It has become a tradition of mine to read and review a Stephen King novel each year for Halloween. I started this tradition by reading King’s first novel, Carrie. From there, I progressed through each of his books chronologically by date of publication. The last review was for Rage, a novel written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. At this point, we’ve had a pretty good sample of Stephen King’s early novels. But his novels are just the beginning. Stephen King is also famous for his short stories.
At the start of his career, King sold short stories to a number of men’s magazines. These proved to be fairly pivotal in his early success. In 1978, a number of these stories were bundled together in a single collection. This compilation was titled Night Shift. Over the course of his career, King ended up publishing a handful of these short story collections. But I’ve always found Night Shift to be one of particular interest. It’s a glimpse at some of King’s earliest works and is a great example of his mindset during this period of time.
Usually in these reviews, I go into a decent amount of detail regarding the stories themselves. But since there’s so much material of cover in this collection, I’m only going to provide a brief summary on each story. But I will share my thoughts on each one individually.
Jerusalem’s Lot: As you might notice, the title of this story sounds very much like the name of King’s second published novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. Well, that’s because these two stories are related. Jerusalem’s Lot is actually a prequel to ‘Salem’s Lot. This short story is written in epistolary form and details a series of events from the mid-1800’s.
The contents of this tale are a wonderful glimpse into the backstory of the original book. As a huge fan of ‘Salem’s Lot, this story is one of the highlights of this collection for me. This one is a must read. – (Previously Unpublished)
Graveyard Shift: This is one of the more memorable stories in the collection. It focuses on a crew of workers in an old textile mill. The foreman offers overtime to a small group if they are willing to work a night shift performing a special task. The duty in question is cleaning out the mill’s unused basement which has become infested with rats. During the clean up effort, the team discovers a hidden trap-door leading into a forgotten sub-basement level. What they find below is an unimaginable terror…
I don’t know why. But I love this story. King’s writing has a magical way of making me feel like I’m right there in this stinking, sweltering mill. Plus, the concept of uncovering and exploring a long forgotten area of an ancient building just really appeals to me. This is another must read story from this collection. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Night Surf: In this post-apocalyptic story, the world has been ravaged by a killer virus and the majority of the population is dead. Night Surf describes the life of a handful of young adults as the last bastion of humanity fades around them.
King fans will be quick to notice that the name of the virus mentioned in this story is the same as the one detailed in his epic novel The Stand. However, I have my doubts that the two stories are actually related. Instead, I feel like Night Surf is probably the seed that eventually grew into something bigger. I enjoyed this story well enough. But it’s not one of the stand out tales in this collection. – (Originally published in Ubris a college literary magazine)
I Am the Doorway: This is a weird one. This futuristic story is told from the perspective of a former astronaut, Arthur, who became infected with an alien mutagen while on a mission to the planet Venus. As a result of this infection, eyes have began to grow on his fingers and hands. These eyes allow an alien intelligence to observe anything Arthur sees. As time goes on, Arthur realizes they can also occasionally control him without his knowledge.
This is a solid short story with an interesting premise. It’s not one of my favorites, but it is very well done and quite chilling. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
The Mangler: Here’s a freaky one… “The Mangler” is the name given to a killer laundry press. One day, a steam-powered laundry machine becomes possessed by a demonic entity and develops a taste for human blood.
As ludicrous as the premise sounds, I actually found this story to be one of the scariest in the whole collection. When you look at just how powerful a machine like an industrial laundry press actually is, it quickly becomes obvious just how horrific it would be to become stuck in one. The conveyor, the steam, the hydraulic press itself… its the perfect recipe for slaughter. This is another of my favorite short stories collected in Night Shift. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
The Boogeyman: In this tale, a distraught father tells his psychiatrist about the deaths of his three children who he claims were murdered by “The Boogeyman”. At the start of the tale, it appears that the man is simply suffering from delusions. But as the story progresses it soon becomes obvious that the Boogeyman is very real.
In many ways, this story is an example of classic Stephen King. It takes a childhood concept as simple “the boogeyman” and turns into a real hair-raising frightfest. For me, this is a pretty solid story. But it’s not the best this book has to offer. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Gray Matter: Now this is a funky story. It tells the tale of a man who drinks a can of beer that was contaminated with a fungus. After ingesting it, the fungus takes hold of the man’s body and slowly transforms him into some sort of hybrid-fungal creature that need to consume flesh to survive.
To say this story is disgusting is an understatement. But still, I found it fascinating. King’s method of storytelling really shines here. Oddly enough, this is another of my favorites. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Battleground: This is the first real bomb of the collection for me. Battleground tells the story of an assassin who recently completed a hitjob on a toy-maker. Upon returning home, he finds a package waiting for him. The package contains a set of toy soldiers, complete with an arsenal of weapons. Only these are not just toys. Somehow these toy soldiers are alive and they are hellbent on attacking the hitman. What happens next can only be described as a full-scale war that takes place in the hitman’s home as he defends himself from his miniature attackers.
I find the concept of this whole story pretty interesting. But something about it just leaves me a bit cold. I don’t know. This is certainly not the same caliber of storytelling that you normally get from King. Personally, I find this short story to be a bit of a throwaway. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Trucks: This is another one of the weaker stories in the collection, but I found it much more enjoyable than Battleground. The premise here is that for some unexplained reason, trucks and other heavy utility vehicles have suddenly developed consciousness and become aware. After a lifetime of servitude, these vehicles now seek to remake the world as they see fit. However, being unable to refuel and repair themselves, they still require the aid of humans. This bulk of this story focuses on a group of people trapped in a truckstop, trying to defend themselves from the chaos that has ensued in the parking lot outside.
Again, this is an interesting concept and the story itself is very well written. But it just didn’t grip me. Perhaps this type of tale deserves more depth than what can be given in a short story format. Either way, it’s not a favorite of mine. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Sometimes They Come Back: So after two lackluster stories, we finally get another winner. This story begins back in the late fifties with two brothers (Jim and Wayne) walking through town to the city library. On the way there, they are ambushed by a group of local bullies and Wayne, the older brother, is stabbed to death. Jim escapes, but he’s haunted by dreams of the encounter for the rest of his life. Flash forward to the early seventies, Jim takes a job as a highschool teacher. After one of his students dies in auto accident, the seat in Jim’s class is filled by a new student who has an uncanny resemblance to one of punks that murdered Jim’s brother. A week later, another student loses their life to a tragic accident. Again, the seat is filled by another teenager that looks just like one of Wayne’s attackers. Eventually, Jim realizes that these new students are in fact, the same characters from his youth.
I’ll stop there, because the last part of the story is even more intense than what I’ve detailed above. But let’s just say, Jim takes it upon himself to get revenge against these phantom thugs with a little help from the powers of darkness. As I said at the beginning, this is an amazing story and is another one of the high points of this collection. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Strawberry Spring: This story is told through the eyes of an unnamed character. He recounts a series of news reports regarding murders around a college campus. All of the murders occur during a “strawberry spring” (aka: false/early spring weather”). Despite a strong attempt by local authorities, the killer is never caught. Time passes by and the public largely forgets about the event. That is, until another strawberry spring arrives and with it, a new series of murders.
I found this story to be pretty interesting. But, it doesn’t contain the depth that many of King’s other tales are able to achieve. Its inclusion in this collection is certainly welcome, but it didn’t captivate me the way some of the other stories did. – (Originally Published in Ubris a college literary magazine)
The Ledge: This one is a horse of a different color. It tells that tale of a crime boss who is scorned after discovering his wife’s affair. In an act of revenge, he summons the affair partner to his penthouse with an enticing offer. If the other man is willing to step out of the high rise window, onto the ledge and circumnavigate the entire building, he will be awarded a large sum of money as well as the bosses wife. If he refuses, he will fall victim to a frame-up and will likely spend the rest of life in prison. Left with little choice, he decides to take the gamble.
For whatever reason, I really enjoyed this one. But then again, I typically enjoy stories about organized crime and other noir-type fiction. It’s not one of the best tales included in this book. But it’s a solid read. – (Originally Published in Penthouse magazine)
The Lawnmower Man: If you’ve ever seen the movie of the same name, then you’ll have absolutely no idea what this story is about. That’s because they have nothing in common whatsoever. The film focuses heavily on virtual reality. But the story in this book is actually a tale about a lawncare worker. The story begins when a man with an overgrown lawn sees an ad in the paper for a lawn mowing service. The worker arrives, but it doesn’t take long for the homeowner to realize that the lawnmower man has some pretty unusual methods for cleaning up the yard….
I don’t want to provide any more details or I run the risk of ruining what is a pretty bizarre twist. But I will say, despite containing a pretty gnarly surprise, the whole premise of the story feels a bit ridiculous. It’s not one of my favorites at all. Still, I can’t claim that it’s not memorable. – (Originally Published in Cavalier magazine)
Quitters, Inc.: This story, while completely different in theme, managed to give me the same vibes as The Ledge. The basic gist of this story is about a man who enrolls in program to help him quit smoking. The program comes with a guarantee. However, the secret is the brutal method in which the firm uses to ensure their patron’s success; Once enrolled, you will be under 24/7 surveillance. If you are caught smoking, a member of your family will be kidnapped and subjected to light torture. If the transgressions continue, the torture will increase in intensity.
This one is pretty cerebral. The whole concept of extreme negative reinforcement for the sake of self improvement is fascinating, even if it’s a bit far-fetched. Still, I enjoyed this story quite a bit. – (Previously Unpublished)
I Know What You Need: In this story we are introduced to the character of Elizabeth. Elizabeth is an attractive college girl who meets an odd boy by the name of Ed. Ed is awkward and not particularly desirable. Yet, he always seems to know just what to say or do to make Elizabeth happy. As it turns out, Ed has a supernatural ability to know people’s desires and the knack for making them come to life. He uses this trait combined with black magic to try to make Elizabeth fall in love with him.
I dig this one quite a bit. It starts off strong and as the story progresses it only gets better. This is another of my favorites. – (Originally Published in Cosmopolitan magazine)
Children of the Corn: This is probably the most popular title from the whole collection. It spawned a series of films that now, even thirty years later, are still in production. The story is about a married couple who get lost in rural Nebraska while on their way to the west coast. As they approach a small, out-of-the-way town, they hit a young boy with their car. Upon further investigation, it becomes obvious that the boy was previously attacked before they encountered him. They detour into town to report the incident to police, only to discover the town is seemingly abandoned. As they investigate further, they realize that it is only adults that are absent. In fact, the town plays host to a cult-like group of children.
This story is another top-tier inclusion in this collection. It’s popular for a reason – it’s that good. It plays upon the subtle fear that rural America can sometimes drum up for those unfamiliar with the culture. Take that and combine it with a healthy dose of obsessive evangelism and you have a recipe for terror. – (Originally Published in Penthouse magazine)
The Last Rung on the Ladder: Here we have another story to sparks a whiff of Americana. This one introduces the reader to Larry and his sister, Kitty. The story is told from Larry’s perspective as he reminisces on the old days of himself and his sister playing in the barn as children. Their favorite game was to climb an old ladder up to the rafters of the barn and then jump into large piles of hay. I’ll stop here since providing any more information would really risk ruining the story for many readers. But King does a wonderful job of taking childhood memories and transposing them on very adult problems.
This is another of my favorite stories in the collection. The first time I read this book, I wasn’t exactly sure where the story was going at first. But once I got to the end, it never left my mind. – (Previously Unpublished)
The Man Who Loves Flowers: This one is going to be difficult to summarize without giving anything away. It takes place in New York city during the early sixties and focuses on a man who is on a quest to buy some flowers for his lover. I know that’s not much of a summary. But at the sake of the ruining the twist, I’ll stop there.
This one is not one of my favorites. It isn’t bad, but there’s just not a lot going on here. The twist ending is a bit of a surprise and it did linger with me for a bit. But for whatever reason, I just didn’t find it all that appealing. – (Originally Published in Gallery magazine)
One for the Road: Here we have another tale connected to ‘Salem’s Lot. Whereas Jerusalem’s Lot was a prequel, One for the Road is actually a sequel of sorts. This story takes place a few years after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot. It features the character of Mr. Lumley, a traveler who stumbles into a roadside bar a few miles outside of the abandoned city of Jersusalem’s Lot. Lumley explains that he was traveling with his family and took a wrong turn when his vehicle became trapped in blizzard-like conditions. Leaving his wife and daughter in the safety of the running vehicle, Lumley decided to go on foot and search for help. However, upon hearing this story and realizing just where Lumley left his vehicle, the barkeep realizes there might be a greater danger to Lumley’s family than just the weather.
Again, I love anything ‘Salem’s Lot related. So this story was immediately interesting to me. But subject matter aside, the story itself is very well done. Everything from the concept to the pacing of the tale is just top notch. – (Originally Published in Maine magazine)
The Woman in the Room: The collection ends with a very short, but very sad story. This one details the mental struggle of a man named Johnny. Johnny’s mother is terminally ill and every day for her is filled with pain and struggle. The story explores Johnny’s thought-process as he wrestles with the idea of ending his mother’s suffering.
This is another one of the stories that makes you stop and think. This one can be a pretty tough read, especially if you’ve had to deal with an elderly family members in this type of situation. With that in mind, it’s hard for me to say that I “enjoyed” this story. But it is certainly well done and thought provoking. – (Previously Unpublished)
So there we have it! What a fine collection of short stories by Stephen King. This book really does an amazing job of serving as a portfolio for King’s early writing style. In fact, if you’re interested in King but not quite sure which book to start with, I highly recommend this is a starting point. You get a little bit of everything here. Horror, sci-fi, psychological thriller – it’s all here!
Recommended: For just about anyone. As I mentioned above, this is a great book to use as an introduction to King’s works. New readers and old fans are bound to find something they will enjoy.