Night Shift (1978)
By: Julian on April 20, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Stephen King
Pages: 316
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Night Shift is Stephen King's first collection of short stories and his fourth book published after Carrie, 'Salem's Lot and The Shining. Night Shift can be divided almost evenly after the ninth story (Trucks, the basis of King's directorial debut Maximum Overdrive) and before the tenth (Sometimes They Come Back, Night Shift's best entry) and it's almost impossible to associate the intelligent, imaginative and well-written second half with the facile immaturity of the first. My edition of Night Shift begins with an introduction by John D MacDonald (of The Executioners, filmed twice as Cape Fear) fame, and supposedly a favourite author of King's), and a foreword by King. The author is consistently endearing and humble in these write-ups and gives good insight into his craft.

Most of the stories span fewer than twenty pages so I won't provide in-depth plot synopses for any of them (a disclaimer though; spoilers exist herein for a couple of the stories). But Night Shift, as a work of collected short fiction, is remarkable for its vastly inconsistent quality. The banal opener, Jerusalem's Lot (the first of two 'Salem's Lot companion pieces published here, the second being the far superior penultimate tale One for the Road) is a sub-par series of diary entries that are about as thrilling as the tea cup ride at your local show. The first half improves, but only because some of them are the very essence of dumb fun: nothing before (and including) Trucks possesses a modicum of horror or suspense. There's intrigue, in the über-trashy sense that a story about contaminated beer turning an alcoholic father into a slug (Grey Matter) is intriguing; and if the idea of a possessed industrial steam ironer gobbling up workers (The Mangler) terrifies you, then Night Shift's terminally retarded first half might just be right up your alley. That's not to say that the stories don't hold appeal via their sheer stupidity and exploitative quality, but by Battleground, in which a hitman is doled out punishment by the toy-making mother of a prospective victim in the form of miniature Marines launching an attack with miniature thermonuclear weapons, I was seriously considering shelving Night Shift and never looking back.

The collection's second half, beginning with Sometimes They Come Back, showed a remarkable improvement. Indeed from the tenth story to the twentieth, a smart, subtle entry on euthanasia (The Woman in the Room), there isn't a weak link. While it might not be the best entry, Night Shift's best known is surely Children of the Corn, in which a beleaguered husband and wife team encounter homicidal teenaged religious fundamentalists (undoubtedly the most formidable and villainous combination in modern fiction) in the cornfields of Nebraska. It's a great story replete with graphic corn-cobbed bloodshed. The delightfully cynical Quitters Inc also ranks very highly, as does The Ledge, which may or may not be homage to Anthony Schaffer's Sleuth.

I find it nigh on impossible to reconcile the Stephen King that wrote lowest common denominator short horror fiction about boogeymen lurking in closets that kill kids and make it look like cot death, before posing as the grieving father's psychologist, to the King who wrote smart, sharp tales oscillating between the intentionally funny and surreal (The Lawnmower Man) and the insidiously creepy (I Know What You Need, probably the edgiest piece of writing ever included in a Cosmopolitan magazine and, at least I think, openly and quite gleefully parodying that magazine's target demographic). Generally, it's a two-star first half married to a five-star second half, and it's this inconsistency that is most striking about Night Shift as a work of short collected fiction. It's probably no coincidence either, that the stories appear in Night Shift roughly chronologically. The select stories that were previously unreleased (including the brilliant Quitters Inc, which, alongside The Ledge, appeared in the Lewis Teague's portmanteau Cat's Eye) are mostly located post-Sometimes They Come Back.

It must be said, though, that even in his most formative stages, King is incapable of bland characterisations. The villains and heroes alike that people Night Shift are themselves imaginative, even when the plots King places them in are cringe-worthy. Clearly, the better characters are in the better stories – the satyr in The Lawnmower Man surely topping the list for inventiveness and hilarity – but even Boogeyman's callous and paranoid protagonist, the nihilistic youths of Night Surf and the terrified underground miners of Graveyard Shift (three among the weaker links) posses a dimension that make the stories noteworthy in spite of the stories themselves.

So, between considering closing Night Shift after its worst story to writing this review, I've digressed somewhat. Most of the stories before Sometimes They Come Back aren't awful, they're just stupid; and, by virtue of this stupidity, become tedious even in their compact incarnations – so detached that they become unengaging. Completists or obsessives may choose, as I did, to labour through these hundred and thirty or so pages, but those unwilling to subject themselves to King's tumultuous and largely unappealing literary adolescence will do well to jump straight to Sometimes They Come Back – the supernatural tale that begins a series of top-notch vintage King stories.
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