Sunday, April 21, 2013

Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King containing the following stories: The Mist, Here There Be Tygers, The Monkey, Cain Rose Up, Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, The Jaunt, The Wedding Gig, Paranoid: A Chant, The Raft, Word Processor of the Gods, The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands, Beachworld, The Reaper's Image, Nona, For Owen, Survivor Type, Uncle Otto's Truck, Morning Deliveries (Milkman#1), Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman#2), Gramma, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, The Reach (1968-1985; collected 1985):

Stephen King's second short-story collection ranges from the beginnings of his published career as a writer in the late 1960's to stories that were not published until the release of this collection. As always with his collections, King rewrites a lot from the originally published versions. Indeed, "The Raft" is entirely recreated: King has never been able to locate the original published story from the late 1960's, a story he was paid for but which he's not entirely certain was actually printed.

The result is a collection with more range than the first collection -- Night Shift -- but a certain drop in intensity and consistency. One negative is the inclusion of two of King's science-fiction horror stories, "The Jaunt" and "Beachworld," neither of which are particularly scary or well-imagined. The science fiction of interplanetary travel and robots and alien planets is not an area in which King is especially good. But by God, he's going to keep trying to write it even if doing so kills either him or us or possibly both.

Thankfully, both the straightforward horror and the darkly fantastic are handled a lot better. "The Reach" is probably King's best tale of non-horrific supernatural doings, a meditation on mortality set off the coast of Maine. "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut", a more Bradburyian effort, is also a lot of fun, while "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" is a solid examination of madness and writing.

On the horror front, we get the Lovecraft-by-way-of-the-drive-in romp "The Mist." "The Monkey" and "The Raft" are the best of the horror stories here, turning the mundane (a wind-up monkey toy, a popular swimming destination just a bit out of season) into the terrible. That wind-up monkey is one of King's best distillations of strange, explanation-resistant horror. I'd like to see it go a few rounds with the more benevolent wind-up Chattery Teeth of the much-later story of the same name.

Other stand-outs include the understated story of supernatural revenge, "Uncle Otto's Truck," and the murderous road-odyssey "Nona." The latter works beautifully as a gender-flipped companion to King's earlier novel Carrie, as it deals with many of the same gender and social issues from a different perspective. Highly recommended.

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