Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)

This post was written by my husband, a literature professor and fellow book lover. He reads as many scary books as I do in October, so I asked him to write a review of one book that stood out for him this season. Here it is…

Outside of creative writing classes, the short story doesn’t command a large readership these days. We can still see the vestiges of the short story’s former glory days in mainstream magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s, but the short story has, by and large, been relegated to more academic publications. Novels are the literary form of choice for readers at a time when screens provide most of our short-form narrative entertainment.

That being said, the brevity and intensity of the short story still maintains a challenge to the length and depth of the novel in the horror genre. Horror starts with folk tales and bedtime stories told by firelight on cool nights in the autumn and winter months. Horror is developed in the short, concentrated explorations of the creepy and the weird by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and Flannery O’Connor and, in our generation, Stephen King. The short story is the perfect vehicle for horror, allowing us to experience the mind-bending and be utterly frightened, but only for a moment, as we come back to the relative safety of our real worlds.

I was probably twelve or thirteen when I first read Night Shift, snagging it one latch-key after-school afternoon from my parents’ eclectic bookshelf. I remember starting with one of the easier stories, almost appropriate for a twelve year-old boy, the playful “Battleground.” In this story, an apparent hitman is one-upped by his next mark, who cuts the assassin off at the pass by sending him a very unique letter bomb. The package contains a platoon full of live—and heavily-armed—action figures. Once our protagonist realizes that these G.I. Joes are serious, he has to quickly shake off his disbelief and fight back. King invests as much in this shaking off and fighting back as he does in creating the strange horrors that his characters have to face.

The now-famous story, “Children of the Corn,” follows much the same pattern: regular folks must face horror and find out if they can live long enough for it to change their lives. In both “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road,” we get two points in the history of what will become the wonderful novel, Salem’s Lot, and in these stories, regular Down Easters have to face the apparent reality that has come to a small Maine town.

In “Gray Matter,” we get something a bit more difficult to handle, a man who is overtaken by the botulinum-ish something that has infected one of his beers. Poor Richie becomes something unthinkable. Likewise, the grounded astronaut in “I am the Doorway” must come face-to-face, or at least hand-to-hand, with an experience beyond comprehension.

King’s Night Shift takes up the work begun by Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, meaning that he uses these stories to explore two similar but distinct responses to what scares us. For Poe, the grotesque refers to the kind of fright that drives one instantly mad, the gory and the unspeakable, while the arabesque seems to refer to something that is horrible and repulsive but that profoundly absorbs our attention. The grotesque is the horror that we just cannot even…; the arabesque is the horror that we need to deal with, and terror is how we deal with it. Night Shift gives us both kinds.

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