Hello, horror hounds of darkness! Welcome back to LOD. Once again we’re venturing into the realm of the master of horror himself, Mr. Stephen “Kill Your Darlings” King. After all, the man has single-handedly shaped the horror genre as we know it today, which is no small feat, so he’s worth coming back to again and again. His knack for tapping into our primal fears and weaving tales that haunt us long after we turn the last page is why I’m revisiting my favorite works of his, so expect a series of posts chronicling the best of King.
Today’s terrorrific tour leads us into the heart of one of King’s earliest and most cherished works – Night Shift. This book just so happens to be one of my favorite short fiction collections of all time, and I’ve been dying to discuss it on the blog.
Published in 1978, Night Shift was King’s first short stories collection. Short fiction would prove to be a medium he would come to master and revolutionize, much as he did long-form fiction. These tales within Night Shift, each distinct in their own right, offer a glimpse into King’s evolving style and preoccupation with themes of fate, fear, and the uncanny; basically all the things The Longbox of Darkness has been obsessed with since its inception.
But as with any collection, the stories of Night Shift are not all created equal. Some leave indelible imprints on our psyche, while others might seem to fade into the ether of forgotten nightmares. In this post, we’ll rank these tales from least to most riveting. This is not a critique intended to diminish the worth of any story, but rather a fun and engaging exploration of King’s genius in this remarkable tome and an exploration of my personal favorites.
So let’s plummet into the unsettling world of Stephen King’s Night Shift. Which story will emerge as the victor in our ranking, and which will lurk in the shadows, awaiting its moment to shine? You’ll have to read on to find out.
A Brief Overview
Before we dive into the dissection and ranking of each individual tale, let’s paint a broader picture of Night Shift and the time it came to life.
This collection hit the stands in 1978, at a time when King was starting to carve his niche in the horror genre. After the success of novels like “Carrie” and “The Shining,” Night Shift cemented King’s place as an accomplished horror writer. His exploration into the realm of short stories proved that he could encapsulate terror just as effectively within a few pages as he could in his sprawling novels. After all, he was writing short stories and getting published in magazines long before his novel Carrie ensured his success, so it’s a form he clearly has some love for.
Thematically, the stories in Night Shift are as diverse as they come. From reanimated machines and deadly fauna to vengeful ghosts and chilling small-town secrets, these stories cover a lot of ground. They delve into humanity’s deepest anxieties and fears and explore the darkest corners of our psyche. Whether it’s the terror of being utterly alone in “I Am the Doorway,” or the gruesome revelation of industrial horrors in “Graveyard Shift,” King proves his adeptness at crafting nightmares from the mundane.
As for the common elements across the stories, they are typically infused with King’s quintessential hallmarks. These include small-town settings, everyday people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and exploring the human condition when faced with overwhelming fear. Additionally, the stories often blur the lines between reality and supernatural elements, making the reader question what they believe and what they fear.
In essence, Night Shift is a buffet of horrors, each dish meticulously prepared to satiate the diverse palates of horror aficionados. Whether you’re a fan of supernatural horror, psychological terror, or good old-fashioned macabre tales, there’s a story in Night Shift for you. And now, armed with a general understanding of the collection, we can commence our deep dive into each individual tale. Let the ranking begin!
All right, here they are! We’ll start from the tale we found to be less engaging and gradually ascend to those that gripped so tightly they refused to let go.
20. “The Man Who Loved Flowers”: On the surface, it’s a simple tale of a man buying flowers for his love. But, in true King fashion, a twist turns it into a chilling narrative. It’s high on the overall horror factor, but the lack of character development keeps it from ranking higher.
19. “Battleground”: A ruthless hitman finds himself in a deadly fight against toy soldiers sent by his victim’s mother. This story scores high on originality and the overall horror factor, thanks to its relentless pace and escalating tension. However, it misses out on a higher rank due to its lack of character focus.
18. “The Lawnmower Man”: Another tale where King turns the mundane into monstrous, this time with a grass-eating, Pan-worshipping lawnmower man. The premise is unique and creative, but the plot feels disjointed. Although there’s an underlying thread of dark humor, the story fails to elicit the gripping dread we expect from King’s best work.
17. “Trucks”: This tale of machines gaining consciousness and holding humans hostage at a truck stop is suspenseful. It became Stephen King’s directorial debut when he turned it into the disappointing movie Maximum Overdrive starring Emilio Estevez. The premise is intriguing, and King successfully infuses the narrative with a sense of claustrophobia and dread. Yet, the characters could have been better developed, and the conclusion more satisfying.
16. “Strawberry Spring”: This tale of a series of murders at a college during a “strawberry spring” is a riveting read. King’s atmospheric descriptions and the plot twist at the end make for a memorable tale. It doesn’t rank higher due to its lack of a deeper exploration of its characters.
15. “The Ledge”: This tense tale of a man forced to circle a skyscraper’s ledge is a suspenseful masterclass. King’s pacing and how he makes us feel the protagonist’s fear are superb. Though not a traditional horror story, it ranks highly for its intense psychological dread and excellent narrative structure.
14. “Gray Matter”: In this gruesome tale of a beer that changes a man into an abhorrent creature, King masterfully utilizes the setting and atmosphere to heighten the horror. However, the story feels more like a snapshot than a complete narrative, leaving several unanswered questions. The story was adapted as the first episode of the new Creepshow series from 2019 and starred Adrienne Barbeau.
13. “The Woman in the Room”: A deeply personal story about a man contemplating euthanasia for his terminally ill mother. Though more of a melancholic tale than a horror story, its emotional depth and exploration of moral dilemmas place it high on the list.
12. “The Mangler”: This tale of a possessed laundry-folding machine is silly but also gruesomely entertaining. While King’s knack for turning the ordinary into something horrific is evident, the story’s character development is nearly non-existent, though this is not unusual for most short fiction. Despite some tense moments, “The Mangler” doesn’t quite match the chilling standards set by the top stories in the collection, but it is a lot of fun in a madcap comic-book kind of way.
11. “Quitters, Inc.”: A unique take on addiction, this story presents a sinister organization that helps people quit smoking – at a terrifying cost. It scores high on originality and creativity but lacks deeper characterization. It is featured as one of the segments in the film ‘Cat’s Eye,’ where the lead is played by James Woods.
10. “Night Surf”: This post-apocalyptic tale serves as a precursor to King’s “The Stand.” Though the narrative is gripping and the atmosphere chilling, the lack of a well-rounded conclusion stops it from achieving a higher rank.
9. “I Am the Doorway”: This sci-fi horror hybrid delves into the story of an astronaut who becomes a vessel for alien entities after a space mission. The plot is engrossing, and the story does a decent job of creating a sense of otherworldly horror.
8. “Sometimes They Come Back”: A school teacher is haunted by the ghosts of greasers who killed his brother years ago. King expertly blends this tale’s psychological and supernatural horror elements, resulting in a gripping narrative with high emotional stakes. The story ranks this high thanks to its satisfying narrative arc, well-developed characters, and near-apocalyptic conclusion. It was adapted as a less-than-satisfying film in 1991, sadly.
7. “One for the Road”: A chilling tale set on the outskirts of ‘Salem’s Lot, this story explores the dread of the unknown and the limits of courage. Although the narrative can feel rushed, it showcases King’s ability to create an ominous atmosphere where horrible monsters lurk in snowbound drifts. Chilling!
6. “Jerusalem’s Lot”: A prequel to ‘Salem’s Lot, this epistolary tale weaves a chilling narrative about a man uncovering his ancestral home’s dark secrets. The tale’s Lovecraftian horror and atmospheric tension make it a standout, and King’s ability to channel the style of an 18th-century man of letters is impressive. It formed the basis for the recent Adrian Brody-helmed Chapelwaite TV series from 2021, one of the best horror shows to come along in ages.
5. “Graveyard Shift”: Workers at a textile mill face off against monstrous rats in the basement. The story’s claustrophobic atmosphere, escalating tension, and grim conclusion contribute to its high-ranking position. A satisfying revenge narrative is subtly woven into the tale, which adds to its appeal.
4. “Children of the Corn”: One of King’s most famous short stories and one that spawned a whole horror film franchise, this chilling tale of a child-led religious cult is renowned for a reason. Its eerie atmosphere, strong characterization, and unnerving plot make it one of the best in the collection. I don’t care what the critics say; this tale is one of the best because it showcases the horrors of religious fervor and the corruption of innocence with twisted rhetoric better than any other story I’ve encountered.
3. “The Boogeyman”: A man recounts his horrifying experiences to his psychiatrist in this gripping tale of childhood fears that are all too real. This story is especially poignant if you’re a parent and fear for the safety of your kiddies. The story showcases King’s ability to mix psychological and supernatural horror to great effect, making it one of the collection’s true fear-inducing highlights.
2. “I Know What You Need”: This is a chilling tale of love, obsession, and dark magic. The intriguing plot, fully fleshed-out characters, and surprise Voodoo twist offer a perfect blend of horror and tragedy that makes it one of the most compelling stories in the collection.
1.“The Last Rung on the Ladder”: This is a haunting tale of guilt, regret, and family, demonstrating King’s deftness beyond traditional horror. The plot centers around a brother recalling a frightening moment he experienced with his sister when they were children, a moment that changed both of their lives forever. It packs a heavy emotional punch and presents fear in a whole other light than most of the other tales in Night Shift. It is a standout because it is the most relatable and horrifically realistic story of the entire book.
As our journey through the eerie realm of Stephen King’s Night Shift comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on what makes this collection a memorable cornerstone in the world of horror literature.
King’s remarkable ability to make the ordinary sinister and to play with our deepest, primal fears is displayed in every tale, be it “The Mangler” or our top-ranking story, “I Know What You Need.” Each narrative is meticulously crafted to get under your skin and linger there, reminding you of the power and allure of well-told horror tales.
Though I’ve ranked the stories, it’s important to remember that what might strike one reader as profoundly terrifying might not resonate the same way with another. Each story in Night Shift is a testament to King’s versatile and dynamic approach to horror, ensuring that there’s something for every reader, no matter your horror preference.
King once said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” In Night Shift, King made up twenty unique horrors, each offering a gateway into understanding our own fears. As unsettling as they are thought-provoking, these tales continue to stand the test of time, much like King’s impact on the genre.
If you haven’t read Night Shift, or if it’s been a while since you last ventured into these tales, this post will hopefully serve as a guide to your exploration or re-exploration of this seminal collection.
So, turn on your reading lamp (or whip out your Kindle), pull up your blanket, lose yourself in the twisted, fascinating, and terrifying horror milieu of Night Shift, and let the shivers commence.
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