Oct 11, 2016
Genre: Short Story Collection
Author: Stephen King
Summary: My introduction to Stephen King, and an excellent sampling of his wide-ranging skill as a writer.
My slightly controversial opinion: Stephen King is a better short story artist than a novelist. It’s not that his novels are bad – more that his short stories are really, really good. Like haiku, the restrictions force greater creativity and dissuade some bad habits. When I was around 10, I found a copy of Skeleton Crew and was immediately hooked. I also didn’t sleep for a while, but that’s another story.
The best part of King’s short story collections is that he explores a wider range of styles than simply horror. “Beachworld” is an incredible piece of science fiction, and “Cain Rose Up” is a taut psychological profile of a killer. But, alas, those aren’t what we’re discussing this month, so I’ll focus on three of the pure horror stories – The Mist, “The Raft”, and “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.”
The Mist is long enough to be a novella, and has several chapter divisions. It’s also the reason I didn’t sleep well for several nights. It’s one of several classic “monster stories” in Skeleton Crew, and tells of a sudden attack by horrific creatures in an unseasonal mist, and how a small group of survivors in a grocery store cope. As is often the case in the best horror, some of the humans are just as terrifying as any razor-tentacled monster in the mist, as an apocalyptic cult emerges in the survivors. The attack by the pterodactyl-creature is the scene that kept me awake for days as a child, but the cult is far more terrifying as I grow older.
“The Raft” is another monster story, this one in the vein of Lovecraft while also playing with more modern horror tropes. A group of college students swim to a raft in a lake for a final celebration at the end of summer, and are attacked by a creature that resembles an oil slick. Like any Lovecraftian monster, the creature isn’t explained or even fully described. Unlike Lovecraft, what happens to the youths is. Whereas The Mist ends hopefully, “The Raft” is not upbeat. It is full of explicit description of horrible things, and is probably my favorite Stephen King story.
“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” isn’t really a horror story, except in that it violates basic laws of nature and contains a few horrible creatures. But, no one dies. In fact, that’s rather the point – the elderly Mrs. Todd likes shortcuts, and is overjoyed when she finds a route that’s even a mile shorter than how she went before. Two older gentlemen – David and Homer – who hang out at a local gas station befriend her, when she reveals that she’s found a route that’s shorter than a straight line on a map, and her odometer proves it. She keeps finding more impossible shortcuts, and is gradually growing younger as she reverses time. Homer joins her on one of her drives and is horrified by the living trees and unnatural animals on her “shortcut.” Ultimately, the appeal of eternal youth is too much for him, and he joins Mrs. Todd as her riding companion, leaving David to tell their story.
King’s writing throughout is splendid; every story in the collection is worth reading, these are simply the three that stuck in my memory – the others cover everything from alcoholism and the editing process to being stranded on a desert island. The Mist was adapted into a film, though no other story from this collection received the same treatment. Overall, even if you’re not a fan of Stephen King, there’s enough variety in Skeleton Crew to find something you’ll enjoy.