Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Stephen King’s ‘Night Shift’

Stephen King Night Shift book cover

Stephen King’s first collection of short horror stories might still be his best. Then again, I might be a bit biased, since Night Shift is the first Stephen King book that I read. As a young horror fan I was, of course, already familiar with King’s work through film and television adaptations of his stories. I considered myself a fan of his, but at twelve-years-old I hadn’t actually read any of his books yet.

My folks had a copy of Night Shift sitting on the bookshelf . I had never looked twice at that book until the summer before I entered Junior High. I’m not sure why I had avoided it until then. Given that I was already exceptionally susceptible to nightmares, it’s likely that I feared that reading stories coming straight from King’s brain–as opposed to stories delivered from page to screen by some other party–would be more harrowing than I was ready to endure. That summer, I decided to take the dive.

Instead of starting at the beginning, I decided to read the story “The Boogeyman” first. [Insert joke about me thinking the story would be autobiographical here.] It’s a lean, vicious tale that flattened me like a stampede. At that point in my life, I had read my share of “adult” horror stories, but I wasn’t one of these guys who had read the complete works of Lovecraft and Matheson by the time he was ten. The only story I can recall having a bigger impact on me at a younger age was Robert Bloch’s excellent “Sweets to the Sweet,” but while Bloch’s story–with its lovely, gruesome ending–felt clever and sinister, “The Boogeyman” felt earnestly brutal. Almost malicious. It wasn’t the kind of story that wanted to frighten you because it could, or because it was showing off, or because it was trying to make some sort of commentary on society, or because it was reveling in its own shock value. It simply wanted to frighten you because “screw you, you picked up the book; yes you deserve to be afraid, and I hope you never sleep again.”

I’m a grown-ass-man, and I still have trouble sleeping if the closet door in my bedroom is even slightly open. Coincidence? Maybe not.

boogyeman
Ah dammit… I shouldn’t have kept my gun in there.

Reading “The Bogeyman” wasn’t like going from the kiddie-coaster to riding the latest, fastest steel roller coaster. This felt like leaving the state-of-the-art theme park that has thoroughly safety-tested thrill rides to go to a traveling carnival that’s only open at night and full of dilapidated deathtraps operated by part-time madmen.

I decided to press on, choosing “Children of the Corn” next. The logic being, “I’ve already seen the movie; how much scarier can the original story be?” I could have sworn that about midway into the story, I actually read the sentence “This much scarier,” but upon recently re-reading the story I can’t seem to find that sentence anywhere. Suffice to say that King’s original vision is much grimmer than the 1984 film version, which de-emphasizes the “evil inspired by a perverse incarnation of the Old Testament God” overtones and… well… let’s just say that some of the survivors in the film don’t have the same luck in the short story.

Then there are the quieter stories that all but eschew traditional horror commodities. There are no monsters, ancient demon-gods, knife-wielding serial killers or anything of that ilk in “Night Surf” or “The Woman in the Room.” Both stories helped to reinforce my appreciation for restrained, potentially cathartic horror. The word horror, after all, describes a feeling. A sensation.  Horror, as a genre, can be just as effective when focusing on human emotion as when focusing on carnage and the supernatural.

As with just about any anthology–even the very best–there will be some stories that don’t work for some people. “The Lawnmower Man” is still too weird for my personal tastes, so you can imagine how the 12-year-old me was confounded by the utter (but impressively imaginative) aberrance of the storyline. “Strawberry Spring,” conversely, the defanged by its predictability. The premise to “Trucks” is an interesting experiment, and the final line is a brilliant punch to the gut, but ultimately the idea of vehicles gaining sentience en masse and slaughtering / enslaving everyone in sight never scared or entertained me.

But the stories that do work for me more than make up for minor missteps (he typed alliteratively). King brings a macabre touch to the pulp noir story “The Ledge.” “Quitters, Inc.” is an exemplary lesson in mining horror from the mundane. “Battleground” takes an ostensibly silly premise and injects it with the intensity and energy of a Bourne action scene. “The Mangler” makes better use of the “machinery come to life” idea than “Trucks” does, perhaps because it doesn’t overextend itself; instead of a full-fledged laundry press revolution, we just have one demonic mechanical monstrosity amok. How many more do you need? And “I Am the Doorway” is a gruesome, invasion- of-the-body-horrors tale in which a man’s body is gradually transformed into something between a Stargate and a star-window. It’s exactly as grotesque and horrifying as it sounds.

Stephen King Night Shift book cover
A visual aid. Shame they don’t make many paperback covers like this anymore. 

I’m not not sure if early King was necessarily “better” than present day King, but I do think his work was scarier back then. But again, I might also be looking back on those stories through a nostalgia filter. All I know for sure is that the stories in Night Shift– just like those damn Greasers in “Sometimes They Come Back”– have found a way to defy time and continue haunting me long, long after they first terrorized me.

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Published Short Stories

Here’s a select list of some of the stories I’ve had published.

“TMI” – Devolution Z Magazine – July 2016 issue

When I was very young, my parents let me host a Halloween party, which, of course, meant that they had to put in a lot of the work by putting up decorations and buying atmosphere-establishing music, while I “helped” by mostly being in the way.

The record they bought featured some appropriately haunting music and sound effects. At one point, a man’s voice on the record cried out, “Don’t cross the bridge! Don’t cross the bridge!” Nothing before or after that point in the record made any mention of a bridge, or provided any context for his warning. It came out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, and that made it so much more frightening for me.

One of the earliest short stories I wrote as an adult was based on this single line that stuck in my memory. I remembered one long drive across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, when a heavy rain reduced visibility, that felt particularly tense, and tried to replicate that feeling in a story. Unfortunately, this was when I was just starting to take writing seriously, so the story wasn’t very good. Since then, I’ve improved and had the fortune of having some stories published, so I decided to try my hand at a haunting bridge-crossing again, this time switching the setting to the Atchafalya Basin Bridge, which my family crossed at least twice a year when I was a kid. I also updated the story to feature a handy, horrifying phone app.

“The Genie and the Inquisitor” – Fantasy Scroll Magazine issue #10

Same old story: man meets genie; genie offers man three wishes; man presses genie for answers that cause the situation to turn quickly, and turn ugly. I’d been sitting on this story idea for a long time, even though it isn’t terribly complicated. Nonetheless, I didn’t sit down and actually write it until the summer of 2014 when I was out of state visiting relatives. After three or four rewrites and touch-ups, I sent it out into the world, where it found a home at Fantasy Scroll Mag.

“Giving Grounds” – Arkham Tales issue #8

I know some writers who hate the question of “where do you get your ideas?” I love it, even though sometimes the answer is relatively uninteresting or embarrassing. The idea for “Giving Grounds” sprouted (pun unintended, probably) from a throwaway joke from an episode of Family Guy of all things. I’m not a huge fan of the show, but there was an episode where the family was sent to live in the south in the Witness Protection program. Inside their new home, the son finds a hand inside a jar and says he’s going to plant it outside to see if a human grows. Because I’m a horror writer, my mind immediately latched onto the interesting, grotesque idea of growing a human being through traditional agriculture. And so from a lowbrow animated sitcom, a grim, serious short story was born.

Miss Branson Calling” – Pseudopod

This is the first story I ever sold that was based on a nightmare. I actually used to work with the lady Miss Branson was based on. An eccentric chain smoking, overall harmless elderly woman who coughed like she had a lagoon in her lungs and had skin that seemed like it might disintegrate at any second. Based on the comments, many of the Pseudopod fans didn’t care much for this one, but I think it’s a solid effort at trying to draw fear from something that’s more melancholy than aggressively terrifying.

Will Erickson over at TooMuchHorrorFiction recently coined the term “Heartbreak Horror,” and I think that term fits this story.

“Thanks For Using Forced Honesty Assassinations”  – From the Asylum

Damn shame that From the Asylum is closed, because they housed some excellent stories during the years that they were open. I had been trying to break into their ranks for a while before they finally accepted this flash fiction piece. I really like this story, short as it is. I can’t remember where the idea came from, but I love the ambiguity of the ending.

Civilized Monsters” – Pseudopod

I received a lot of comments about how graphic this story was, which sort of surprised me. I actually tend to think myself a bit squeamish and don’t think I lingered on any exceedingly gruesome parts here. Could it be that I’m mistaken? Me? Perish the thought. Can’t remember where I got this idea from. If I could go back and touch up some parts here and there I would, but I still like this story, particularly the ending.

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Confessions of a Fear Junkie – Silent Hill

At the risk of sounding a bit crude, allow me to propose that horror falls within (or roughly around) two general categories: “Oh Crap!” horror, and “What the hell?” horror. The former would be likened to more visceral or “primal” fears, the kind of horror that, when experienced in real life, makes you want to take off running immediately. The latter is more about uneasiness; the nagging sensation that something is wrong. It leaves you puzzled—at least initially—instead of triggering your “fight or flight” response.

Examples:

  • You’re home alone and you hear an angry voice coming from another room and you think, “Oh crap! Somebody broke in, I’ve got to get out of here!”
  • You’re home alone and you hear an odd but unidentifiable noise coming from another room, you wonder, “What the hell was that?” but probably don’t take off running just yet.

Now that I’ve gone through the brief trouble of setting up these two somewhat narrowly defined categories to encapsulate all horror, I’d like to immediately undermine my proposal by stating that the Silent Hill series falls into a third category: “Oh hell, what the crap!” horror.

  • You’re home alone and you hear the unmistakable  sound of your own voice coming from the other room. And you just distinctly heard yourself threatening to kill you. You’re too thoroughly discombobulated to even remember how to form a proper sentence, much less figure out what you should do.
I’d run away, but my mind is too busy eating itself to give my legs instructions…

This is the kind of horror the Silent Hill series has frequently succeeded in delivering since its first installment. People tend to say that Silent Hill is “psychological horror” but that doesn’t quite describe it. There are indeed elements that are designed to worm their way into your brain that would be fine on their own, but most of the psychological horror elements are coupled with brutally effective, tangible horror elements. The air raid siren could be unnerving by itself. That it portends the town’s transformation from the already creepy setting of “foggy, deserted and inescapable town” to “sunless, decaying, rust-infected industrial nightmare” makes it much scarier. If your character’s radio just randomly produced “white noise” it would be alarming. It is, instead, panic-inducing by being an inexact radar that announces the presence of unseen, violently aggressive monsters. How many monsters are waiting / coming for you? What the hell kind of monster is it this time? By the time you find out, you’re already under attack, and almost glad for it since it at least gives you some answers to your questions.

A giant blob of living cancer? *Whew* For a second I thought I’d never find out what wasGAAHHHH!

At the time of the first Silent Hill‘s release, the standard for “survival horror” video gaming had been set by two installments of Resident Evil. While Resident Evil had its share of puzzle-solving and moments where your best (or only) option often was to run, it also put you in control of an armed member of a special task force. Additionally, your primary enemies were zombies who adhered to key archetypical traits of their fictional species (slow-moving and especially susceptible to headshots).  The first enemies you encounter in Silent Hill are knife-wielding monster-children who ambush you after you happen upon an almost unidentifiable corpse crucified to a fence in the “dark world” you ventured into without warning. From there the situations and enemies just get stranger, and instead of an action cop you’re a helpless father whose primary weapons are a kitchen knife and a pipe, because ammo for your handgun is ridiculously scarce and you’re always saving your bullets in case you happen upon a new, even more horrifying creature just ahead.

Silent Hill wasn’t just trying to scare you, it was deliberately trying to screw with your head. As the series went on this trend continued. The game’s most feared and recognized villain, the unfortunately-yet-aptly named Pyramid Head, introduces himself in the second game by standing perfectly still on the other side of a barred wall. He doesn’t move to attack you, doesn’t make a noise, and since you can’t see his face you don’t really know if he’s even awake, much less looking at you. But he does make your aforementioned radio give off its standard “static alert,” lest you get to thinking “maybe he isn’t an evil monster to be terrified of after all.” It isn’t until later encounters that you discover him to be a nigh-invulnerable killing machine who sexually abuses other monsters.

Despite the character’s popularity he doesn’t show up again until the fifth game in the series, where he makes a suitably menacing first appearance.

Later games have suffered (many legitimate) criticisms over gameplay, and the franchise has had  some fan backlash for installments that have changed too much or weren’t innovative enough. The franchise also dumped a poorly plotted, poorly acted (save Sean Bean, God bless that dude) and poorly everything else’d film on the moviegoing populace back in 2006. Nonetheless, even the “misfires” feature some chilling moments. Hell, one of the most maligned titles in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room, features my favorite premise: A man wakes up one day to find his door inexplicably locked from the inside. And not just ordinarily locked. We’re talking enough chains to make Jacob Marley say it’s a bit excessive…

“Oh hell, what the crap? But I’m out of milk, and I’ve got a hot date tonight, and if I no-show at work one more time I’m fired, and other reasons to go outside.”

His neighbors can’t hear him screaming for help or beating on the door, even when they’re standing in the hallway right on the other side. He can’t open any windows or get anyone to notice him, even trying to use the phone to dial out is futile. It’s somewhat like the Stephen King story 1408 if the evil scary room came to your house. The only way out of his apartment is through a newly formed tunnel in the bathroom which deposits him in random, nightmarish parts of the town of Silent Hill and the surrounding area; full of ghosts and self-immolating cultists and serial killers and whatnot.

Other favorite moments include Silent Hill 3‘s freaky, screaming mannequin room, SH3‘s freaky, bleeding mirror room, SH3‘s freaky, disturbingly humorous haunted mansion and… yeah, pretty much the entirety of SH3. That game alone has earned the series a wealth of good faith that’s far from exhausted.

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