Tuesday Book Review: Night Shift by Stephen King

I first read this book back in the late seventies, shortly after its original release.  I remember, at the time, thinking that there was something special about the stories: they managed to blend themes of horror with a masterful style of storytelling. I’ve returned to them several times over the years and the quality of them has not diminished with age.

This might seem like an unnecessary statement but, having read a fair few ‘classic’ short stories over the past few months, I do think some stories lose their charm as age dulls the shine on the attraction they presented when they were contemporaneous. ‘The Signalman’ by Dickens is a story that I found dull and confusing rather than dark and mysterious. ‘A.B.O.’ by Walter De La Mare struck me as unmemorable because it got twisted in the uninspiring loop of its own framed narration.

But that seldom happens with the stories in King’s first collection: Night Shift.

I’d started reading this book again because, as some of you may know, I have a weekly discussion with my friend Colin Davies where we talk about short horror fiction. This week I’d suggested ‘The Boogeyman’ from the collection Night Shift and, as a result, I ended up reading the other stories in the book.  To some extent they’re like those excellent Leibniz chocolate biscuits in that each one is incredible, satisfying and a feast for the senses. But, as soon as you’ve finished one, you need to have another and another until you’ve devoured them all.

The thing that struck me about this collection was that it was focused on the horrors facing the working class.  ‘Graveyard Shift’ is a story about a man employed to help with a rat infestation in an old mill. ‘The Mangler’ is a story about the dangers that can be found working with industrial machines that seem to have a will of their own. ‘Grey Matter’ is a story about the troubles that can befall those hard-working stiffs that end the day with a can or twelve of their favourite cheap beer.

These are stories that play on the worries of the working-class (particularly back in the seventies but they’re probably just as relevant today), and I think that’s why I found them so attractive. These are not like the ‘classic’ stories of yesteryear. These are not like the stories from Poe, where landed gentry are visited by acquaintances who shared idyllic childhoods. Nor are they like the stories from Lovecraft, where respected lecturers are driven crazy by the other-worldly horrors they discover on their upper-middle class expeditions into the depths of ‘savage’ countries. These are stories about people who have a background that I find relatable.  

Consequently, when I’m reading a story such as ‘Trucks’, where the machines that are the lifeblood of the nation’s transport system have turned on their masters, I can feel the shock and terror of that betrayal at the level where it’s intended. When I read a story as chillingly devised as ‘Quitters Inc’, I can be amused, entertained and repulsed by the extremes that someone might employ to help a poor smoker break away from their unfortunate habit. My paperback copy has pages that are turning to yellow-orange and it smells old and dusty. But this remains one of the prizes in my fiction collection and, if you’ve not yet read it, it’s a showcase of a how a master storyteller makes an indelible mark on the genre.

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