Night Shift and the Nature of Fear
Let’s talk about fear. We won’t raise our voices and we won’t scream; we’ll talk rationally, you and I. We’ll talk about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness. – Stephen King, Introduction to Night Shift
I finished reading Stephen King’s first collection of short stories, 1978’s Night Shift, a few months back, but have avoided writing down any thoughts on it.
No one wants to expound on a subject of which they feel they have little to contribute, and for me everything that needs to be said about Night Shift was said perfectly by Stephen King in his introduction to the book. In fact, it may be one of the most perfect pieces King has written, if not certainly the most perfect he had written in 1978.
King’s opening act serves as an essay on the nature of fear: why he writes horror, and why people read it. I found myself not only more mesmerized, but more haunted by this than any of the tales in King’s gruesome set list.
And that’s saying a lot, isn’t it? Night Shift is probably still considered King’s greatest collection of short stories. The Poe-like prose of “The Mangler” (“the Mangler howled and thumped and hissed”), the wild and untamed freakiness of “The Lawnmower Man,” the electric tension weaved throughout “Quitters, Inc.” and the wet-your-pants creepiness of “Children of the Corn” are just a few of the stories that made the immediate jump to my “all-time faves” list.
But when it comes to what I learned from Stephen King (and that is, after all, what this column is called, now isn’t it?), nothing has taught me more about the nature of fear—how it works, how it has a way of creeping into your brain, pulling up a chair and staying for a while—than King’s intro. Here, King states:
An interesting parallel between sex and fear can be observed. As we become capable of having sexual relationships, our interest in those relationships awakens; the interest tends naturally toward copulation and the continuance of the species. As we become aware of our unavoidable termination, we become aware of the fear-emotion. And I think that, as copulation tends toward self-preservation, all fear tends toward a comprehension of the final ending.
That’s where he got me.
That’s where the hairs started to stand on end, and I knew that something dreadful was coming. Some monster in the closet he was cooking up, and likely to serve cold.
Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We’re afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We’re afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We’re afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We’re afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. … All our fears add up to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear—an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We’re afraid of the body under the sheet. It’s our body.
I finished Night Shift months ago. I’ve avoided writing about it, like I avoid thinking about my own mortality.
It may be of interest to note that the last of the short stories in Night Shift serves almost as a bookend to that panic-inducing intro of mortal thought. This one’s a tale called “The Woman In The Room.” There are no ghosts in this story. No goblins. Just a grown man in a hospital, coming to terms with the fact that his mother will die, and that someday he too will meet a similar fate. The rasps of heavy breathing that issue forth from the dying patients is more cringe worthy than the Boogeyman. The thump and hiss of the life support machines, more terrifying than any Mangler.
“The great appeal of horror fiction through the ages,” writes King, “is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.”
A rehearsal. … Reminds me of that old emergency broadcasting system.
This is a test.
It is only a test.
Thank God almighty, it’s only a test.
And as we reach the end of each scare, both on page and off, we breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that the one who taps us on the shoulder and says, “It is your time,” has passed us by.
We get up. We shake it off. We throw ourselves into whatever comes next.
But, if instead we sat perfectly still…
If we listened just long enough, we might hear its voice as it drifts. The reaper. The angel of ends. He Who Walks Behind The Rows.
“Don’t be confuuuused,” it whispers. “One day, I’ll be coming… for you.”
What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly,Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.