Revisiting Night Shift by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I can’t even begin to guess at how many times I have read this collection, nor can I remember the first time I picked it up. I know I was in college at the time, and I know it was summer break and I devoured many of the stories sitting in the shade of the weeping willow tree in my side yard, but that’s all that comes back to me.
Except for the stories, of course.
Always the stories.
It feels like they have always been a part of me. In fact, along with “The Monkey” (which was collected in SKELETON CREW), the 20 short stories that comprise NIGHT SHIFT are as responsible for my becoming a writer as anything else from my past.
I read em, I loved em, and I immediately wanted to write stories just like em; stories that would make other readers feel the same way I did.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that that was easier hoped for than done. And that’s part of the beauty of these 20 stories. They are deceptively simple tales. Nothing fancy. Nothing pretentious.
They don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are: just good (or, in some cases, great) character-driven stories that are crisp and well written and, mostly, very scary.
I’ll do my best here to recount my initial feelings about each of the 20 tales (beware of spoilers):
JERUSALEM’S LOT – Okay, let’s start off with a surprise. I actually very much disliked this opening story the first couple times I read NIGHT SHIFT. I was young and impatient, and the purposely dated prose and the lengthy back story just didn’t work for me. In fact, it kind of bored me. Gulp. Thankfully, I got smarter with age.
GRAVEYARD SHIFT – I worked some crappy jobs in college, so this story not only scared me, it also resonated with me. It was all too easy to picture myself in the main character’s shoes, taking the lousy graveyard shift to make a few extra bucks. Love the final line of the story.
NIGHT SURF – I remember having a nightmare about this story. A bad one. Not much else needs to be said.
I AM THE DOORWAY – Clever and creepy, and packs a lot of story into only a handful of pages. Like most young boys, I always wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. After reading this story, I was glad I had changed my mind.
THE MANGLER – I know some people think this one is a little silly because of the outlandish storyline. Not me. Uh uh. I believed every word of it, and it haunted me for years. Still does. Also, like many Stephen King tales, it features wonderfully chilling opening and closing lines:
Officer Hunton got to the laundry just as the ambulance was leaving–slowly, with no siren or flashing lights. Ominous.
His hand dropped from the telephone.
It was already out.
That, folks, is the really really good stuff.
THE BOOGEYMAN – Another short with a great closing line:
It still held its Dr. Harper mask in one rotted, spade claw hand.
It begs, as many of these tales do, to be made into a comic book. I liked this one so much I always swore that one day I would write a long story or a book with the identical title…so I finally am.
GRAY MATTER – I love stories set in the snow, and this is the first of many in Stephen King’s career. In fact, everything about it screams THIS IS A STEVE KING TALE! The small town Maine setting, the cast of colorful, true-to-life characters, the snappy down-home dialogue…and, of course, the gray matter. Ugh.
BATTLEGROUND – You would think that a young man who had spent his little boy years fascinated with miniature army men — my God, the hours I spent arranging intricate battlefields on my basement carpet and amongst the dirt mounds that bordered my side yard — would have adored this story. But you would be wrong. I found it entertaining enough, but a little too silly to frighten or stick with me.
TRUCKS – Yet another one with a killer last line (starting to see a pattern here?). I remember telling my buddy, Jimmy Cavanaugh, about this story the same day I read it. He responded with something along the lines of: “That sounds cool as shit. Needs to be a movie.” Jimmy may have cheated at board games, but he was a smart guy.
SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK – Another story that gave me nightmares. I don’t recall the entire dream, but I do remember the switchblade snapping open just before I woke up tangled in my sheet and soaked in sweat. A fine, thoughtful story that packs an entire novel’s worth of scares and plot into twenty or so pages.
STRAWBERRY SPRING – I fell in love with this story from the first reading. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a cool summer evening, and there was a thunderstorm blowing in over the hill. I was sitting on my front porch lost in the story and the moment I was finished, I flipped back and read it again. The college campus setting, the amazing atmosphere, the mystery, the sense of dread. It all felt like a textbook lesson on how to write a good story, and it made me want to run inside to my electric typewriter.
THE LEDGE – I may have only been 18 or 19 the first time I read NIGHT SHIFT, but I was an opinionated 18 or 19. I remember reading “The Ledge” and thinking: “Decent story, but they put it in the wrong place in the book. It shouldn’t have followed ‘Strawberry Spring.'”
Something about this gritty crime story following the atmospheric terrors of “Strawberry Spring” bothered me tremendously back then. It felt jarring…and somehow wrong.
Probably, it was just me, not wanting to leave that magic college landscape enveloped in fog and mist. And probably its placement was by design, to demonstrate King’s already incredible storytelling range.
But it bothered me then, and I have never forgotten that.
THE LAWNMOWER MAN – The most outrageous story of the bunch. I also read this one twice, just to try to figure out what the hell was going on. I’m still not sure I know.
QUITTERS, INC. – A brilliant and underrated short story. Featuring one of the nastiest villains in the entire book, I wish Stanley Kubrick had left THE SHINING alone and directed a movie of QUITTERS, INC. instead.
I KNOW WHAT YOU NEED – Another story that opens on a college campus (which I very much liked at the time) and another original storyline that stayed with me for a long time.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN – Loved everything about this chilling story and even remember taking a date to see the film version at the old Edgewood Movie Theater. Not only am I still wary of anyone named Malachi, my kids will tell you that I still love to torture them with tales of He Who Walks Behind the Rows (only I have renamed him “Stick Man”).
THE LAST RUNG OF THE LADDER – Embarrassing admission: I didn’t dig this one very much the first time I read it. I might’ve even been a little bored. But, hey, as I noted somewhere above, I got a little smarter as I grew older.
THE MAN WHO LOVED FLOWERS – Another story that made me want to run to my typewriter, very much like “Strawberry Spring.” Maybe I should’ve figured out what was going on in this very short, very straight-forward piece of writing, but I didn’t; not until the moment he pulled the hammer out from his pocket. I guess I was too lost in the lovely prose and the sights and sounds and smells of the city sidewalks.
ONE FOR THE ROAD – My favorite story in the book. A raging snow storm. A cozy locals’ tavern. A family lost on the road. And whispers of strange happenings in a nearby town.
And wait…the name of the town is ‘Salem’s Lot!
I felt like I had been handed the keys to the kingdom when I realized this was a mini-sequel to the classic novel, and the short story didn’t let me down.
More about this tale a little later…
THE WOMAN IN THE ROOM – Embarrassing admission #2: this story, just like “The Last Rung of the Ladder,” fell flat for me the first time I read it. I was young and immature, and I guess my mind was still back in ‘Salem’s Lot with that poor family who lost their sweet little girl in a snowstorm…
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
Times change and people change.
I didn’t even mention John D. MacDonald’s wonderful introduction or King’s informative preface in my “That Was Then” essay, and there was a good reason for that. I didn’t read them. Not during my first or second or probably even my third devouring of NIGHT SHIFT. I just skipped em and went right to the good stuff.
Or so I thought.
Now, I realize these two non-fiction pieces are very much also the good stuff, and are the perfect table-setters for the rest of the collection.
I also learned to have a better appreciation — and understanding — of several of the stories that didn’t grab me in younger days — the sheer storytelling and narrative drive of “Jerusalem’s Lot,” and the emotional depth and impact of “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” and “The Woman in the Room.”
I wish I could say the same of “The Lawnmower Man,” but that just ain’t happening.
I have also figured out that stories such as “Strawberry Spring” and “The Man who Loved Flowers” stood out as my early favorites because they were the type of twisty, psychological tales I was destined to write myself. Early magic at work.
I’m also at a very different stage in my career now, so looking back at my early reads of this collection and thinking about how I have come very close to writing film versions of both ONE FOR THE ROAD (came close a couple times on this one; ugh) and QUITTERS, INC. (the movie would’ve starred Samuel L. Jackson as Donetti and would have been amazing!) — well, if that doesn’t give credence to the power of following your dream, I don’t know what does.
Finally, one more snapshot from the dream come true file: my family spent a glorious week last December vacationing in Florida and I happened to sneak a photo of my then 15-year-old son, Billy, reading NIGHT SHIFT for the first time. Needless to say, discussing the stories with him as he finished each one was a major highlight of that trip.
I tend to dream big — always have — and while the teenaged Rich Chizmar sitting and reading under that weeping willow tree at 1920 Hanson Road definitely had his sights set on one day becoming a writer, he never dared to think about a day when he might be watching his own son enjoying the same tattered paperback.
I can’t even describe how grateful I am for that gift.
* * *
The scariest and most memorable scene in the entire book: the pale little vampire girl floating above the snow in ONE FOR THE ROAD.
I broke off, and if there was ever a time in my life I was close to swooning, that was the moment. She was standing there, you see, but she was standing on top of the snow and there were no tracks, not in any direction.
She looked up at me then, Lumley’s daughter Francie. She was no more than seven years old, and she was going to be seven for an eternity of nights. Her little face was a ghastly corpse white, her eyes a red and silver that you could fall into. And below her jaw I could see two small punctures like pinpricks, their edges horribly mangled.
She held out her arms at me and smiled. “Pick me up, mister,” she said softly. “I want to give you a kiss…”
Just typing those words today brings chills to my spine and a smile of satisfaction to my face. Stephen King has grown to become a truly legendary author of American fiction, but this is why most of us first fell in love with his writing: a pale little girl, lost in the snow, her eyes glowing red, arms outstretched for one final kiss…
It’s a tie: ONE FOR THE ROAD and THE MANGLER.
I’ve already covered my thoughts — then and now — on each story, so I won’t repeat myself, but I dare anyone to read either and not feel a genuine sense of dread overcome them.
(Honorable mentions: GRAVEYARD SHIFT and SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK)
It’s a long one — from STRAWBERRY SPRING. It’s subtle and beautifully written and laced with unease, and I sure wish I had written it:
Then, today’s paper.
Of course I knew it was here. I knew it yesterday morning when I got up and heard the mysterious sound of snowmelt running down the gutters, and smelled the salt tang of the ocean from our front porch, nine miles from the nearest beach. I knew strawberry spring had come again when I started home from work last night and had to turn on my headlights against the mist that was already beginning to creep out of the fields and hollows, blurring the lines of the buildings and putting fairy haloes around the streetlamps.
This morning’s paper says that a girl was killed on the New Sharon campus near the Civil War cannons. She was killed last night and found in a melting snowbank. She was not…she was not all there.
My wife is upset. She wants to know where I was last night. I can’t tell her because I don’t remember. I remember starting home from work, and I remember putting my headlights on to search my way through the lovely creeping fog, but that’s all I remember.
I’ve been thinking about that foggy night when I had a headache and walked for air and passed all the lovely shadows without shape or substance. And I’ve been thinking about the trunk of my car — such an ugly word, trunk — and wondering why in the world I should be afraid to open it.
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.
ONE FOR THE ROAD. As you can surely tell by now, I love everything about this story. The characters. Setting. Atmosphere. Mood. And, oh man, that snowstorm and that little girl and her tiny fangs.
(Honorable mentions: STRAWBERRY SPRING and THE MAN WHO LOVED FLOWERS)
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Plenty of deserving choices for this one, but I’m going with this snippet from GRAY MATTER:
What we saw in that one or two seconds will last me a lifetime–or whatever’s left of it. It was like a huge gray wave of jelly, jelly that looked like a man, and leaving a trail of slime behind it.
But that wasn’t the worst. Its eyes were flat and yellow and wild, with no human soul in ’em. Only there wasn’t two. There were four, an’ right down the center of the thing, betwixt the two pair of eyes, was a white fibrous line with a kind of pulsing pink flesh showing through like a slit in a hog’s belly.
It was dividing, you see. Dividing in two.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
The tortured narrator of STRAWBERRY SPRING. By the conclusion of the story, he knows. He is sitting in his house, writing, and thinking about the morning’s newspaper with its headline trumpeting another murder the night before. His wife is crying in the next room. And he knows. So…what the heck happens next?
START DATE – December 14, 2014
FINISH DATE – December 21, 2014