Wed
Sep 18 2013 11:00am

The Great Stephen King Reread: Skeleton Crew

Stephen King short stories Skeleton CrewIt’s hard to imagine how huge Stephen King was in 1985. Featured on the cover of Time magazine, with four books simultaneously hitting the New York Times bestseller list, two new books on the stands in hardcover, one new paperback, and two movies (one of them considered his best, one of them considered his worst) going into production, this was a Godzilla-sized career in motion.

The writer at the center of it all was, by his own accounts, a Godzilla-sized addict, too, hoovering up monstrous amounts of cocaine and sucking down gallons of beer every night. In the middle of this mega-mayhem, Stephen King published Skeleton Crew, a book of short stories. The one bit of wisdom everyone in publishing agrees on is that short story collections don’t sell, but Skeleton Crew sold a monster-sized 600,000 copies in its first year, which is only appropriate because this is a book all about monsters.

When 1985 began, Stephen King had just become a pop cultural phenomena, and the only bummer was that his fame arrived just when his unbelievable series of home run novels were tapering off into a series of doubles and triples. But King wasn’t sitting back on his laurels and counting his cash. That was for drunken nights alone in his study. His work ethic wouldn’t let him relax during the day, and he burned up his word processor turning out story after story, even though they earned him chump change compared to his novels.

An indie author at a time when most authors were totally corporate, in December of 1984 King self-published a limited edition novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, with 250 copies distributed himself and 1000 auctioned off for sale at $120 each. In January, he began publishing his own fan newsletter, Castle Rock, which lasted until 1989 (a complete set will run you about $400 on Ebay). A previously limited edition book, Cycle of the Werewolf, was released as an illustrated mass market paperback in April, the same month his identity as “Richard Bachman” was exposed in the press. In June, Skeleton Crew (originally called Night Moves) was released with a first printing of 500,000 copies. By the end of the year it had sold 120,000 more (it would sell another 100,000 copies by 1990). Also in June, production began on the film version of his novella, “The Body,” now called Stand By Me. And in July, King began shooting his directorial debut, a movie based on his short story “Trucks” from Night Shift, now called Maximum Overdrive (and considered one of the worst movies ever made).

At night he was working on revisions of his mega-novel, It, due the following year. In October, he would appear on the cover of Time magazine and Cycle of the Werewolf would be released as a motion picture called Silver Bullet. In the midst of all this, King was striking a blow for authors everywhere (and for himself) when his agent, Kirby McCauley, negotiated an unprecedented deal with his publisher, New American Library: $10 million for Misery and The Tommyknockers. It wasn’t the money that mattered, however, but the fact that he wasn’t selling the rights, but rather offering NAL a 15-year license. It was the first time someone had defied the rules of corporate publishing by simply licensing his books for a limited term to a publisher, rather than selling them outright.

And, as all this was going on, Skeleton Crew hit the stands. The brainchild of King’s first editor at Viking, Bill Thompson, by the time the book was ready to go it was a mishmash catchall of King’s uncollected short fiction ranging from poetry, odds and bobs he’d published in college, stories he’d run in the men’s magazines before he was famous, and several pieces he’d published as Stephen King, Master of Horror, mostly for fun or to support editors and magazines that he loved. For King, short stories were a hobby and they were charity work, something he did that could immediately elevate the sales of an anthology collection edited by one of his friends, or that could bump subscription numbers on a genre magazine he particularly liked.

Everyone had an opinion about King by this point, and there were plenty of people trying to say that the emperor had no clothes and was a crappy writer to boot. Almost to spite them, Skeleton Crew embraced King’s love of pulp. The better stories in this collection read like 1950’s B-movies featuring rubber monsters with an added layer of goopy grue, the middle-of-the-road stories read like the work of a pulp hack getting paid by the word, and the least consequential stories feel like shapeless noodlings torn from his notebooks to pad out the word count. It’s as if, at the height of his fame, Stephen King decided to issue a deliberate provocation. Take your pick, this collection says, I’m either the gross-out king of horror island, a work-for-hire hack, or I can publish my grocery list and get paid for it.

Stephen King the Mist Skeleton Crew“The Mist” 1980, Dark Forces anthology
Without a doubt the crown jewel of the collection, “The Mist” kicks off Skeleton Crew in high style. King describes it as cheery and cheesy, a story you’re supposed to see “in black-and-white” like a 50’s creature feature. Written in the summer of 1976 at the behest of his agent, Kirby McCauley, for his Dark Forces anthology, it’s one of King’s most popular stories, spawning a popular 1985 text-based computer game by Angelsoft and a well-received but only moderately successful 2007 movie directed by Frank Darabont. King likes to write stories about people trapped in places (The Shining, Cujo, Misery) but “The Mist” is clearly a forerunner of Under the Dome, focusing on a cross-section of society in a small Maine town who are suddenly cut off from the world and turn on one another thanks to the meddling of a religious obsessive. Two years later he’d try this again with his abandoned novel, The Cannibals, about a group of people trapped inside their swank apartment complex. He ditched that effort at page 400, but it later mutated into Under the Dome (2009).

King describes “The Mist” as being hard to write and complains that it got away from him and became too unwieldy and too long, but that he finally managed to pare it down to what he felt was a manageable length. The paring down is part of what makes it so good. It’s packed with incident, characterization is revealed through action rather than via King’s usual habit of writing pages of backstory. If there was a literary airplane that was going down, I think most readers would keep “The Mist” but toss Under the Dome out the door in order to lighten the load. Both books basically do the same job, but one does it in about 50,000 words, and the other takes 375,000.

“Here There Be Tygers” 1968, 1985, Ubris
First published in the University of Maine’s literary journal and revised for Skeleton Crew, King follows the longest story in the book with one of the shortest, a quick sketch about a little boy who is scared to go to the bathroom at school. It ends with a tiger eating his mean teacher, and it’s one of several surreal short stories that King publishes in Skeleton Crew and his earlier Night Shift. It’s also one of the most successful, as it just drops one out-of-place detail (the tiger) into a convincingly realistic setting, rather than going completely over the top surreal with foam coming out of its mouth like “The Lawnmower Man” or “Morning Deliveries.”

Stephen King Skeleton Crew The Monkey“The Monkey” 1980, Gallery
King likes to wring horror out of mundane objects—a lawnmower, a fire hose, a car—but “The Monkey” shows what a double-edged sword that it. A frustrated father is terrorized by a stuffed, wind-up monkey from his childhood whose clanging cymbals herald the death of someone he loves. He saves his fragmenting family from its wrath by bundling it into a duffel bag and dropping it in a lake. The descriptions of the rotting, terrifying sinister simian doll are effective but by the time it’s generated a giant cloud face to loom over the lake it’s more silly than anything. This is one of those times when the reaction of the terrorized person accounts for most of the horror, a bit like that scene in Ed Wood when Martin Landau lies on top of an immobile rubber octopus, wraps its tentacles around himself, and thrashes about screaming.

Cain Rose Up 1968, 1985, Ubris
Another from King’s college literary magazine, this is a quick character sketch of a college student who inexplicably unpacks a rifle and begins to shoot people from his dorm room window. The less said about it the better. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s got no reason to exist either. The writing is fine, but it feels like it was included not because it was good but because it helped pump up the page count to appropriately “Stephen King” numbers.

Stephen King Skeleton Crew Mrs Todd's Shortcut“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” 1984, Redbook
Three of the big women’s magazines rejected this story before it found a home at Redbook. The first two rejected it because King mentions that the main character’s urine will run down her leg if she urinates standing up. The third, Cosmopolitan, rejected it because they thought the main character was too old. It’s a fun piece, telling the story of a woman whose obsession with shortcuts eventually steers her into other dimensions where disgusting flappy monsters get stuck to the grille of her car. There’s not much to take away from it except that King reports he enjoyed writing it, and his pleasure shows.

“The Jaunt” 1981, Twilight Zone magazine
A sci-fi story about a teleportation device that sends people across the solar system, but drives them insane if they open their eyes. It’s one of King’s B-movie exercises in imitating other styles (see also: “The Wedding Gig”) and it feels very much like a copy of a Twilight Zone story. It doesn’t become as memorable as Night Shift’s sci-fi stories like “I Am the Doorway” or “Night Surf” and was (rightly, as King admits) rejected by Omni magazine because the science was wonky.

“The Wedding Gig” 1980, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
This is an interesting piece, the story of a jazz combo playing a mobster’s wedding. Except for the grotesque descriptions of the enormously obese bride there isn’t a lick of horror anywhere to be found and instead it reads like hardboiled crime fiction, a genre King would return to with The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013). The story is no great shakes, but it’s also not embarrassing and if this is a pastiche, it’s a good one. If “The Jaunt” felt like King watched a lot of Twilight Zone episodes and then imitated them, “The Wedding Gig” feels actually authentic.

“Paranoid: A Chant” 1985
I will defend King as a writer until I’m blue in the face, but he makes my job hard when he insists on publishing his poetry. Featuring the immortal lines, “They are making addictive laxatives,” and “It obviates their infrascopes,” this poem is better passed over in silence. It was made into a Dollar Baby short film that you can watch on YouTube. Please don’t.

Stephen King The Raft Skeleton Crew“The Raft” 1969, Adam
Most horror doesn’t scare me, I read it because I like the aesthetic. But when I was 13 and got my copy of Skeleton Crew for Christmas this was the one story that stuck an ice cold poker made of fear right up my backside. I read it over and over again, completely intoxicated by its hopelessness. A bunch of teenagers swim out to a raft in the middle of the lake. A tiny black oil spill surrounds them and eats any of them who fall in the water. Even worse, at one point it oozes up between the boards and drags one of them down through the one-inch gap, cracking his bones all the way. The story ends, as too many of King’s stories do, with the main character cracking under pressure and babbling song lyrics to himself (see also, “Beachworld,” “Survivor Type”) but the complete hopelessness of their situation, made worse by the fact that they could have escaped earlier if they’d taken the threat seriously, turns this into one of the best stories in the book.

King wrote this story in 1968, and sold it to the men’s magazine, Adam, in 1969 for $250. When the check arrived it was exactly the amount he needed to pay a court fine for getting drunk and stealing traffic cones in Orono, Maine. The magazine paid on publication but it didn’t send him a copy, and he’s never been able to find one. In 1981, bored and shooting Creepshow, he rewrote the story from memory, adding more gore, and that’s the version published here.

“Word Processor of the Gods” 1983, Playboy
Another sci-fi story in the mode of “The Jaunt.” It’s fine, but brings nothing new to the table. In On Writing King discusses getting the idea for this story one night while huddled under a blanket sweating out a fever and that sounds about right. It’s a simple exploration of an interesting concept (a writer gets a word processor that alters reality) and it’s only notable for its general misanthropy (the writer’s wife and son are both ingrates) and for reminding us that word processors used to be dedicated machines that took up entire desks and cost around $6000.

“The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands” 1982, Shadows 4 anthology
The second of King’s stories taking place in his weird men’s club at 249B East 35th Street (the other was Different Seasons’s “The Breathing Method”) this is a short winter’s tale about a man with a curse: all who shake his hands will die! And then he dies by shaking his own hands! There’s not much to it besides that, but King brings a certain level of polish to all his short stories. This was one of three stories from Skeleton Crew originally published in an anthology edited by horror novelist Charles L. Grant.

“Beachworld” 1985, Weird Tales
Another sci-fi story that joins the serviceable ranks of “The Jaunt” and “Word Processor of the Gods” this one lies somewhere between the sci-fi blandness of “The Jaunt” and the weirder, more unique sci-fi horror of “I Am the Doorway.” Basically, a spaceship crash lands on a sandy planet and the sentient sand possesses the crew. It uses a lot of the same imagery of consumption and enveloping as “The Raft,” linking the two stories as King’s literary versions of The Blob. And it ends, like “The Raft,” with a man chanting song lyrics to himself inanely as he waits to die.

“The Reaper’s Image” 1969, Startling Mystery Stories
King’s first professional sale, this is a story by someone who has read too much Edgar Allan Poe. Two men are negotiating the sale of a mirror that shows an image of the grim reaper, and if you see it you disappear. The story ends with one man waiting for the other, now disappeared, to come back to the room and it’s one of many King tales that end with a character placidly awaiting their fate, as in “Beachworld,” “The Raft,” Night Shift’s “Gray Matter,” and “Trucks.“ It’s true that there are only so many ways you can end a short story, but King seems to rely on this ending quite a bit. Maybe it’s the horror of having to stand by helplessly while the inevitable approaches?

“Nona” 1978, Shadows anthology
Like “Caine Rose Up” or “Apt Pupil” this is one of King’s stories about a good kid who goes bad, more of a crime story with a twist than straight horror. Also, like Under the Dome and The Stand, it starts with a bunch of local bullies inviting an outsider to duke it out in a parking lot (or on the side of the road) and unexpectedly getting their asses handed to them by the kid who doesn’t want to fight.

“For Owen” 1985, previously unpublished
A short poem about King walking his youngest son to school. Again, there’s nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

“Survivor Type” 1982, Terrors anthology
One of King’s more notorious short stories, it’s also one of the grosser stories in this collection. A surgeon, fallen on hard times and dealing drugs, is shipwrecked on a rocky island with nothing to eat but himself and only heroin to numb the pain. It’s gruesome, it’s short, and it sticks with you, for better or for worse.

“Uncle Otto’s Truck” 1983, Yankee
Like “The Monkey,” this is one of those stories in which the object of terror is so mundane that it passes through the other side and becomes silly. In this case, it’s about an old man who plotted a particularly overly-complicated murder and is dragged to hell by a rusty pick-up truck propped up on cinder blocks. Think about it too hard (how does the pick-up truck hold the old man down and make him drink oil until he dies? And stuff him with spark plugs? Does it have fingers?) and all of King’s carefully-wrought atmospherics dissolve into giggles.

“Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)” 1985, previously unpublished and “Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2)” 1982, Nightmares anthology
Two connected fragments that were parts of an aborted novel, you can see here the remains of an alternate universe Stephen King who wrote literary fiction that was mostly grotesque surrealism about blue collar life in Maine (see also: “The Lawnmower Man”). If he had kept on in this direction, he would have published three novels, some short stories in literary journals, and be teaching high school and coaching the debate team at Hampden Academy. It’s a sort of what-might-have-been and while interesting, it’s also a dead end for him. And the story shows it.

“Gramma” 1984, Weird Book
One of the more memorable stories in the collection, and one of King’s rare stories that end on such a hopeless note, it’s about a little boy left home alone to take care of his ailing grandmother during a storm. She turns out to be a witch and is using her death as a way to switch bodies with him. Since King’s mother took in his dying grandmother when King was a kid, we have to assume that part of the power of this story comes from the way he draws on his own memories for details. It also contains a shout-out to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, like Night Shift’s “Jerusalem’s Lot.”

“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” 1984, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
More of a novella than a short story, “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” is one of those stories that may have hatched too early. Very long, and featuring a lot of what feels like padding, since it’s the newest story included in Skeleton Crew the assumption is that King raced to finish it to get it in the book. It’s another of his stories about writers, this time a scribbler who believes that little Gremlin-esque creatures called Fornits live in his typewriter. It’s a perfectly nice story that builds to a satisfying ending that, while somewhat predictable, carries some emotional oomph, but you get the feeling that one of Mrs. Todd’s shortcuts would have gotten the reader to the same destination with half the mileage.

“The Reach” 1981, Yankee magazine
Originally published under the title “Do the Dead Sing?” this ends the collection on a high note. A well-observed, sad, generous story about a woman who lives on an island off the coast of Maine all her life deciding to finally die by walking across the frozen ocean to the mainland, it brings Skeleton Crew to a close the same way “The Woman in the Room” brought Night Shift to a close. It’s one of King’s best stories about small town life, and it’s got a quiet dignity all its own.

 

This short story collection was a monster-sized success at a time when King’s career was going all kaiju-gigantic, but it was nothing compared to the monster that would come next. King’s biggest book, in every sense of the word, would also be one of his most divisive. It was called... It.


Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.

9 comments
Robert H. Bedford
1. RobB
Wasn't The Raft adapted in the second Creepshow movie? I remember Gramma being adapted for the then new "Twilight Zone" with the kid from Neverending Story and Wordprocessor of the Gods on "Tales from the Darkside."

This was solid collection, I return to it now and again. The Mist I've always thought was on of his more Lovecraftian stories. There was also an audio version of the story with "3D audio." Cool stuff.
Kit Case
2. wiredog
The paring down is part of what makes it so good.

True of so many books. Stranger in a Strange Land being a good example of this.

Any of Tom Clancy's later works demonstrate what happens when you don't do this.
sofrina
3. sofrina
survivor type is nuts, but i will never stop loving the jaunt. i don't care about the science. you need to be a sleep to jaunt it good enough for me. just look at the father's grief having just told his son the story a little while ago and now his child is lost and ruined. i think i'm confusing the movie and story endings to the raft. the movie version the guy makes it to shore. ("i beat you!!!") mrs. todd's shortcut sticks in my memory for the vision of her looking like a teenager, all disheveled, with the otherworldy critters hanging on like they got hit while trying to catch her. is cain rose up the same story as rage? was that inspired by the shooting at texas a&m back then?
sofrina
4. liberrygirl
Back in high school I adapted Survivor Type into a monologue that I used to win a couple of drama competitions. I probably just grossed out the judges.
sofrina
5. ChrisM
"The Monkey" scared the hell out of me when I read this book as a teenager, though some of that may have been from the creepy grinning monkey on the cover of the book.
sofrina
6. Eugene R.
The narrator of "The Mist" at one point discusses how he gave up his high-art ambitions and became a successful commercial illustrator after his Andy Warhol-esque painting was sold for advertising purposes. I have always wondered if that passage was Mr. King making his own artistic confession.
Robert H. Bedford
7. RobB
IIRC in the beginning of the film version of THE MIST (which was pretty good), they show the paintings of the main character David and they look a lot like Whelan's art for Roland.
sofrina
8. QuantumSam
I had read Carrie when I was 13. I had read The Raft and was creeped out.

But in one of the first issues of Twilight Zone magazine King wrote "The Blue Air Compressor" which is a modern take on The Tell Tale Heart.

That story not only totally creeped me out for days, but it was the one that inspired me to write my best SFF stories for my school magazine.
tatiana deCarillion
9. decarillion
I still belonged to maybe five bookclubs when this book came out. Being a big SK fan at the time, I bought it and read it.

I barely remember the stories except...Survivor Type. I started and re-started that story so many times...I kept having physical reactions to the imagery, which really doesn't happen for me, when reading LOL

I eventually did read the entire story, but it remains the only one that I recall with any detail.

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