Night Shift

Pretty good cover! Better than most follow-up editions.

The Vitals

  • Published: 1978
  • Edition Read: Anchor paperback, 2011
  • Pages: 505
  • Rating (out of 5): 4.5

The Context

Night Shift is Stephen King’s first published collection of stories. There are 20 short tales within, ranging from ~10-40 pages. Most of them were first published in smutty magazines like Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery. The content of the smut magazine stories is definitely a bit more grotesque—less literary and more base. There’s body horror, murder, and a handful of stories about inanimate objects coming to life. This is pretty in line with the kind of fiction that would land in those magazines in the ’70s.

Other stories from the collection landed in lesser-known but decidedly more reputable outlets like Maine and Ubris (the U of Maine’s literary journal). The stories found in these magazines are, without a doubt, more literary in nature. There’s clearly more care given to the writing and the stories are less graphic; they may even qualify purely as drama rather than horror or thriller.

And four of the stories, all of which are among the best in the collection, were previously unpublished, meaning they were written specifically for Night Shift.

To me, what’s most interesting about this collection are the few tales that offer context and backstory for other King novels and mythology.

  • The story that opens the collection, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” is a Lovecraftian precursor to ‘Salem’s Lot. (And a very good one, at that.)
  • My favorite story in Night Shift, “One for the Road,” is a ‘Salem’s Lot sequel—giving us a brief and powerful scene of what the town is like after the events of that vampiric novel.
  • “Night Surf” is an origin story for The Stand; though I didn’t much care for the story, I enjoyed the obvious work that King was doing to build out his most epic book.

It’s also worth mentioning the most well-known story in Night Shift: “Children of the Corn.” The story itself is very good—the horror is of a kind that’s more of a slow build at the edges of the story rather than being graphically explained. It’s famous, though, because of the film franchise, which deviates quite a lot from the core of the source material. The idea (a bunch of demon-worshiping, murderous children) is equally brilliant and terrifying enough to build out an entire series of films and TV shows—which all came from one 40-page story.

The Stories

There are a few themes in Night Shift that are repeated in multiple stories:

  • Technology/inanimate objects becoming sentient
    • “The Mangler”
    • “Battleground”
    • “Trucks”
    • “The Lawnmower Man” (sort of)
  • Serial-killing men
    • “Strawberry Spring”
    • “I Know What You Need”
    • “The Man Who Loved Flowers”
  • Religion/bodily possession
    • “Jerusalem’s Lot”
    • “I Am the Doorway”
    • “The Mangler”
    • “Gray Matter”
    • “Sometimes They Come Back”
    • “The Lawnmower Man”
    • “Children of the Corn”

What’s most impressive about this collection is simply King’s range. He can go from gross-out horror (“Gray Matter,” “The Lawnmower Man”) to noir-like suspense (“The Ledge,” “Quitters, Inc,” “Battleground”) to literary drama and thriller (“One for the Road,” “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Woman in the Room”)—and do them all really well.

To float between genres like that is proof of King’s astounding writing talents—you wouldn’t realize that some of these stories are the same author without them being housed between the same front and back cover.

You can tell that he’s experimenting with form and subject matter here, and as noted above, doing some world-building for other stories too.

Since there are so many stories here, I’ll zoom in on my two favorites, both of which take place in the world of ‘Salem’s Lot:

“Jerusalem’s Lot”

This story is a bit of an origin tale about how evil found its way to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot. It takes an epistolary form (which I can’t resist) and has sort of an old-timey language about it that really transports you back to the mid-1800s. It builds and builds through the main character’s discovery of an ancient evil—then culminates in an unforgettable final sequence that is even more Lovecraftian than HP Lovecraft himself. Loved all of its 40+ pages.

“One for the Road”

This one is my favorite story in the book and clocks in at about 20 pages. It centers on a traveler whose car has been stranded on a snowy country road in the middle of a blizzard. This traveler makes it to a diner to recruit some locals for help—you see, the wife and daughter are still in the car. And there are vampires afoot.

As in ‘Salem’s Lot, the beauty of this story is in the environment and atmosphere that King creates. He can write winter storms like nobody on the planet and he keeps the horror (mostly) at the edges. It’s a vampire story wrapped up into an epic blizzard and it’s just so so good.

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

For me, the thread behind a lot of these stories is that word found in the title: “Shift.” Every story makes it clear that life can and does shift on a dime — it changes, it twists, it turns. And many times, it’s in ways we least expect.

The pandemic was a shift for everyone; new jobs and new babies are shifts; a run of bad luck in love or at work is a shift.

The first thing: Accept the reality of whatever the shift is, whether a global pandemic or a cow-sized, murderous rat (that one is from “Graveyard Shift”). Even if it seems unreal, reality is reality, regardless of how crazy it seems.

The second thing: The best-written and most impactful stories in Night Shift are those that detail the importance of the people in our lives. When things shift, we realize what matters most: people. Even if they can’t fix or resolve whatever horror (or plain old challenge) is upon us, they can ease the discomfort and help us feel less alone.

Overall

This is a superb collection of stories which fully shows off King’s range as a writer who can cross genres (and sub-genres of horror, which is harder to do than it might seem) with ease. Night Shift gives you a flavor of all that King can offer, from the grotesque, to the thrilling, to the downright beautiful. An easy 4.5/5 for me.

Coming up next week, I’ll rank every one of the 20 stories in Night Shift.

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