Night Shift by King, Stephen, 1978

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Well, here it is! When I was a youth it took me some time to get interested in SF. My younger brother was into it many years before I was, and was always urging me to get involved and try some of his books. I just was not interested. He had mostly Lucky Starr and Heinlein juvenile stuff, and other YA books at that time, and I just did not see the attraction. But I remember clearly one night in July of 1978 a bunk mate at Montressor Summer Riding Camp in Virginia gave me a copy of Stephen King's first short story collection called Night Shift. I was 10 years old. I opened it reluctantly and was put off by the first short story, Jerusalem's Lot. But the second was a sure winner called Graveyard Shift which led into winner after winner. Laying on a threadbare rack in the oppressive summer heat of mountainous Virginia I slowly morphed into the SF addict you "see" before you today. When I got home I devoured as much King as I could find (five other books at the time, Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, the formidable The Stand, and finally early the next year The Gunslinger. I cannot say that I have been a King devotee since, but he did open the door for me to Koontz and McCammon on one side, and Niven, Asimov and others on the other. I'm certain I have come a long, long way since then in terms of the sophistication level of my reading material. But just yesterday I got from the SFBC a hardback copy of Night Shift, and within a few hours pretty much read the entire thing. It was every bit as fun as I remembered. Four out of five stars.

King is literally all over the place in this book. There is straight up SF, horror, Gothic, urban fantasy, pulp/shock and even two mainstream stories in this book. I smelled heavy influences of Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson, Wells and others as I ran quickly through the stories. The themes are pretty scattered too. This is very early King, so his Dark Tower notions of a centralized corruption that touch on the fabric of reality really were not fully developed at the time. But King does touch on entropy, alien invasion, possession, occult, psychology, terror/fear, infectious diseases, and all the other themes and motifs that King seems to love to work with. I had an awful hard time tracking down even a decent paperback of this book, but it is now available again at the SFBC. I'd bet that a lot of you read this when you were young and still remember it fondly. This is one that will stay in my collection this time, for sure. Based on how many movies came from this one book alone, I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

Here is a run-down of the stories in this volume:

Jerusalem's Lot: A novella told in letters from a man named Boone to a friend in Florida after Boone has moved into his family's abandoned mansion in New England with his servant in order to renovate the structure. In the nearby abandoned titular village the undead roam and hunt, seeking mainly to enchant and steal away everyone in Boone's blood line. I think this was an early version of the vampire story that was changed and published in substantially different form as 'Salem's Lot. It is a Lovecraftian Gothic horror told in a Wellsian tone that relies heavily on satanism and occult, rather than Stokerish vampirism, and it is probably the best written story in the book. It is literary, and in it King avoids many of his more cliche embellishments, such as a blue collar protagonist, indulgent prose or nonsensical plotting. It was an excellent way to start the anthology!

Graveyard Shift: A young college dropout who works in a rat-infested mill accepts a job cleaning the mill's sub-basement with high pressure hoses and a cleaning crew to help. As the crews get deeper into the basement the rats get even bigger, more aggressive and appear more mutated, until the crews discover a door to an even deeper sub-sub-basement that is pad locked from the inside. This is a suspense story about a lost race of heavily evolved rats.

Night Surf: An alternate ending to King's magnificent The Stand where Captain Tripps winds up eventually killing everyone on the planet. This story is slightly different in that the biological warfare element has been removed.

I am the Doorway: An excellent pure SF first-contact story. After the sole-survivor from a mission to Venus returns to Earth eyeballs start to open up on various parts of his body. He can see through the eyes, but so can the Venusians, and they don't like the looks of humans at all. I would recommend reading this short story side-by-side with Maltzberg's Beyond Apollo.

The Mangler: A demon possessed bed-sheet cleaning and folding machine begins taking human victims. The retired English professor and police officer who go to exorcise the demon fail to realize how powerful it really is. This one is straight out of the pulps, and it and another story in this book, Trucks, inform the novel Christine, one of King's early career novels.

The Boogeyman: A blue collar father who is afraid of molly-coddling his children forces them to sleep in a room that scares them to hysterics. He thinks that the kids are just scared of the dark, so he ignores their cries for help. The events are all blamed on crib-death, but the father discovers that a monster is killing his family after it is too late to save any of them. He goes to a psychiatrist to confess his sins. This one has a very pulpy hook at the end. Its spooky and fun.

Gray Matter: A town drunk gets a contaminated beer and starts to devolve into a fungus. Two of his friends battle him before he can absorb his own son for nourishment.

Battleground: A professional assassin is hired to kill the owner of a toy company. His resourceful and inventive mother strikes back with an army of homonculi; miniature toy soldiers that are armed with bazookas, choppers and a thermo-nuclear device.

Trucks: Every vehicle bigger than a 3/4 ton pickup becomes sentient and enslaves humanity.

Sometimes They Come Back: A young boy watches as his big brother is murdered by street toughs. Twenty years later the ghosts of those punks come back to "take care of old business," so the teacher conjures a demon to help him defeat the ghosts. There is a great hook at the end of this one too.

Strawberry Spring: Semi-lyrical first person story about a modern day Jack the Ripper who terrorizes a college campus.

The Ledge: A rich cuckold forces a philandering tennis pro to walk a five inch ledge around his 40th story penthouse in exchange for $20,000 and his wife' hand. When the pro gets back and learns he gets the wife, but she is already dead. He turns the tables and sends the old man out to walk the same ledge in exchange for his life.

The Lawnmower Man: This may be what could happen if the deity Pan opened up a lawn care company. This story has nothing in common with the VR/cyberpunk/Algernon type movie, save for the name.

Quitters, Inc: An ex-mobster takes aversion training to the extreme by enrolling people in a program to quit smoking, then tortures the participant's family when they backslide. This story is actually about love and devotion.

I Know What You Need: An empathic psychic and black magic practitioner insinuates himself into his crush's life, then kills her fiancee to clear the path to love.

Children of the Corn: A feuding couple get off the interstate in Nebraska and run over the body of a murder victim left in the road. Back in town they encounter a village of children who have murdered their parents and kill their own when they reach the age of 19 as sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows, a monstrous combination of a pagan fertility god and Jesus Christ.

Last Rung on the Ladder: Short story about a boy who saves the life of his beloved sister. She realizes decades later that she should have died that day. This one may be about fate, but is probably more about depression.

The Man who Loved Flowers: A psychopathic serial-killer who is in love with the memory of his girl, Norma, buys flowers for her and hunts her look-alikes.

One for the Road: Another 'Salem's Lot story, this time probably in the same world as the novel. Residents of a town near the Lot help a tourist try to save his wife and daughter who are trapped in a blizzard near the Lot.

The Woman in the Room: Another mainstream piece. This one is about a man who secretly kills his very ill mother out of mercy under the noses of her doctors and family.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3.5 star(s)


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