Horror maven Stephen King’s 1978 anthology ‘Night Shift’ still packs a powerful sting

March 23, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 23, 2019

Look, Stephen King obviously doesn’t need my help to sell more copies of his books — even though, as I recently established, he isn’t the best-selling modern fiction author of all (or even just of modern) times. But still…

I recently reread Night Shift, a 1978 anthology of King stories that I probably first read back in the ’80s. I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time round. Some of the passages that chilled me back then gave me the same shivers of horror more than two decades later.

The book contains 20 stories, which by my count directly inspired an eye-popping six movies: Children of the CornMaximum Overdrive (infamously known as King’s only directorial outing, based on the story “Trucks”), Graveyard ShiftThe ManglerSometimes They Come Back and The Lawnmower Man (although this film was so loosely based on King’s story that he successfully sued to have his writing credit de-emphasized).

A number of the other tales from Night Shift have been made as shorts, some of them on multiple occasion: “Night Surf,” “I Am the Doorway,” “The Boogeyman,” “Gray Matter,” “Battleground,” “Strawberry String,” “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” “One for the Road” and “The Woman in the Room.”

The thing that the collection highlights for me is King’s versatility. Yes, there are stories featuring his mainstay story type, in which Joe or Jane Everyman encounters some deadly peril, be it human or supernatural. But some of the tales, such as “The Woman in the Room,” features nothing more unusual that a man struggling to come to grips with his mother’s terminal illness. “I Know What You Need” is a romance with a supernatural twist (one character can read minds).

“Quitters Inc.” explores the journey of a man who signs up for a smoking-cessation program with very radical methods, but as with many of these stories, there’s no “on page” violence. There’s nothing supernatural about “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” wherein the repercussions of two siblings’ childhood brush with death catch up with them decades later, but the story ends with a heart-breaking sting. And the book’s first tale, an epistolary story called “Jerusalem’s Lot,” is quite different in both structure and style from anything else of King’s that I’ve read.

Take, for example, this passage from the opening story, in which an aristocrat recounts visiting an eerie abandoned village with his faithful manservant:

At last we reached the church. It reared above us, grim, uninviting, cold. Its windows were black with the shadows inside, and any Godliness or sanctity had departed from it long ago. Of that I am certain. We mounted the steps, and I placed my hand on the large iron door-pull. A set, dark look passed from myself to Calvin and back again. I opened the portal. How long since that door had been touched? I would say with confidence that mine was the first in fifty years; perhaps longer. Rust-clogged hinges screamed as I opened it. The mell of rot and decay which smote us was nearly palpable. Cal made a gagging sound in his throat and twisted his head involuntarily for clearer air. 

“Sir,” he asked, “are you sure that you are—?” 

“I’m fine,” I said calmly. But I did not feel calm, Bones, no more than I do now. I believe, with Moses, with Jereboam, with Increase Mather, and with our own Hanson [when he is in a philosophical temperament], that there are spiritually noxious places, buildings where the milk of the cosmos has become sour and rancid. This church is such a place; I would swear to it. 

We stepped into a long vestibule equipped with a dusty coat rack and shelved hymnals. it was windowless. Oil-lamps stood in niches here and there. An unremarkable room, I thought, until I heard Calvin’s sharp gasp and saw what he had already noticed. 

It was an obscenity. 

I daren’t describe that elaborately-framed picture further than this: that it was done after the fleshy style of Rubens; that it contained a grotesque travesty of a madonna and child; that strange, half-shadowed creatures sported and crawled in the background. 

“Lord,” I whispered. 

“There’s no Lord here,” Calvin said, and his words seemed to hang in the air. I opened the door leading into the church itself, and the odor became a miasma, nearly overpowering. 

This story, incidentally, bears at least a tenuous link to Salem’s Lot, the vampire novel that gave rise to a 1979 TV movie of the same title, the second-ever adaptation of a King work for film or TV. (It followed Carrie’s release by three years.)

“One for the Road,” first published in 1977, is explicitly related to Salem’s Lot. This tale of a would-be rescue mission on a snowy Maine night has stayed with me over the years. So has “Gray Matter,” which is set in motion rather innocuously when a man gulps down a can of cheap beer that tastes slightly… off… and ends on a haunting ambiguous note.

‘Night Shift’ (1978) by Stephen King.

Time and again, King sticks the landing (read: ending) of his tales. It’s true of “Night Surf,” about young adults who have survived a deadly pandemic, may be the most difficult story in the book to read; its conclusion is at once mundane and piercing. It’s true of “Strawberry Spring,” about a series of killings committed years ago. And of “I Am the Doorway,” “Trucks,” “The Ledge,” “Quitters Inc.” and so many others.

Perhaps the weakest story in the book is “The Boogeyman,” which unlike its peers arrives at a rather silly finish. I didn’t like the ending of “Battleground,” in which an assassin confronts animated toy soldiers who pack a surprising sting, but the body of the story is grimly effective.

Summing up: King’s a terrific writer, and these stories hold up. Readers prone to nightmares, consider yourself duly warned.

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