Monday, January 9, 2012

Constant Reading Project: Shifting into high gear

The Constant Reading Project has closed the book of the first of Stephen King's short story collections. Night Shift includes 20 stories, some of which are classic King tales and some that even other Constant Readers may have forgotten about. I think it's important to say something about each story, so that's what we're going to do.


"Jerusalem's Lot": An epistolary tale about the early days of the town that would eventually be overrun by vampires. The Lot was evil well before the vampire Kurt Barlow came to town and even before Hubert Marsten built his home on the hill.

The style of this story is rather antiquated but don't let that fool you. King is doing what many English majors still do today: imitating his heroes. "Jerusalem's Lot" is a Lovecraftian tale, even calling on Lovecraft's Elder Gods. And why shouldn't King pay homage to Lovecraft? As far as New England horrorshows go, Lovecraft was the O.G. (Unless you count Nathaniel Hawthorne's weird tales or any of the fire and brimstone Puritan writers, but they are in King's story, too.)

"Graveyard Shift": Placing this after "Jerusalem's Lot" is brilliant. The first story has sounds that could be rats (like Lovecraft's "Rats in the Walls") and this one has the biggest damn rats ever.

"Night Surf": Captain Trips first foray into print. "Night Surf" is one small group's experience with the flu. Some minor changes into the origin of the world-killing germ and you have "The Stand," which happens to be our next book.

"I am the Doorway": This is one of those forgotten gems to everyone who doesn't own the first paperback edition. That cover had a hand on it which had sprouted eyes. King has never shied away from turning normal people into monsters. Lesson: the effects of space travel may not be immediately apparent.

"The Mangler": Write what you know, eh? King worked at a laundry (and a mill not unlike that in "Graveyard Shift") in the first year after college. Not only will he turn normal people into monsters, he'll turn the machinery of ours lives against us. (This will come up again. And again.)

"The Boogeyman": Children are creatures of instinct, mostly because they don't know any better. It makes adults feel better to have "rational thoughts" that can block instincts. Kids can be afraid without anyone telling them there is something to be afraid of.

Without giving away the ending, this is one of those Twilight Zone/EC Comics brand of stories that turn at the last minute. When that happens, our heroes usually don't come out on top.

"Gray Matter": If you want to get analytical, you could say this story is an example of how King knew his drinking was having adverse effects on his life. If you don't, it's another normal guy becoming a monster tale. Your choice.

"Battleground": Another homage, this one to Richard Matheson's "Prey." Toy soldiers break out a can of whoop ass on a hitman. Always read what comes in the box, kids.

"Trucks": Machines one bad, I told you it would come back up. King's film adaptation of this story includes one of my all-time favorite cinematic moments.

 "Sometimes They Come Back": King writes about a schoolteacher with a haunted past. The story is more cynical than the made-for-TV movie that would come out of it. Fewer people survive intact. This is also a story about sacrifice. Not in the existential what-would-you-give-up-for-love kind of sacrifice, but the you-owe-me-blood kind.

"Strawberry Spring": There's a killer on the loose. Likes to take out coeds. My favorite part of this story is that the narrator sees connections no one else does. Until the end, that is.

"The Ledge": This early period contained many of King's grislier short works. "The Ledge" isn't so much about a man peering into the abyss as it is about a man hanging on for dear life so as not to fall into the abyss. Or, it could just be a story about a friendly wager.

"The Lawnmower Man": Imps and demons run through many of the stories in this book. Some of them still do manual labor.  WARNING: This story has nothing to do with virtual reality.

"Quitters Inc.": I think this is my favorite story in the book. Quitting smoking is hard. When battling addictions, sometimes we need to be pushed, not coddled. This story pushes. Hard.

"I Know What You Need": At heart, it's a love story about a nerdy kid who does everything he can to get the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately, the means to the end ruin the whole thing. I feel for Edward in this story, but I also get Elizabeth's side of it.

For the ladies: It's OK to be single. Be strong, be you. Choose who you want to be with. And if you just need to be alone for a while, that's cool.

Guys: don't be jerks, OK? I know, we all have our moments when we get all Neanderthal  and do stupid shit. Just don't take it out on the women in your lives, is all I'm saying.

"Children of the Corn": Why has this story bred so many crappy direct-to-video sequels? If I knew, I could put a stop to it. One thing we need to get straight here: when people refer to groups of crazy kids as "children of the corn," I think they are missing the point. The kids in this story didn't wipe out all the adults around them because they got sent to bed with no supper. They did it because they got a bit twisted up in their faith (and because something in the corn told them to do it). All kids hate their parents at some point. If they start dressing funny and talking to the garden, then you have a problem.

"The Last Rung on the Ladder": King does guilt in ways that make you feel like shit. We get so busy in our own lives that sometimes we forget about people who might need us. The lesson here is to always let those you love have your forwarding address. Along with "Children of the Corn," it's also a reminder that Nebraska sucks.

"The Man Who Loved Flowers": I kind of think this might be the same guy from "Strawberry Spring."

"One For the Road": Back to 'Salem's Lot, only this time post vampire takeover. Think of it as an early version of Steve Niles "30 Days of Night."

"The Woman in the Room": Write what you know, eh? For personal reasons, this is a hard story to read. I imagine it would be the same for other people I know and many people everywhere. Remember what I said about King on guilt? Sometimes it's not just about our actions, but what we think we might do in a given situation.

There's no ghosts or monsters, but this is the scariest story in the book.

It's also the last story in the book.

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