So begins Stephen King's foreword to Night Shift (February 1978), his first collection of short stories. Most of the 20 stories were published between 1970 and 1975 in Cavalier, a men's magazine; four of them are previously unpublished.
Night Shift is the first book for which King wrote a foreword. It's written in a friendly, conversational tone, as though King is sitting on the bar stool next to you. (The introduction was written by one of King's favorite authors, John D. MacDonald. He repeats one of King's credos: "If you want to be a writer, you write. The only way to learn to write is by writing.")
After publishing three novels, this is the first chance King has had to introduce himself to his audience. Over 5,000 words. he talks broadly about the horror genre and why he writes about the things he does. "Why do you assume I have a choice?"
King touches on a topic over which he will ruminate (and, at times, obsess) for the next 35 years: the poor reputation that the horror genre - and by extension, King himself - has been saddled with by "literary" readers and critics. Despite whatever King may say about making peace with the idea of his fiction as a "guilty pleasure", or something not to be taken seriously, it continues to bother him after nearly four decades.
In civilized society, we have an unspoken agreement to call our obsessions "hobbies". ... My obsession is with the macabre. ... I am not a great artist, but I have always felt impelled to write.Other people have written that in King's stories and novels, the true horror is always other human beings. King says: "Great horror fiction is almost always allegorical" and gives a few examples like Orwell and Tolkien.
When you read horror, you don't really believe what you read. You don't believe in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The horrors that we all do believe in are of the sort that Dostoyevsky and Albee and MacDonald write about: hate, alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence.That final example may be why King, in his early years, was so popular with teenagers. Many of his characters in his initial books were either teenagers or children, and he always portrayed them as full human beings.
When [the horror writer] is at his best we often have that weird sensation of being not quite asleep or awake, when time stretches and skews, when we can hear voices but cannot make out the words or the intent, when the dream seems real and the reality dreamlike. ...
I am firmly convinced that [the horror story] must do one more thing, this above all others: It 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. ... All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance Over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.Some of the better stories in this collection:
Graveyard Shift: Hall, a drifter working the overnight shift at a textile plant in Maine, is part of a crew assigned to clean out the long-neglected basement of the rat-infested factory building. Days into the project, the workers discover a wooden trap door to a previously unknown sub-basement, where rats and bats have mutated into large creatures. When Hall and Warwick, the plant foreman, descend into the darkness with flashlights and a powerful water hose, Hall decides to get some revenge on his ball-busting boss. (Note: The "Grey Matter" that grows on the reclusive Richie Grenadine after he drinks a bad can of beer is, like the descriptions of the sub-basement rats, truly disgusting. As King once said, first he tries to terrorize his readers. If that doesn't work, he horrifies them. And if he fails at that, "I try at least to gross 'em out".)
I Am the Doorway: A disabled former astronaut is exposed to an extraterrestrial mutagen during a space mission to Venus. He complains of terrible itching on his hands and fingers; blisters grow and pop, revealing tiny eyeballs, which act as a "doorway" for an alien species to see into this world. The alien presence soon takes over his body. In an attempt to kill the aliens, he douses his hands with gasoline and sets them on fire, necessitating amputation. When the eyes soon reappear, on his chest, he begins to contemplate suicide.
Battleground: John Renshaw, a professional assassin, receives a package from the mother of his latest victim, the owner of a toy corporation. The gift is a G.I. Joe Vietnam Footlocker, complete with 20 tiny soldiers who come to life in Renshaw's apartment, armed with guns and a rocket launcher, helicopters, and a mini thermonuclear weapon.
The Boogeyman: Lester Billings tells Dr. Harper, a psychiatrist, that he is responsible for the deaths of his three children. Billings says he did not actually murder then, but believes he ignored their worries and cries and allowed the boogeyman in their bedroom closet to kill them. Since boogeymen in closets do not actually exist, we are left wondering if Billings is perhaps schizophrenic or weaving an elaborate fiction to hide his own culpability. The ending of this story is somewhat similar to that of Strawberry Spring, which details the terror a serial killer inflicts on a college campus.
Sometimes They Come Back: Jim Norman is a teacher haunted by the memory of his brother's murder at the hands of three neighbourhood hoodlums 16 years earlier. When he believes that three new students in his class bear a striking resemblance to those murderers, and that they have returned to kill him, he conjures up the spirit of his dead brother in an attempt to save his life.
The Ledge: Cressner's wife has been having an affair with her tennis pro, Stan Norris. Cressner (a mob boss of some type) proposes a wager: Norris can have his wife and $20,000 if he successfully navigates the five-inch ledge around Cressner's apartment, which is 43 stories up. The alternative is being set-up on phony drug charges that would jail him for the rest of his life. Norris decides to step out onto the ledge, still unsure if Cressner will honour his side of the bargain if he survives.
Jerusalem's Lot and One for the Road: The former is a sort of prequel to 'Salem's Lot (told in a series of letters (an epistolary style similar to Dracula) that King began writing in college. The later story is an further epilogue to the same novel, in which a family is trapped in their car during a blizzard just outside of the now seemingly deserted town.
Quitters, Inc.: Quitters Inc. guarantees that it can cure anyone's tobacco addiction. Dick Morrison signs up for the program on the advice of an old friend, and soon discovers the punishments for relapsing are far more severe than he could have imagined. (I assume that King's on-going attempts at quitting smoking around this time was at least a partial inspiration for this story.)
The Woman in the Room: The final story in this book concerns a young man debating whether he should give his mother, whose body has been devastated by cancer, a lethal amount of painkillers. She expresses a strong desire to not continue in her current state, but the son still regards his possible actions as murder. However, King, whose own mother died of cancer around the time Carrie was published, makes it clear that this act of matricide could also be a humane kindness.
Next: The Stand.