Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

Skeleton Crew

Written by: Stephen King

Published: 1985

Synopsis: In a bumper collection of tales guaranteed to chill the spine and freeze the blood, we meet GRAMMA - who only wanted to hug little George, even after she was dead; THE RAFT - a primeval sea creature with an insatiable appetite; THE MONKEY - an innocent-looking toy with sinister powers; the unspeakable horror of THE MIST. And there is a grusome host of other stories, each with th distinctive blend of unimaginable terror and realism that typifies King's writing.

Challenges: RIP VIII


“Grab onto my arm now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don't let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it's no big deal; it's only because you are my love.”

When it comes to Stephen King I'm pretty well-read*, but I'm not sure if I can say the same when it comes to his short story collections. I've reviewed two (Full Dark, No Stars and Night Shift) but I honestly can't remember if I read any in my pre-blog days. The silly thing is, I LOVE King's short stories, and in some cases I actually love them more than his full length books. King might be known for his horror, but the beauty of his short story collections are their eclectic mash of sci-fi, horror, family drama, fantasy, hard-boiled crime and nostalgic love story. I love finishing a story about a mysterious fog that seems to be hiding all kinds of prehistoric or inter-dimensional monsters and embarking on a bitter-sweet story of a man's love for a woman and that woman's love for finding short cuts. I guess some people would find this jarring, but I really enjoy seeing Stephen King's skill demonstrated in 20+ different stories that he wrote at different times in his life. I love to see him wrangle a supernatural sub-genre he hasn't tried before, or wrestle with his own addictions or express his love for his wife in abstract stories. They don't all work, but that's the luck of the draw with short story collections. You win some, and lose others.

Skeleton Crew is made up of 22 stories of varying lengths. The longest is The Mist, a novella 150-ish pages long, while Paranoid: A Chant is probably the shortest at a teensy 5 pages. But the majority of them probably hover around the 15 to 30 page length. Not every short story collection has an overarching theme, and considering this collection is made up of stories he'd had published in magazines at various stages in his career (from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s) perhaps it was silly of me to try and find one here. But as I read I couldn't help but notice how prominent relationships were in every story. Relationships between father and son, broken relationships that left people feeling hurt and abandoned, strained relationships between daughter and sick mother. But it wasn't simply a repetition of relationships that I noticed, each story seemed to be bathed in a nostalgic light, a mourning for relationships that were or could have been, for a childhood that had been bright and happy before shuddering to an end with the death of a parent. Some of the stories did take place in the future, with a narrator recalling the events of the narrative, but even the ones that took place in the present tense - this nostalgia or sadness for what was or couldn't be again lingered on.

I took a month to read Skeleton Crew, and broke it up with plenty of other books, and I think that this was the best way to approach it. Sometimes reading short stories feels like a chore, liking one doesn't mean you'll love the next, and sometimes you just want a narrative you know you're going to like from start to finish. But I've been warming to short stories more and more over the past few years and I've decided that I agree wholeheartedly with King that;
“a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.”
But since I took so long to read it, my memory is a little fuzzy of some of the earlier stories and my notes don't make complete sense to me anymore (let alone trying to decipher my shocking handwriting). So I'll just write up about a couple of the ones that I liked the most and are clearest in my memory.

The Mist
I really loved this novella. I saw the film adaptation a few months ago and I've come to the conclusion that films should only be adapted from short stories. The film was so close to the book, and because the story is just over 150 pages there was no need to crop out anything that was extraneous to the A-story. The one thing they did change though was the ending, and while I liked the ambiguous ending of the short story, I actually dug the hell out of the film's ending - it was so bleak and unflinching and even King has admitted it's perhaps a better conclusion. Regardless of the ending, I loved the subtle nod to Lovecraft with the tentacled inter-dimensional monsters and the whole story -which spans about 3 days in total - was infused with so much claustrophobic tension and memorable characters.

The Jaunt
This story is a really interesting - and really fantastic - sci-fi short story. Mark Oates and his family are heading up to Jupiter for his new job, and are using the teleportation "Jaunt" technology which leaves from a very bland bus-terminal waiting room. In order to stop his kids from panicking, he tells them how the Jaunt was invented and it's brief history, hoping that armed with knowledge they'll be much calmer when their turn comes around. It's a really clever narrative device to deliver the hard science fiction, and the ending... Dude, the ending is GREAT.

Mrs. Todd's Shortcut
This story took awhile for me to get into, but it was perhaps the first where that feeling of nostalgia really hooked into me. It's slow to build but there's a haunting quality to the writing which kept me interested even when I thought that maybe I should just skip it.
“I sit on the bench in front of Bell's Market and think about Homer Buckland and about the beautiful girl who leaned over to open his door when he come down that path with the full red gasoline can in his right hand - she looked like a girl of no more than sixteen, a girl on her learner's permit, and her beauty was terrible, but I believe it would no longer kill the man it turned itself on; for a moment her eyes lit on me, I was not killed, although a part of me died at her feet." 
Word Processor of the Gods
This was a fun little story about a man who is unhappy with his lot in life. He doesn't like his wife, his son or his career (he's still waiting to write the book that'll make him a millionaire) and he detests that his brother has everything he wants. So when the gift his recently-dead nephew had planned to give him is passed to him, and it turns out to be a word processor (Frankenstein'ed from a bunch of electrical junk) that has the power to delete and rewrite life, he does exactly that. It's a bit silly, and when you think about what he does it's a little sociopathic, but I liked it all the same.

Survivor Type
I didn't love the way this story was written, but the narrative was interesting enough to make up for that. A doctor-turned-drug-smuggler washes up on a desert island when the boat he was on goes down, and with no natural vegetation and very little living animals, the doctor turns to the only meat he has readily available. it was fascinating to read the disintegration of his rationality as time and hunger picked away at it. It gets a little gross, but nothing too graphic.

NOPE. I don't even think I can talk about this one. I had heard it was terrifying so I went and sat outside in the bright midday sun next to a pretty creek with plenty of people walking their dogs around me and even then my hair stood up in fright! Poor little George is stuck at home with his ailing bedridden grandmother while his mum and brother head to the hospital. What begins with the active imagination of an 8 year old devolves into a terrifying story about witches and the Necronomicon** and a grandmother that wants to hug her grandson. *shudders*

There weren't really any stories in this collection I didn't like, although I did struggle a little with The Reach, Beachworld, and Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1). They weren't bad in any sense of the word, but they just weren't for me. But who knows, perhaps you'll hate the stories I loved and desperately love the stories that I couldn't connect with. You know, I often wonder if Stephen King short stories are more for well versed King fans than King neophytes, but I think this might be a collection I'd recommend for both.

*Not Laura well-read, but that's a given.

**I really love when Lovecraftian mythos is incorporated without direct reference to it. Stephen King, Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman do this a lot, and I really appreciate how well they do it without jumping around with signs saying "CTHULU WAS HERE". All you need is a neatly place "Hastur degryon Yos-soth-oth" and you're immediately taken into Lovecraft's world.


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