Howdy folks! El marido here, and I want to start this off with an irrelevant story.
In Icelandic witchcraft, there is an item called nábrók (translation: necropants). These are a pair of pants made from the skin of a dead man that are capable of producing an endless supply of money. Here’s how they’re made:
1. Ask a dude if you can take his skin after he dies; if yes,
2. Flay him from the waist down and put that shit on like pants;
3. Steal a coin from a poor widow—she has to be poor;
4. Put that coin in the dead dude’s scrotum along with a certain magical sign;
I just felt the need to share that with you because…just read it. My favorite part is that you have to politely ask to take a dude’s skin but fuck that widow; just take her money!
So as you may or may not know by now, I’m a huge Stephen King fan. Big a fan as I am, I haven’t actually read everything he’s done. Some of the things of his I haven’t read are almost embarrassing…in the way that things can only be embarrassing to a very particular subset of people. One of these terrible oversights is Night Shift, Stephen King’s first short story collection. Released in 1978, this collection includes one of King’s most famous stories, one of his most infamous, two stories that work as a prequel and sequel to Salem’s Lot, and one that’s sort of a prototype to The Stand. There’s a lot going on here. And I’m gonna talk about it all! Stories with a * denote ones that have been adapted to film.
“Jerusalem’s Lot”: One of the longer stories in the collection, this one serves as a prequel of sorts to Salem’s Lot. Set in 1850s Maine, it involves a rich dude moving into a creepy mansion with his manservant and uncovering Lovecraftian horrors in the nearby village of Jerusalem’s Lot. The story is epistolary, told through a series of letters and diary entries. I don’t…really like this story. It’s got an evil cult doing evil cult things and kind of sets up the main character as an unreliable narrator due to a “brain fever” he had suffered after his wife died, but the unreliable narrator thing doesn’t work when we already know that the evil actually exists. It’s worth reading if you’re a fan of Salem’s Lot, but be warned: there are no vampires and the only real connection to the novel is the town.
*”Graveyard Shift”: A drifter working at a textile mill takes on some extra work to help clean out the mill’s cavernous basement. There are a bunch of rats; many of them are huge. He discovers that there’s a sub-basement and tricks his foreman into going down there, where he’s eaten by mutant rats. This is a simple story with a simple premise and some pretty gross imagery. I really like it. The movie was made in 1990 and had to stretch 9 pages into 90 minutes, but overall it does a decent job of it. I actually saw the movie on TV many many years ago, before I even knew who Stephen King was, and it freaked me out. So, if it’s good enough for a wimpy seven-year-old, it’s good enough for you!
*”Night Surf”: A bunch of asshole teenagers mill around on a beach for an evening after society has fallen in the wake of an outbreak of a superflu called “Captain Trips.” This is one of the oldest stories in the collection—first published in 1969—and works as a prototype to The Stand. Mostly they dick around in the way that teenagers do, but there’s also some really dark underpinnings to their group as they had previously abducted a man and burned him alive. This is, ostensibly, as a tribute to gods to protect them from the flu, but it’s heavily implied that they really did it just for the hell of it. The main character is abusive to his girlfriend and spends most of his time thinking about the past. I hate him. The end of the story implies that everyone will get the flu eventually, despite their belief that they’re immune. The story showcases King’s knack for multi-layered characterization, and it is definitely worth a read. “Night Surf” was adapted into a short film in 2001 and, though it is well regarded, it has never seen widespread release.
“I Am the Doorway”: A wonderful, horrible mix of body-horror and science fiction. An ex-astronaut sprouts tiny eyeballs all over his hands and starts seeing the world through them. The eyes belong to a race of aliens that find humans disgusting and horrifying, and they take control of the astronaut to kill as many humans as they can. Technically, this one has been adapted as well, but the film is currently in post-production.
*”The Mangler”: A possessed laundry machine kills people. This is simple, wacko horror and in just about anyone else’s hands wouldn’t work. With King, it does. The movie stars Freddy Krueger himself—Mr. Robert Englund—and was directed by Tobe Hooper!
*”The Boogeyman”: A douchebag talks to his therapist about his three children who all died of mysterious and unrelated causes. Before dying, they all screamed about the boogeyman, and when their dad found them, the closet door was always slightly ajar even though he was sure he closed it. He’s convinced that the boogeyman is stalking him…and he just might be right. This was actually the first story I ever read from Night Shift (and though it was too long ago for me to be entirely certain, I’m pretty sure the first Stephen King story I ever read), and I still love it. It’s a simple story with a bizarre ending, and the main character, Lester, is such an asshole. King is good at writing loathsome characters. It has been adapted three times: once in 1982, once as a theatrical play, and most recently in 2010 as a short film.
“Gray Matter”: Oooooohohohoho! I love this one so much that I barely want to tell you about it. Basically, a guy drinks a bad can of beer and starts transforming into a horrible, disgusting blob monster (not much different than he was pre-mutation). Awesome body horror, patent King characterizations, and an open ending. Horror don’t get much better than this.
*”Battleground”: A professional hitman is killed by toys after killing a toy-maker. I’m not a big fan of this one. It’s a lot like an episode of The Twilight Zone that was written by Richard Matheson, and also a lot like the movie Small Soldiers. The story itself was adapted for an episode of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, a show entirely devoted to adapting Stephen King stories.
*”Trucks”: This is the infamous one I mentioned up there. Something causes all the cars in the world to gain sentience and kill people. The story is actually pretty good, particularly the bleak ending. It’s the movie that makes this one infamous. Maximum Overdrive is infamous even outside of King fans for being just…so bad. It was the only movie King ever directed, and according to him, he was coked out of his mind the whole time. It’s definitely worth watching for how bizarre it is and to see Emilio Estevez run from an eighteen-wheeler with The Green Goblin’s face. It was adapted again much more faithfully in 1997. It’s a pretty boring movie and nowhere near as fun as Maximum Overdrive.
*”Sometimes They Come Back”: A bleak story in a similar vein to Pet Semetary about a man whose brother was killed by greasers when they were children; a man who, decades later, encounters those same greasers as students in his class. They’ve come back from hell to kill him, and the only way he can save himself is to bring his brother back from the dead. Spoiler alert: It’s probably not his brother, and the ritual he uses warns that when you summon demons to help you, sometimes they come back. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection, and the movie unfortunately took all the teeth out of the story. And then they went ahead and made two awful sequels.
“Strawberry Spring”: The oldest story in the collection. Written in 1968, it’s about a man reminiscing on his college days and the time a serial killer nicknamed “Springheel Jack” roamed the campus. Several people are arrested but released when more murders are committed, and the real killer is never found. In the present, the murders have started again, and the man is worried because he can’t remember where he was the previous night.
*”The Ledge”: A ruthless mob boss offers the man who’s been having an affair with his wife a wager—if he can circle the building that houses the mob boss’s penthouse while walking on a 5-inch ledge, he can have $20,000 and (ostensibly) the mob boss’s wife. The story is told in first person and is wonderfully tense. It was adapted as a segment of the movie Cat’s Eye.
*”The Lawnmower Man”: A wonderfully weird story about a man who hires a lawn-mowing service to mow his yard. The person who arrives gets naked and crawls behind the mower, eating the grass, and his boss is the god Pan. I love this story. It’s my third-favorite, and all of you should read it. ALL OF YOU! The story was made into a movie twice, once in 1987 as a 12-minute short, and once in 1992 as a terrible sci-fi movie that had so little to do with the story that King sued to have his name taken off the film.
*”Quitters, Inc.”: A man goes to extreme lengths to quit smoking. Another one I’m not too fond of. Another one that was adapted into a segment of Cat’s Eye. Also…as a Bollywood film called No Smoking.
“I Know What You Need” A girl is manipulated into loving a guy through black magic. He causes her boyfriend to die and uses the magic to find out what she likes and to always be exactly where she is exactly when he needs to be to manipulate her emotions. We find out a bit about his terrible childhood and almost sympathize with him, but he’s still a childish bastard and the girl destroys his power over her and walks up on his narrow ass. It’s a good story, and it’s really disturbing watching her get manipulated.
*”Children of the Corn”: The famous story I mentioned in the introduction. I think just about everybody knows this one. A bunch of kids kill their parents and take over their town, establishing a religion that worships a twisted version of Jesus called “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” An unhappy couple stumbles upon this town and get killed by the kids. This is Stephen King at his horrifying best. The story is tense and interesting, and the ending is brutal. It was adapted into a much tamer movie with a much happier ending that spawned seven sequels (with an eight on the way) and a TV remake. Less well known is the 1983 short film adaptation Disciples of the Crow. Great story, great movie, and the collection is worth buying for this alone.
“The Last Rung on the Ladder: Where “Children of the Corn” is King at his terrifying best, this is King at his emotional best. Fans of King know that he is equally adept at writing emotionally powerful ones as he is scary ones (see: Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, etc…), and this is one of his best ever. It’s about a man reflecting on a childhood memory of his sister after receiving a letter from her. This one is my favorite. It has a beautiful symmetry and literally made me cry when I read it at work, which lead to a lot of misplaced sympathy. Like “Children,” the collection is worth its price from this story alone.
“The Man Who Loved Flowers”: A man buys flowers for a woman, and everyone who sees him smiles because they know he’s in love. The man is a serial killer who keeps buying flower for his dead wife Norma and gives them to his victims before killing them. He ends the story optimistic that he’ll find Norma soon. The story’s not bad; it’s almost darkly comic. There is a film adaptation currently in limbo.
“One for the Road”: A sequel to Salem’s Lot about two old men who try to help an out-of-towner find his wife and child during a blizzard. It’s a simple vampire story with a conclusion you’ll see coming, but it’s well told. It almost feels like an alternate epilogue to Salem’s Lot that was cut from the novel.
*”The Woman in the Room”: Another sad one about a man euthanizing his mother. If you know about King, then you know how close he was to his mother and the story feels almost autobiographical—not the action of the story so much, but the emotion behind it. A good closer to the collection. Frank Darabont started his career by adapting this story into a short film; he went on to also adapted King’s The Mist, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption. This and the various adaptations of “The Boogeyman” are the only films mentioned in this post that I haven’t seen.
Woo! So in case it wasn’t clear, I really liked this collection and definitely recommend it. Twelve of the twenty stories were made into movies, sometimes multiple movies, and sometimes entire movie franchises. So, moral of the story, Stephen King is super rich. My favorite three stories are, in order:
“The Last Rung on the Ladder”
“Children of the Corn”
“The Lawnmower Man”
No idea why it took me s’damn long to read these stories. What I find really interesting is that you can kind of see the core of IT being formed in some of these stories. There’s similar subject matter and themes peppered throughout the stories, and you can almost see the connections being made that will lead to the novel. Or maybe I’m just stupid obsessed with the book. Who knows!
Hope you enjoyed this look back at a book that most of you have probably already read. If you haven’t, do it. It’s worth it.
I’ll be doing one more of these “How Have I Not Read This” posts for Halloween Month. So look forward to that on Halloween Day!