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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Confessions of a Fear Junkie: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

It still sort of surprises me whenever I find out that any of my peers not only did not read the Scary Stories series in their youth, but had never even heard of it. What the hell were you doing with your childhood? Sleeping well without having to fend off ghastly black-and-white illustrations that waited within the darkness of your dreams? Bah! No fun to be had in that…

Among the many things that the Scary Stories series has offered me is a reminder that personal experience is indeed personal. Based on my relationship with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series I would have believed every American child reared in the 80’s would have at least been aware of these books. I can still remember the first time I saw the magnetically morbid original cover of the first volume, and can likewise remember every kid in my elementary school class being instantly fascinated and appalled all at once. Stephen Gammell’s infamously freaky illustrations made you feel anxious about flipping through the pages.

This is from one of the “humorous” stories. Obviously…

Only a relative handful of my classmates actually bought the books, and I wasn’t one of them. I hadn’t even bothered to ask my parents if I could buy it–I already knew how my folks would react to grim content. So instead I was one of the kids who borrowed the books to read during recess or whenever we had some free time towards the end of the school day. I remember the books staying in remarkable condition despite passing through many hands over the course of multiple school years. I would not say that we held the books with any particular reverence so much as we knew how precious they were to the owners. Accidentally rip part of the page to someone’s forgettable Spider-Man comic (“Aw man, this is the one where Spider-Man appears to have been killed by Magma–a villain and event that will surely remain relevant for years to come!”) and they might be mad at you for a day or two.  Fold the corner of one of the appendix pages of someone’s Scary Stories book and they might not speak to you for a semester.

The books are remembered mostly for the remarkable, inexplicably nightmarish original illustrations, but I hold Alvin Schwartz’s retelling of classic and modern ghost-lore dear as well. These were the first books I had ever encountered that told the reader how to tell the story. Being written specifically for recounting around campfires and at sleepovers gives the tales a fairly unique leanness that adds an invisible layer of perturbation to the stories. In “The Big Toe” we are spared any explanation as to why the boy’s parents would nonchalantly decide to cook and eat the giant toe he violently yanked from some unseen creature in a garden. Is the family that poor and desperate for food? Do they regularly forage for monstrous digits?

“Another big toe in the garden? You’d think it was June already.”

We’re not given so much as a sentence addressing these questions. The father just cuts the toe into thirds, the family dines, and then they do the dishes and go to bed. It’s treated as a perfectly normal evening and the setup to impending horror when it could stand on its own as a disturbing story.

My favorite story in the series, “The Drum,” also makes great (and perhaps more deliberate) use of creepy ambiguity and quiet peculiarity. In it, two young sisters living in a small village happen upon a toy drum owned by a gypsy girl. It’s a hell of a drum with animatronic figurines that emerge from it, and the sisters ask the gypsy girl if they could have it. The gypsy girl promises to give it to them only if they misbehave their asses off, which they immediately agree to do, believing that temporarily transforming into a pair of mini-miscreants won’t lead to any dire consequences.

Instead of disciplining her children, the girls’ mother makes a sorrowful plea for the sisters to behave, while warning that if they continue to misbehave, mother and baby brother will have to leave, and the replacement “new mother” will be a thing with “glass eyes and a wooden tail.” Had my mom told me something like that when I was a kid I would have developed some sort of mannerly superpowers. I would have turned into Behavior Boy.

The drum and even the gypsy girl are essentially MacGuffins as the short story briskly progresses to its inevitable conclusion. And again there are multiple questions that get brushed aside. Why do the girls feel they have to actually misbehave instead of just lying to the gypsy girl about how bad they’ve been at home? Do they believe she can somehow see them when they get home? What is the gypsy girl’s motivation? Sport? Something more nefarious? Why does the mother say she does not want to leave but will have to if the girls continue raising hell? Is some outside force compelling her? And “glass eyes and a wooden tail”? What the hell?

I remember “The Drum” in particular as the story that most haunted me due to its unexplained elements. I’m pretty sure it’s the story that first made me conscious of the value of leaving some questions not only unanswered, but unasked. While most of the people I personally know never read these books–much less gleaned early storytelling lessons from them–the internet, as only it can, provides ample evidence that the books have a wealth of admirers. I’m tempted to make the bold, oddly specific declaration that this is the best and most beloved children’s horror anthology series ever. There really isn’t much more for me to say about it, at least for now, so in closing I’ll just leave you with this “scary-for-no-damn-reason” picture from the tale “Oh Susanna” that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Sleep well!

Confessions of a Fear Junkie is a series of reflections on the books, stories, movies, images, and lore that shaped my fascination with the Horror genre.

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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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