Doubleday / 1978 / 368 pages
A Collection Critique
King's first short fiction collection, Night Shift may be the best introduction to a reader interested in discovering Stephen King. The stories anthologized cover a wide range of styles and themes, many offering glimpses of interests King will return to over the course of his career. Most of these early works first appeared in "men's magazines" - Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery - which, at the time, paid good money for horror stories. Perhaps due to the space constraints of magazine publications, each of the stories in Night Shift is compact; what they may lack in deeper themes or characterization, they make up for in terms of visceral impact.
"Jerusalem's Lot," a dark homage to H.P. Lovecraft, opens the collection, providing historical background for his prior novel, 'Salem's Lot. One of King's few epistolary tales, in both format and literary heritage it prefigures The Plant (King's Lovecraftian influence would continue to influence his career, as is evident in stories such as Nightmares & Dreamscapes' "Crouch End," and Just After Sunset's "N.," and segments of the Dark Towervolume, Song of Susannah.) King's ongoing interest in 'Salem's Lot's narrative is further developed in "One For the Road." In this, "Strawberry Spring" and "Gray Matter," King's use of weather as a source of horror is evocative, recalling Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." King would later use this technique to great effect in "The Mist" and Storm of the Century.
Quite of few of these stories seem to anticipate later, longer works, either in theme or situation. "Night Surf" could be a lost chapter of The Stand, while "Trucks" and "The Mangler" predate the fear of technology and machines later utilized in Christine, The Tommyknockers, and Cell. In ways a prologue to It, "The Boogeyman" pits the fear of the monster in the closet against modern psychology, again illustrating King's fascination with updating classic horrors for a present-day audience. "Children of the Corn," one of his finest and most frightening pieces of short fiction, is King's first take on the motif of a young couple driving into a town where something has gone wrong. Later stories such as "Rainy Season" and "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" play with the same basic premise, but neither as successfully. (Desperation, King's only book-length riff on the theme, works far better.)
King infrequent forays into science fiction begin here with "I Am the Doorway," but, as he would later accomplish with "The Jaunt," and "Beachworld" - not to mention his Dark Tower epic - he successfully blends genres. Horror is an outgrowth of the science fiction premise: while this and "Gray Matter" may seem, in terms of setting and genre, completely different stories, the horror of mutation lies at the heart of both. Similarly, "The Man Who Loved Flowers" and "Strawberry Spring" tread the same literary ground, but in terms of approach, tone, and character, the stories are vastly different. Understanding King's ability to construct new stories from analogous plots or premises is vital to a study of King's body of work. For example, whereas Christine and From a Buick 8 - or 'Salem's Lot and Needful Things - share surface similarities, the actual narratives are wildly dissimilar. With Desperation and The Regulators, King would experiment with duplicating the premise, characters, and basic conflict in two simultaneous novels, and giving each their own identity. In Douglas Winter's The Art of Darkness, King states, "I realized that is should be possible for a writer to revisit themes if it betters his work ... [I am] attempting to amplify themes that are intrinsic to [my] work."
Structurally, the Night Shift collection functions almost as a book with an overarching narrative. Its epic opening story and quiet closing story (the sorrowful "Woman in the Room," a chilling and somber fictionalization of the death of King's mother) serve as bookends to an anthology that follows a distinct rhythm. Stories are placed deliberately, with similar tales situated away from one another so that they move together fluidly. King's next collection of short fiction, Skeleton Crew, would be structured similarly to even greater success.
While many King books can be discussed without mention of film adaptations, Night Shift has spawned so many - and so many that are terrible - that briefly looking at them seems necessary. Though the resultant films often have little to do with the original story, there is a preconception that because the movie is bad, the story must also be. "Children of the Corn" is a dark, terrifying masterpiece; the movie it spawned (and the later sequels it spawned) is ludicrous bordering on silly. "Graveyard Shift" and "The Mangler" both wrongly assumed that the most important part of the story was the monster, ignoring mood and character in favor of cheap scares and buckets of blood. "Sometimes They Come Back" bravely tried for a cross between It and Stand By Me, with diminished results. King couldn't even translate his own story: in his directorial debut with Maximum Overdrive, he badly expanded "Trucks," drawing out a taut, paranoid story into a misguided action film. A later TV movie adaptation wasn't much better.
Shorter films seem to adapt the Night Shift stories better. "The Last Rung On the Ladder," a student film by Jim Cole, captures the story's quiet sorrow well, and the two stories later featured as segments of the Cat's Eye anthology - "The Ledge" and "Quitters, Inc." - effectively bring the nervous tension of those stories onto the screen. "Battleground" appeared as an episode of the anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes; a teleplay by novelist Richard Christian Matheson and a dialogue-free performance by William Hurt combine to great, horrifying effect. Perhaps most famously, the fantastic "The Woman In the Room" was directed by Frank Darabont, who would later go on to direct The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist.
Regardless of the adaptations, the short works in Night Shift are among King's most compelling. Though some may be more effective than others, there are no bad stories in Night Shift. Just as he was beginning to prove his worth as a novelist, Night Shift proved that Stephen King had already mastered the short form.