Do the Dead Sing? Do They Love?

(Skeleton Crew)

The nice thing about Stephen King’s collections of short stories is that even if you hate some of the bunch, you will also be able to find some gems. In Skeleton Crew, there are stories that I can’t stand and stories that I absolutely love.

Skeleton Crew is not my favorite collection. And I think it’s the one that I mix up with Night Shift every time I think I don’t care for Night Shift, then discover that I actually do. But it starts out with “The Mist”, which is incredible, and ends up with “The Reach”, which is lovely, and has some pretty good stuff in between, along with stuff I don’t like as much. Offhand, I think this collection is the weakest one for me, but it’s Stephen King, and frankly his weakest short stories are better than some authors’ strongest short stories.

“The Mist” is, I think, a fan favorite. For good reason. After a storm, there’s a strange fog in the area. When the fog descends on a grocery store containing our main and ancillary characters, some combination of Jurassic Park and Lovecraftian monsters come with it. Our protagonist and his supporting characters need to find their way out and to safety, but not everyone is behind him — in fact, the grocery store people break off into factions. One faction refuses to believe any of the things that are obviously happening. A different faction morphs into a bloodthirsty cult. “The Mist” is an older story, but as I was re-reading it in the fall of 2021, as we continue to live with the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m reminded of the people who keep insisting that “it’s nothing but the flu” or the calls for people to go back to normal and take the risks because “only the old or sick will die anyway” (as if their lives are acceptable sacrifices). Not to mention the people who have decided that COVID-19 is some type of celestial judgment. It’s not an exact comparison of course, but we’re living through a crisis and some groups of people have found coping mechanisms that actively make things worse. And that’s what happens in the story too. It made me think.

“The Mist” is also a movie. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you might not be surprised to hear me say I haven’t seen it. I do want to. I know how it ends, though — apparently it’s pretty faithful to the written version of the story, except that the short story leaves the reader with the possibility that the remaining characters have a hope for a future. The movie… does not leave that hope. Without having seen the movie, I can at least tentatively say that I prefer the short story for this reason alone. I guess seeing it could change my mind, but I tend to like Stephen King better when he maintains that optimism for the future of humanity that many of his works have. As awful as his stories can be, most of them have at least a kernel of hope. And I find that without it, they’re just so depressing. Like what is the point of even enjoying a story if all hope is lost? Your mileage may vary — a lot of people, including King himself, prefer the downer ending for the movie of “The Mist”. A lot of people like downer endings in general. I like them sometimes myself, but not to the extent of “sucks away all hope for humanity”. It’s one thing if the ending is a downer for a character — when it’s all characters or implies the end of the world, I tend to feel like it’s a bit much. But don’t let me yuck your yum if that’s your thing. It may also make a difference that, as I mentioned, we’re living through a crisis that sort of relates to this story in my mind. I would like to believe it will be over one day, which seems like a good enough reason to avoid the downer ending.

Next are a few that I don’t care for: “Here There Be Tygers”, “The Monkey”, “Cain Rose Up”. The first two just don’t do it for me, that’’s all. “Cain Rose Up reminds me, somewhat uncomfortably, of Rage — very Angry White Boy, plus gun violence. I’m just not a fan. But then the book grabs me back with “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”, which is just so much fun to read! It just makes you want to go find some magical shortcuts yourself. I’m a bookworm — meaning that I’m fairly sedentary, most of my adventures take place in my head — and I’m also a super-cautious driver, not a thrill seeker or shortcut seeker. So if this story makes me want to go on a wild ride (is a coincidence that just visually, looking at this title makes me think of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?) then I think it’s a pretty good story.

“The Jaunt” is another one I’ve always liked. I was reading it this time and thinking that it was like reading an episode of The Twilight Zone (I love The Twilight Zone). Then I looked again and realized it was originally published in The Twilight Zone Magazine. So it fits just right.

I’m already getting close to my word count for this post and it’s going to be long even if I only hit the highlights of what’s left, so I’m not going to discuss every story, even briefly. The rest will be the ones that made me think the most.

I never know whether or not to like “Word Processor of The Gods.” I like the idea of a word processor that inserts and deletes things in the real world. But the protagonist effectively kills his wife and son (I know he says he “deletes” them, not murders them, but come on) and I find it hard to like him. He has such contempt for the woman he married and the kid he made — holding himself entirely separate from them as if he’s somehow superior and unconnected. Something tells me that the wife and child that he resurrected and stole from his dead brother will eventually disappoint him too. I kind of hope they will — otherwise, this guy gets to be terrible to his own family, refuse to acknowledge that he might have a role here, and replace the old family with a new family more to his liking. It’s annoying.

“The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands” is notable to me mainly because it’s another one of those weird little gentlemen’s club stories. The story is fine (as was Breathing Method) but the mystery of the weird little gentlemen’s club with the ageless butler and endless tales is even more interesting, and I would very much like to know more about it still. Alas, I don’t believe we see it again anywhere. I suppose there’s still time… but I don’t expect it to come back.

“Survivor Type” is supposed to be a favorite of King’s (possibly it was just on his mind when someone happened to ask about his favorites — I feel like he gives a lot of different answers to that type of question, so maybe he doesn’t really have one. Or maybe his favorites are changeable. Mine change, so I could believe it.) It is a really good story. The protagonist is another jerk, but in this case, the jerk ends up eating himself, which is more than adequate punishment for anything that he might have done. Just the concept of self-cannibalization is pretty out there, and King builds a character and situation that simultaneously makes you think “well, couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy” and “ugh, no one deserves that” at the same time.

I think that “Gramma” rings a bell with me because I spent years working in nursing homes as a Certified Nurse Aide. I liked my patients, so don’t mistake what I’m saying. If I had any lingering aversion to bed-bound seniors, close to 10 years of caring for them cured it. But I can see how an elderly lady slowly dying in bed — in your house, no less — can be creepy. Especially to a small boy. And to be honest, people who are very ill, have dementia, or are very close to death are apt to say anything at all and also to be surprisingly strong at times. I don’t think that actual witches exist, but I do think that the confrontation described in the story could just about happen anyway.

“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is another story I love, though I’m not sure that I can really explain why. I like the concept of Fornits (as a writer, I wish I had one. I think.) It’s unusual in my experience for people to believe in tiny elf-like creatures seriously. It’s not so unusual, in my experience, for people to believe in the possible detrimental effects of things like electricity and radium — except now it’s more likely to be 5G and cellphones and vaccines that make you magnetic. Same concept, though. I guess I find the depiction of how a mind gets that way — and how one mind can encourage another mind to get that way with them — to be interesting. (Also, again, I just like Fornits. And I would like some fornus, please. I have deadlines.)

And “The Reach” — last but not least. This is not the last of Stephen King’s little islands. I don’t think Goat Island comes up again, but a certain Little Tall Island will be along soon enough. I don’t pretend to understand the setting. Even the rural Maine settings he often uses are pretty foreign to me, and an island like Goat Island may as well be on the moon for all I understand about what it would be like to live in a place like that or why you wouldn’t want to get off of it, at least occasionally. But it doesn’t matter. I actually like this story because it’s a pretty piece of literature. It’s soothing. It’s beautiful in places. It’s not truly frightening, at least not to me. Dead people are in it, but the dead people still care about the living people. Hard to find that frightening. I don’t even believe in an afterlife, but sometimes I wish I could believe that the people I’ve loved and lost would come to guide me and care for me when my time is at an end. It’s a nice thought, and I think it’s expressed well here.

One last thing — I really appreciate King’s notes with this collection. This becomes a more common thing going forward, I think, at least in the collection. Some people hate them, and they can sometimes be spoilery. I personally am not bothered by spoilers (for one, I’m very much an “it’s the journey, not the destination,” person, so knowing the end doesn’t actually spoil anything for me, and for two, I’ve read all these stories enough times that I can’t be spoiled now anyway.) and I love the notes. I come back to King books and short stories over and over and over again. Not everything holds up to re-reading so well, but his work usually does. I feel like I know his voice by now, and the notes he sometimes includes are the closest I get to feeling like he’s talking directly to me (me as in the reader, not me personally, of course). I feel like there are useful and interesting insights in there.

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