then the short story has struggled for recognition. As King said in Skeleton Crew, 'most of you have forgotten the real pleasures of the short story', and that as is true with regards to this reviewer as to anyone.
But whilst Doubleday had to be willing to take a chance on this book, in the (hardly lengthy) interim before The Stand was published, it is not too hard to see why they were willing to do so, because not only is it an excellent collection, but it also amply shows the advantages such a collection has over the longer form.
There is a running motif, almost a gag, through the first story in Night Shift, 'Jerusalem's Lot', that there are 'rats in the walls'. This is pure Lovecraft pastiche of course, and we all know that there is something a lot more sinister and cosmic going on. In a sense it's not a greatly successful story because it captures the setting and character of Howard Phillips's style, but not his sense of scale -- just look at the actual story 'The Rats in the Walls' from 1923 and you'll see what I mean. But the next story in the collection, 'Graveyard Shift' is pure Stephen King, and the progression seems deliberate. Here, King tells us, there really are rats in the walls, and there doesn't have to be anything cosmic going on, because that's quite scary enough. But even that sells the story short, because the story is not really about the rats, but about the people that encounter them, notably the 'college boy' Hall. It's a character sketch of the sort of man who would force his own foreman deeper through underground passages and deliver him calmly to the big mother rat that lives down there. It's not a very nice character sketch, but that's alright, we can live with that, even if Hall is subsequently devoured himself.
Throughout the book there is a shifting of balance held between the plot elements and the characters, one side or the other 'winning' in individual stories. In 'Children of the Corn' the bickering couple provide the necessary background leading into the tale of a dark deity in the cornfields. Similarly in 'Grey Matter' and 'One for the Road', the initial setting of the pub or store and the narrator simply lead into later events as a natural progression, not unlike the telling of ghost stories on a cold winter's night. In 'Battleground' the character of the assassin is almost totally overshadowed by the nature of the revenge against him, whereas in 'Quitters Inc.' the characters (not just Dick Morrison) are the story.
Look at 'The Boogeyman', one of the earlier stories. In a sense this is a straight tale of childhood fears come to life, yet there is much more going on than that. Lester Billings is talking to a psychiatrist about the murder of his children, the murder he claims he committed. He goes on to say it was the Boogeyman, but his claim still stands. Throughout his talk he refers to his family with contempt, to the extent of admitting he fantasised about killing his kids, 'that was a bad summer for me, you see'. He hit Denny when he wouldn't stop crying, only concerned his son might be a 'sissy'. He wouldn't move an obviously traumatised Shirl because he couldn't admit he was wrong. And of course he moved his third child out of his room so the Boogeyman would get the child, and not himself. Did the Boogeyman exist? It doesn't really matter, and the ambiguity remains, because even when we do see the monster its through Lester Billings' eyes, and he's as nutty as fruitcake. So either the Boogeyman got the kids, or Lester killed them himself, but the final act doesn't change what Lester Billings did do.
There are similar examples of that kind in the collection, though less ambiguous. In 'The Man Who Loved Flowers' the killer remains perfectly innocent of his deeds, though the reader knows what he has done, and in 'Strawberry Spring' the killer is unknowing until the end, when he actually achieves self-realisation.
So King's characters are often an unpleasant lot or, like Stan Norris in 'The Ledge', ordinary people who are forced to do unpleasant things (and we can hardly blame the man for planning to welsh on his bet after what he's been through). The plots themselves are often pretty simple -- rats in the basement, everybody dying of the flu, and such, though King usually has some good solid detail to back them up. With the various mutations those rats have gone through, and the various strains of flu virus, the plots are more than just any old background. Sometimes he achieves more than that, often in his most overtly supernatural stories such as 'The Mangler', 'Sometimes They Come Back' and 'I Know What You Need'. These are really stories of witchcraft, and King explores the rules and regulations of that much neglected genre with skill.
And there is yet still more variety over all this, as can be seen in that perfect gem of a story 'The Last Rung of the Ladder'.
If there is a trend throughout the book, it could be that the characters become increasingly more sympathetic as it progresses. In 'The Woman in the Room' we once again accompany the protagonist on an unpleasant journey as he delivers another character to death. But after seeing all the myriad selfish and unknowing reasons for that journey, we know that this one is travelled for love.
Night Shift was never going to be the most widely read of Stephen King's books, just because of its status as a collection, and certainly it has its stronger and weaker stories. But for those strong stories, and as a whole, it holds its place well among the excellent and important works of this author.
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