By Trevor Busch
The works of American horror author Stephen King aren’t the usual novels or collections that find their way into my literary repertoire on a long, hot summer.
But if summers inspire anything in the reading habits of any of us, often it can be a desire for some bald-faced escapism, a few cheap thrills perhaps, largely some pages that don’t require a doctorate to understand.
Or so that’s what I tell myself. Any self-respecting bibliophile I know always has a gargantuan pile of weathered paperbacks and well-worn hard copies stacked somewhere in the corner, growing and expanding like something alive, fed with new editions everytime I find myself unable to pass by another interminable used book sale or garage affair.
It would even be facetious to refer to my own stock of “to reads” as anything as insignificant as a “pile.” Growing ever-larger with each passing month, this stack of literature has slowly been creeping up my wall to the point where its structural integrity is now in doubt, with several leaning pillars of wood pulp taking on a distinct fondness for sub-standard medieval Italian architecture.
No matter the speed or dedication with which I whittle away at this growing monstrosity, it always seems to be expanding, not contracting. And while some of the works contained within its patchwork-quilt walls might offer a degree more excitement than newer additions that round the upper parapets, undermining this delicate balance at risk of collapse leaves one more often plucking from the top than from sturdier walls and foundations.
And so it is with the works of Stephen King. I acquired a large box of discarded library paperbacks recently — novels like The Shining (1977) or Cujo (1981) or The Tommyknockers (1987) chief among them — and I’ve been slowly working my way through this collection.
When preparing to sail off to unknown destinations earlier this summer — otherwise known as Montana — I happened across a collection of King’s short stories that I glanced at briefly, considered it pensively for a moment (selecting a new work of fiction or non-fiction can be an exhaustive process for us addicts) and then fired it into my luggage along with a few other choices.
The work I had absconded with was the short story collection Skeleton Crew (1985). It happened to be the first book I picked up this summer, and while I would hesitate to suggest it be elevated into the realm of American classic, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise for a reader more used to tackling King’s often-lengthy novels.
I should first preface this review by informing those religious devotees of King’s work that I am by no means a massive fan of the New England author, nor have I read even half of his vast bibliography. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate his imagination, but I’ve always felt that King was an outstanding storyteller, just not the best writer I’ve ever encountered.
That being said, novels like his post-apocalyptic classic The Stand (1978) or the creepily-satisfying but disturbing Carrie (1974) are definite stand outs.
At the same time, I should have suspected that King’s short stories would be a more entertaining diversion personally. I had read 1993’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and found some of the stories — like Dolan’s Cadillac or The Ten O’Clock People, for instance — to be outstanding.
Skeleton Crew, on the other hand, is pretty hit and miss. While the more excellent stories contained therein largely overshadow the weaker outings it contains, make no mistake — King delivers some monumental stinkers in this collection. Swimming chiefly to mind in this case are bizarrely disjointed and seemingly meaningless stories like Here There Be Tygers or Paranoid: A Chant. However, interspersed between these more unfortunate examples are tales better executed by the famous bard.
Chief among these is The Mist, a claustrophobic descent into interdimensional terror that should be well known to modern audiences for its film and TV adaptations. Equally odd but also touching are Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, or The Wedding Gig. King is invariably known to the wider world as a master of terror, and his works certainly deliver in this vein. But less well known are his diversions into love story or drama or more traditional fiction, and Skeleton Crew contains examples of this as well, although less well executed than his horror.
Other excellent stories include The Monkey, in the old tradition of the evil child’s toy run amuck, or the amusingly-diverting Word Processor of the Gods. Perhaps most interesting for a new reader is King’s “Notes” describing his writing thought process.
Containing within its pages a well-rounded offering of horror — more horror than anything else, this is still King we’re talking about here — Skeleton Crew has much more from other literary traditions that don’t involve blood, death or the supernatural, and make the work something more than just low-browed escapist treacle.