Skeleton Crew came out in 1985 and was the second collection of short stories Stephen King published. Overall, it is a decent book, although if I had to put it side by side with Night Shift, it would probably come up a little short. It also feels less cohesive than that first book – more a bunch of stories put together than anything truly united. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
I recommended fifteen of the twenty-two pieces on offer in Skeleton Crew, and if you take away the two pieces of poetry (which probably shouldn’t count towards the total anyway) that’s fifteen out of twenty. 75% is a pretty good win rate, although it’s not quite as good a number as I posted for Night Shift.
Of the five pieces I didn’t recommend, Beachworld fared the poorest. Sci-fi is a tough sell for me, and this did nothing to change my opinion on the genre. I’m sure there’s something in here for those who enjoy that kind of thing, but that ain’t me.
If I had to choose, I would say the best stories here are The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet (which has the advantage of added detail, being a novella), The Mist (which is even longer), monster horror story, The Raft and the thought-provoking Survivor Type fighting it out for the top four spots.
So, the trend is slighty downward, but it’s a good read and still a lot better than a lot of other collections out there.
The Reach is about the narrow (and mysterious) stretch of water between mainland USA and the island where the story begins. Stella, an old grandmother nearing death, has never crossed it, but once it freezes over she decides it’s time to do so.
Along the way Stella meets various people from her past, and they help her transition from this life to the next. It’s all very deep and meaningful, but unfortunately I was neither engaged nor all that interested in what King was telling me.
Maybe that’s on me, or perhaps it’s the fault of the author. Either way, the final short story in the collection is not what I wanted it to be.
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is about a writer who has written the titular tale. The story that we read however, is about the author’s descent into madness, as told through the eyes of a magazine editor.
This novella is told campfire-style, a formula I am noticing that King employs a lot. It doesn’t always work, as it gives you a (potentially) unreliable narrator, and means you are once-removed from the action, but I have no complaints about it here. Besides, it’s an approach that has served him well.
If we take The Mist out of the equation (because that’s really a short novel in its own right), The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is the longest piece in Skeleton Crew, but for all its length it’s also one of the most straightforward and engaging. It is slightly let down by the final few pages, but otherwise, it is a very enjoyable read.
Kelsey Grammer starred in two of the most successful sitcoms of all time, in Cheers and then its spin-off Frasier. He played the same character on TV for over two decades, and that is how the vast majority of us know the actor.
But this autobiography – which is fairly short and for context, was published not long after Frasier began – focuses mostly on his work prior to becoming the household name that he is today, and the relationships that he had along the way.
He details many of the hardships that he had to endure during the early part of his life, before anyone really knew who he was. When Kelsey was twelve years old his estranged father was murdered during a home invasion. When he was twenty, his younger sister (whom he was extremely close to) was abducted, raped, and murdered after being stabbed forty-two times. Five years after that, his two half-brothers died in a scuba-diving accident.
A lot of this is heartbreaking stuff, and it is no wonder that he suffered from substance abuse problems later in his life. But to his credit Kelsey makes no excuses for his much-publicised drug and alcohol addictions. Instead, he has used all of these touchpoints and tragedies in his life to become a better person.
If you pick this up hoping for some insight into the character of Dr. Frasier Crane, you may come away a little disappointed. There is some of that, with some backstage anecdotes, but that isn’t what this is about. Like Crane, Kelsey comes across as an intelligent, eloquent man, and this is an interesting read you can quickly tick off your list.
Gramma is about a young boy called George who finds himself looking after his elderly and infirm grandmother on his own, only to find that he is constantly spooked by her presence.
Halfway through the story it becomes clear that the old woman has died and George spends some time trying to figure out how he is going to explain this to his mother. Spooky goings-on ensue.
Ultimately, Gramma is too long and too little happens for me to care all that much about it. This is certainly all about the atmosphere, and King takes his time building that – so maybe the problem here is mine – but I can’t get behind a horror story isn’t scary, and where nothing happens.
Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2), which is this story’s full title, follows on from the previous story in this collection, Morning Deliveries, but centres around a couple of laundry workers who go out in the middle of the night trying to find a place to inspect their vehicle and deem it roadworthy… all while they are both knocking back the beers.
As with Morning Deliveries, this story has been cobbled together from chapters of an abandoned novel that King was writing called The Milkman, but unlike that first story, Big Wheels meanders and ultimately doesn’t stand on its own. It also includes references which I am sure are intended to allude to other parts of the novel that he hasn’t included here.
So I will have to pass on this one. It may very well work as part of a larger narrative, but snipped out as a story in its own right, it falls a little flat.
Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1), to give it its full title, is exactly what you think it is – a very short tale about a milkman who is going about his daily deliveries. Except, of course, he is not just leaving milk on the doorstep. Where would be the horror in that?
We follow Spike as he does his rounds, but it quickly becomes evident that he is not a model employee, or anyone you would want to accept a milkshake from. At random doors, he leaves a surprise in with the breakfast accompaniment – be it a spider, liquid poison, or maybe even a deadly gas, and then he just continues on with his work.
Morning Deliveries is one of the shortest stories in Skeleton Crew, but it’s also one of the better offerings. Another storytelling example of simplicity sometimes being more important than complexity.
I like Keith Lemon. I know he is extremely crude, and a lot of his humour (most of it, in fact) is not very sophisticated and therefore not to everyone’s taste, but there’s something about his innocence and infectious nature that appeals to me.
And yes, I know he is a character.
Being Keith is a fictional account (told in his distinctive patois) of his success leading up to the production of his movie, Keith Lemon: The Film. He details how he rose to prominence as an entrepreneur, quickly winning Businessman of the Year 1993, and his subsequent rise to fame on television… as well as documenting anecdotes about all the women he has banged along the way. And I do mean all the women.
Keith Lemon is a funny guy, but it has to be under the right circumstances. Off the cuff and unscripted. He’s great on Celebrity Juice, where he is allowed off the leash, and he even works on segments of This Morning when he is giving out advice, because you can see him trying to push the boundaries of the restrictions of daytime television.
But unfortunately, a 250 page book is not the way to experience Keith Lemon, because what makes his personality work doesn’t translate very well to the page. Sure, I chuckled on a few occasions, but there’s only so many times you can read about him smashing in the back doors or finger-banging a Z-List celebrity before you switch off and start skim reading.
This is maybe worth looking at if you’re a die-hard fan of Keith, or if you just have to consume everything he does (and they are likely to be the only ones reading this anyway), but it is certainly not essential, and definitely not his finest hour.
Uncle Otto’s Truck is about a old beat-up pick-up that has a bit of an evil streak. After being used as a weapon itself, the vehicle sets out to get his revenge on the murderer. Uncle Otto tries to tell his nephew this, but he is waved off as being crazy.
Stephen King certainly likes writing stories about vehicles that come to life (most famously in Christine)… actually, any kind of inanimate object. In that respect Uncle Otto’s Truck treads familiar territory. I’m sure he would be the first to admit that it’s basic horror, but when it’s done right it can be very effective, and here he is mostly successful.
Although this story starts off quite slowly, once it finds its footing it picks up nicely and is a good read through to the end. Another fine addition to this collection.
Survivor Type is about a medical student called Richard who is smuggling heroin on a cruise ship. When the vessel sinks he is stranded on a tiny island and has to figure out the best way to stay alive. Turns out, eating himself is the way to go.
The story is written in a loose diary form, which serves to convey the passage of time without resorting to awkward and sometimes tedious narrative shifts as day turns to night and back again. Richard also has a shit-ton of the hard stuff to get him through the pain.
Survivor Type is suitably gory in its depiction, and King has stretched a little medical knowledge a long way. It’s the kind of tale that appeals to a more primal level of reader… fortunately, I can dig that.