Thursday, 26 July 2012

Night Shift Part One

Night Shift is one of those Stephen King books that I have very, very fond memories of acquiring.  Whilst I’ve always loved his writing, and grabbed his material with both hands whenever possible, this particular collection, and his novel Duma Key, are two which I will always hold in fond memory.  They were each purchased whilst I travelled Europe with my partner – a passage around Europe which began with a clapped-out camper van and ended with us both in a tent for the 3 months we travelled due to engine troubles.  Whilst in Amsterdam, only the second stop of our journey, I had already devoured two-thirds of the books I had taken with us (just over a week in) and so I was delighted to discover in a service station not only a Stephen King book, but one which I had never even heard of – it was a new release, and so there was no hype about it.  This was Duma Key.  And it went down in solid chunks, read within a day and a half of buying it, with the ferocity with which I usually approach King’s new material.

My second purchase, and the only other of that holiday, was Night Shift, a collection of short stories which, somehow, I had never stumbled across before.  This was in the south of Spain, nearing the end of our journey – I had already been reduced to reading The Stand for the third time in those three months as I had nothing new to approach – my supply of Terry Pratchett, James Herbert and, of course, Stephen King, had dried up, so I was resorting to reading and rereading the same old things.  Oddly enough, in Europe, whilst they have an impressive number of literary releases, very few of them are in English.  I was screwed – marooned in foreign lands with nothing fresh to read.  So when we stumbled across this campsite, a veritable village in its own right, utterly self-sufficient with shops, bars and restaurants, I hit a goldmine – there, peeking between tattered copies of Mills and Boone semi-porno novels and tatty classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, it stood, begging for me to absorb it into my consciousness.  And I did.  My god, how I absorbed it.  Because I knew this book!  I had never read it before, but most of the stories had already been burnt into my cerebrum, through gossip with other fans and through film.  A huge number of these stories have been put onto film – short stories adapted by the master himself.  Three of them were instantly recognisable because of other works I knew – two were a prologue and epilogue of sorts to ‘Salem’s Lot, and one was linked to my most-thumbed King edition, The Stand.

But I get ahead of myself.

My intention is to look at each of these gems, in turn, starting with Jerusalem’s Lot, the first of the collection.  As we can tell from the title, the plot of this little gem is closely linked the third novel released, and officially the last King title if we discount the ‘Bachman’-penned Rage.  A prequel of sorts, it tells the story of Charles Boone, our narrator, and his discovery of dark rituals and mysterious goings-on in the town of the title.  Told in an epistolary format, addressed to “Bones”, we follow the discovery of vampires and a worm from the 18th century which has enveloped the town in a shroud of death and pestilence.  This story works as an effective prequel specifically to any that have read ‘Salem’s Lot, but works as a stand-alone tale of fear too.  The endnote of the story is particularly haunting, as we discover that Boone is not the last of his line, and as such the misdemeanours of his family are set to be repeated further down the line.  The narrative flows like a HP Lovecraft wonder, rich in intrigue and striking a perfect balance between language and mood. 

Graveyard Shift is one of those darkly sardonic little gems which you can’t help but love.  Whilst the characterisation is a little scant, and motives are left mostly uncovered, it doesn’t affect the piece at all, with a snappy pace.  In the end, though, the motive is irrelevant – it’s a dark tale of a man pushed by senior management to commit what turns out to be his undoing.  He is desperate to prove his worth, no matter the cost.  Unlike Rage before it, though, we do actually side with Hall – Warwick is a despicable man, a typical middle-management type with a bee in his bonnet, and an understandable loathing of rats and bats – “gah!”   Some nice touches from this story include Wiskonsky’s “sour prophecy ‘Somebody’ll get hurt’”.  Also, the Orange Crush Thermometer which reappears later.  As I have said in earlier blogs, for King, it is these touches which make him a cut above the other writers of the genre – we are, as an audience, asked to make connections.  When locations are mentioned in brief passing, we must remember where we’ve heard the name before.

Night Surf served as the inspiration for The Stand¸ and tells of an evening for a group of late-teens who have hightailed to the beach to get away from A6, a virus killing off the population in droves – also known as Captain Trips – which seems like “flu – he’s all swelled up”.  It works almost as a coming-of-age story, like those of The Body, but with a particularly morbid twist – the discovery of a man stricken with the illness is pulled from his car and the group set fire to him, offering a sacrifice.  As our narrator and his pal discuss it, Needles shrugs about the agony suffered by the man as he dies – “Doesn’t matter”.  The bitter realisation that they are not immune, despite their earlier thoughts that having had A2 meant they wouldn’t catch it because one of their own has the tell-tale signs is dreadful, imagining themselves as the last people on Earth, but that the world will continue to spin anyway, the tide will continue to lap the beach as the corpses all pile up.

I am the Doorway is a beautifully crafter little sci-fi shocker, as an invalid astronaut returned to Earth realises with growing horror that after five years, his body has been harbouring an alien intelligence that is growing through his skin and committing atrocities.  One of King’s trademarks is the way in which he copes with the evil inside a man – whether psychological or, in this case, physically reaching through the charade of our human mask.  We, as humans, are all capable of evil acts, but we, for the most part, manage to hold it together, and choke down that evil.  Here, though, it is Arthur’s very inability to contain it, to defend himself from it, which is most startling.  As a first person narrative, we are recounted the events as he remembers them, including the death of his friend and the murder of a young nameless boy, and his subsequent removal of the eyes growing through his hands by soaking them in kerosene and burning them off, leading to their replacement with hooks.  Now, though – and this is the truly horrifying part – seven years later, the eyes are growing again, this time in a perfect circle through his chest...  He hasn’t stopped whatever force it is, and there is no telling that he ever will, even in his suggested suicide as the story comes to a close.

The next story in the collection, The Mangler, is typically Kingsian in tone – a possessed machine, much like the Buick 8 and Christine from later stories, is hungry for blood.  The fear of the ordinary, and the trusted, is the central creepy premise to this.  An inanimate object, a clothing flat-press in a laundry, has caused a number of accidents, the first involving the blood of a virgin, which has sated its taste for blood and led to it wanting more.  My only issue with this is Jackson, the English teacher who is a friend to John Hunton, the central character.  As always the English teacher in King’s work is well-educated, but here, the knowledge all seems a little too forced.  Unlike Matt Burke in ‘Salem’s Lot, who we witness educating himself in the more specialised areas of fiction and folklore from a hospital bed, here Jackson can knock off any number of causes and signs of demonic possession all too readily.  Whilst it is clearly an issue irresolvable in short story, this is one which would perhaps have been better suited to a longer piece in one of King’s specialised collections like Four After Midnight or Different Seasons.  Given greater pagination, it is a plot which could have enthralled and mystified, but sadly here it all seems a little too rushed.  It is great – just not the best of the bunch.

Also a weak point of the collection, The Boogeyman is principally about a man dealing with his own skeletons in the closet, following the deaths of his three children, and his own responsibilities for them.  Lester Billings is not a particularly pleasant man – he lies on a psychiatrist’s couch before professing to the murder of his children – “All I did was kill my kids.  One at a time.  All of them.”  He is a typical man of his time, and his loathing of “sissies” and “niggers” is unnerving, but it does ring true with the setting of the book – indeed, in many of his novels, including ‘Salem’s Lot, homophobia is commonplace in small-town America.  Billings has had ideas drummed into his head from his parents and is hard-headed enough to follow them regardless of what his gut tells him.  As such, when the children beg to be taken from their room due to “the Boogeyman”, he refuses, and when their bodies are discovered, he notices the cupboard door open “just a crack”.  The story itself is fast-paced, but my issue comes with the ending – “so nice”.

Grey Matter tells the tale of Richie Grenadine, a man who, for no understandable reason, has begun to transform into an amorphous grey blob, and the men from a local bar that must go to face this monster.  Told from first person narrative, Henry the bar owner recounts Grenadine’s son Timmy’s story as they approach his apartment.  What makes this short story so effective is the slow burn of information – as the three get closer and closer to the house, the story becomes even more obscene – “a dead cat, all swole up and stiff... with little white things crawlin’ all over it... then he ate it” – but upon arrival, they must face up to whatever lies in wait.  The appearance of Richie, as the door bulges outwards before bursting through, is particularly effective, as is the cliff-hanger at the end “I surely do”.  Also, there’s an Orange Crush thermometer.  Just saying.

Battleground is an oddity of a story, but an entertaining one too – the story of a hit man who works for The Organisation, returning home to a parcel which contains toy soldiers, possessed and alive and wanting to fight.  Whilst it may feel silly and childish, the description in this piece is terrific, and as it builds to its shocking conclusion – “He never knew what hit him” – it rattles along at great speed.  King’s use of language is superb – before the reveal of the toy soldiers, Renshaw stands on his balcony, “as a general might survey a captured country”.  The ledge upon which he has to crawl to safety is “no wider than a child’s train track”.  These linguistic tricks are purposeful, engaging and relatable.  Renshaw considers to see the whole affair as a game even when the soldiers are attacking – “”I’m losing!”. 

Trucks is the short story which inspired one of King’s best, and silliest, films, “Maximum Overdrive”.  As with The Mangler and Battleground, it is the ordinary becoming something extraordinary which is the root cause of this fear.  Here, as the title no doubt gives it away, it is a tale of trucks which have gained a murderous life of their own.  That most trusted of things, our modes of transport, are fighting back.  The story starts part way through the siege of the gas station, throwing the reader straight into the action.  The world is ending, and there is little anyone can do about it – the trucks themselves understand engines, and “frozen uniform joints” but not about the exhaustion felt by the trapped humans as they are forced to endlessly pump gas for them, to keep them running, slaves forever. 

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