Monday, 26 February 2018

The Stephen King Mixtape

This is the fourth in an occasional series of mixtape posts (the previous ones featured Brit Horror, American Horror and Women In Horror) that seemed to go down well and, judging by emails I received, resulted in readers discovering new writers and stories.

The idea for this edition came from the King For A Year project I curated during 2015 (where a lot of people reviewed a lot of Stephen King novels over twelve months) and to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Night Shift, we're once again harking back to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage) for a compilation of his short stories and novellas.  Some you might have heard of, some might be new to you, but they're all well worth a read and I hope you find a new favourite on the list.
Where possible, the title/author link will take you to Amazon where the collection is available as an ebook - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?  
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.

Mrs Todd's Shortcut
(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
Stephen King’s novels dominated my horror shelf as a teenager in the 1980s and only later did I discover his short stories, my favourite being this.  It’s redolent of a Maine that I have no idea whether existed or not, of orange soda-pop and sunlight sparkling on the lake with King being Bradburyesque is his loving, nostalgic portrait of Castle Rock, complete with sour tones beneath.

In describing Ophelia Todd, who has disappeared on one of her shortcuts, Homer Buckland (the Todds’ caretaker of their big summer home), describes social mores of the townfolks and their summer visitors with their “aggressive, boozy summer socializing”.  Ophelia Todd isn’t like the other summer people. She’s as happy to “do desk duty in the library as well as to raise money for it”. Her dogged search for a shorter route reveals a very different woman. Her mantra is “if you save enough distance, you’ll save time as well”. She’s willing to drive into danger in this strange pursuit. She takes the forgotten roads, “roads with blackberry bushes growing alongside them but nobody to eat the berries but the birds and gravel pits with old rusted chains hanging down in low curves in front of their entry-ways, the pits themselves as forgotten as a child’s old toys with scrumgrass growing up their deserted unremembered sides.”

Homer can only want her and wonder if he’s brave enough to follow her on her adventure that bends time and space. Ultimately Ophelia Todd is powerful, beautiful and terrible too. “There was something wild that crept into her face, Dave- something wild and something free, and it frightened my heart. She was beautiful, and I was took with love for her, anyone would have been, any man, anyway, and maybe any woman too, but I was scairt of her too, because she looked like she could kill you if her eye left the road and fell on you and she decided to love you back.”

The Man Who Loved Flowers
(from Night Shift, 1978)
Night Shift was the first opportunity I had to read Stephen King's short fiction and even though a chunk of my childhood reading had been various horror anthologies, this collection was like a revelation - modern (mainly) and grim, gruesome and often darkly amusing.  I loved it.  The work affected me, made me look at short stories in a different way and made me want to write them myself.  Key to this was The Man Who Loved Flowers, a deceptively simple tale of a young man "in love.  He had that look about him", walking along New York's Third Avenue in May 1963.

I've still never been to New York, I wasn't alive in 1963 but King puts the reader right there, perfectly capturing the era, the atmosphere and that early evening light.  As the story goes on we realise something is wrong as he walks to see Norma but, back then, the twist threw me and even now (having read it reproduced in countless short stories published since), it's still effective, making me feel excited and thrilled and scared and just a little bit nostalgic.

If you're a fan of horror you simply cannot go wrong with this collection and this seven page story is a classic example of how a tale should be told.
chosen by Mark West

Children Of The Corn
(from Night Shift, 1978)
Part folk horror, part Who Can Kill a Child?, part Twilight Zone, "Children of the Corn" is Stephen King at his best, lean and hardboiled and absolutely chilling. It was one of my favourite stories by him when I first read it as a teenager and it remains such to this day. It's also a deft portrait of a fast-disintegrating marriage, one in which Burt's utter contempt for Vicky—the kind of contempt that can only occur out of a former intimacy between two people, partners or family members—leads to catastrophe. It begins with a bang, literally, and proceeds with a series of increasingly uneasy revelations and a growing sense of doom that culminates in an absolutely horrific image—that of Vicky after the children have prepared her for sacrifice. The juxtaposition of fundamentalist religious language with the worship of a monstrous, murderous god is particularly unsettling if you've grown up in a place where such sentiments are commonplace. Erase the dreadful (in all the wrong ways) film version from your mind; the story is an absolute masterclass in how to write a short piece of horror fiction.
chosen by Lynda E. Rucker

The Last Rung On The Ladder
(from Night Shift, 1978)
I am pretty confident that if I found a hundred people who’d never read a Stephen King story, and handed them a copy of this, not one would be able to guess the identity of the author. It contains none of the usual tropes related to horror, the genre that for the past 40 years has been synonymous with Stephen King – no zombies, ghosts, knife-wielding madmen – and yet it remains (at least to this reader) one of the most emotionally devastating stories ever written.

It concerns a narrator, Larry, and his memories of a childhood event that has significant relevance to a letter he has just received from his sister, Kitty. King effortlessly weaves a tale of familial memory featuring shifts in tense, a neat transition from exposition to exquisitely detailed action where the suspense is almost unbearable, through to a weighty ending filled with pathos and regret. The story works perfectly because we recognise the truth in the tragedy of life, we understand the inevitability of the events described. And Kitty’s letter is heart-breaking and disturbing in equal measure.

In less than 5000 words, Stephen King manages to convey far more emotion than thousands of writers fail to do in their entire career. It remains one of my favourite short stories of all time, and if you haven’t already read it I would urge you to rectify that immediately.
chosen by Stephen Bacon

Crouch End
(from Nightmares And Dreamscapes, 1993)
For me, this is best described as an unnerving tale in which, with more than a nod to H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King weaves a narrative that probably everyone will recognise from some point in their lives (well the start of the story at least). A couple on holiday become lost in the suburbs of London and away from the recognisable landmarks their view of the city becomes twisted. They are suddenly in a world very different from their own, where people speak strangely (although this may just be that Stephen King thinks all Londoners have walked straight off the pages of a Charles Dickens novel), act strangely, and are not at all welcoming to those from outside. "Crouch End" is a tale where the angles don’t quite meet, and there is something lurking in the shadows of the underground.
chosen by Penny Jones

The Night Flier
(from Nightmares And Dreamscapes, 1993)
My favourite Stephen King novel is Salem’s Lot, so when I picked up a copy of Douglas E. Winter’s Prime Evil anthology back in the late eighties I was overjoyed at another King/vampire tale.
Hack reporter Richard Dees is obsessed with finding the Night Flier, a mysterious murderer who leaves a trail of blood across small-town American.  A Dracula tale in a modern-day setting, this has the Night Flier using a Cessna light aircraft as his flying coffin, filled with unholy soil to move from town to town, without the usual transforming into a bat trope.  After months of searching just missing the vampire, Dees finally catches up with the red-caped killer in a bloody airport restroom, for a devilishly understated finale.
chosen by Peter Mark May

Quitters, Inc.
(from Night Shift, 1978)
As a teenager I was obsessed with horror. When my friends were reading romance, I would opt for that anticipation of something awful happening.  Eventually, I discovered self-help books and paying it forward became my mantra. If I learned something on my journey that might help someone else, then I’d pass the baton and hope they would get as much benefit from the lesson.  Quitters, Inc unites everything there is about paying it forward but returns me to those happy horror filled days of anticipation.  Just how focused are you on the goals you set? Enough to dodge death?
chosen by Shelley Wilson

Fair Extension
(from Full Dark, No Stars, 2010)
Tucked away in with three novellas in the Full Dark, No Stars collection, Fair Extension is a longish short story in the classic deal-with-the-devil mould. I love it for so many reasons - the supernatural elements are deftly handled, for example, and with as light touch as they can be whilst still attaining the desired effect. But it’s the beating seething darkness inside the protagonist that really makes this story such a world class creeper - the kind of ugly no monster can ever reach; the kind that can live and thrive only inside one of us. Fair Extension is as dark and bleak as anything King has ever written, in its pitiless depiction of the viciousness of the human condition. In fact, it’s bleak enough to be a Richard Bachman tale - and compliments, from me, come no higher.

The Mangler
(from Night Shift, 1978)
Those who follow me at Goodreads or at Char's Horror Corner know that I read about 150-170 books a year. As a result, they also know that after a few years, the chances of me remembering the details of a story are slim to none but I’ve been thinking about Night Shift a lot this year and I sure do remember The Mangler. Yes, I do.

I'm going to admit right here that it's a stupid story. I mean, it's about an industrial pressing machine-it irons sheets for heaven's sake. What's scary about that?  But King knows that everyone who has seen that machine wonders about what would happen if their hand got caught in there. What would happen if the safety measures, (those bars do seem flimsy, don't they?), failed and instead of just your hand, somehow your entire body got sucked in there? Those big rollers are meant to flatten the hell out of sheets, right? What would it do to a human?

A police detective investigates the scene of a deadly accident involving the machine.  After more deaths and injuries he discovers, with the help of a friend, that the first incident involved a virginal young girl and her blood has invited a demon into the machine.  Unfortunately, they badly underestimate said demon and their failure to properly exorcise it results in their unleashing the Mangler upon the world.

By this point, King has worked his magic on you. You care for that detective, you want him to succeed and even though you know it's dumb, you can't help but picture that machine wandering down the road. You might think it's silly, it's up to you. But next time you're all alone in a quiet house and you hear a sound, don't blame me if the Mangler has arrived to convince you just how real it is. You can't say I didn't warn you.
chosen by Charlene Cocrane

The Man In The Black Suit
(from Everything's Eventual, 2002)
This superbly atmospheric tale about a boy meeting the Devil in 1914 is many things; a mediation on memory and the past; a story King himself apparently doesn’t rate; a homage to Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’…

But I’m going to ignore all that and talk about how it reminds me of a song written in 1989. Which is apt, because one of the things I’ve taken from King’s writing is the way he shows our thoughts are full of cultural flotsam: old adverting slogans, catchphrases, song lyrics. Our minds reach for such things even when it’s irrelevant or illogical. So:

“Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high
There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry[…]
Not a word of goodbye, not even a note
She gone with the man
In the long black coat…”

This is ‘The Man In The Long Black Coat’ by Bob Dylan, from his brilliant album Oh Mercy. The titular figure appears at the end of every verse, and it’s hard not to think of him as something evil, something other-wordly, something, well, Devilish…

Remind you of anyone?

King’s Man In The Black Suit is smartly dressed, smooth talking Devil but the Devil all the same. A being that doesn’t just want to kill the protagonist, but to torture him with horrid ideas about his family, to fatten him up with terror before feeding on his soul. A Devil who could no doubt make someone disappear with them without even leaving a note…

Dylan’s Devil isn’t named as such; King’s is. But a boy in that setting would think of an evil being as the Christian Devil; that doesn’t mean it’s true. And King’s fiction offers many differing versions of the same evil man that stalks his worlds:

The Walkin’ Dude
Walter o’Dim
Robert Franq
The Man In Black
Richard Fannin
Randall Flagg

I think The Man In The Black Suit is an aspect of this character. And I can’t but think that in another time and place, he wears a long black coat.
chosen by James Everington

Harvey's Dream
(from Just After Sunset, 2008)
I am such a fan of the short story. For me, being able to tell a really good tale in so few words is an art-form that is hard to master. Stephen King, of course, is a master of storytelling in any length. That’s not to say every one of his stories will be loved by every person, but my choice of a favorite, Harvey’s Dream is one that can be appreciated by most. This story was first published in The New Yorker (you can read it here) in 2003 and later in Just After Sunset (2008).  A story of regrets and past admonitions with subtle undercurrents of mounting terror, this story can be interpreted in many ways. King’s prose takes on a Gaimanesque quality that adds a surreality to the telling. This is one of those stories that is truly scary without really having anything scary being said.
chosen by Paula Limbaugh

Jerusalem's Lot
(from Night Shift, 1978)
This was the first Stephen King short story I ever read, some time in 1980. I'd read all his novels up until then, but never got around to the Night Shift collection. That summer I was recently graduated, unemployed, and living in a tenement flat in Glasgow. I was buying paperbacks in bulk from a second hand shop, reading them, and selling them back for around the same price to a different second hand shop.

One of those books was Night Shift, and Jerusalem's Lot was the first story I read.

It wasn't what I was expecting.  My King reading led me to expect his modern day, small town Americana and folksy colloquialisms but instead we're plunged into Lovecraft country, with a bit of Bram Stoker thrown in for good measure. It's told in epistolary fashion, and as in Dracula, the truth is only revealed slowly, as the true horror and realisation creeps into each of the narrative voices.

Looking at it now as a writer I can see the joins, how it all fits together, the patches making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. But on that first reading, on a park bench in Kelvingrove Park on a sunny day with a can of coke and a pack of fags, I was away and lost in that old crumbling house. It's testament to King's skill that he made me instantly forget his novels and believe wholly in this new vision.  And Lovecraftian it indeed is, in the sense of history, and things resurfacing from deep places, even incorporating sly references to whip-poor-wills and the rats in the walls.

It made me see King in a different light, cemented my early fandom and ensured I stayed with him for the stories that followed in the book.  There's wonderful stuff in Night Shift.  But it was Jerusalem's Lot that got me hooked.
chosen by Willie Meikle

The Reach
(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
On the face of it, The Reach is about a small island community off the coast of Maine, and Stella Flanders, a woman who has never gone to the mainland or even wanted to. King establishes the sense of this close-knit community and its long past with a few deft touches, giving even minor characters a history of their own. It soon becomes clear, however, that the Reach (the stretch of water separating the island from the mainland) also represents the barrier between life and death. Stella’s assertion that ‘The Reach was wider in those days’ reminds us that she has grown old and death is now close; she constantly hears the cold wind whispering to her from the water. Before the end, however, she wishes to answer the only question that remains: ‘Do you love?’ When the Reach ices over and she sees her dead husband awaiting her there, she knows the time has come for her last journey. It’s a beautiful, lyrical tale, with an elegiac tone that provides a fitting close to the Skeleton Crew collection.
chosen by Alison Littlewood

The Raft
(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
The Raft for me marks everything that is right about Stephen King, a tense short story that first appeared in Gallery in November 1982, and was collected in Skeleton Crew, one of the first King books I ever managed to finish.  For me, this simple tale of a loose group of friends being terrorised by a monster in a lake is a perfect piece of short terror.

Regarding racking up the tension, The Raft is an utter success; if you were to pick out one story to use as a lesson on how to physically manifest anxiety, this would be it and there is a deep sense of relief, dismay and emptiness by the time you finish reading it.

The characterisation of story's protagonists is also spot on, like a mini Breakfast Club, we have all encountered these characters in our real lives, and therefore we instantly relate to them.  But rather than being empty cyphers to hang the action of the story upon King imbues each of them with a depth and complexity that just is almost godlike in its execution.  The interplay between Randy, Deke, Rachel, and LaVerne is so believable you could be forgiven for thinking they were based on real friends.

While The Raft can be classed as a pure monster story, I like to think of it as a story that deals with the final days of youth, the struggle between the kids and the monster a metaphor for the unrelenting and inescapable reality of becoming an adult and all the responsibilities that go with it.
chosen by Jim Mcleod

The Breathing Method
(from Different Seasons, 1982)
DIFFERENT SEASONS was the first King book I ever read, age 14, and the story that stayed with me the most is the only one that’s not been filmed, The Breathing Method. The story of a woman who gets decapitated on her way to giving birth and her headless body lies there on the pavement, still breathing so her baby can be born naturally really creeped out the teenage me. I’ve not re-read the story since, and it was over 36 years ago, but it’s still with me, and it still creeps me out.
chosen by Sara Jayne Townsend

Night Surf
(from Night Shift, 1978)
When I first read this as a kid I missed its strengths – I was into more obvious monsters back then – but returning to it as an adult I was struck by its power: it resonated in ways I was too young to appreciate first time around.

The story concerns a small group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by flu. Just the flu. It’s a somewhat pathetic epitaph, the narrator feels. But this is no ordinary flu. This is A6, also known as Captain Trips – which should be familiar to anyone who’s read that doorstep of a novel The Stand.
One of the strengths of this story is how it manages to be both huge in scale, global, like The Stand, and yet small as well, focusing on six people thrown together by events and limiting our view to that of a first person narrator. Bernie’s not a pleasant guy, but it’s hard not to sympathise, empathise, as Captain Trips find its way into this supposedly immune group of forced friends.

King is often accused of overwriting but it’s a criticism you can’t apply to ‘Night Surf’. It’s less than 8 pages, and economical with those. From the first paragraph we know where we are, and we know the world has gone to shit. We have the first line hook about a dead guy burning but we have subtleties as well. “Corey had been well-to-do before A6, but stuff like that didn’t matter any more.” There are only two radio stations, and on one of those the deejay cries between songs.  But for all that, this group are managing, it seems, to enjoy themselves on the beach. Their fun is a coping mechanism, a desperate attempt to escape the painful truth of their situation, clearest when the narrator runs on the sand “Just because it feels good to run”. He’s running away from all that’s happened, and from what he’s become as a result.

We meet the group shortly after they’ve killed a fellow survivor, something justified as a necessity at first, then described as a human sacrifice to appease dark gods, until finally Bernie admits it was simply something new for them to do in a world lacking anything else. As he notes by the end of the story, their own deaths wont matter either. The world will go on without them, will benefit from their absence in fact, and we return to the title, the night surf. The waves wash the shore clean while Bernie sits at the edge of the world thinking of all he’s lost and all that’s left for narrator and reader alike is an overwhelming feeling of sadness.
chosen by Ray Cluley

I Am the Doorway
(from Night Shift, 1978)
It was the spring of 1980, and my freshman year of high school was coming to a close. The seniors were already gone, having graduated weeks before, so there wasn’t much teaching going on in those classes seniors shared with the lower grades. Some classrooms were completely empty except for teachers grading final exams. Students who didn’t have a class were free to hang out in the library or empty classrooms for quiet study.

My friend Angie and I were spending time in the Home Economics kitchen because that was our favorite teacher’s classroom. Miss Buckler was young , nice, and a lot more fun to hang out with than the nuns who also taught at the all-girls Catholic school.

Angie and I were reading Night Shift.  I don’t remember if the book belonged to her or Miss Buckler, I just remember being enthralled by the cover  - a man’s hand with an unraveling white bandage, exposing several eyes embedded in the palm and fingers.  We read the stories together and I enjoyed most of them; The Boogeyman really creeped me out.

I Am the Doorway wasn’t even my favorite story, but it was intriguing and thanks to the cover, I could easily picture Arthur’s frightening situation. But what sets “I Am the Doorway” apart for me is how Kings descriptive writing brought the story to life in my brain.

When Arthur realized he could read a book through the eyes in his hands while his own were closed, I could feel his terror and confusion and I could see the poor kid unsuccessfully fleeing from the now-murderous Arthur, possessed by the aliens infesting his body.

Arthur’s friend Richard, trying to help and understand, unfortunately discovers Arthur is not crazy or hallucinating the eyes peering from his hands. King helped me hear the screams of those eyes when Arthur tries to destroy them. And finally, King showed me that good writing can evoke any emotion in the reader, including complete despair.

Night Shift is not King’s best short-story collection, but for a first it is damn good, and will always hold a place in my heart as my introduction to the King phenomenon.
chosen by Sheri White

Survivor Type
(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
It's late 1987 & I'm dissecting a human leg.

Actually it's not just me. There are six of us in our medical school dissection group. And officially it's not 'a leg' it's 'the lower limb'. We have to start in the groin by exposing the femoral artery. My chum Andy looks at me over the body and says, in all seriousness 'It's like a fucking turnpike down there.' And of course we know that to be true, because we've both read it, in Survivor Type.

I wonder if this is a story that's a favourite of doctors. It's certainly a favourite of mine. It's very similar in subject matter to one of the Van Helsing comic strip terror tales in Dez Skinn’s House of Hammer magazine entitled 'Food for Thought'. In that, a man whose dictum is 'survival of the fittest' survives an aeroplane crash but only survives further by eating himself. The final panel shows what little is left of him in the harsh glare of the torchlight of his rescuers, both legs gone, one arm left. "I was just wonderin' what I was going to eat next!" is the final line. It's a strip worthy of EC. Survivor Type is better. Much better. King takes this marvellously horrible pulpy comic idea and puts us in the head of disgraced surgeon Richard Pine, shipwrecked on an island with no food but plenty of cocaine. Oh, and a diary in which he records his increasingly deranged thoughts. Thus, carefuly and expertly layered by King’s writing, we are witness to both the physical and mental disintegration of this man who has both the clinical knowledge and ability to feed himself...himself.

Even in our end of term anatomy revision, every time the femoral artery was mentioned that quote would come up. In fact it was all we could do not to utter it in the exam. Occasionally nowadays when I'm teaching on the vascular supply of the lower limb I ask my final year students “In which Stephen King story is the femoral artery described thusly?”. In medicine, as in life, it's important to get a good all round education. You never know when you may need it...
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert

Big Driver
(from Full Dark, No Stars, 2010)
This is one of those stories that caught me completely off guard. The title didn't appeal to me (yes I know - books and covers), but whatever I might have been expecting, it wasn't THIS. It's the second of the four novellas comprising Full Dark, No Stars, and it instantly became one of my favourite King stories of all time.

Tess is a midlist writer of cosy mysteries featuring the Willow Grove Knitting Society. But there's nothing cosy about the horror story she soon finds herself in when she is attacked after a guest appearance at a small-town library. "Harsh" is the word King uses to describe the stories in Full Dark, No Stars, and Big Driver is about as harsh as it gets. Especially if you're a woman.

King is a master of bringing people to life on the page, and Tess and her attacker are no exception. It's hard to read, and painful to empathise with, but absolutely necessary for what comes after. And what comes after is compulsive, gruesome and ultimately very, very satisfying. It's a story of survival and finding the hidden strength to do what needs to be done.

I can't say much more than that without spoiling it. I've never seen the movie version (Lifetime? Seriously?), and I probably never will. It's a perfect story just as it.
chosen by Thana Niveau

Suffer The Little Children
(from Nightmares And Dreamscapes, 1993)
I was always frightened when teachers said they had eyes in the back of their heads. I honestly thought they had orbs hidden underneath their hair so when I read this in Nightmares And Dreamscapes, it all came flooding back. I’d bought the collection on the Monday but due to gigging with my band all week I hadn’t read much and on the Friday, the bass player asked if I’d read Suffer The Little Children yet. I was so fascinated with his description that I read it drunk after a post-gig party - not very rock and roll. I didn’t have a good sleep that night. The idea of a protagonist being doubted then also finding yourself questioning the reality is something that fascinates me in fiction. I’m still suspicious of people who turn around to look at me thanks to that pesky Mr King.
chosen by Anthony Cowin

Riding The Bullet
(from Everything's Eventual, 2002)
I suppose I'm cheating here a little bit, since it's technically a novella, but it's one of the most effective pieces of short fiction I've read. I think the appeal lies in its ambiguity, which persists all the way through to its conclusion: superstition is layered upon superstition until you're no longer certain which moment was the catalyst for the eventul death of the protagonist's mother: was it the wish on the 'infected moon'? The fateful glance at the gravestone? Or was it when, trapped in a car driven by a gleefully vindictive corpse, Alan Parker appears to barter his mother's life in exchange for his own? The novella also leaves you with the possibility that none of these things were consequential, except perhaps in Alan's head.

Perhaps, beneath the misty graveyards and the creepy old men and the angry reanimated dead people (wonderful horror tropes realised in true King style, and not without wry humour) it's really a story about grieving, and the fear of loss, and the guilt we carry in our hearts when we're confronted with losing someone we love.
chosen by Laura Mauro

Word Processor Of The Gods
(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
Stephen King has written hundreds of short stories and I’ve read all of the ones that have been made available in print. You might therefore think picking a favourite would be a task of much consideration and debate, but that wasn't the case since this has been my favourite since the first time I read it in a second-hand copy of Skeleton Crew I still own. Sure, there are better King short stories, with more complex narratives, or that tackle stronger themes, or have better developed characters but none knock this one from the top spot of my favourites list. I love the unashamed wish-fulfilment of this slight tale about the cobbled-together word processor Richard Hagstrom receives as a birthday gift from his caring, conscientious, but, recently deceased nephew. I also love how it plays against the reader’s preconceptions; the set-up suggests one is about to read an updated variation of The Monkey’s Paw by W.W.Jacobs, especially given King’s reputation, but what we get is a far sweeter story.
chosen by Ross Warren

Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption
(from Different Seasons, 1982)
Once upon a time, near the Halloween of my fourteenth year, we went on an American road trip.  The roads were long, the motels always had an ant problem, and I read nothing but Stephen King the whole time. I picked up King’s Different Seasons collection in a small-town bookshop somewhere along the way, and of all the stories in it, ‘Shawshank’ is the one I still like best. It’s an enthralling narrative; layering the details of twenty seven years of prison life as inmate Red gets to know newbie Andy Dufresne. Yet despite the grimness of the setting, ‘Shawshank’ manages to be a heart-warming tale of hope and persistence, with the slow, understated friendship of the two inmates ultimately allowing each to find the psychological and practical means to escape imprisonment.
chosen by Jenny Barber

Uncle Otto's Truck
(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. It’s one of my “holy” books. That is, one title in a handful I read at just the right age for them to inspire and influence the course of my own writing. (In case you’re wondering, the others are Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell, Night’s Black Agents by Fritz Leiber, The October Country by Ray Bradbury and The Dark Country and Red Dreams by Dennis Etchison.)

I was sixteen when I read the King collection. I remember picking it up in my favourite second-hand book shop in Sunderland town centre, a large, cluttered single-room place filled with homemade shelving that held treasures beyond all reason. I’d been reading King since I was twelve, when I bought the official TV tie-in edition of Salem’s Lot (the one with the purple cover), but this was my first real experience of any of his short fiction gathered together under one cover.

I remember being blown away by The Mist, of course. Everybody was. But Uncle Otto’s Truck grabbed my imagination in a different, more complex way. There were no monsters in this story; it was almost humdrum in its depiction of everyday horror.

Presented in the form of a memoir supposedly written by Uncle Otto’s nephew, it’s ostensibly the story of two business partners - Otto Schenck and George McCutcheon - during America’s Great Depression. The two men buy cheap land and manage to make a fortune in the lumber industry while the rest of the country is struggling. They enjoy financial success and their friendship seems tight, but there are flaws in the relationship.

McCutcheon is crushed to death beneath his derelict flatbed truck, and afterwards, as he descends into madness, Otto swears that he can see the vehicle creeping closer to his house from its spot in a field on the other side of the road. As the nephew delves into the background of these two characters in the wake of his uncle’s death, he begins to realise that there was more to McCutcheon’s grisly end than a simple accident.

The advancing truck is a symptom of Otto’s guilt for his part in his business partner’s death, but it is also a representation of fate – the fact that nobody can escape our what’s waiting for us, no matter how hard we might try. In broader terms, the truck isn’t just a messenger of vengeance; it’s also a physical manifestation of Death. None of us, whoever we are – how rich we might be, whatever success we might have – is ever going to escape that eventuality.

The prose is typically folksy – a style King has honed to perfection across his career – and this only adds to the slow-mounting horror of the situation. At first, we seem to be reading a mystery story, but before long the piece lurches into weirder realms – it’s this masterful shift – achieved with a single short sentence - that creates the magic.  The image of an abandoned truck, its wheels long gone and its bodywork rusting, creeping slowly, inevitably towards a lonely man in a small house to exact some sort of revenge is chilling. There’s a sense of surrealism to the situation, and the naturalistic prose acts as a nice counterbalance to the weirdness. The themes of guilt, innocence, and experience add weight to what is on the surface a rather straight-forward narrative.

Before long, the nephew starts to see strange events himself, and he comes to believe in his late uncle’s claims of supernatural agency. The kicker of the tale leaves little room for ambiguity – which is its single flaw, in my opinion – but this certainly doesn’t ruin what is a striking piece of short fiction from a writer who was operating at the top of his game.

Whenever I see a derelict truck or car that’s been left in a field or at the side of a road, I think of this story. It’s stayed with me in a way that only the good ones can: in a small way at least, it has become part of the lens through which I view the world.
chosen by Gary McMahon

Strawberry Spring
(from Night Shift, 1978)
Strawberry Spring is an unusual story in every way and stands out vividly in Night Shift. Unlike many of his other stories in that volume this story isn’t rooted in visceral body horror. Instead King builds a suspenseful atmosphere of slow-burning, psychological terror in his tale of Springheel Jack, a silent killer who stalks and kills women during the warm, misty weather that New England locals call a strawberry spring..

There is a softness and delicacy about the prose, especially in his evocative descriptions of the fog that permeates the 1960’s university campus in ‘an improper silent sprawl’

‘And when night came the fog came with it, moving silent and white along the narrow college avenues and thoroughfares. The pines on the wall poked through it like counting fingers and it drifted, slow as cigarette smoke…It made things seem out of joint, strange, magical.’ 

These muted atmospheric descriptions give the prose a dream-like quality that continues right until the last paragraphs of the conclusion.

The ending itself is a masterclass in subtlety. King’s unnamed protagonist slowly realises that he has significant gaps in his memory – ‘I remember starting home from work, and I remember putting my heading on to search my way through the lovely creeping fog, but that’s all I remember.’ He feels the first stirrings of unease when he thinks of his car trunk, and his sudden fear of opening it. King resists the urge for the grand reveal, allowing the story to end with an emotional, haunting resonance.
‘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.’

(from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, 2015)
Because… it takes me back to its pre-‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ life as a novella in the July 2009 edition of Esquire. In particular, my rushing out the day it was published to buy it from the local Stop n Shop in Connecticut. I still have the copy.

Because… in some way, shape or form, we are all that one thin moral thread away from being the Callahans. The circumstance that will put us there is just lurking around the next corner.

Because… there are many George Winstons out there in this version of Planet Earth, just waiting (yearning) for that moment to snip it away when you are at your lowest ebb.

Because… not for the first time, King reminds us that there is nothing more terrifying than the human condition, particularly when we think there is nothing left to lose.
chosen by Wayne Parkin

(from Skeleton Crew, 1985)
I encountered Gramma around the late eighties or early nineties when in my teens. My friend Phil introduced me to Gramma pointing me to King’s Skeleton Crew where Gramma resides as the matriarch. Gramma is clever. The outsider on seeing Gramma will scream ‘get outta there’ to anyone caught in her web, especially to a young child like George left alone in the house with her. Except he won’t run. Duty won’t let him. And fear. Mainly fear. You see, Gramma has a secret past. One the rest of the family knows but won’t tell George. Something which makes everyone fear her. And Gramma has just died on George’s watch. She can’t be dangerous any more. Surely he’ll be fine. Surely. But, shhhh, I’ve said too much – just go and read the story and see for yourself. It’s a deliciously dark tale of power."
chosen by Phil Sloman

The Long Walk
(from The Bachman Books, 1985)
In my memory The Long Walk is a novella, because I first read it when it was one of the four stories bundled in the The Bachman Books (published in 1985 after King became a famous writer).

Originally written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, The Long Walk was King's first novel, drafted around 1967/68 when he was a freshman in college, and published in 1979 as the second Bachman book.

The story has lingered in my imagination, partly because of its strong premise and its awful, inevitable conclusion. The last few pages are as devastating as I remembered them. Long before Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, The Long Walk is the ultimate YA dystopian future. Re-reading it I was struck by how timely it is for today's audience, and how strange it is that it has not been adapted for the screen (I can imagine an immensely strong, intense version of it.)

The story is set in a future America where a totalitarian leader known as The Major runs the country. Each year 100 teenaged boys are selected for the 'Long Walk' - a fatal walking marathon in which there can be only one winner. Everyone in the competition must maintain a speed of four miles an hour for as long as it continues. If they drop below this speed for longer than 30 seconds they are issued a warning. After three warnings, the fourth is a bullet to the head. They can have water whenever they call for it, and food once a day, but they can't leave the road or accept help from on-lookers.

The last person alive wins whatever he desires, but because of the conditions, many of the surviving Walkers do not last long after their victory. Toward the end of the Long Walk, as interest in the finalists increases, the crowd that gathers on the side-lines to watch the trial become an amorphous mass, a thunderous voice hungering for sacrifice. Young lives used to satiate societal discontent.

The story revolves around the POV character, sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty, and the friendships he quickly strikes up with several of the other Walkers. The literal journey of the novel is a digging into the drive for survival, and the psyche of young men under immense stress. It examines the intense bonds of male friendship, while also laying bare the cultural influences that impair those bonds. King's trademark prose - easy-going, affable, yet precise in dreadful details - is on display here.

Like his description of the first Walker to die:
'Four carbines fired. They were very loud. The noise travelled away like bowling balls, struck the hills, and rolled back.
Curley's angular, pimply head disappeared in a hammersmash of blood and brains and flying skull-fragments. The rest of him fell forward on the white line like a sack of mail.'

There is also an understanding of teenaged rage at an imperfect world which manifests itself on the surface as a death wish, but pulsing underneath it is a desire for love. It's also a product of its time, and it contains a few discordant elements that are out of synch with today's world.

Overall, The Long Walk remains a prescient, affecting narrative about young American men struggling in a world that allows few avenues for genuine expression and attention outside of deadly competition.
chosen by Maura McHugh

Night Shift, the first collection of short stories by Stephen King, was published in February 1978 by Doubleday in the US and New English Library in the UK.  It collected twenty stories which were published between 1968 and 1977 (with four original to the collection - Jerusalem’s Lot, Quitters, Inc., The Last Rung On The Ladder and The Woman In The Room) and featured an introduction by John D. MacDonald and a lengthy foreword by King (“Let’s talk, you and I.  Let’s talk about fear.”).

cover scan of my copy, the 1986 NEL edition. 
I originally had an earlier one but lent it to my friend Nick who read it in the
bath.  And dropped it.  This is the replacement he bought me...
It wasn’t the first King I read (that honour belongs to Salem’s Lot) in the early 80s but it was the first of his collections and, as a young horror fan, I devoured it.  Even today, I think every single story stands up (and this is 40 years after writers of my generation and every one since have mined them for themes and incidents in our own fiction) and some are genuine classics.

With the Stephen King boom in the mid-80s, a lot of the stories were filmed (for both cinema and television), some with better results than others (Trucks became Maximum Overdrive which, in 1986, marked King’s directorial debut - sadly, it’s not one of the better adaptions).  Of the ones I’ve seen (and that doesn’t include all of them, by any means), I thought Cat’s Eye (1985) worked the best, if only for the talent involved - Robert Hays in The Ledge and the always excellent James Woods in the fantastic (story and film) Quitters, Inc.

The collection also led King to form the Dollar Deal, where students could make an adaption after buying the rights for $1.  Some of these so-called Dollar Babies work very well and Frank Darabont (who’s since had a long and fruitful filmic association with King) cut his directorial teeth on The Woman In The Room (1983).

Night Shift was nominated as Best Collection for both the Locus and World Fantasy Awards and won the Balrog Award in the same category.

If, by some chance, you’re a fan of horror and you’ve never read it, then do yourself a favour and pick up a copy.  I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.


  1. This is a fascinating post. I've really enjoyed reading everybody's recommendations. You've inspired me to buy a copy of Night Shift, too. I had a copy many years ago, so it'll be interesting to revisit it. I've always liked King's short stories. The length of a lot of his novels scares me more than their content these days. So many books and so little time, as they say.

    1. Thanks, hope you enjoy "Night Shift" all over again!