I don't know if there's a collection of horror stories that I recall as fondly as Stephen King's Night Shift, which brought together many of his early '70s works originally published in men's magazines like Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery. How many school nights did I stay up late as a teenager, engrossed and amazed by these perfectly composed tales? How many times did I attempt my own versions, getting maybe six paragraphs in before realizing I might be a better fiction reader than fiction writer?
I have no idea what happened to the paperback copy that I had back then; I just found this one (at top), the same printing, same cover, and realized I wanted to write on such an influential book. After a laudatory welcome by crime writer John D. MacDonald, King's introductory essay set the stage for his later Danse Macabre, an informal look at horror literature, what it is, what it does, why it works and why we love it in a world that holds enough real-life horrors on its own.
I can hear my wife as I write this, in the next room, crying. She thinks I was with another woman last night.
And oh dear God, I think so too.
Those are the final lines of "Strawberry Spring," lines I only recently reread, and rereading them caused the hair on my arms to stand up: I realized they'd been rattling around in my head and haunting me for over two decades; in their cadence and finality, in their sad and terrifying irony, the revelation and bitter acceptance of madness and murder. Horror writers work hard to get that last line just right, to get that tone, to save up through the whole story so they can sucker-punch you at the end. But it's not really a sucker-punch, though, is it? We know it's coming, we want it, we're reading the story - if not the entire genre - for that.
Writers like Charles Beaumont, Frederic Brown, and Gerald Kersh, though largely forgotten today, specialized in these kinds of short stories; crafted brief gems of suspense, weirdness, and outright horror. They're good models to have and King has often sang their praises. "Jerusalem's Lot" is a terrific riff on Lovecraft's "Rats in the Walls," set in the 1850s and told in epistolary form. "I Am the Doorway" is science-fiction horror with another one of those precise and chilling final lines, and provides the paperback's striking cover image (none of the many reprints of Night Shift through the '80s, '90s, and today can match it). "One for the Road" - now there's a phrase you don't hear anymore - takes place in 'Salem's Lot, the doomed town of King's second novel.
Then you've got your vengeful "Quitters, Inc." and "Sometimes They Come Back," morality tales that bring back memories of Twilight Zone but are a bit uglier. Suspense-filled ones like "The Ledge" and "Battleground" could have been on the old Hitchcock show, while "The Mangler," "Gray Matter," "The Boogeyman," and "Graveyard Shift" are straight horror, pulpy and ridiculous but with that sense of the quotidian that King excels in which grounds them; the Wicker Man-esque "Children of the Corn" was the basis for the inexplicably popular horror movies, while "Trucks" served for the best-forgotten Maximum Overdrive. "Strawberry Spring," probably my favorite, takes place on a Northeastern university campus that is terrorized by the murders of several of its co-eds (ah, the '70s!). Not supernatural in the least, it still manages to unnerve the reader in its depictions of regular people trying to live regular lives while a monster is in their midst - prime King, of course; prime, and untouchable.
Children of the Corn: Genesis (2010)
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