Monday, June 13, 2011

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King (1985): Many Dead at Many Scenes

"I got to thinking about cannibalism one day - because that's the sort of thing guys like me sometimes think about - and my muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on my head. I know how gross that sounds, but it's the best metaphor I know, inelegant or not..."
King on his 1982 story "Survivor Type"

Does that sum up Stephen King or does that sum up Stephen King? I mean really. Gathering stories that he'd written from his earliest days as a writer until the mid-1980s, Skeleton Crew is King's second collection. You've probably read it, right? Right. If you're like me you pored over it, trying to figure out the inner mechanics of King's seemingly effortless storytelling and characters so real you could almost smell the Black Label on their breath. I was 15 or 16 when I read Skeleton Crew for the first time, which is about the perfect age for stories featuring such an assortment of giant primordial bugs and psychos masquerading as regular folks.

Without a doubt, the opening novella "The Mist" is one of King's best and simply one of my favorite stories in all the English language. It first appeared in the 1980 anthology Dark Forces; in Skeleton Crew it appears mildly rewritten, most noticeably in the final sentences, but that doesn't change much. I can lose myself in that story again and again and again; at this point I think it's fused with my DNA. "The Mist" is deliriously fantastic and fatalistic, ridiculous and sublime, all at once. Who can ever forget those two Cyclopean legs going up and up into the mist like living towers...? Not me, friends and neighbors, not me.

"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" is another favorite, an old-timer's tale of a uniquely desirable woman whose search for the quickest route around town leads her through a landscape not on any earthly map. Dig what the narrator says about "the Todd woman": "I like a woman who will laugh when you don't have to point her right at the joke, you know." While King is aware of the "wonky science" in "The Jaunt," it remains an icily unsettling SF tale of the "history" of teleportation, related by a father to his family as they prepare to "jaunt" to Mars. Enter one portal, get disintegrated, and come out the other, whether it's across the room or across the galaxy. The climax is one of King's most notorious; a fondly remembered shock of sheer madness.

Other fondly remembered shocks for lots of fans are "The Raft" and the above-mentioned "Survivor Type," stories that are inimitably King but also hark back to the blackly-humored grotesqueries of EC horror comics, although "The Raft" also has a strangely elegiacal tone, especially in its strange and doomed refrain of "Do you love?" What else would you expect from a story about a ravenous bit of oily muck in an inviting lake? He referred to "Survivor Type" in Danse Macabre as an example of a story he didn't think he'd ever be able to publish, but it was, finally, in a Charles L. Grant anthology. A surgeon/drug smuggler/junkie ends up a castaway on a little spit of land with little hope of rescue. His supplies? His medical kit, some heroin, and a near-superhuman will to survive...

King's influences come hard and fast in Skeleton Crew: "Gramma" and of course "The Mist" have the merest whisper of Lovecraft. The echo of Shirley Jackson is loud and clear in "Here There Be Tygers," and Charles Beaumont gets a sort of retake in the jazz-based "The Wedding Gig," which reminded me of Beaumont's classic "Black Country." "Nona" is pure James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich noir, complete with a drifter, his sordid and alienated past, and the mysterious femme fatale he meets on the road. Even Peter Straub's Chowder Society seems to appear in "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands." And do you hear an echo of Harlan Ellison's jaunty modern fantasy in the title "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" too? Despite their familiarity, these stories are captivating and still purely King. When the young narrator of "Nona" beats the unholy shit out of a road-scarred trucker in a diner parking lot, you can practically taste the gravel and blood in your teeth.

The source for the cover art by Don Brautigam, a long-forgotten child's toy wreaks its horror in "The Monkey," terrifying an adult man who thought it forever gone. What would that toy say if it had a chance? Stephen King knows:

Thought you got rid of me, didn't you? But I'm not that easy to get rid of, Hal... We were made for each other, just a boy and his pet monkey, a couple of good old buddies... I came to you, Hal, I worked my way along the country roads at night and the moonlight shone off my teeth at three in the morning and I left many people Dead at many Scenes. I came to you, Hal, I'm your Christmas present, so wind me up, who's dead...?

"The Reach" is mainstream King, a heartfelt story of real places and real people and ghosts that haunt not houses but the human heart; it ends this collection on a high note. As for the poems "Paranoid: A Chant" and "For Owen," I really can't say much whatsoever. A handful of stories here date from the late 1960s, such as "Cain Rose Up" and "The Reaper's Image," milder works that still point toward his bestselling future.

Still I'm not blind to King's weaknesses as a writer: he can be corny and overly familiar in the middle of a tale of creeping dread, using dull down-home humor in asides that almost seem like self-mockery. His acknowledged tendency to overwriting, to bloat and stuffing, can deflate the delicate suspension of disbelief one needs for horror fiction and render a story inert. He can be shallow and perhaps glib, showing his pulp roots. And sometimes his characters talk too damn much, or he gets mired in their italicized thought processes. And perhaps I'm simply not quite as enamored of drunken Maine rednecks and their fatal shenanigans as I once was.

I can't finish up without mentioning that I really enjoy King's intro (PS: There really was more beer in the fridge, and I drank it myself after you were gone that day) and end notes. When I was a young aspiring fiction writer, I looked to King because he gave a sort of behind-the-scenes glimpse of the writing life in these pieces, which I often got more out of than his stories (much the same is true for me with the mighty Harlan Ellison). Personable and folksy, he lets you in on his writing process, how his brain spits up (or shits out) ideas, how he submits his stories and how many times they were rejected. He's well aware of his weaknesses and foibles but also knows he's got an unparalleled imagination that is often more powerful and demanding than he knows what to do with. Skeleton Crew might not - might not - reach the rarefied heights of Night Shift, but it's still an essential read for horror fiction fans. As if you could be one and not already have read it...

"I guess Faulkner never would have written anything like this, huh? Oh, well."


SheReads said...

I actually enjoyed Skeleton Crew better than Night Shift; The Mist, and Survivor Type being my favorites of the collection.

Sean Strange said...

I'm in awe of King's photographic imagination and storytelling skill, but his stories themselves never fill me with awe, or even with fear. They're smooth reading, but a little too corny, bloated and middle-of-the-road for my taste. I prefer the more erudite horror of Lovecraft or the elegance of Barker.

Will Errickson said...

Sean, you put it so well!

lazlo azavaar said...

I prefer Night Shift to Skeleton Crew, the stories there are more intense and have less instances of King Bloat Syndrome. But I think The Mist and The Jaunt alone are worth the price of the book. Man, that Jaunt ending! Brrr! One of the high points in my experience of reading horror literature.

Mac Campbell said...

I love this collection; it's one of his best. The first sentence of 'The Mist' is lifted from one of SK's favorite writers. If you read On Writing, you'll find that first sentence has also become his unofficial story-telling Mantra: "This is what happened."

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how fast you hold to your 'no modern horror fiction" rule, but if you enjoyed SKELETON CREW as much as you seem to have then I really HAVE to strongly recommend both King's two most recent books of shorter fiction JUST AFTER SUNSET & FULL DARK, NO STARS. They're both really brilliant & will hold your attention from cover to cover, page to page.
In fact, I might just be tempted to rate JUST AFTER SUNSET the superior body of work if we didn't consider THE MIST ( which is an absolute all time fav of mine as well ). And FULL DARK, NO STARS is what put me into this recent King kick of mine.
I mean, I've been a pretty much lifelong fan of his since my sister brought home the first paperback copy of CARRIE back in '75 or '76 ( damn, but I sure wish I still had THAT copy still, but I don't know whatever happened to it. I wound up buying the initial movie tie-in version & re-reading it a year or so later ), but I'd taken a couple/few years break from his work since EVERYTHING'S EVENTUAL ( or maybe it was CELL? ) because LISEY'S STORY & his other recent stuff just didn't appeal to me plot-wise.
But, then I got FD,NS & loved it. Leading to me quickly acquiring JUST PAST SUNSET & UNDER THE DOME & reading them one right after the other. All three of which were terrific reads IMHO.
Sure, DOME was looooong, but things picked up pretty quickly for a fat King novel & once into the meat of the novel it stays on a good fast pace.
Hell, I've found myself REALLY looking forward to his next book's publication in November with an anticipation that I haven't experienced in many years...

So, should you find yourself at a bit of a loss as to what to read next anytime in the future, keep FD,NS & JUST AFTER SUNSET in mind. I think you'd enjoy them.

( aka bluerosekiller )

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the original short stories for "Weeds" and "The Crate" which we all know and love from the movie Creepshow. Both can be found in The Collective, a pdf file which collects all the rare, uncollected stories and poems of King.

Let me just say, if you love Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Creepshow, or all three, you *have* to read these two stories. It's like finally getting to hear two rare b-sides from your favorite band when they were in their late-70's prime. Amazing that these stories haven't been reprinted yet!

whitsbrain said...

I have two distinct memories from my first read of "Skeleton Key". I was reading "Survivor Type" on the bus. I felt myself getting light-headed and thinking I was going to pass out. It was so visceral and grotesque. His description of eating raw birds was sickening. I had to stop reading and get my mind out of the story until I got home. It was as disturbing a story as I have ever remembered reading. And "The Jaunt"!!! I just sat there stunned.

Will Errickson said...

There's a recent indie film of "Survivor Type." I'm skeptical however:

Griff said...

my criticism of King is he doesn't always know how to end his books, sometimes he does but often they can't help but feel a little anti-climatic

but other than that he's absolutely one of my favorites, he's so good that even a lesser novel by him like CELL or DUMA KEY are still well worth reading

and all of his short story collections, including the most recent one JUST AFTER SUNSET, are solid gold

Mike said...

I can't even look at one of those grinning, cymbal-playing toy monkeys (particularly the retro one (you know what it looks like)) without thinking of that story "The Monkey" and that line from it "jang-jang-jang, wind me up, let's play and who's dead, Hal? Is it you?"