All right, let’s get this out of the way up front: The Mist is not a short story. In fact, it strays into novel length, albeit a thin one with a singular thread. But I have included it here because it is the first story in Skeleton Crew.
A dense and strange mist creeps towards a small town and strands a group of people in a supermarket, after which it soon becomes clear that there are creatures in the gloom waiting to strike. For a long time we don’t know why they are there, but towards the end of the story King does throw us a bone. It’s a satisfactory reason, even if it is not really required to enjoy what’s here.
The Mist is a wholly enjoyable tale, and a good ol’ proper horror story from King as well. It’s a very good start for this second collection of stories, and a high bar is set early.
Night Shift is the first collection of stories that Stephen King published, way back in 1978, and after reading it over the last six months I come away quite happy with the content. There are no blow-you-away fantastic stories here – although several are very good – but more importantly, there are none that really shit the bed either.
I recommended sixteen of the twenty short stories in Night Shift, and of the four that I gave a red arrow to, the only one I really struggled to get through was the first story in the collection – Jerusalem’s Lot. Others may get into this one more, but I just couldn’t stomach the language for the length of time King asked me to do so.
Although I recommended 80% of these stories, they are not all of the same high quality. The Last Rung on the Ladder is hands down the best story here – simple in execution, with a haunting and perfectly played pay-off. Just below it on the totem pole are Battleground and the serial killer tale, Strawberry Spring. Just below those I’d put vertigo-inducing The Ledge and The Man Who Loved Flowers. They are the five stories here that I would recommend to any fan of Stephen King.
Night Shift is a good collection, and crucially, most of the best stories in this anthology – with the exception of Battleground – are not in any way supernatural or out-of-this-world, whereas the stories I liked the least were not grounded in reality at all. Subjective, sure… but it is worth mentioning.
The Woman in the Room is a dramatic tale about a man dealing with his bed-ridden mother who is dying of cancer, and his struggles over whether or not euthanasia is his only option.
Back in the late seventies this was likely a much more controversial narrative thread than it is these days – not that readers are blasé about euthanasia in fiction, although to some degree that is probably true – but this story simply lacks the punch that I think it once did.
The Woman in the Room is the last story in Night Shift, and unfortunately it is probably not the final kick to the gut you are looking for or expecting from King. It’s a perfectly serviceable tale, just not a particulary memorable one.
The first story in this anthology, Jerusalem’s Lot, acts as a prelude to King’s second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, and One More For the Road is somewhat of a suffix to that novel.
What this piece has going for it over Jerusalem’s Lot is that it takes a more modern approach to the storytelling, and that in itself is immediately a tick in the pro column. The narrative style of that first companion piece is one of the main reasons that I could not recommend it.
You don’t need to have read ‘Salem’s Lot (and certainly not the other short story in this collection) to get or enjoy this piece. Ultimately, this is a straightforward vampire tale, but familiarity does help to flesh out the world. One More For the Road gets a pass, but it’s a very thin recommendation.
The Man Who Loved Flowers follows a smiling young man as he walks the streets of New York carrying a bunch of flowers, and it focuses primarily on the reactions of those around him as he passes by.
This is a simple tale of misinterpretation, and how things are not always as they seem on the surface. The story does take a darker turn in the final third – putting this into more familiar King territory – but to say anything further would be to spoil it for those who have not read it.
Because The Man Who Loved Flowers is fairly brief, King doesn’t have the time to dilute it with his usual shenanigans – a trait he is unfortunately guilty of on many occasions – and this is one of the best things on offer in this collection.
This is Stephen King doing what he does best – urban horror, without any supernatural or demonic bent. There are no monsters under the bed, and nothing in the closet. This is just… stuff that can happen.
It’s a simple story about the relationship between a brother and a sister, how it ebbs and flows over the course of their lives, and about one particular incident that has defined them. It’s emotional and engaging in its simplicity.
King is prone to both falling down and rambling when he tries to wrap up a story, but this is impactful and stops before he finds something else less meaningful to say. The Last Rung on the Ladder is just damn good storytelling, and without a doubt, the first great story in the collection.
Children of the Corn has spawned about a thousand movies, which is strange considering the source material is this short story, which seems to run out of steam before the end.
A couple find themselves in one of those rural towns that King is so fond of writing about, only to discover that all the adults have been killed and the community is being run by a bunch of teenagers who worship a corn-God known as He Who Walks Behind the Rows.
It’s difficult to put Children of the Corn amongst the top tier of stories, because this deep into the anthology there have been several that are much better. This is too long and suffers from the pay-off not being worthy of the build-up. I can recommend it, but only just.