Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stephen King - Skeleton Crew

I've often heard that Stephen King's as good a writer of short stories as he is of novels, or – from some – that he's even better in that form, but my one experience with the man's short fiction, Everything's Eventual, did anything but confirm that opinion. Still, Everything's Eventual collected stories written relatively late in the man's career, and, as I've now said many times on this blog, all of the man's later works have failed to live up to his earlier, in my opinion. So we come to Skeleton Crew, the second collection from the man that many consider the greatest of all horror writers, and the man that – if the bibliography in this very volume's to be believed – is not only the bestselling horror author but the best selling author of all time. Does the collection live up to the man's reputation? Yes and no, really. Almost everything here's at least enjoyable, but there are two or three or more limpers for every homerun. But, of course, those homeruns sure can fly.

One of the things that I found most interesting in the collection is that many – though certainly not all – of the stories here are of a very different kind of horror from what King generally writes.  For a while now I've divided horror into two general groups: stories where the horror comes from the characters/humanity, such as the majority of King's work (The Shining, Pet Semetary, etc), and then stories where the horror comes from the unknowable world around the characters, Weird Fiction ala Lovecraft. Many stories here fall into that latter category, The Mist foremost among them. The Mist is, of course, the highest profile story here, initially released in the horror superstar anthology Dark Forces and, more recently, made into a movie and, as a result, released as a brief standalone volume (though why that would improve on the collection I've no idea). The reasons for the story's success and prevalence are damn easy to see: put simply, The Mist is one of King's best tales.

As always, King proves himself an incredible writer of people. Our narrator, David, and his wife and son are forced to huddle away from a ferocious summer storm. As they do, King humanizes each of them with quirks of diction and action, as well as the touching and believable ways that they interact with one another. Later, King extends that to the story's secondary characters, often establishing entire personalities with only a line or two, like when the narrator explains that he didn't care for Bud Brown, who seemed to fancy himself the Charles de Gaulle of the supermarket world (p. 51) or one of the descriptions of Mrs. Carmody: The easiest [person] to pick out was Mrs. Carmody in her blazing-yellow pantsuit. She looked like an advertisement for yellow fever. (p. 54)

The story proper gets started as a mist begins to approach from a nonsensical direction, a mist so dense that nothing can be glimpsed from within. As it comes, David and his son are, along with much of the town's population, in the only nearby supermarket, and it's there that they're trapped, for strange and horrible creatures walk the mist, monstrosities made up of tentacles and monolithic size that have turned the mist-drowned world into an alien hell unimaginable. The mist is change inescapable and catastrophic, and the heart of the story is the way that the ensemble cast reacts. Some collapse in despair, others refuse to believe what they be, blind themselves with regulations and routine, or try and escape their situation by fixating on an increasingly malevolent god.

Amidst all this, though, King refuses to give in to defeatism. His writing is dark, often and in this case punishingly so, but he still will not let go of the worth he sees in humanity. Carrying the fire was a very big deal for him, the narrator writes of his son. It helped him forget about being afraid. (p. 28) And it does more than that; by the end, the characters are, for all that they know, alone, and it's only their will that keeps them and all going. But King's optimism is not a blind one, and his triumphs are never easy or certain. I know that I've very often criticized the man's endings, but the ambiguous final scene of The Mist is absolutely perfect, filled at once with hope and horror in equal measures.

If The Mist challenges King's optimism, Survivor Type does its best to hack it off with a buzz saw. This  is a story of human determination, and, while reading, it's almost impossible to not think that, sometimes, it goes too far. But, as the narrator says, the only mortal sin is giving up. (p. 423) As we begin, the narrator's trapped on an island, alone and with no food. His fate seems sealed, but he disagrees and will always disagree. The center of the story soon becomes this question: How much shock-trauma can the patient stand? (p. 407) And the answer: How badly does the patient want to live? (p. 407) Well, our narrator wants to live very badly indeed, and, as the tale progresses, is forced to cut off and eat his own limbs to survive. This is a sickening story, that I won't deny, but it's written so compellingly, and with an undercurrent of the most perverted idealism, that it's impossible to ever look away. I won't be forgetting this one for a while, and I dare say you won't be either.

Beachworld, The Raft, and The Monkey are also tales of man facing an inevitable fate in an uncaring world. The first two are both extremely enjoyable, but The Monkey proves more perplexing. Essentially, the ending destroys the metaphor the story's built on. We begin as the main character sees his sons playing with a windup monkey toy that he had in his childhood. His reaction, one of abject terror, confuses them. The monkey, as we found out, dominated his youth as it clanged its cymbals together to signal each death around him. Now it's returned, and he sees it as tragedy returning to savage his idyllic life. Now, it must be stressed that the monkey itself does not kill its victims; it's not some cheap monster movie villain. No, the monkey merely clangs as they die from seemingly unrelated means. The monkey, it seems, is death, its shadow over each and every tragedy in the narrator's life. And yet, at the story's end, the protagonist succeeds in throwing the monkey into a lake, and the monkey – which has, for the entire story, been built up as a personification of death itself – is gone for good this time. […] The monkey would not be back to draw a shadow over Dennis's life or Petey's. (p. 195) So the narrator just killed death? Huh?

Of the other types of tales present, the most forgettable are generally the shortest and most violent. Here There Be Tygers is a quick story whose only event of note is the teacher being slaughtered by a tiger, but Cain Rose Up takes the cake in this category, a brief but bloody piece in which a student massacres his classmates. These certainly contain horror, but they don't make us care, and, without that, the horror's just spectacle. Most, however, are better than that, even if a fair few are competent horror like Word Processor of the Gods that show up, have a decent time, and then fade away without leaving much of an impression.

A few of the stories here distinguish themselves more in the manner of their telling than in the events told, primarily Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands, and The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. By far the most successful is the last of those just listed. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is a conversation between an editor, an agent, a writer, and the writer's wife, and it focuses on a story of insanity that the editor received. Of course, the editor – and King behind him – admits that the one thing the American reading public doesn't need foisted upon them is another story about Going Mad Stylishly in America […] But this story was funny. I mean, it was really hilarious. (p. 500) And so it is. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is absurd, simply told, and damn fun to read.

Alas, the other two frame-focused don't work nearly as well. The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands is a genteel story too proper in its telling to allow much humor beyond a polite nod and too vague and insubstantial to be particularly affecting. Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, on the other hand, is an interesting but far from exceptional tale about driving off the map and the addictions and dangers therein. In both cases, the cumbersome nature of their back and forth telling delays what satisfaction there is long past the point of sustainability, drowning their already meager cores with verbiage that's adequately written but does little or nothing to excite.

But I'm just getting lost in the details and the negatives. Those stories I've just pointed out and criticized? There are flaws in all of 'em, flaws – a tendency to excess, sentimentalism, and/or what have you – but you know what else? They're (almost) all still involving tales, and you can bet that goes double for those I didn't critique and triple for those I praised. King can make you care with a line, can pen a character like almost no one else, can draw you in with irrelevancies and keep you there with quirks and mannerisms and realities like nobody else. It's great when King generates dread thick enough for you to drown in, when he makes you laugh, and when he pens the human race's condition and downfall in a hundred page novella. But all of that's superfluous to his real charm, and, even in his weakest tales, even as King's pacing and construction and themes fall down and fall away, it's still damn hard to look away from the page and from the character's that he's so excellently birthed from nothing at all.

Skeleton Crew is like Stephen King's career in miniature. It's got a huge amount of work, all of which makes you care, almost all of which is decent,, with the occasional burst of brilliance so radiant it justifies every unnecessary word in the pieces that surround it. This is, without a doubt, worth purchasing for The Mist, and I can promise that you'll have a good time with just about all the rest, even if damn few of them will still be kicking around in your skull two weeks later at the least expected moments.

Standouts: The Mist, Survivor Type, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet


  1. The Mist was made into a solid film. I strongly recommend it, although with a word of warning: the ending is a total gut punch. An optimistic one, but a gut punch nonetheless.

  2. I saw the film a few years back, actually, and quite enjoyed it. I should definitely see it again, now that I've read the tale.

  3. "Skeleton Crew is like Stephen King's career in miniature."

    How very apt! You're also right about his weaknesses as a writer... but still, he can be utterly captivating. I haven't liked much if any of his stuff for years - haven't even been interested in it, really - but this collection was an essential part of my horror fiction history. And "The Mist" is one of my favorite stories ever. EVER.