Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear.
So starts Stephen King’s first collection of short stories, Night Shift.
From telekinetic teenagers to monstrous creatures, King has written about nearly every fear and phobia known to humanity. The horror master’s insatiable desire to tell stories has given the modern world some of its most iconic villains and lasting protagonists.
“I’m not a child any more, but. . . I don’t like to sleep with one leg sticking out,” King tells the reader in the anthology’s forward. “Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead.”
Published by Doubleday in 1978, Night Shift is mostly comprised of stories previously seen in magazines like Cavalier, Penthouse, and Cosmopolitan. But the fact that these stories weren’t strictly new didn’t stop King fans from buying the collection faster than Doubleday could print it.
So what exactly does this have to do with Halloween, you might ask? And that’s a fair question. Although Stephen King is known for scaring the pants off of whole generations of readers, his work doesn’t often call to mind crisp fall leaves and jack o’ lanterns. King’s stories are of the everyman in his everyday life. The horrors in his novels are just as likely to happen during summer vacation as they are while trick or treating.
But not so, I believe, in Night Shift. Sure, there aren’t any overt references to the holiday here, but the characters and situations contained behind that cover by Don Brautigam feel different. They’re short, tight, and filled with an unsettling eeriness experienced on the best of Halloweens, when the candy has been sorted and there’s nothing left to do but tell ghost stories until bedtime.
Above all other things, says King, the horror story must “tell a tale that holds the reader or the listener spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be.” And while he may have only had the literary in mind, I’ve never heard a better description of the feeling I get on the night of Samhain.
So if you’re in the mood for a tale of terror this October 31, here are my top five picks from Stephen King’s Night Shift.
This story about a textile worker who is chosen to help with a particularly gruesome clean up job is a great example of King at his short fiction best. The characters are grounded thanks to clear, relatable motivations, which makes what happens in the basement of the mill all the more awful to watch unfold. This is a horror concept taken to its most extreme conclusion, complete with a cheerfully nihilistic end.
I AM THE DOORWAY
Although known as a horror writer, in his more than 40 years in the industry, King has spun his fair share of science fiction as well. “I Am the Doorway” blends the two genres in a wholly satisfying story about the aftermath of an astronaut’s encounter with extraterrestrial life.
Told in measured, almost melancholic first person, this strange little tale about a man unraveling reads with the same tempo as any lauded work of literary fiction.
“I didn’t dream it. And I didn’t kill him, either – I told you that. They did. I am the doorway.”
See what I mean?
SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK
King must have had a bad experience or two with some greasers back in the day, because they’ve made an appearance as antagonists in more than a few of his stories. “Sometimes They Come Back” is no exception in this story of a school teacher and a gang of ghostly greasers.
At its core this is a story about dealing with past trauma, but King commits fully to the premise he’s set in motion, forcing his hero on a journey that starts out more than a little hokey only to conclude with a scene that would make Faust proud.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN
“Children of the Corn” is one of King’s most famous short stories, likely because it spawned a film franchise that has a full ten installments (so far). Even before the Hollywood treatment, this story about an unhappy couple that find themselves in a town run by children gave readers more than a few chills.
What could have been left as an ambiguous tale on the dangers of blind faith finds a more visceral telling in King’s hands. Disturbing images like a church pipe organ stuffed with corn or a child with his throat slit are peppered throughout to keep the story immediate, constantly reminding us that there is nothing theoretical to the dangers found here.
THE WOMAN IN THE ROOM
Talk to any horror lover, and they’ll admit to you they’re (most likely) not frightened of ghouls and monsters. They know they’re not real; it’s all just good fun. Horror fans are scared of the same things as everyone else: getting hurt, death, and losing their loved ones.
“The Woman in the Room” closes out the Night Shift collection with a premise much more grounded in reality. In this story, a man struggles to decide how best to help his dying mother. Should he leave her care to the doctors or take matters into his own hands?
In the Forward to Night Shift, King talks about how authors of all genres write about death, “but only the writer of horror and the supernatural gives the reader such an opportunity for total identification and catharsis.” This final story acts as a kind of closing argument to King’s Forward, allowing the horror to flow through a character faced with an impossible, but all too real decision.
In King’s words, “We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There’s a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home.”
For “The Woman in the Room” this description is just right
What are you reading this Halloween season? Let us know in the comments below, so we can add new tales of terror to our TBR.