Skeleton Crew (1985)
By: Julian on July 25, 2010  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Stephen King
Pages: 612
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Skeleton Crew's centrepiece, atypically for a collection of short stories, is the one hundred and fifty page novella The Mist, a tale recently realised on film by serial King collaborator Frank Darabont (who, with this adaptation, produced the best American horror film in 2007). The Mist is a remarkable story, truly A-grade King: the characters are superb, the dialogue sharp and the descriptions vivid, but not at the expense of the succinctness a novella such as this calls for.

King has an indisputable knack for writing some of his most effective stories in very limited settings: read Misery, The Shining or Gerald's Game for proof. The Mist is set almost entirely in a local supermarket, where David Drayton and his son are holed up to wait out an impenetrable mist enveloping the area and the monsters that have come with it. But The Mist's chief successes, above its setting and above the supernatural nemeses, are the baddies from within the supermarket – namely a religious zealot Mrs Carmody, whose hellfire and brimstone rants indoctrinate an increasing number of terrified shoppers.

The Mist, along with Richard Bachman's The Long Walk, is the best thing King has ever written. It's a phenomenally engrossing story made that way by an assortment of colourful characters. There isn't a bland face in Maine's most doomed shopping centre: from the hicks who decide hitting the grog is their best option to deal with screaming women, crying children and devoured casual workers, to the mild-mannered cashier doing his best to engender some semblance of order. The Mist is word-perfect: if not another entry was included in the collection, then Skeleton Crew would be worth the dosh on that story's merits alone.

But The Mist isn't the only entry in Skeleton Crew, and there are some stories that come close to equalling it. The Raft is one of them, a terrifying character-oriented tale about a water creature stalking a raftload of kids and picking them off one by one. Violent, grotesque and peopled by individuals every bit as callous and sociopathic as Mrs Carmody, this is an absolute gem.

The Jaunt and Survivor Type are also particularly noteworthy. They're very different (the vicissitudes of technological development and a graphic desert island tale respectively) but they possess the bleak unpleasantness that pervades the best horror fiction. Of the latter, King said "it goes a bit far, even for me"; indeed, by the time the twenty gruelling pages of diary entries had elapsed, this reader was nursing slight queasiness. But that's Survivor Type's job – it's awful, but brilliant: the only author around who can successfully evoke a similar grotesque mood is Chuck Palahniuk with his near-perfect collection, Haunted.

There are some top-notch stories I haven't touched on – Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1) and its companion piece Milkman #2 are great fun, with the first part salvaged from an unfinished novel. The same goes for Mrs Todd's Shortcut – nothing groundbreaking, but inherently entertaining reading. But the quality here isn't anywhere near as variable as the preceding collection, Night Shift – there are less than a handful of bad stories in this twenty two-strong collection, which I think is a pretty damn good achievement. All of the works had been published before from about 1968 (though most were first published in the early 80s), with the exception of Milkman #1 and the two poems, Paranoid: A Chant and For Owen.

There's some stellar work here, compelling and character-driven, and possessing all of the qualities that makes Stephen King such a brilliant writer. King has matured noticeably since Night Shift, doling out some of the sharpest, scariest and most grotesque short stories of his career. Skeleton Crew is located towards the end of the King's Golden Age (he still had It and Misery in him, though) but if you like short horror fiction – or any genre of short fiction – you'd be a fool to overlook this.
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