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Book Review: Night Shift by Stephen King

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This summer Vintage & Anchor Books released a reprint edition of Stephen King’s classic short story collection Night Shift, and the 20 stories included in this volume are just as creepy and crawly as ever.

King is in top form in this anthology, which was originally published in 1978. After the huge success of his novel The Shining in 1977 Night Shift was released, and included a selection of stories that King had published in the late ’60s and early ’70s in such magazines as Cavalier, Penthouse, Ubris, Cosmopolitan, Gallery, and Maine. Night Shift also included four previously unpublished stories– “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “Quitters Inc.,” “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” and “The Woman in the Room.” King’s protagonists are frequently as morally compromised as the vampires and other monsters which populate these tales, which have a Twilight Zone-like feel to them. Stand-outs include “Night Surf,” “Sometimes They Come Back,” “Strawberry Spring,” “Quitters, Inc.,” and “I Know What You Need.”

The stories are as follows:

“Jerusalem’s Lot”: A previously unpublished story, as well as a sort of prequel to ‘Salem’s Lot, is also a tribute to classic epistolary horror writing, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Graveyard Shift”: Overtime is offered to some mill workers if they’ll help clean out the factory’s basement. But the basement isn’t just full of old and broken machinery, it also includes a population of some very unusual rats.

“Night Surf”: The flu, dubbed “Captain Trips,” has wiped out the country’s population, save for a small group of college kids in King’s precursor to his popular novel The Stand.

“I Am the Doorway”: Equal parts science-fiction and horror, King takes us to Venus and back with frightening consequences.

“The Mangler”: Can an industrial speed ironing and folding machine develop a taste for blood? Do you have to ask?

“The Boogeyman”: Lester Billings tries to convince psychiatrist Dr. Harper that the Boogeyman was responsible for the deaths of his three children.

“Grey Matter”: King’s take on The Blob, or the perils of drinking excessive amounts of cheap beer.

“Battleground”: Miniature toy soldiers are more than a match for a trained assassin.

“Trucks”: A truck stop becomes the setting for a brutal showdown between humans and (actual) monster trucks.

“Sometimes They Come Back”: A violent episode from a high school teacher’s childhood comes back to haunt him.

“Strawberry Spring”: A series of Ripper-like murders plague a local community college when a false spring accompanied by a fog envelops the campus.

“The Ledge”: A tennis pro faces the wager of his life with the husband of his lady love. But will the older man honor his bet?

“The Lawnmower Man”: Harold Parkette discovers that Pastoral Greenery and Outdoor Services, Inc. are a full-service lawn and landscaping service–maybe a little too full-service for his tastes.

“Quitters, Inc.”: Dick Morrison wants to quit smoking, and the firm Quitters, Inc. absolutely, positively guarantees that he will never smoke another cigarette–or else.

“I Know What You Need”: College student Elizabeth Rogan has met the perfect guy, Ed Hamner, Jr., who seems able to anticipate her every need–eerily so.

“Children of the Corn”: While driving through the cornfields of Nebraska in a last-ditch attempt to save their floundering marriage, Burt and Vicky are involved in a hit and run of a young boy. Or are they? The boy’s throat has been cut, and when they go to a nearby town for help they are greeted by some very strange residents.

“The Last Rung on the Ladder”: A truly heartbreaking story about a pivotal childhood event in a brother and sister’s life, and how they drift apart in the ensuing years.

“The Man Who Loved Flowers”: Almost a tone poem, set in New York City on a spring night, this tale plants plenty of clues to the horror that lies beneath the seemingly lovely night.

“One for the Road”: Set a few years after the novel ‘Salem’s Lot has taken place, this story sees a nor’easter pounding the area. Locals Booth and Tookey reluctantly help a tourist from New Jersey whose car, with his wife and daughter inside, has been stranded in a snowdrift in nearby Jerusalem’s Lot, a town populated by vampires.

“The Woman in the Room”: Another heartbreaker, this one centers on a man watching his mother die slowly and painfully from cancer–and debating whether or not to help ease her passage out of this world.

Many of the short stories in Night Shift will be familiar to fans of their feature film and television adaptations: Children of the Corn (which became both a 1984 film and a 2009 HBO television adaptation), Cat’s Eye (a 1985 film that included adaptations of “Quitters Inc.” and “The Ledge”), Maximum Overdrive (a 1986 film based on “Trucks”), and Graveyard Shift (a 1990 film).

Besides the 20 stories, Night Shift also includes an introduction by author John D. MacDonald, and an entertaining forward from King, who tells the reader why he loves scary stories–and is quite convincing on why they should, too. It will be up to the reader to determine whether they should indulge in these early King offerings in the dark of night. It might be advisable to keep all of the lights on.

As King tells the reader,

“Let’s talk about fear. We won’t raise our voices and we won’t scream; we’ll talk rationally, you and I. We’ll talk about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness.

“At night, when I go to bed, I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blanket after the lights go out.

“I’m not a child any more but … I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, of course, and we all know that. … The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”

Forewarned is forearmed.

Images from top: King in the ’70s and the ’00s.

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