All right, I know – Paranoid is not a short story, but let’s not get too hung up on that. It’s a part of this collection, so I am going to mention it, however briefly. Besides, strictly speaking, The Mist isn’t a short story either, and I talked about that one.
Poetry has always been difficult for me to understand. I generally don’t get it, especially free verse (which this is), where the only rules the author needs to follow are the ones the author makes up along the way. The style can feel a little disingenuous, but such is the nature of the art.
I can give Paranoid: A Chant a pass, primarily because it’s short and has a dark flavour to it. But thankfully, Stephen King does not exercise his poetry muscle very often.
The Wedding Gig is set in the years after the First World War, and is told from the point of view of a local ragtime band leader. He is hired by a small-time gangster to play at his sister’s wedding, at which he, (the gangster), is killed by some goons he has rubbed up the wrong way.
Sometimes, The Wedding Gig seems to just be an opportunity for King to poke fun at fat women – which is fine, I guess – but there needs to be more of a story than that, and ultimately, there really isn’t.
As such, this short story is the first one in the collection that I have to stop short of giving the green light to. There’s just not enough here to make it worth your time, and penty of other stuff that is better in the pages before you get to it.
The Jaunt is Stephen King with his sci-fi hat on, a genre which he dabbled in a lot more back in the first half of his career than he has done since, which is fine by me as even the hint of that stuff sometimes makes me groan.
The Jaunt is set hundreds of years in the future, in a world where teleporatation – or jaunting – is a thing. The story has echoes of The Fly in a mad-scientist-in-a-lab kind of way, but ultimately it swerves in a different (but still memorable) direction.
We are six stories in to this anthology and King is yet to deliver something below par. The sci-fi here is limited, and with a family at its core it feels more grounded as well… which helps me get over the potential hurdle that the genre often throws in front of me.
Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut hangs on the familiar King format of using a minor character to narrate the tale. King is particularly good at this, and he often manages to add a little spice into the story that otherwise would not be possible. This attempt is no different.
Mrs. Todd likes to drive, but more than that she likes to find the quickest route to wherever she is going. It’s fun listening to how she manages to shave miles off each of her journeys by taking different roads, and the fact that it doesn’t really go the way I had expected doesn’t matter.
Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut is a good tale, but unfortunately it’s not as well done as I had hoped. The premise is fun and interesting, but the execution is a little long-winded for my liking, and it nearly outstays its welcome. If some of the detail here was trimmed I think King may have had a story that stays with you more.
Cain Rose Up is a very brief story about a school shooting, written in the late sixties – before school shootings, unfortunately, became far too commonplace in the real world. This would likely be a controversial story in these sensitive times, and King (who has mellowed somewhat in recent years) probably wouldn’t write this in 2020.
Curt is a troubled college student who decides to snipe his way out of his funk from his dorm room… and that’s all there is to it. As short as this piece is, I certainly can’t say that that it outstays its welcome.
Cain Rose Up is very brutal in its stripped-down nature. It doesn’t pull any punches, and it wouldn’t be any better if it did. You don’t get a happy ending here, and that is why it works.
I finished an 1,800 word dark short story this month that I have titled The Cave. It took longer than it should have (this was one of the pieces I had challenged myself to write by Christmas 2019), but as it turned out, a few days of attention and concentration was all that it really needed.
I also started and completed three jigsaws during May, to add to the two others I did in April, which makes five furlough puzzles… probably more than I’ve done since I was a child. I know, it’s nerdy, but lockdown brings out the geek in all of us. The most surprising thing of all is that every one of those 4,500 pieces was right where they should have been.
Over the last week or so I have bought a shitload of paper, poly pockets, ink, and binders, so that I can finally finish printing and storing all of my writing since I started keeping (proper) records twenty-five years ago. It’s a very long process, but it will be worth it. It’s just another safeguard in case my laptop decides to go belly up… which is surely just around the corner.
I have finished Stephen King’s novel, Joyland. Very good, and yet another example (if one was needed) that the guy can write more than just monsters and spooky things that go bump in the night. To be honest, it’s been a while since he hung out in the darkness and tried to scare us. I’ve started a sci-fi novel by Gregory Benford called Cosm, which for one reason or another I have owned for the best part of two decades. It’s proving to be very hard going, but all I’ve got right now is time, right?
Here They Be Tygers is one of the earliest Stephen King stories that is available for the public at large – having been written when King was a teenager – and it’s also one of the shortest.
Charles is a child in class and he needs to go to the toilet. When he arrives at the bathroom, there is a tiger sitting on the foor. Because, of course there is.
There’s not much to this, but at this length that is expected. Here There Be Tygers is about one thing – one jolt – and it is laser focused on delivering that one thing. Maybe this was polished from it’s original state to how it appears in this collection – maybe not – but it’s easy to believe this was written by a teenage King.
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.
April zipped by, and the only creative writing I have to show for it is carrying on with one of those challenge stories I had intended to finish for Christmas last year. It’s nearly there, and I can probably cross the finish line in a few days.
What I have done though is spent more time staring at a jigsaw than at any other time in my life. It’s relaxing and takes my mind off all the other shit that’s going on in the world… I just wish there wasn’t so much damn sky in every one I do!
I’ve also written a hell of a lot of quizzes for the house. For a while I was presenting one a day, and finding out a lot of things that I thought were common sense were really not all that common at all. Bats are mammals, guys. That’s stuff they teach you when you’re six.
I’m back into my reading as well, which is nice. I am currently in the midst of two books – the Jimmy Connors autobiography called The Outsider, and the Stephen King novel, Joyland. Both are very good for quite different reasons, and they are reminders that I should have been doing more of it these last few months.
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.