Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (2012 UK Paperback)
Format: Paperback (Reviewed)
A collection of tales to invade and paralyse the mind as the safe light of day is infiltrated by the shadows of the night.
As you read, the clutching fingers of terror brush lightly across the nape of the neck, reach round from behind to clutch and lock themselves, white-knuckled, around the throat.
This is the horror of ordinary people and everyday objects that become strangely altered; a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems, where the familiar and the friendly lure and deceive. A world where madness and blind panic become the only reality.
I will always aim to pick up any new Stephen King release as soon as possible but I can’t avoid the fact that I still prefer his older works. Before anybody cries, “rose-tinted glasses!” or accuses me of being stuck in the past, I do have a reason for my preference. Simply put, I feel that King has drifted away from the raw, old-school horror that he used to pump out. Books such as Salem’s Lot, Christine and The Shining for example. His modern novels are still fantastic but they are missing the sinister personality of his back catalogue.
The short story collection, Night Shift, is packed with such examples of the kind of Stephen King writing that I miss. Inanimate objects gaining sentience and killing people just because they can, for instance. Their evil needs no deep, meaningful explanation. It just is. There are also stories that play out like bizarre, horrifying nightmares that defy all sense and sanity. These sorts of stories are so effective because they deal with ordinary people and everyday objects and while you – the reader – know full well that this is all the realm of fantasy, you still can’t help but wonder, “what if…?”
It’s the sort of irrational, child-like fear where imagination runs amok and a person can see an evil, hungry grin rather than a car’s grille. Take The Mangler for instance. This is probably my favourite story from Night Shift. At a laundry, the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder – known to the employees as ‘The mangler’ – has just killed an employee. It should be impossible. After all, there are safety measures built into the machine, and it has passed its safety inspections. What makes this story is the gruesome, utterly unapologetic descriptions of the mangler’s work.
And Mrs Frawley, somehow, had been caught and dragged in. The steel, asbestos-jacketed pressing cylinders had been as red as barn paint, and the rising steam from the machine had carried a sickening stench of hot blood. Bits of her white blouse and blue slacks, even ripped segments of her bra and panties, had been torn free and ejected from the machine’s far end thirty feet down, the bigger sections of cloth folded with grotesque and blood-stained neatness by the automatic folder. But not even that was the worst.
“It tried to fold everything,” he said to Jackson, tasting bile in his throat. “But a person isn’t a sheet, Mark. What I saw…what was left of her…” Like Stanner, the hapless foreman, he could not finish. “They took her out in a basket,” he said softly.
The theme of machinery run amok of its newfound free will continues further into the collection with Trucks. Here, big rigs everywhere are suddenly thinking for themselves and set on murdering as as many people as possible, either by ramming their cars off the roads or running them down. The story focuses on a gas station diner and a small group of people taking shelter there as the trucks circle the building and pounce on anybody brave enough to make a run for it. It’s a silly concept on paper but again, it works so well because there is no sane explanation for what is happening. The only shame is that Trucks was adapted and expanded for the so-bad-it’s-entertaining 1986 movie, Maximum Overdrive, though whether the movie’s ‘explanation’ is actually superior to having none at all is up for debate.
Speaking of big-screen adaptations, there are several other stories in Night Shift that you may recognise from the movies. Quitters Inc. and The Ledge were both part of the 1985 horror anthology, Cat’s Eye, and Children of the Corn is possibly better known for its cinematic version. Then, there is The Lawnmower Man – a short story that is nothing at all like the famous movie which was only very loosely based on King’s story. In fact, it was so unlike the source material that King successfully won a lawsuit to have his name removed from all of The Lawnmower Man‘s publicity material.
I really like Quitters Inc. because it taps into the problem of addiction and that uncomfortable exploration of what it would actually take for a person to give up their vice.
“If the rabbit gets a jolt often enough while he’s eating,” Donatti said, “he makes the association very quickly. Eating causes pain. Therefore, he won’t eat. A few more shocks, and the rabbit will starve to death in front of his food. It’s called aversion training.”
“For the first month of the treatment, our operatives will have you under constant supervision,” Donatti said. “You’ll be able to spot some of them. Not all. But they’ll always be with you. Always. If they see you smoke a cigarette, I get a call.”
“And suppose you bring me here and do the old rabbit trick,” Morrison said. He tried to sound cold and sarcastic, but he suddenly felt horribly frightened. This was a nightmare.
“Oh, no,” Donatti said. “Your wife gets the rabbit trick, not you.”
Morrison looked at him dumbly.
Donatti smiled. “You,” he said, “get to watch.”
Another of my favourites is The Boogeyman. A father visits a psychologist to tell his unbelievable tale of how all three of his children were killed by a horrendous creature that came out of the closet at night and literally scared them to death. It’s a great little story that taps into the childish fear of monsters hiding under the bed or in closets, and there is an amusing – if unnecessary – twist right at the end.
For the King faithful, there are also two Salem’s Lot tie-ins that will be of interest. The first is told through a series of letters and journal entries dating back to the mid-1800’s, and serves as a prequel of sorts. The second takes place after the events of Salem’s Lot and sees two men from a neighbouring town set out to rescue an out-of-towner’s wife and child from the ‘Lot.
Overall, Night Shift is a really enjoyable Stephen King short story collection. It’s dark, disturbing and classic King. While I did have my favourites, I don’t really consider any of the stories in Night Shift to be weak links (as with some of his other collections). So if you are looking for something that is more Stephen King than the author’s own modern output then you should consider taking a trip back to the past and giving Night Shift a shot.