'Night Shift' and the Nature of Fear


Night Shift and the Nature of Fear

nightshiftLet’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.

He continues:

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.”

8a72411f2688756298e095052de0d41eA 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.

8 thoughts on “'Night Shift' and the Nature of Fear”

  1. Exceptionally good commentary. I was impressed with King’s intro to NIGHT SHIFT when I bought the book new when it came out. So I’m probably quite a bit older than Mr. Sechrest, and several deaths in the recent past have had me thinking about my own mortality quite a bit. King’s observations aren’t exactly comforting, except insofar as they express the universality of this fear, but they are very perceptive, and Mr. Sechrest’s commentary on them is very good. Thanks for posting it.

    1. Dear Michael,
      Wow… First of all, thank you for the kind words. Means a lot, especially from someone who has been reading King as long as yourself. Secondly, does that mean you have a first edition?? It’s one of only a handful of first editions I don’t have. If you’ve got one, consider yourself lucky! It’s a hard find. 🙂
      Thanks again for the encouragement.
      All the best,

  2. Some excellent commentary. By serendipity, I actually thought about the introduction this morning but from a different perspective. Stephen King began creating the public persona of “Stephen King” in the introduction. By using 2nd person in those beginning sentences, “Stephen King”, that uncle who tells us scary stories by the fire, spoke to the public for the first time. That persona, even now, is as strong as Walt Disney’s or Alfred Hitchcock’s. To some degree, Stephen King has struggled to get out of the shadow of “Stephen King”. Back in the 80s King’s children would say, “Dad has to go out and be ‘Stephen King’ now.” “Stephen King” makes cameos in his movies (like Hithcock), will be on TV, and talks from time to time in afterwards and forwards. Some would argue “Stephen King” is Stephen King’s greatest creation. Even in the context of just Night Shift, that frightening Mangler and completely insane surreal Lawnmower Man linger in my imagination too much for me to agree. But boy, oh boy, I love listening to “Stephen King” like few things in life.

    1. Hello Mark,
      Gee, it sounds like you should be writing a column on Stephen King, too! lol… I loved, loved, loved this comment. It had never dawned on me that this was the first time we were introduced to “Stephen King.” And I have to agree with you on your astute observation of this persona being, quite possibly, his finest creation. I am currently following Richard Chizmar’s “Stephen King Revisited” project, reading (or in many cases, re-reading) all of King work in chronological order, and as much as I love the stories themselves, I always get an extra thrill when I see a foreward in my Kindle edition. It’s a wonderful palette cleanser between the tales. At this point, “Stephen King” is starting to feel like an old, dear friend.
      Best wishes,

      1. Thank you for the kind words. I certainly understand the impulse to re-read everything. But, alas, there is so much to read and so little time. If only I could clone myself, one of me could do nothing but read. Indeed, “Stephen King” is an old dear friend.

  3. Another great review by Jason. 🙂 I am now very interested in reading this one, may pick it up. Can’t wait to read your review on The Gunslinger.

  4. That is my favorite collection of his. Thanks to The Boogeyman to this day the closet doors have to be shut. I love The Stand and many other novels by King but for the most part its his short stories that terrify me.

  5. It was this book that first influenced me to sit at my laptop and start writing. Engaging stories that are firmly rooted in the real world, however ludicrous the subject. It is the subliminal effect of the stories I admire. I remember the line in night shift about a mill worker breathing in cotton fibers and turning his lungs into cigarette filters over a few years. Not as scary as the giant rats and bats in that story but I always wear a mask when drilling or sawing now! Truly terrifying.

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