Maybe you've had your fill of horror, what with all the gruesome ghouls running around last night. But if you just can't get enough, here are a couple of lesser-known collections from the blood-soaked pens of two of the biggest names in the genre. (After all, if it's good enough for the National Book Foundation, who are we to argue?) The particular editions reviewed may be out of print, but numerous used copies of various editions are available through the usual online sources.
Night Shift by Stephen King
Night Shift is a collection of twenty short stories, many originally published in the men's magazine Cavalier between 1970 and 1975. The best are gripping tales of dread and horror. The worst prove that even the "master of the macabre" can't always craft a good story from unworthy material.
King does his best work when building friction between his main characters. In "Children of the Corn," a bickering couple driving through Nebraska discover an isolated town and a twisted religion. As the story opens, the wife asks, "Where are we, anyway?" The husband answers, "Nebraska," and the wife replies, "Yes, Burt. I know we're in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?" Immediately, the reader is riding along in the car with Vicky and Burt, a fellow passenger—and an eyewitness to the terror in the small town of Gatlin. More compelling than the creature in the cornfields is the way that the husband and wife inflict petty injuries on each other and ignore each other's feelings out of stubbornness—like the way Burt lingers in the town even though it's obvious that something is very wrong, the way he insists on investigating the empty church even though Vicky is so frightened that she begs him not to leave her alone in the car.
In "Graveyard Shift," a textile mill worker plays a deadly game of chicken with his foreman as they descend into the mill's cellar. More gripping than the rodents they find is the antagonistic relationship between Hall, the college-educated drifter, and Warwick, the insensitive foreman. Warwick repeatedly refers to Hall with disdain as "college boy" and never eases up on the mill workers, despite the futility of their special cleanup project, the growing number of men suffering from rat bites, and the ever-increasing size of the rats they encounter while venturing deeper into the cavernous passageways beneath the mill.
King shows that he can write strong thrillers here, too. In "The Ledge," a cuckolded husband forces a man to walk the five-inch ledge outside of his penthouse apartment, forty-three stories up. "Quitters, Inc." concerns a company that uses pragmatic methods to help smokers kick the habit—or else.
Night Shift offers some welcome links to King's novels: "Night Surf," with its small group of A6 flu survivors, is a kind of precursor to The Stand; "Jerusalem's Lot" is a tenuous prequel to Salem's Lot and an obvious homage to H.P. Lovecraft, complete with a character screaming, "Servant of Yogsoggoth, the Nameless One! The Worm from beyond Space! Star-Eater!" before fleeing from the beast living beneath a desecrated church; and "One for the Road" is a short sequel to Salem's Lot, in which unlucky out-of-towners are trapped in The Lot during a snowstorm.
Some of the weakest tales in the collection are about mankind's creations running amok, or man's own body turning against him. No matter how strong King's writing is, or how solid the narrative structure, or how vivid the dialogue, ultimately some of the outlandish plots prove to be too much weight for the stories to bear. For example, in "The Mangler," an industrial speed ironer/folder develops a taste for blood. Despite his best efforts, the idea of a piece of industrial laundry equipment "trying to pull itself out of the concrete, like a dinosaur trying to escape a tar pit" and then chasing a man down a street is simply too ridiculous. (On the bright side, King did eventually find the right vehicle to embody his fantasies of a mechanical monster.) Likewise, in "Gray Matter," the image of "a huge gray wave of jelly, jelly that looked like a man, and leaving a trail of slime behind it" breaks the spell of a well-told, but ludicrous, tale of a man who drinks an infected beer and slowly changes into a mass of gelatinous ooze.
Although King manages to shoehorn four non-horror stories into Night Shift, he fully embraces the label of "horror writer." His preceding books (Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining) were clearly horror, but it seemed obvious from the quality of his writing and the underlying issues he examined (the social battlefield that is high school, the subtle forms of evil festering within our own homes) that King could write literary fiction, if he wanted to. In the foreword to Night Shift, King replies to those who might ask why he writes genre fiction with a question of his own: "Why do you assume that I have a choice?"
Books of Blood, Volume I by Clive Barker
This collection of six stories, the first in a series that launched Barker's career, opens with "The Book of Blood," a haunted house story in the tradition of Richard Matheson's Hell House. With the help of Simon McNeal, a twenty-year-old medium, the Essex University Parapsychology Unit records solid evidence of life after death at Number 65, Tollington Place. Dr. Mary Florescu is ecstatic to see such results after a lifetime's work in the field. The "ghost writing" scrawled on the walls of an upstairs room turns out to be a hoax committed by McNeal, but the real dead demand satisfaction. Using a method of torture inspired by Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," the restless spirits find a way to tell their stories: "Even through the blood she could discern the meticulous way that the words had harrowed into him."
In "The Midnight Meat Train," Barker melds sex and death, vomit and excrement into a messy organic sculpture, an intense and relentless tale of a murderer prowling the New York subway trains, providing meat for the "City fathers." This is a story of opened entrails, partially disemboweled corpses, meat cleft open, muscle pulled back, and glistening vertebrae. Barker's mouth seems to be watering as he writes, "[T]he exposed meat of the thigh was like prime steak, succulent and appetizing." In Barker's work, characters' bodily functions are described in loving detail—when a hapless passenger sees the Butcher's handiwork, the sandwich he had eaten earlier goes "half-way up his gullet, catching in the back of his throat," and as the Butcher approaches his hiding place, he is "suddenly aware of how full his bowels [are]." The entire framework of the story is sexual, with its phallic train rushing through the subway tunnels. Even a simple passage between two subway cars is described in simultaneously gruesome and sexual terms, as he "[skins] his way through the slit he had opened and so through to the bloody chamber beyond."
After the overwhelming gore of "The Midnight Meat Train," Barker shows a much lighter touch with "The Yattering and Jack," an amusing holiday tale about a lower demon tasked with driving a man insane. Also displaying some morbid humor, "Sex, Death and Starshine" is the (decomposing) tongue-in-cheek story of a doomed Shakespeare production and a mysterious man who is determined to see his dead wife on stage for the final curtain call.
The remaining two stories in Barker's collection seem akin to Night Shift-era Stephen King, but are ultimately flawed because of absurd subject matter and heavy-handed symbolism. The opening scenes of "Pig Blood Blues," with a new teacher joining the Tetherdowne Remand Center for Adolescent Offenders, feel like King's "Sometimes They Come Back"—but Barker's story collapses with the appearance of a possessed pig that has developed a taste for human flesh.
"In the Hills, the Cities" is reminiscent of King's "Children of the Corn," with its protagonists arguing in the car during a road trip and encountering empty towns. While King's story began with a straight couple bickering as they drove through the cornfields of Nebraska, Barker's tale starts with a gay couple fighting in the car and then making up in the wheatfields of Yugoslavia. They discover the twin cities of Popolac and Podujevo engaged in a "ritual battle," the inhabitants of each city gathered together and "moving as one creature, one perfect giant." One of the pair of tourists is ranting about communism at the beginning of the story, and the human giants later personify this "Trotskyist tripe." Tens of thousands of men, women, and children are "harnessed to each other in a living system that allowed for no single voice to be louder than any other, nor any back to labour less than its neighbor's. . . . The illusion of petty individuality was swept away in an irresistible tide of collective feeling." In addition to laying on the symbolism a bit too thick, Barker succumbs to his propensity to overwrite, with passages like, "Night was approaching, mercifully bandaging up the wounds of the day, blinding eyes that had seen too much."
Barker's writing fares best when he gleefully splatters the gore or adds a touch of humor to horror. For readers who have only encountered his novel-length works, or for those who have not yet sampled his twisted visions at all, the Books of Blood are an excellent place to see his talents put to good (or perhaps ill) use.
Jeff Edwards is the Reviews Editor of a webzine called Lost in the Dark. His book reviews are also available online at The Harrow and SFReader. In addition to his job at a university in Chicago, Jeff runs a used bookstore at Half.com.
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