Friday, September 07, 2012

Stephen King: Skeleton Crew (1985)

Terror is the widening of perspective and perception.
Stephen King, "The Mist"

Skeleton Crew is Stephen King's second collection of short fiction (Night Shift was the first). It includes one novella, two previously unpublished poems, and 19 stories.

The tales span nearly 20 years of King's writing career from 1966 ("The Reaper's Image" was written shortly after King graduated from high school) to 1983 ("The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet"). Another story from the late '60s, "Cain Rose Up", is apparently the second piece of fiction King ever published.

The stories are collected from a variety of publications: science-fiction and horror anthologies (Dark Forces, Shadows, Terrors, and New Terrors) genre magazines (Twilight Zone, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Startling Mystery Stories, Weirdbook, and Fantasy and Science Fiction) popular magazines (Redbook, Yankee) and men's magazines (Gallery and Playboy).

"The Mist" (a 134-page novella) gets things started. On the day following an intense, destructive summer storm off Long Lake, Maine - trees and power lines are down - an ominous fog, moving with "lazy, hypnotizing speed ... defying all the laws of nature", rolls into town. Two dozen townspeople, including David Drayton and his five-year-old son Billy, are trapped in the Federal Foods Supermarket. It gradually becomes apparent that there is something very deadly out in the fog, though King masterfully keeps the terrorizing element off-stage until the last third of the story. This is the type of situation King has written about so masterfully many times before (The Shining, for example), exploring the interactions between people isolated in one location. As the thick mist envelops the supermarket, those trapped inside, stripped of any social standing, reveal their personalities. "The Mist" is also another example ('Salem's Lot, The Stand) of people needing to work selflessly together for the greater good, to defeat a multi-faceted evil. The story's real terror, of course, is "the behaviour of human beings who suddenly find themselves confronting adversity and tragedy" (Anthony Magistrale).

At one point, Billy mentions his fear about things in the fog waiting to eat them up, "like in the fairy tales". It reminded me of something King once said:
[Fairy tales] are the scariest stories we have. I think that the stories for children form a kind of conduit leading to what adult call horror stories. To my mind, the stories that I write are nothing more than fairy tales for grown ups.
My second-favourite story in this collection is "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut". It is October in Castle Rock, Maine, and two old-timers, Homer Buckland and Dave Owens, are relaxing in front of Bell's Market. Homer is telling the story of Ophelia Todd. Ophelia is "always looking for a shortcut" and is intent on finding the shortest distance between Castle Lake to Bangor. She explains to Homer, who is doing some repair work on the Todds' cottage, the various routes, which range from 129 to 163 miles. When she says she recently found a route that is only 116 miles, Homer expresses disbelief. Later on, Ophelia boasts that she made the trip in 67 miles - which is plainly impossible, because the straight line distance - as the crow flies - is 79 miles. Fred Porcheddu's insightful essay links this story to the ancient traditional of "pastoral literature", which extends back to the third century BC and the Greek poet Theocritus.

Stories within stories is a theme of this collection. In "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands", we return to the Manhattan brownstone previously visited in "The Breathing Method" (Different Seasons) for another night of storytelling. In "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet", an editor tells of a promising writer who descends into madness when he imagines there are little people called "fornits" living in his typewriter.

In "Survivor Type", Richard Pine, a surgeon, has washed up on a small, uninhabited island with nothing to eat. This story's question is: How much trauma can a human body withstand? With few sources of food on the island, Pine begins amputating his limbs for sustenance.

"Word Processor of the Gods" features a homemade computer where the insert and delete keys have real life consequences. ... Two other offerings - "Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)" and "Big Wheels: A Tale of The Laundry Game (Milkman #2)" - are from an unfinished novel.

Several stories show the interconnectedness of the Stephen King Universe. Ace Merrill and Vern Tessio, both from "The Body" (Different Seasons), are mentioned in "Nona". Ace will also make an appearance later in King's career in Needful Things. The narrator of "Gramma" mentions Joe Camber (Cujo) and Henrietta Dodd (The Dead Zone), and Billy Dodd (The Dead Zone) is mentioned in "Uncle Otto's Truck".

Next: It.

1 comment:

laura k said...

I like the connection between King and fairy tales. It's bizarre that we give these creepy, gory, horrifying tales to children, especially in this age when parents try to shield kids from so many things.

Also, I used to imagine there were little creatures in my typewriter. Fortunately I never thought they were real.