Scary Book: Night Shift (1978)
I was probably eleven the first time I read Stephen King. I picked up a copy of THE SHINING and flipped it to the scene with Jack Torrance breaking down the door with an axe. I was terrified in daylight. I couldn’t put the book down and snuck paragraphs in school between ignoring the teachers. For me, the rotting Old Woman in Room 217 is one of the creepiest things in any genre media and I was chilled in the classroom. I loved King’s barbed writing and spooky atmospherics; he also captured a sense of socio-economic desperation, a blue-collar sensibility amid the gothic horror. I was a Stephen King Fan after THE SHINING, and like many, voraciously devoured his books on publication. As for the 1980 film version, it’s technically brilliant as befits Stanley Kubrick — but does not scare me. I find it hard to separate the author’s powerful images created in your mind from another’s representation.
I was particularly enamored and genuinely frightened by King’s next book, NIGHT SHIFT, his first anthology. Comprised of previously published stories from “Cavalier” to “Penthouse,” each tale spans the edges of King’s style and imagination, from the Victorian-era gothic stylings of “Jerusalem’s Lot” to the gritty sewer critters of “Graveyard Shift” to the real-life paranoics of “The Boogeyman,” King established a new American form for naturalistic horror fiction. Though the stories are not connected narratively, their cumulative thematic effect is walloping.
There is a real edge to his writing here, no doubt born of his own difficult circumstances, and as Harlan Ellison pointed out in an essay on his friend, “He knows what scares us.” Ellison makes a case for how King made his first big mark as secretaries at Random House eagerly passed around galley copies of his first novel “Carrie.” Like George Lucas did with STAR WARS on another psychic level, King’s middle-class pop sensibility of beer, lawnmowers, McDonald’s and monster movies on late night television taps right into our cultural archetypes, albeit of the terrifying kind. To that end, NIGHT SHIFT remains the scariest book I have ever read.