Night Shift by Stephen King (1978) 316 p.

Stephen King, back in the day, could spin a damn good yarn. It’s a shame that in the last decade or so he went a little odd – as I lamented many times while slogging through the end of the Dark Tower series – but he really had the spark in his youth. Night Shift, first published in 1978, is a collection of various short stories King had published throught the late 60s and the 1970s, at the very beginning of his long writing career.

By and large I enjoyed most of the stories in here – particularly “Grey Matter,” “Trucks,” “Children of the Corn” and “One for the Road” – and found that quite a few of them hit that sweet spot of intriguing paranormal mystery. I like King not so much because he’s a horror writer – I’m never scared by what he writes, more “creeped out” – but because I find an engaging mystery to be an excellent form of fiction. I don’t mean a whodunnit mystery, with a group of diverse and enigmatic characters discovering a murder on a train in the 1920s and trying to figure out which of them did it. Those kinds of mysteries are boring. (Spoiler – it turns out one of the characters did it!) What I love is a good speculative fiction mystery, where something bizarre and inexplicable is happening – like the TV series Lost, the Priest’s Tale in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, or the novel Inverted World.

Where King falters in Night Shift is when he tries to explain the mystery, and usually does so with the Bible/witchcraft/demons. One particularly egregious example is “The Mangler,” an otherwise excellent story about a piece of industrial laundry equipment which keeps injuring and killing people, and which an investigating police detective feels has some kind of malevolent presence inside it. It should have been left at that – an inexplicable bloodlust in an inanimate object. That, for my money, is a lot more frightening (and, in terms of suspension of disbelief, plausible) than King’s explanation, which involves a witchcraft ritual and a possessive demon and a crazy set of coincidences. Once that sort of thing starts trickling in I find myself rolling my eyes, and unfortunately a fair few of the stories in this volume could have been a lot better than they are precisely because of this over-exposition. There are also two ordinary “literary” stories towards the end of the book, and if I want to read something with no horror, sci-fi or fantasy elements, there’s a fairly long list of authors I’ll turn to before Stephen King.

Nonetheless, Night Shift is still a pretty good collection of short stories. A lot better than most anthologies I read, and a hell of a lot better than most stuff he’s written since the 1990s – although, with a lot of positive reviews for The Wind Through The Keyhole and 11/22/63, I may have to look him up again. I definitely want to read some more of his early works, and I have The Long Walk and The Running Man on my TBR pile.

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