Book Review: Night Shift (Stephen King, 1978)

NightShift-1Year: 1978
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (2012 UK Paperback)
Format: Paperback (Reviewed)
Pages: 488
ISBN: 9781444723199

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.

Book Talk: Earthbound (Richard Matheson, 1989)

eath-1Note: Earthbound’s release should technically be dated 1982. However, Matheson attached the pen name of Logan Swanson to the original version after publisher Playboy Press “severely” edited (source: wikipedia) the original manuscript. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t until the 1989 re-release that Earthbound was published unaltered with Matheson’s name on the cover hence why I am using that date for this review.

Last year, I made a vow to spread my wings and step further afield when it came to the fiction I consumed and the authors who wrote it. This was right after reading Stephen King’s non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, in which the famous writer explores the subject of horror, what makes it tick and – more importantly – the writers and works of fiction that inspired him. I jotted down a list of titles, recommended by King, that I wanted to investigate. And yes, I totally appreciate the irony in compiling a more varied reading wishlist using the recommendations of the author that I have stuck too close to over the years.

Earthbound by Richard Matheson is the first book that I have crossed off that list. I have to confess that, despite being an avid reader, I hadn’t heard of Matheson before purposely seeking out Earthbound. I guess that’s proof of how little I have actually dipped my toes below the surface of horror’s waters.

As such, I was unfamiliar with the author’s writing style. Regardless, this is a review and so I can only offer my honest opinion based on my experience with the book and what I got out of it.

It was a book of two halves and a slow-burner to begin with. David and Ellen Cooper have gone away to an isolated beachside cottage at Logan Beach, the place where they spent their first honeymoon over twenty years ago. Unfortunately, Logan Beach and the cottage in particular have become quite rundown and ramshackle in the intervening years and the icy cold temperature that permeates the building is highly uncomfortable. The couple put up with the dilapidation and unfavourable cold however because they are there to try and rekindle their ailing marriage.

Not much is initially explained on the marriage breakdown front but it is hinted that David has had an affair in the recent past and that their marriage is on the rocks as a result. It’s this section of the book that is the slow-burner. The conversation between David and Ellen is fairly flat, their background is only gently alluded to and quite honestly, I didn’t find either character that interesting. What’s more, there are precious little scene changes and so you – the reader – feel stuck in the depressed cottage with these two characters that aren’t exactly thrilling to be around. Once I’d finished this book, I DID appreciate that David and Ellen were just very normal, boring but flawed people and that, perhaps, this was a quality of the writing and not necessarily a detraction. But without that hindsight, Earthbound initially felt lacking in depth and pizzazz.

Until Marianna shows up.

The mysterious Marianna arrives at the door while Ellen is out and David is on his own. She is young and shockingly beautiful to David, who is immediately bewitched.

When she looked back at him, David felt the drawing tingle in his flesh again, stronger than ever now. It was almost unbelievable that any woman could be so lovely. He stared at her, imprisoned by her beauty.

Straight away, during the first few pages of Marianna’s presence in the book, you can tell that the tendrils of obsession are beginning to wrap about David. Matheson uses some powerful language and descriptives here and I had no trouble believing in Marianna’s intense beauty and the affect that she was having on unwitting David.

Then it’s back to some more David and Ellen with David now obsessing over Marianna and allowing her image to cloud his mind even while he is supposed to be attentive to Ellen and their fractured marriage. But then Marianna returns at night and Matheson suddenly spices things up with a shot of erotic sex as Marianna follows through on her determination to seduce David.

With an impotent shudder, David slid both arms around her and she fell against him, lips, hungrily, at his again. He pulled her violently to himself, the pressure of her jutting breasts arousing him still further. Suddenly, Marianna jerked his right arm free and, twisting slightly to the side, lifted his hand to her left breast. David cupped his palm across the thrusting cone and started fondling and massaging it, feeling through the sweater, how its nipple hardened at his touch. Marianna licked his lips tempestuously. She raked her teeth across his cheek, her breath like spilling fire on his skin. “Anything!” she whispered in his ear.

Drawing back, eyes never leaving his, she tugged the sweater up across her head and slung it aside; David tightened at the prominence of her bust as she turned her back to him. “Quickly, darling.” His fingers trembled as he picked the four hooks from their eyes. The brassiere ends sprang apart and Marianna shucked it into his lap. “Hands,” she muttered. David held them out, numb and shaking, and she clutched them to the pendant arching of her breasts, hissing through her teeth, eyes hooded as he dug his fingers into them. “More,” she said. Gasping, David dropped his head and started kissing them. He ran his tongue across the large, stiffened nipples and she pulled him savagely against herself, a frenzied moaning in her throat. “Feed,” she said. Her back went rigid as he began to suckle her. “Bite me, hurt me.” Her hands were clutching at his head like talons of steel. “Take them,” she ordered. “They’re yours, yours!”

(Still with me?)

Between Marianna’s sudden, inexplicable appearances, her lustful interest in a forty two year-old married man that she just met and the furious, animal-like sex that she is only too willing to initiate, it is clear that there is something not right about her. Furthermore, David wakes the next morning to feel utterly drained of energy and not necessarily due to the night’s physical efforts. You begin to wonder if Marianna is a succubus or some form of sexual vampire.

The rest of the book – without going into any more spoilers – is David gradually losing his mind as Marianna continues to visit and his obsession spirals out of control, as does the sensation of being sucked dry (no dirty pun intended…). He and Ellen argue and an internal war rages within as David grapples with what he knows is right and the delicious, gratifying wrong that Marianna has poisoned his well with. He wants – needs – Marianna and his lust for her is all-powerful. At the same time, he is desperate to escape the cottage and get away before it is too late.

Unfortunately, it IS too late once the horrifying, supernatural truth about the enigmatic Marianna is revealed. Fortunately for the reader however, this is where the book kicks into overdrive and everything comes to a wild head. If Earthbound had been a slow-burner before, peppered with flat spots and dull dialogue, the endgame more than makes up for it. Seriously, it comes from nowhere and is a chaotic rush of madness and plot twists.

As I have no doubt suggested, I didn’t immediately take to Earthbound with much enthusiasm but by the time I reached the book’s conclusion, I was left a little breathless by the sudden rush of events. In fact, it made me look back at the book as a whole and realise that the dull bits were just part of the suspense. I think I was expecting straight-up horror but while Earthbound certainly has that, it is more of a psyhological story. The description of David’s mind and thoughts as he slowly drowns in his obsession for Marianna for example is rich and almost disturbing.

Thing is though, I think most of us can relate to being obsessed with another person that we are infatuated with on a near-toxic, unhealthy level. We know it is senseless and irrational with no chance of a happy, wholesome ending. I know I certainly can and I was reminded of the dark time in my life when I’m ashamed to admit that I was a slave to a woman’s beauty, my mind akin to a runaway minecart. And while my own experiences pale drastically next to the supernatural forces and savage sex that David Cooper faces in Earthbound, I still saw murky reflections there. It made me feel a touch uncomfortable about myself as a human being and a man and that is, in my opinion, REAL horror that hits harder than any OTT gore or monsters could ever hope to.

My overall feeling about Earthbound is that it is a book that probably needs a second read-through in order to fully appreciate. I think being pre-armed with pre-existing knowledge of the characters (rather than being frustrated by the lack of explanation and scant characterisation of David and Ellen early on) would help the reader enjoy the suspense and pyschological aspects of the book that much more.

Movie Talk: Raw Deal (Schwarzenegger, 1986)

Raw-3Release Year: 1986   |   Directed By: John Irvin   |   Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathryn Harrold, Darren McGavin, Sam Wanamaker, Paul Shenar, Steven Hill, Ed Lauter, Joe Regalbuto, Robert Davi, Blanche Baker

“Raw Deal” is a fitting title for this Schwarzenegger action movie because that’s exactly what I have seen critics give it. Wooden acting on behalf of Ahnold and a non-dynamic plot were to blame but I think the standards of these critics must be too high because Raw Deal is just raw (pun totally intended) fun. Still with a 25% rating on the ever-reliable (lol) Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia entries such as,

Though the film doubled its production budget at the box office, its earnings were a disappointment.

you could be forgiven for assuming that Raw Deal is a blip in Schwarzenegger’s career that you shouldn’t waste your time on.

commando-1
 

“WRONG!”

 

This film is – critically speaking – a shit film but it’s one of those films that is entertaining because of how dumb it is and because of how stiff Schwarzenegger’s acting is. Look, not all movies need to be thoughtful or clever pieces of writing. Sometimes you just want to kick back and enjoy the kind of 1980’s menu that a movie like Raw Deal serves up: Arnie in his element as an unstoppable one man wrecking machine, bodies piling up by the second, a sexy big-haired 80’s girl with plunging cleavage, quotable one-liners galore and repulsive villains getting their just desserts.

To give the critics some due (but only some), the plot is pretty disposable and only really an excuse for Arnie to go around shooting gangsters and generally being a badass. He plays former FBI agent, Mark Kaminski, who was forced to unceremoniously resign from his post due to his heavy-handed approach to apprehending a scumbag child molester. Brown-nosing FBI prosecuter, Marvin Baxter, gave him the option to “resign or be prosecuted. Any way you want it”. Kaminski lands on his feet (sort of) with a Sheriff’s job in small middle-of-nowhere town where they have no friends and nothing ever happens, much to the misery of his wife, Amy, who has taken to drinking to blot it all out.

But then Kaminski is contacted by old FBI pal, Harry Shannon. Harry’s son, Blair, has been killed while protecting a witness crucial to a big case against Chicago gangster, Luigi Patrovita. Harry is determined to seek revenge and asks Kaminski if he will go undercover on an off-grid, privately-funded operation to infiltrate Patrovita’s organisation and destroy it from within. Additionally, it is also apparent that somebody within the FBI has been bought by Patrovita’s organisation hence why their witnesses keep getting assassinated. In order to be convincing, Kaminski has to fake his own death in a massive chemical plant explosion and not tell anybody else the truth, even his wife.

Raw-2
You’ll see this – a LOT. [Source]
The reason for agreeing to all of this? Reinstatement with the FBI. Though I can’t help but think that such extreme commitment for such a dangerous job on Kaminski’s end doesn’t quite equal Harry’s promise of “possible reinstatement”…for completing an unsanctioned operation! It’s a good job that Harry is his friend and that Kaminski wants to see Amy happy again…

The way that all of the backstory is told is fairly unimaginative too. Big in-depth recollections are simply brought up in conversation with Amy and then Harry and delivered monologue-style by Kaminski. But – as I said – you don’t watch a film like Raw Deal for a complex storyline and clever scripting.

You watch it for the resulting action. Kaminski goes undercover with a false ID, posing as Joseph P. Brenner, a convicted felon. He gets inside Patrovita’s organisation and then the fun begins. This is one of those classic 80’s action films where the hero guns down a never-ending supply of enemy goons that are seemingly unable to shoot straight. Arnie takes no hits at all as he blows away enemies. There are explosions and punches that sound like explosions for good measure. It’s just so entertaining. Especially when thugs are shot or punched and go flying silly distances, crashing through windows or into bar serveries. The fake blood is terrible and there are no end of conveniences such as when Kaminski steals a truck that just happens to have the keys left in the ignition. Or when he needs to escape a cemetery later on in the film and Monique roars up in a car with no explanation as to how she knew where he was!

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Kathryn Harrold plays Monique, the staple big-haired, big-eyed sexy 80’s girl that every action film from the era needs. [Source]
It all leads up to one final massive shoot-out in Patrovita’s offices, preceeded (of course) by a dramatic tooling-up montage of guns being loaded to some heavy electric guitar sounds. You know that Arnie is going to decimate the enemy and walk out completely unruffled but who gives a fuck about realism? This is a tour-de-force of destruction and henchmen getting what they deserve. It’s feel-good justice and pure entertainment that doesn’t need to apologise for what it does.

So yes, Raw Deal probably isn’t a “good” film on critical terms. Heck, it’s not even one of Schwarzenegger’s greatest hits. But this is still 1980’s, one man army action at it’s silliest. You aren’t meant to take films like this seriously or analyse their plots. You sit back, shut the fuck up and switch your brain off for 105 minutes. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that.

Movie Talk: The Expendables 2 (2012)

E2-1Release Year: 2012   |   Directed By: Sylvester Stallone    Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Jean Claude Van Damme, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Scott Adkins, Yu Nan, Charisma Carpenter

The Expendables is one of my favourite movie action series’, partly because of what it is and partly because it represents that magic moment when OTT 1980’s-style action movies briefly made an explosive return to the big screen, spearheaded by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Several highly entertaining movies came about as a result of this very welcome resurgence including The Last Stand, Escape Plan, Bullet to the Head and, of course, The Expendables.

I’m only going to be reviewing The Expendables 2 however because this is the best of the trilogy in my opinion. The original is still a fantastic action movie but was unfortunately placed in the shade when the sequel turned everything up to eleven. The third film, meanwhile, is also an exciting thrill ride but the high points come from two fantastic action sequences which are – unfortunately – placed at either end of the picture. There’s a bit of a flat spot in the middle where Barney Ross’ (Stallone) team is replaced by a younger generation of Expendables who proceed to make Stallone’s character look like the 80’s dinosaur he is…before being so intelligent and high-tech that they get captured by Mel Gibson and require rescuing by the old guard.

The Expendables 2 hits a sweet spot somewhere in between and that’s why I’m only going to bother talking about this one.

 

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Ross: “I heard you were bitten by a King Cobra.” Booker: “Yeah I was…but after five days of excrutiating pain…the cobra died” [Source]
Sophisticated it ain’t but if you go in expecting otherwise then you’re a fool. Hulking, mens-men sit around in a bar smoking, drinking beers and shooting the shit before being given a suicide mission of a job. Said jobs in this series always take place in a fictional third-world country that riffs on somewhere real. The first film opted for South America while Expendables 2 surprised nobody by featuring Eastern Bloc countries such as Albania and Bulgaria. International arms dealer Jean Vilain (Van Damme) and his scumbag mercenary group are trying to steal five tons of refined plutonium, something that CIA agent, Church (Willis), doesn’t want to happen so he orders the Expendables team to stop them.

Having every action movie trope thrown into The Expendables 2 doesn’t hurt it though because the details exist purely as a vehicle for what this series is all about: an all-star group of big-screen action heroes blasting their way through a never-ending supply of enemy goons, none of which can shoot accurately to save their lives (literally) but all of which deserve to be iced.

Name another movie where you can watch Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris sharing the same screen and gunning their way through a room of enemies. It hadn’t happened before The Expendables 2 and unless there is a fourth installment in the series, we likely won’t see such a spectacle again. The Expendables 2 does sometimes get a bit too tongue-in-cheek to be taken seriously but that’s hard to consider a detraction when the stars are playing off of one another’s classic catch-phrases and one-liners. As far as I am concerned, the shootout scene in the airport at the movie’s climax is simply one of THE most entertaining sequences in any action film ever and never fails to raise a smile on this cynical face, no matter how many times I watch this movie.

[Trench (Schwarzenegger) and Church (Willis) are taking cover during the firefight]

Trench: I’m almost out; I’ll be back!

Church: You’ve been back enough. I’ll be back

Trench: Yippe-ki-yay…

[Trench (Schwarzenegger) is joined by Booker (Chuck Norris)]

Trench: Who is next? Rambo?

It’s absolutely brilliant and a love letter to old-school action movies like Commando. It’s big, loud and brash. You get mahoosive explosions and so much firepower that it’s almost like gun porn at times. It’s also nice to see a legend like Van Damme back in action in a decent, big-budget movie. His battle with Stallone at the end is a treat. You get Stallone dishing out some machinegun jabs, Rocky-style (I’d like to think that that was an intentional nod to Stallone’s boxing films), and Van Damme pulls off his famous helicopter kick.

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Just too awesome.

There are only two things that I don’t like about The Expendables 2. The first is how the film almost becomes a parody of the genre it is attempting to pay homage to but as I’ve already said, I think they just managed to not go too far and maintain that balance between fun and bloody comic-book action. The second is the introduction of a female member to Ross’s team, Maggie Chan (played by Yu Nan). My issue with this is how they implemented her. Ross is initially resistant to having a woman shoe-horned into his team by Church and there are all of these small scenes throughout the movie where Chan gradually impresses the rest of the crew and gains acceptance. It’s clear from the outset that Maggie is both badass and capable so why go through the bullshit of trying to make some sort of statement about a woman being able to hold her own with the guys? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not intrusive or in-your-face but I’m not sure it was really necessary. Thankfully, The Expendables 3 redresses this with the seamless inclusion of Ronda Rousey’s character.

If I have to sum up The Expendables 2 with a single word then I’d have to use “fun”. These films are the ideal antidote to pictures that focus on social commentary or promoting some kind of politically-correct agenda. They aren’t clever or dynamic but sometimes, that’s not what you want. The Expendables 2 is simply a great time and benefits from having the most stacked cast of action movie greats (past and present) that we are likely to ever witness. If you love your old-school action movies then you owe it to yourself to watch this.