G.P. Putnam's Sons • 1985 • 512 pages
A Collection Critique
Skeleton Crew, King's third collection of shorter works (fourth if you consider Creepshow), contains some of his best fiction to date. The stories and poems within represent a growing maturity in King's work, many of the tales achieving depth and resonance beyond those in Night Shift. The sources from which the stories come are now more varied and diverse: in addition to men's magazines such as Gallery and Playboy, King's growing talent and reputation finds him publishing in respected horror and mystery magazines, and even non-genre publications like Yankee. Though many of the stories are longer, they don't fall victim to the literary sprawl of Nightmares and Dreamscapes, nor do they seem as beholden to King's larger body of work, as in Everything's Eventual. As with Night Shift, the pieces here are arranged specifically for effect: between an epic beginning and a quiet, elegiac finale, the poems and stories achieve a cohesive pace and tone. The phrase "do you love?" appears at the start of the collection and recurs throughout, tying these selections together thematically. All of these elements work to make Skeleton Crew read and feel more like a novel than a collection of short pieces, despite the wild diversity in styles and subject matter.
A long story approaching the length and heft of a novel itself, "The Mist" kicks off Skeleton Crew with a frightening storm and the otherworldly horrors it leaves in its wake. King's use of weather to set mood - as used previously in "Gray Matter," "Strawberry Spring," and "One For the Road" - is especially effective here, at turns evoking horror, dread, even melancholy. In addition to drawing from literary sources (again, Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" seems a major influence, as does Lovecraft), King also takes from monster movies and the Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," examining the underlying fear and prejudice of our neighbors and ourselves when we are trapped in terrifying situations - a theme further developed in The Regulators, Storm of the Century, and Under the Dome.
As with Different Seasons, many of the stories in Skeleton Crew revolve around storytelling. Structurally, "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," "The Jaunt," "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," and "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands" (itself a sequel to the Different Seasons novella, "The Breathing Method") work the same way, with a central tale of the inexplicable told by one of the characters. In particular, "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" and "The Jaunt" - sequenced next to each other - emerge as tales with similar themes and vastly different executions. In addition to the structural similarities, both are stories about shortcuts that affect the age (and perhaps sanity) of the person taking them. Though "The Jaunt" is ostensibly science fiction and "Mrs. Todd's" is "real-world" horror, their placement suggests King is aware of their underlying similarities and is calling attention to them - strengthening the notion that Skeleton Crew is meant to be read as a single work, rather than a collection of parts.
Echoes of King's ongoing interests reverberate throughout Skeleton Crew: "Uncle Otto's Truck" continues the concept of malevolent machines King first explored in "Trucks"; that this story was published in the same year as Christine is telling. "Cain Rose Up" first appeared in a college publication, and seems directly related to the Richard Bachman novel Rage. One of King's most terrifying stories, "Gramma," borrows imagery from Pet Sematary. In both, a child is left alone with a dying relative, and is profoundly damaged by her death.
Beyond these connections, though, are idiosyncratic pieces that underscore King's growing mastery of the horror genre and maturity as a writer. On its surface a teenage monster story along the lines of The Blob, "The Raft" accomplishes a complexity and power usually achieved in much longer works. Though the images are graphic, King never seems indulgent. Similarly with "Survivor Type," King looks unflinchingly at a character forced into self-cannibalization. Though both stories feature "gross-out" moments, the narrative force is such that terror more than revulsion is the primary reaction. Both "Morning Deliveries" and "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game" (doubling as chapters of an aborted novel called Milkman) are two of King's earliest experiments with surrealism; the earlier unpublished "The Old Man's Ticker" and later stories such as "The Moving Finger," "Luckey Quarter," and "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French" expand on King's interest in the medium. Madness lies at the heart of "Paranoid: A Chant," the better of King's two poems here, its stark imagery and distillation of obsessive fear potent. "Word Processor of the Gods" updates the tale of Aladdin, with a cobbled-together word processor standing in for the wish-granting genie. "Word Processor" is a curiously gentle tale, counterpointing both King's mistrust of devices and technology (as in Christine, The Tommyknockers, "Trucks," and "Ur") and the more visceral tales of horror in this collection. As the centerpiece of Skeleton Crew, "Word Processor" also anticipates the penultimate tale, "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," a darker take on the tools writers use.
"Ballad" tells the story of a writer (and, consequently, his editor) driven insane by paranoia and the conviction that creatures named Fornits live in his typewriter. King would return to the central conceit - whether madness is communicable - in his later story "N.," but more importantly, "Ballad" is one of King's first examinations of writers and their complex relationship with writing. In a way, Skeleton Crew - which begins with a story about monsters and offers "Ballad" as its penultimate tale - prefigures It, which serves both as King's final word on monsters and his first in-depth exploration into the nature of creation. The theme of storytellers and the effect their creations have on them would now become central to King's fiction; Misery, The Dark Half, "Secret Window, Secret Garden," Bag of Bones, Lisey's Story, Finders Keepers, and the final volumes of the Dark Tower series are all variations of this same basic motif.
As "The Woman In the Room" closed Night Shift with a whisper, "The Reach" finishes Skeleton Crew with a sigh. Ninety-five-year-old Stella Flanders, dying of cancer, decides to leave the island she has lived on her entire life and cross to the mainland for the first time. Weather again serves as an important element; a snowstorm recalling that of The Shining initially impedes Stella's progress across the frozen reach. However, unlike the storms in Skeleton Crew's other stories ("The Mist," "Nona"), in "The Reach," its purpose is not menace or dread but deliverance. One of King's best works, "The Reach" is a triumph of storytelling, metaphor, mood, and voice; it won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1981.
Skeleton Crew begins with the epigram, "Do you love?," and the question is asked in various stories throughout the book. In "The Reach," Stella Flanders finally offers an answer, giving Skeleton Crew a closure and resonance few anthologies of short works can hope to achieve.