Scary Book: Night Shift (1978)

nightshiftI 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.


20 Responses to “Scary Book: Night Shift (1978)”

  1. great entry, christian, i’m a huge fan of ‘classic SK’ and ‘night shift’ is indeed one of the all-time great horror anthologies, king at the peak of his writing prowess.

    i read ‘the stand’ when it first came out – i must have been 13 or so – after swiping it from a friend of my mum’s because the cover looked cool and weird, and i’m pretty sure i was never the same afterwards, reading it in a marathon session over a few days (and nights); being so impressionable it had a profound effect on my psyche, one of the seminal novels of my youth (herbert’s ‘dune’ is the other one that really stands out in my head from that particular era, along with ‘the martian chronicles’ and heinlein’s ‘stranger in a strange land’).

    weirdly, i was in the comic store the other day with the boy and i happened upon a series of graphic shorts of ‘the stand’, which was seriously freaky because the artwork so closely depicted the mental picture i have of ‘the walking dude’ in my head to this day, it was as if the illustrator picked my brain for the imagery.

  2. christian Says:

    I could write a lot more on “Classic SK” especially that golden period betwixt THE SHINING and say THE TALISMAN. I too was entranced by THE STAND and I couldn’t put it down for a few days until it was finished. I also loved SALEM’S LOT and of course, his best writing, DIFFERENT SEASONS.

    You have to be in the Cool Mom Hall O’ Fame…

    • aw, shucks, thank you kindly sir

      i for one vote that you should most definitely write more about the legend SK run!!!

      (the boy desperately wants to read ‘the talisman’ ever since he read the book jacket describing ‘a young and courageous boy named jack searching for the talisman, which will save his dying mother…” but i put the kibosh on that, he’s still to young for the king)

      now, i have some soft spots for post-talisman king, namely ‘misery’ and ‘it’ (“they all float down here”), and while i don’t t think it’s amongst his best work. i rather enjoyed reading each thin little volume of the 6 part ‘green mile’ as it came out, the pick of king’s recent work imho, even tho he’s getting misty-eyed and becoming a bit of a parody of himself

      (recently while lallygagging outside in the sun, on a strange whim i re-read ‘the long walk’, which i found quite compelling and disturbing; i’m not a huge bachman alter-ego fan but the ‘the long walk’ is unique. plus i re-read ‘cujo’ straight afterwards – cujo’s fucked-up, man – it was a bizarre and rather delightful combo)

      • sorry for the typos, i need to slow down and smell the roses

      • More King to come.

        But I must say my break with King came with “It” — which should have been his masterwork but just became ridiculous at the weird climax. All of the clown stuff is fantastic and scary. “Christine” I thought laughable and “Misery” was a pretty damn good novel with a brilliant central idea. King is great at writing unique antagonists, such as Flagg and especially the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” which is some of his finest character writing.

        I liked “The Long Walk” if only for it made you really feel what it would be like under those bizarro circumstances.

        And I read CUJO in one night. Literally could not put it down.

  3. I second this, NIGHT SHIFT is one of King’s best. “Gray Matter”, in particular, is a stand out. I haven’t read that story in 15 years and it still gets to me.

    • That story still creeps me out. And it’s the difference between his old and new. The contaminated beer swiller is a metaphor for a contemporary consumer working man’s life and it consumes him. In the story “Chattering Teeth” from his collection NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES, I thought, this is ridiculous. Why do these chattering teeth come alive? Perhaps I’ve out-thought certain genre tropes, but there was no underlying metaphor there. Just vengeful chattering teeth.

  4. “…especially that golden period betwixt THE SHINING and say THE TALISMAN.” You nailed it. He was on a legendary roll. I’ve still got an old paperback copy of NS on my shelf.

    I read all of those same books, Leah. (I guess you kinda had to if you were a geek.) Plus Harlan Ellison and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. (I wasn’t that crazy about anything else he wrote. Actually, I don’t remember anything else he wrote.)

    Here’s my intro-to-King story: I sneaked my dad’s copy of Salem’s Lot and read it when he wasn’t home. He would tell me about this scary, scary novel he was reading, and would dole out just enough tantalizing details that I couldn’t help myself. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, and needless to say, I did NOT pull up my window shade when I heard noises outside at night.

    Six months later, he said I was old enough to read it and handed it to me — so I had to read it again and pretend that I hadn’t. After that, we would both read and discuss each new novel as it came out in paperback. It was a rare thing we had in common. Thanks, SK.

    Regarding The Stand: remember the doggedly dull and literal Mick Garris TV movie? The guy playing Flagg looked like Dave Thomas from SCTV (Doug McKenzie) with a big mullet. Epic fail for a failed epic.

    • That also includes THE DEAD ZONE — probably the best film adaptation along with CARRIE, which I’ve never actually liked much. Sissy Spacek is so wonderful I just feel bad for her.

      I think I’m going to revisit SALEM’S LOT…

      Yes, the TV version was just that. I would have liked to have seen the George Romero version instead. But I liked the opening set to “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” But the book opening is possibly King’s most cinematic. You can see the camera tracking down on the swerving family station wagon…

    • ‘ghost story’ is bonza! i’m rather surprised nobody has adapted ‘koko’ for the screen – the other straub i’m fond of besides ‘talisman’ and ‘ghost story’

      isn’t it funny how all SK fans have some story about their first childhood foray into the world of king? someone should do an anthology of all those stories

      (i’ve never seen any of the ‘the stand’ tv dealios, i couldn’t bear to see anybody get it all wrong, wrong, wrong!)

      • and re: christian’s comment, which wasn’t there mere moments before, one of the very best film adaptions of a king novel is taylor hackford’s often overlooked ‘dolores claibourne’ with jennifer jason leigh and kathy bates, a really effective, creepy little drama that deserves to be seen more

  5. Frank, I really like Straub’s THE HELLFIRE CLUB too, but GHOST STORY is his keeper, I agree.

    • I was surprised how much I loved THE TALISMAN and how it kept in check both of their writing excesses. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that gave me movie-style tingles at the satisfying end. No wonder Spielberg wanted to do it…

  6. CARRIE has blunt moments (BATES HIGH SCHOOL – sigh) but I think it a masterpiece (its one of my favorite movie, regardless of genre), though I tend to be in the De Palma apologist club. De Palma is THE modern horror filmmaker in mixing emotion with outright horror.

  7. “isn’t it funny how all SK fans have some story about their first childhood foray into the world of king? someone should do an anthology of all those stories.”

    That’s actually a pretty great idea, Leah. Mind if I actually do it? I’ll have to give you credit/royalties if I somehow, someday get it off the ground. (Has anyone ever made a deal in the comments section of a blog before?) Maybe I’ll do it online first, like that Julia and Julia woman did (if that makes sense). But first, I have a novella to finish — one that owes more than a little to you-know-who.

    I started the Talisman, but didn’t get far. I don’t even remember what it was that I didn’t like. Maybe I’ll try again someday.

    Chattering Teeth — yeah , exactly. It’s like a King parody, The Haunted Vacuum Cleaner or something. Ever read The National Lampoon’s Eggboiler?

    The movies: Carrie is great. The Shining is in a class by itself. (I like and respect the book, but the mini proves that “more literal” does not always equal “better,” and there was only one Stanley Kubrick.) Misery works thanks to the perfectly cast Kathy Bates — and I credit Reiner with having the smarts to stay out of the way — but I wonder what a real movie director like DePalma or Polanski would have done with it. Christine is nicely shot and has some effective sequences (Carpenter still had it then) but as C said, the source material is second or third tier King. Stand By Me and Shawshank are sentimental favorites and beloved by many (he said diplomatically). Creepshow was an original script and not based on a book, but it’s a favorite of mine.

    Coming up with the worst is tough. Children of the Corn is a contender. Nasty, frightening little story, cheeseball joke of a movie. But that Sleepwalkers thing is in Ed Wood territory. If Shatner were in it, it would be some kind of perfection.

    • frankb, if you’re serious have at it, sir, go forth and prosper (when you make serious bank you can cut me a nice fat cheque — and i insist on something along the lines of, “thanks to leah for endlessly blowing smoke out her ass on the blog and stumbling across this idea in the process” in the movie credits)

      or whatever, i don’t know, i’m less than fresh today but halloween last night was a blast, i’m suffering a bit from excessive conviviality and the post-halloween blues. only 364 days to go now till the next one

  8. christian Says:

    I would think King’s directorial debut MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (based on NS’s “Trucks’) would qualify. But it’s so deliriously goofy you can’t count it. But there have been more bad films made from King’s books than good books written by King at this point. I’ve always been of the mind — and Harlan agrees with me — that King is fairly untranslatable to the screen, even though he seems like he should be. I still think Danny talking to his finger in THE SHINING is Kubrick’s most unintentionally funny scene in his entire ouvre. It’s not scary, it’s dumb and literal.

    CARRIE works because of DePalma and Spacek, and THE DEAD ZONE is one of Cronenberg’s best and faithful in the best ways to King’s book. I would count CREEPSHOW in there even tho it’s only a screenplay (my biggest gripe with CS is that the stories lack zingers at the end).

    CHRISTINE has a FANTASTIC opening credit scene and falls apart. Still haven’t seen the NIGHTMARS AND DREAMSCAPES mini-series. Then again, I’ve missed every King movie adaptation since the tv version of IT — which has one great thing: Tim Curry.

  9. i’ll beat the drum again for ‘dolores claiborne’ as one of the best king movie adaptations — far better than the book, in fact — it’s really quite brilliant and a serious downer (written by tony gilroy, who knew)

    for the worst king adaptation, i nominate this fucking appalling TV movie of ‘desperation’ with tom skerritt i had the gross misfortune of stumbling across the other night and i stupidly watched it thinking it couldn’t possible get any worse; it was so dire, such a bible-thumping, turgid mess, i can’t think of a single redeeming thing about it, and it wasn’t even ‘so bad it’s hilarious’. blech (and written by king, too, which made it all the more depressing)

  10. christian Says:

    I will check out DOLORES CLAIBORNE due to leah’s passionate defense. I know so little about the book or film that it’s off the radar here at TD. DESPERATION I haven’t even heard of — which sounds good. Tho I love me some Tom Skerritt.

  11. yay! (‘claiborne’ is worth a look for kathy bate’s terrific perf alone)

    nay! to ‘desperation’, i’ve never felt so sorry for captain dallas :-(

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