Synopsis: In this brilliant collection of twenty-two stories, Stephen King takes readers down paths that only he could imagine….
A supermarket becomes the place where humanity makes its last stand against unholy destruction…a trip to the attic turns into a journey to hell…a woman driver finds a very scary shortcut to paradise…an idyllic lake harbors a bottomless evil…and a desert island is the scene of the most terrifying struggle for survival ever waged.
I finished Skeleton Crew with tears in my eyes. I thought I'd read "The Reach" — the story that closes out this collection — before, but I guess I hadn't. It was an entirely new experience for me, and it packed quite the emotional wallop. As I write this review I'm still trying to mentally recover from that one, so pardon me if my thoughts are a little scattered. My Fornit died, and I'm stuck doing the job myself.
By the time this collection was published in 1985, Stephen King was a bona-fide literary rock star. His fame was gargantuan, beaten in size only by his addiction to dope and alcohol. According to the man himself, his study was the site of nightly parties for one, where the beer flowed and nose candy was always available. Yeah, King wasn't in a great state of mind for most of the eighties. He warns the reader in this book's introduction that the act of writing short stories hadn't gotten easier for him over the years — instead, it had gotten harder. Novel deadlines made it difficult to carve out time for shorter tales, and everything the man put into his Word Processor of the Gods wanted to be six hundred pages in length. If this reviewer is being honest, that's painfully apparent with this collection. A handful of the tales presented here should've never made it off the cutting room floor and several others could have been trimmed a bit. Most of what the reader is presented with is great (hence the four stars), but King overwrites like crazy here. That's my problem with a lot of his output from this decade — excess verbosity.
After the reliably folksy, mood-setting introduction to this collection from Sai King himself, things get rolling with "The Mist," the first (but not last) story in Skeleton Crew about ordinary people stranded and facing likely death, due to out-of-this-world circumstances. "The Mist" is a novella, and I always enjoy every word of it. Yeah, King overwrites in several places in this book . . . but this story ain't one of 'em. I have quite the fear of mist, thanks to this story. Other favorites of mine include "The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet," a delightfully paranoid story King could have never written before or after cocaine; "The Raft," which was my very favorite in this collection for a long time; The Monkey," a story that doesn't get as much love as it deserves; "The Reach," the previously mentioned story that moved me to tears; "The Jaunt," which, for my money, contains King's most haunting story ending yet; and "Cain Rose Up," a story that other reviewers like to rag on but I can't help but dig.
All that said, there are several stories here that should have gotten canned. "Here There Be Tygers" makes no sense and is downright gimmicky; the two "Milkman" stories also don't make much sense and go nowhere. "Uncle Otto's Truck," a story about (you guessed it) a haunted truck, feels worn out and old — King has touched on this theme so many times in his career. I also don't like "For Owen" at all, and "Paranoid: A Chant" should have been folded into "The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet" where it belongs. It's a shame this collection is somewhat weighed down by so many DOA entries, because there are several genuine classics here. This one just isn't very consistent, and if that's what you're looking for might I recommend Night Shift or Just After Sunset?
All in all, this is very much a collection worth checking out. It was released during King's "classic" period, so of course it's worth a purchase. The theme of external isolation and humanity's will to save itself is done really well in "The Mist," "Beachworld," "Survivor Type," and "The Raft." I also like this book's "Do you love?" motif — it makes this collection hang together much better than it probably should. This is definitely a strong read, and I will come back to my favorites for years to come.
(I tried to take actual notes for this one, as I knew there are connections to the King universe all over the place. I know I missed some, but here's what I caught while reading. Sorry my notes are a little scattered.)
- P. 94 - David Clayton, our main character, thinks of a character as "looking like a crazy gunslinger in an existential comedy."
- It is theorized that The Shop is at least partially responsible for the mist. I could totally see that.
- I'm not sure if this is a connection or not, but when David and a few others make the courageous trek to the pharmacy next door, they encounter an "otherworldly" presence that takes the shape of a spider . . . though they know it's something more. Any relation to IT? Totally possible, as that book was published the following year.
"Mrs. Todd's Shortcut"
- It takes place in Castle Rock, home of several King novels and short stories.
- P. 182 - Joe Camber of Cujo is mentioned.
- P. 186 - Haven gets a shout out!
"The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands"
This one could be could be seen as a spiritual successor to "The Breathing Method," even going so far as to reference that earlier novella. It revoles around the same, strange story-telling club that we first met in Different Seasons.
- It takes place in Castle Rock, firmly placing it in the same universe as "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" as well as several other King stories.
- The narrator of "Nona" mentions once getting "messed up" by Ace Merrill, the local baddie — an antagonist in "The Body" and Needful Things.
- The narrator lets the reader know he grew up in Harlow, Maine — the setting of "N." and Revival.
- P. 347 — Vern Tessio of "The Body" gets a brief mention. Cool!
"Uncle Otto's Truck"
Both Derry and Castle Rock play an important role in this one.
- P. 421 - Cora Simard and Henrietta Dodd are mentioned. George, the protagonist in "Gramma," listens to one of the ladies' phone conversations on a party line. Cora's daughter, Rhonda, was a student of Ewen High School and was among Carrie White's tormentors. Henrietta Dodd was the mother of Frank Dodd, as seen in The Dead Zone and mentioned in various other Castle Rock stories.
- Joe Camber gets another mention! This story takes place near Castle Rock in 1977-ish (I think), so before the major events of Carrie and Cujo. Hmm.
"The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet"
Least favorite story:
"Big Wheels: A Tale Of The Laundry Game (Milkman #2)"
“I sit on the bench in front of Bell's Market and think about Homer Buckland and about the beautiful girl who leaned over to open his door when he come down that path with the full red gasoline can in his right hand - she looked like a girl of no more than sixteen, a girl on her learner's permit, and her beauty was terrible, but I believe it would no longer kill the man it turned itself on; for a moment her eyes lit on me, I was not killed, although a part of me died at her feet."
(from "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut")
It's everything you ever were afraid of. It's . . . IT.
(Also, this book was my free space selection. Two spots down in Halloween Bingo!)