The Ladder Had Always Held Us Before, We Thought It Would Always Hold Us Again

(Night Shift)

Night Shift is one of a number of short story collections that Stephen King has published. Honestly, I love these. They call King all kinds of things – The Master of Horror, the King of Horror, etc – and some of his biggest – in volume, I mean — books are the ones that have garnered the most attention and praise. And I don’t want to imply in any way, shape, or form that books like It and The Stand don’t deserve every word of praise they’ve ever received, I love them too, but I honestly think that if King is a master of anything, it might be the short story. He’s so good at these. And sometimes you don’t need a whole novel, you know? Sometimes a short story is just enough. (While we’re on the subject, he’s damn good at the novella, too, but it’s hard to compare him with anyone else because I just don’t see that many novellas. To me, at least, the word novella is almost entirely associated with Stephen King.

As a general rule, I’d prefer to go through these story by story. I plan to going forward. But since I’m currently catching up the books that I’d already gotten to before it occurred to me to write about them, I’m going to just hit the highlights on this one. Which may still be a lot, we’ll see how it goes.

Whenever I see the cover of Night Shift, I think, “oh, but that’s not one of my favorite collections.” Then when I get into it, I remember that it contains some of my favorite short stories. A particular highlight for me in this collection is “The Last Rung on the Ladder”. If you’re looking for spooks, they’re not here. But it’s still an amazing story. The narrative boils down to being a story about a man who has just learned that his sister has committed suicide. Do you remember the Forrest Gump movie? Remember Jenny? I always picture her when reading this one.

The meat of the story is about how as children, the brother and sister used to climb a ladder in the barn to a high ledge and swan dive into a big pile of hay. But one day, the ladder breaks under the sister. She’s hanging by a rung. She could die if she just falls. So Big Bro implores her to hang on while he piles up hay underneath her. When she can’t hold on anymore, he figures he’s got enough – or that what he has is just going to have to do at this point – and she drops into it. She breaks her arm, but she lives. Later, she reveals that she had been too scared to look, so she kept her eyes close the whole time – she’d had no idea what her brother was doing down there. She just trusted, she tells him, that he was doing something to fix it.

So as a little girl, she trusted her brother with her life, no questions asked. As they grew up, though, they drifted apart – largely geographically, but also in life paths. She gets into bad relationships, has bad luck, and makes bad choices, including becoming a call girl. Messages between them often miss each other – this was in the days before texting and cell phones, moving would get you a brand-new landline number if you went far enough, so they were communicating via snail mail. Snail mail that would get forwarded again and again as the addresses changed. So, he didn’t receive the “cry for help” letter until after she jumped off a building. Even though it contained a short sentence about how he perhaps should have let her hit the ground when that rung broke on the ladder, all those years ago. A sentence that would have brought him on the run, had he known.

This is more of a recap than I intended, but it’s so good, and so sad. If you’ve ever missed a message from someone who really needed you, if you’ve ever felt you failed someone who trusted you, you will feel this story. It hurts. It’s painful. But that feeling is so clear and well-articulated, you will also be grateful that someone put it into words.

Other notable stories in this collection include “Jerusalem’s Lot” – a look back at ‘Salem’s Lot that I, for one, find more palatable than the book, “Night Surf”, which is a nice, tight little preview of The Stand – it may even happen during the time of The Stand, just to a group of survivors who never made it to one of the two main groups of survivors that we’re concerned with during that book, and “The Mangler”, which returns us to the familiar Stephen King ground of an industrial laundry. I believe this is “write what you know” for him – I am pretty sure he worked in one of those places – but for me, it’s a pretty unique setting. I haven’t seen other authors use it as much, and certainly not as effectively.

Have you ever seen Cat’s Eye, the 1985 Stephen King film that used a cat as a connecting thread for three vignettes? Two of the stories here, “Quitter’s Inc.” which is about a man who tries an extreme stop smoking program, and “The Ledge” were both adapted for that movie, and I think they’re both well worth the price of admission.

The short story “Trucks” later became Maximum Overdrive – I’m not especially into that movie or excited about the short story, but it’s noteworthy at least. Speaking of adaptations, “The Lawnmower Man” is also in here. That was an interesting story because he sued to have his name taken off of the adaptation – apparently it shared nothing with the original story other than the name. This collection also contains “Children of the Corn”. You know those zillion or so Children of the Corn movies? The source material is this one short story. I’m not a fan of any of the movies, but I do love the short story will all my heart. It’s everything you might want from a Creepy Little Town story.

“Strawberry Spring” is a story that simply delights me. Something about a terrifying serial killer who doesn’t know he’s the terrifying serial killer tickles that part of me that likes horror. “Sometimes They Come Back” isn’t, I think, the best exploration of the material that it covers, but I think that it’s a starting point for themes that we’ll see again and again – a certain type of bully, for instance, perhaps most potently-described in It. The ritual puts me in mind of certain other Stephen King material too – we may not see that exact ritual again, but we’ll see ritual approached that way again, if that makes sense. I think it’s a good start.

“I Know What You Need”… what would happen if you gave an incel psychic powers? King can tell you much more eloquently than I did with that question, but the answer is this story. The explanation for the psychic powers is perhaps not so great, but I don’t think it matters. If you’re a woman who read the Eliot Rodger manifesto in horror thinking, “I know this guy. I’ve met guys just like him. I’ve had their attention directed at me – I could have been killed like this,” then “I Know What You Need” will horrify you too. I’m pretty sure incel as a concept didn’t really exist back when King wrote this – back then, the nerdy guys were supposed to be the good guys, I think – so this is one of many instances where we can probably say that King was prescient. That isn’t even all the stories, but I said I was going to just give the highlights. I’ve talked about the stories I like best and the ones that I find interesting or notable. But don’t take my not mentioning a story to mean anything – the ones left are worth reading too.

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