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Night Shift

Stephen King



  Title Page

  Introduction by John D. MacDonald Foreword

  Jerusalem's Lot Graveyard Shift Night Surf I Am the Doorway The Mangler The Boogeyman Gray Matter Battleground Trucks

  Sometimes They Come Back Strawberry Spring The Ledge The Lawnmower Man Quitters, Inc.

  I Know What You Need Children of the Corn

  The Last Rung on the Ladder The Man Who Loved Flowers One for the Road The Woman in the Room

  By Stephen King Copyright


  I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whenever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, "You know, I've always wanted to write."

  I used to try to be polite.

  These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement: "You know, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon." They look puzzled. It doesn't matter. There are a lot of puzzled people wandering around lately.

  If you want to write, you write.

  The only way to learn to write is by writing. And that would not be a useful approach to brain surgery. Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes.

  So he wrote Carrie and 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, and the good short stories you can read in this book, and a stupendous number of other stories and books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wretched to ever publish.

  Because that is the way it is done.

  Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.

  Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

  You read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.

  You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace, or character.

  Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.

  Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity. Never total objectivity.

  At this frangible moment in time I am typing these words on my blue machine, seven lines down from the top of my page two of this introduction, knowing clearly the flavor and meaning I am hunting for, but not at all certain I am getting it.

  Having been around twice as long as Stephen King, I have a little more objectivity about my work than he has about his. It comes so painfully and so slowly.

  You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them. I would give a pretty to get them all back home and take one last good swing at every one of them. Page by page. Digging and cleaning, brushing and furbishing. Tidying up.

  Stephen King is a far, far better writer at thirty than I was at thirty, or at forty. I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this.

  And I think I know of a dozen demons hiding in the bushes where his path leads, and even if I had a way to warn him, it would do no good. He whips them or they whip him.

  It is exactly that simple. Are we all together so far?

  Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what? Story. Story. Dammit, story!

  Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about. It can happen in any dimension--physical, mental, spiritual--and in combinations of those dimensions.

  Without author intrusion.

  Author intrusion is: "My God, Mama, look how nice I'm writing!"

  Another kind of intrusion is a grotesquerie. Here is one of my favorites, culled from a Big Best Seller of yesteryear: "His eyes slid down the front of her dress."

  Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he backs out of the story. He is shocked back out of the story.

  Another author intrusion is the mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failings.

  An image can be neatly done, be unexpected, and not break the spell. In a story in this book called "Trucks," Stephen King is writing about a tense scene of waiting in a truck stop, describing the people: "He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep."

  I find that neat.

  In another story he demonstrates his good ear, the ring of exactness and truth he can give dialogue. A man and his wife are on a long trip. They are traveling a back road. She says: "Yes, Burt. I know we're in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?" He says: "You've got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can't you read?"

  Nice. It looks so simple. Just like brain surgery. The knife has an edge. You hold it so. And cut.

  Now at risk of being an iconoclast I will say that I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate.

  There are a lot of slitherings in here, and there is a maddened pressing machine that haunts me, as it will you, and there are

  enough persuasively evil children to fill Disney World on any Sunday in February, but the main thing is story. One is led to care.

  Note this. Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humor and the occult. In clumsy hands the humor turns to dirge and the occult turns funny.

  But once you know how, you can write in any area.

  Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest.

  One of the most resonant and affecting stories in this book is "The Last Rung on the Ladder." A gem. Nary a rustle nor breath of other worlds in it.

  Final word.

  He does not write to please you. He writes to please himself. I write to please myself. When that happens, you will like the work too. These stories pleased Stephen King and they pleased me.

  By strange coincidence on the day I write this, Stephen King's novel The Shining and my novel Condominium are both on the Best Seller List. We are not in competition for your attention with each other. We are in competition, I suppose, with the inept and pretentious and sensational books published by household names who have never really bothered to learn their craft.

  Insofar as story is concerned, and pleasure is concerned, there are not enough Stephen Kings to go around. If you have read this whole thing, I hope you have plenty of time. You could have been reading the stories.



  Let's talk, you and I. Let's talk about fear.

  The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It's night. Sometimes when the wind blows the way it's blowing now, we lose the power. But for now it's on, and so let's talk very honestly about fear. Let's talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness . . . and perhaps over the edge.

  My name is Stephen King. I am a grown man with a wife and three children. I love them, and I believe that the feeling is reciprocated. My job is writing, and it's a job I like very much. The stories--Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining--have been successful enough to allow me to write full-time, which is an agreeable thing to be able to do. At this point in my life I seem to be reasonably healthy. In the last year I have been able to reduce my cigarette habit from the unfiltered brand I had smoked since I was eighteen to a low nicotine and tar brand, and I still hope to be able to quit completely. My family and I live in a pleasant house beside a relatively unpolluted lake in Ma
ine; last fall I awoke one morning and saw a deer standing on the back lawn by the picnic table. We have a good life.

  Still . . . let's talk about fear. We won't raise our voices and we won't scream; we'll talk rationally, you and I. We'll talk about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness.

  At night, when I go to bed I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I'm not a child anymore but . . . I don't like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn't happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures; vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.

  Sometimes I speak before groups of people who are interested in writing or in literature, and before the question-and-answer period is over, someone always rises and asks this question: Why do you choose to write about such gruesome subjects?

  I usually answer this with another question: Why do you assume that I have a choice?

  Writing is a catch-as-catch-can sort of occupation. All of us seem to come equipped with filters on the floors of our minds, and all the filters have differing sizes and meshes. What catches in my filter may run right through yours. What catches in yours may pass through mine, no sweat. All of us seem to have a built-in obligation to sift through the sludge that gets caught in our respective mind-filters, and what we find there usually develops into some sort of sideline. The accountant may also be a photographer. The astronomer may collect coins. The schoolteacher may do gravestone rubbings in charcoal. The sludge caught in the mind's filter, the stuff that refuses to go through, frequently becomes each person's private obsession. In civilized society we have an unspoken agreement to call our obsessions "hobbies."

  Sometimes the hobby can become a full-time job. The accountant may discover that he can make enough money to support his family taking pictures; the schoolteacher may become enough of an expert on grave rubbings to go on the lecture circuit. And there are some professions which begin as hobbies and remain hobbies even after the practitioner is able to earn his living by pursuing his hobby; but because "hobby" is such a bumpy, common-sounding little word, we also have an unspoken agreement that we will call our professional hobbies "the arts."

  Painting. Sculpture. Composing. Singing. Acting. The playing of a musical instrument. Writing. Enough books have been written on these seven subjects alone to sink a fleet of luxury liners. And the only thing we seem to be able to agree upon about them is this: that those who practice these arts honestly would continue to practice them even if they were not paid for their efforts; even if their efforts were criticized or even reviled; even on pain of imprisonment or death. To me, that seems to be a pretty fair definition of obsessional behavior. It applies to the plain hobbies as well as the fancy ones we call "the arts"; gun collectors sport bumper stickers reading YOU WILL TAKE MY GUN ONLY WHEN YOU PRY MY COLD DEAD FINGERS FROM IT, and in the suburbs of Boston, housewives who discovered political activism during the busing furor often sported similar stickers reading YOU'LL TAKE ME TO PRISON BEFORE YOU TAKE MY CHILDREN OUT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD on the back

  bumpers of their station wagons. Similarly, if coin collecting were outlawed tomorrow, the astronomer very likely wouldn't turn in his steel pennies and buffalo nickels; he'd wrap them carefully in plastic, sink them to the bottom of his toilet tank, and gloat over them after midnight.

  We seem to be wandering away from the subject of fear, but we really haven't wandered very far. The sludge that catches in the mesh of my drain is often the stuff of fear. My obsession is with the macabre. I didn't write any of the stories which follow for money, although some of them were sold to magazines before they appeared here and I never once returned a check uncashed. I may be obsessional but I'm not crazy. Yet I repeat: I didn't write them for money; I wrote them because it occurred to me to write them. I have a marketable obsession. There are madmen and madwomen in padded cells the world over who are not so lucky.

  I am not a great artist, but I have always felt impelled to write. So each day I sift the sludge anew, going through the cast-off bits and pieces of observation, of memory, of speculation, trying to make something out of the stuff that didn't go through the filter and down the drain into the subconscious.

  Louis L'Amour, the Western writer, and I might both stand at the edge of a small pond in Colorado, and we both might

  have an idea at exactly the same time. We might both feel the urge to sit down and try to work it out in words. His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep . . . and horses . . . and finally people. Louis L'Amour's "obsession" centers on the history of the American West; I tend more toward things that slither by starlight. He writes Westerns; I write fearsomes. We're both a little bit nuts.

  The arts are obsessional, and obsession is dangerous. It's like a knife in the mind. In some cases--Dylan Thomas comes to mind, and Ross Lockridge and Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath--the knife can turn savagely upon the person wielding it. Art is a localized illness, usually benign--creative people tend to live a long time--sometimes terribly malignant. You use the knife carefully, because you know it doesn't care who it cuts. And if you are wise you sift the sludge carefully . . . because some of that stuff may not be dead.

  After the why do you write that stuff question has been disposed of, the companion question comes up: Why do people read that stuff? What makes it sell? This question carries a hidden assumption with it, and the assumption is that the story about fear, the story about horror, is an unhealthy taste. People who write me often begin by saying, "I suppose you will think I'm strange, but I really liked 'Salem's Lot" or "Probably I'm morbid, but I enjoyed every page of The Shining . . ."

  I think the key to this may lie in a line of movie criticism from Newsweek magazine. The review was of a horror film, not a very good one, and it went something like this: ". . . a wonderful movie for people who like to slow down and look at car accidents." It's a good snappy line, but when you stop and think about it, it applies to all horror films and stories. The Night of the Living Dead, with its gruesome scenes of human cannibalism and matricide, was certainly a film for people who like to slow down and look at car accidents; and how about that little girl puking pea soup all over the priest in The Exorcist? Bram Stoker's Dracula, often a basis of comparison for the modern horror story (as it should be; it is the first with unabashedly psycho-Freudian overtones), features a maniac named Renfield who gobbles flies, spiders, and finally a bird. He regurgitates the bird, having eaten it feathers and all. The novel also features the impalement--the ritual penetration, one could say--of a young and lovely female vampire and the murder of a baby and the baby's mother.

  The great literature of the supernatural often contains the same "let's slow down and look at the accident" syndrome: Beowulf slaughtering Grendel's mother; the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" dismembering his cataract-stricken benefactor and putting the pieces under the floorboards; the Hobbit Sam's grim battle with Shelob the spider in the final book of Tolkien's Rings trilogy.

  There will be some who will object strenuously to this line of thought, saying that Henry James is not showing us a car accident in The Turn of the Screw; they will claim that Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories of the macabre, such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Minister's Black Veil," are also rather more tasteful than Dracula. It's a nonsensical idea. They are still showing us the car accident; the bodies have been removed but we can still see the twisted wreckage and observe the blood on the upholstery. In some ways the delicacy,
the lack of melodrama, the low and studied tone of rationality that pervades a story like "The Minister's Black Veil" is even more terrible than Lovecraft's batrachian monstrosities or the auto-da-fe of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum."

  The fact is--and most of us know this in our hearts--that very few of us can forgo an uneasy peek at the wreckage bracketed by police cars and road flares on the turnpike at night. Senior citizens pick up the paper in the morning and immediately turn to the obituary column so they can see who they outlived. All of us are uneasily transfixed for a moment when we hear that a Dan Blocker has died, a Freddie Prinze, a Janis Joplin. We feel terror mixed with an odd sort of glee when we hear Paul Harvey on the radio telling us that a woman walked into a propeller blade during a rain squall at a small country airport or that a man in a giant industrial blender was vaporized immediately when a co-worker stumbled against the controls. No need to belabor the obvious; life is full of horrors small and large, but because the small ones are the ones we can comprehend, they are the ones that smack home with all the force of mortality.

  Our interest in these pocket horrors is undeniable, but so is our own revulsion. The two of them mix uneasily, and the by-product of the mix seems to be guilt . . . a guilt which seems not much different from the guilt that used to accompany sexual awakening.