Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift,” first published in the October 1970 issue of Cavalier. Spoilers ahead.
Hall could hear a stealthy rustling sound, a big sound. Something that perhaps no living man had ever seen.
Hall is a drifter. He left college at Berkeley three years ago and has since “moved on his thumb” across the country as a busboy, stevedore, short-order cook, taxi driver and dish-washer. Now he works the graveyard shift in a Maine fabric mill, operating a superannuated picker machine. The pay’s minimum wage, but that’s fine. He’s got only himself to support, and his cigarette habit.
Two a.m. on a hot June Friday, Hall’s taking a smoke break and throwing empty soda cans at the rats who are his sole shift-mates. They’re fat-bellied, vermin-ridden, nesting among the stacks of fiber bags and watching him with “bright buckshot eyes.” Sometimes when they’re lined up atop the bags, he thinks they look like a jury. The judge is night foreman Warwick, a “sneaky sonofabitch” who this Friday catches Hall smoking and pegging cans.
Well, what’s Hall supposed to do when Wisconsky hasn’t sent down any orders in 20 minutes? Good diversionary tactic, but before Warwick goes after Wisconsky, he asks if Hall wants to work over the holiday week, cleaning out the mill basement. Extra pay sounds good, even though Hall can picture what the basement must be like: dark, damp, ooze seeped in from the river, spiders, rats, maybe even bats. And Warwick in charge.
Warwick, who disparagingly calls Hall “college boy” every chance he gets. Hall has “a sudden premonition of a strange thing coming” between them. The idea pleases him.
In the basement, men work in teams of two, loading electric wagons with junk or blast-cleaning cleared areas with high-pressure water hoses. Hall’s stuck with perpetually complaining Wisconsky. Not that there isn’t plenty to complain about: the clutter of broken furniture and rusting machinery, the stink of polluted river and half-clogged sewers, moss and fungi—and the rats. They’re even bigger than the ones upstairs, and they’re everywhere. Worse, they’ve lost their fear of humans and will stand their ground and bite. Thousands of them, carrying who knows what diseases. As Wisconsky whines, “This ain’t no work for a man.”
A worker has his hand mauled by a cat-sized rat. Another’s bitten on the chest. Hall hoses to splinters a dense tangle of 19th-century office equipment, evicting a horde. Warwick keeps up his “college-boy” taunt and threatens increasingly reluctant workers. Back home, Hall wonders what makes him feel that he and Warwick are somehow tied together.
Fourth of July night, Hall notes the sudden absence of rats. A bat dive-bombs Wisconsky. Hall finds a wooden trapdoor. Warwick shrugs off the discovery of a subcellar, never mind that it must be where the rats are breeding.
Then Hall drops a carefully-prepared bomb. What with Warwick always reminding him he’s a college boy, Hall’s been to the library to research town zoning ordinances. There’s a law about vermin—rats in particular. If a business lets an infestation slide, it can be closed down way longer than a holiday week. Enraged, Warwick tells Hall he’s fired. That’s fine, Hall’ll just be off to report those rats to the town commissioner. Warwick looks ready to punch him. Instead, he “rehires” Hall to investigate the subcellar. Him and the horrified Wisconsky.
Fine, says Hall, as long as Warwick comes along—gotta have a management representative. Warwick accepts the implicit challenge. Workers wrench up the trapdoor. On its underside, along with black fungus and sightless beetles, is a now-broken lock. But it should be on top, right? And who could have locked it from below?
Hall, Warwick and Wisconsky descend sagging wooden stairs to the age-heaved stone floor of the subcellar. At first they find nothing but rotting boxes and barrels. One big box is labelled “Elias Varney, 1841.” The mill wasn’t built until 1897, Warwick says. They reach a jut of concrete that marks the mill foundations, but the subcellar continues on. Warwick tries to retreat. Hall grabs Wisconsky’s hose and forces Warwick onward while Wisconsky escapes.
Sure enough, in the extended subcellar is an army of rats, some shin-high. They let the men pass, but fall in behind and start gnawing on the hose. Bats big as crows roost overhead. They pass a human skeleton green with mold. Hall pushes Warwick on, determined the foreman will break before he does.
They come on rats hideously mutated, three feet high, without rear legs, blind. The monsters advance eagerly. They have business with Warwick, Hall says, and with that Warwick’s control slips—he screams as a rat runs over his foot. But Hall forces him to the summit of a small rise. From its crest Warwick sees something that panics him toward flight. Hall turns on the high-pressure hose, knocking the foreman into the gully beyond the rise. A “huge, tenebrous squeaking” harmonizes with Warwick’s shrieks. There’s the snap of fractured bone.
Hall ascends the rise. Below, dwarfing Warwick’s remains, is an eyeless, legless, “pulsating gray” rat, mewling hideously. It’s the queen, the magna mater, “whose progeny might someday develop wings.”
Hall finally runs for it, but rats and bats swarm him, and his gnawed hose rapidly loses potency. As he falls, ears filled with the rats’ yammering, he begins to laugh, “a high, screaming sound.”
Above workers debate going after the missing Warwick and Hall. Lights are procured. “A few rats, what the hell,” says one man, and the search party starts down into the subcellar…
What’s Cyclopean: This week’s Cyclopean Award goes to that “huge, tenebrous squeaking,” a concept as fascinating as it is challenging to imagine…
The Degenerate Dutch: “Graveyard Shift” benefits from the narrator being a target of prejudice, as the foreman resents him for being a “college boy.” This doesn’t entirely obfuscate the cardboard characterization of shorthanding Wisconsky as a “fat Pole” who whines and avoids work and not much else—though he does also manage to avoid getting eaten—but it does at least give us a variation on the standard King POV.
Mythos Making: The rats are not in the walls.
Libronomicon: The library can tell us many things that our bosses don’t want us to know.
Madness Takes Its Toll: “You’re crazy, college boy. Isn’t that right? Crazy as a loon.”
Smell is central to horror. Bad smells are visceral, repugnant—they cut through conscious reasoning to an instinctive retreat from wrongness. The closest most of us come to “things man was not meant to know” is that thing from the back of your fridge that you toss without thinking as soon as you catch a whiff of it. A house doesn’t need to be haunted by a ghost if a rat (or mouse, or—all powers forfend—a skunk) dies in the walls. Forget colors, it’s smells that tell you that something’s incompatible with life as we know it. If a human smells like fish, or an apartment like bad beer and slime and rotting cat carcasses, a cosmically horrible encounter can’t be far behind.
Fungus, we know from reports, is also bad. But fungus is fickle—sometimes you take a hike in the woods and find mi-go, and sometimes you find morels. Even in a basement, someone might simply have let one of those nifty mushroom kits go for too long. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here, though…
So it’s easy to sympathize with the basement cleaning crew trying to clear the odiferous mess from a factory basement. We’ve all dealt with the Cleaning Job That Never Ends, and with awful jobs, and with combinations thereof. In previous stories I’ve been a tough sell on King’s resentful working class narrators—mostly they seem to resent people like me, but in this case they’ve found a more rational target. Gates Falls has somehow managed to miss unionization, and here we see why—managers take note—there are worse things than your shop getting unionized. To paraphrase Utah Philips, “Dump the bosses off your backs… and into a rat-infested hellhole” is a message a lot of people can get behind.
Hall, a martyr to this not-particularly-traditional workers’ revolt, makes an interesting guide to the whole business. Why is a “college boy” drifting from job to job, sans family connections or career narrative or any interest in working during the day? At first I wondered if he might be a creature of the night himself, but it seems like something that would come up either during lunch or at the point when he’s being attacked by giant mutant rats. Either that or he’s the world’s least efficacious vampire. My best guess is that somewhere in a lab at Berkeley, he Saw Too Much and has been fleeing the memory ever since. Maybe his subtle premonition about the foreman is an aftereffect of one of the many bad-idea ESP studies that pepper King’s universe.
Or maybe he’s been fleeing an ancestral curse? This is, in a delightfully sideways fashion, a “Rats in the Walls” riff. In which the rats are pointedly not in the walls, but there is an on-screen magna mater worthy of the name. It’s all considerably subtler than the Lovecraft references in “Crouch End,” and works considerably better. There’s something going on with Hall, and “some sort of relation to Elias Varney who got sacrificed to create mutant rats in 1841, now meeting his inevitable fate” makes as much sense as any option.
Anyway, now is a good time to remember: There is power in a union, and one of those powers is avoiding the sort of bad management that causes legless rat protoshoggoths to infest your sub-basement. This concludes our public service announcement.
Like protagonist Hall, Stephen King worked a bunch of shit jobs before Carrie set him free to just write, thank you any gods there be. In his memoir On Writing, he vividly describes working for an industrial laundry. Much of what he handled were table linens from coastal Maine restaurants, well-perfumed with rotting lobster and clam remains and crawling with maggots. Worse were the hospital linens, which arrived in what they called “plague bags.” These also harbored maggots, feasting on blood instead of seafood.
He also fondly (?) recalls working at Worumbo Mills and Weaving in Lisbon Falls, Maine: “a dingy fuckhole overhanging the polluted Androscoggin River like a workhouse in a Charles Dickens novel.” He started out bagging loose fabric on the third floor, then graduated to the basement dyehouse. Somehow he avoided “being sucked into the machinery or stitching [his] fingers together.” Unlike Hall, he didn’t get on the squad that cleaned out the mill over a Fourth of July week, but a guy who did claimed there were rats in the basement big as cats. Some big as dogs! A few years later, King turned the Worumbo rats into “Graveyard Shift,” and sold it to Cavalier magazine for $200, his biggest writing paycheck to that date.
So rats were looking out for King, much as he might loathe them. Furry, chisel-toothed little muses, we might say, as those laundry maggots were squirmy, squishy little inspirations. When life hands you vermin, make fiction, right? The literature of the repulsive, the primal-terrifying, to be specific. And King has always excelled at that, particularly as it imaginatively amplifies the travails of the working grunt.
I can sympathize with Wisconsky when he says the basement clean-out “ain’t work for a man.” In the technological and social context of “Graveyard Shift,” however, who else is going to do it? Capable robots don’t exist. Women and children don’t seem to work at the Gates Falls mill, not that history past (and present) sees them exempt from such labor. Somebody’s got to scrub the nasty underbelly of the mill, and that somebody’s not going to be its owners or bosses. Or college boys, either, not for long. The world of “Graveyard Shift” has a class/caste system less formally acknowledged than many but hardly less rigid. Wisconsky’s a biological male, but he’s no man either by social rank or natural ability, mental hardihood or spiritual stature. So he makes a fine underbelly-scrubber.
Hall? Not so much. He’s something like a man—physically tough, intelligent, competent when he wants to be, bold. Too bad he may also be a sociopath. He self-identifies as a drifter, no remorse, no particular concern. Minimum wage is enough to keep a man without family or other personal ties. Why, we’re left to wonder, did he leave college? Why has he hopped from place to place, job to job? Could it be he always falls into conflict with a superior like Warwick, one who’s actually inferior to Hall but who refuses to admit it? A “bigger” dog who must be broken, who must acknowledge Hall’s greater worth even if their relative positions don’t change. A focus for Hall’s competitive animosity—the one to whom he’s somehow “tied together.”
And Warwick, in Hall’s mind, is also tied together with the rats, which are collectively another unworthy yet unyielding adversary. Or are the rats so unworthy? Does the true terror lie in how they keep turning up bigger, then mutated into creatures still more fearsome, culminating in the Magna Mater of the gully, omnipotent in Her fecundity and mutability?
Ia, Shub-Niggurath, She-Rat with Lots More Than a Thousand Young! Teeming and irrepressible Nature that underlies our strongholds, individual and corporate-industrial! The Conqueror Rodent-Worm!
The mysteries with which Hall taunts Warwick remain mysteries in the end. Why’s that trapdoor locked on the underside? Who could have locked it, effectively locking themselves in, and for what purpose? Two clues await our investigators: The box labelled “Elias Varney, 1841” and the human skeleton of similar vintage. “Varney” recalls James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampire, though that Varney was Sir Francis, not Elias. The box itself reminds me of the packing crate in which King’s Barlow (the Vampire) arrives in Salem’s Lot.
Far as I’ve dug, King hasn’t revealed Varney’s significance. That leaves us happily free to spin our own backstories. I’ll speculate Elias Varney locked himself into the subcellar to perform unspeakable experiments on—rats, of course. Which subjects later dined on Varney, hence the skeleton. The “1841” could be Varney recording the date of his arrival subcellar, or it could be the date vital lab equipment or materia magica were delivered.
All “Elias Varney, 1841” has to do for King’s story, though, is indicate how long, at minimum, the subcellar existed before the mill was built atop it.
King leaves us another plot bunny at the close of “Graveyard Shift.” What happens to the workers searching for Hall and Warwick? And what happens if no one relocks the trapdoor before the biggest and baddest rat-mutants escape their prison-nursery?
What larks we’ve had with our cuddly rodent friends and not-always-cuddly human fellows these last three weeks! Final score, my call?
Next week, Wendy Nikel’s “Leaves of Dust” offers a different kind of clean-up problem. You can find it in Ashes and Entropy.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.