Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Sudden Premonition of a Strange Thing Coming: A Review of "Graveyard Shift"

This blogging stuff is, among other things, a self-reflexive process of discovery.  As such, it stands to reason that I would occasionally be surprised by how I react to things when I put them under the (somewhat) cold and analytical microscope of these reviews.
Such is the case today, because if you'd asked me if "Graveyard Shift" was a great story prior to me rereading it for the purposes of this review, I'd have said it was.  In the process of analyzing it, though, I have concluded that it is instead a rather seriously flawed story, albeit one with some memorable moments.  So: good, yes; great, no.  Not in my opinion.
The story first appeared in the October 1970 issue of Cavalier, beginning a decade-long association with that skin mag for budding young author Stephen King.  It was also his first post-graduation professional sale, and in some ways it marks the beginning of King's career as an authentic pro writer.  I, of course, do not have a copy of this original magazine appearance, as it goes for about $125 on the secondhand market; so I'm reviewing the story as it appeared in 1978's Night Shift.  As always, wealthy readers of this blog -- who almost certainly do not exist -- are encouraged to purchase a copy for me and send it my way.  Their reward: my immense gratitude, plus an autographed copy of this blog post that I shall print out, sign, and mail to them.  It will never be worth anything; in fact, when things that are lame become negatively valued after the New World Order takes over, you might have to pay some sort of tax to hang onto it.

So maybe we'll just settle for my immense gratitude.  (I might be able to hook you up with a genuine theatre-quality movie poster from some upcoming movie you fancy, but we'd have to keep that on the down-low.  But things can be arranged, is what I'm sayin' to you...)

Moving on:

This image comes from the August 1974 issue of Cavalier, which included "Night Surf" and a self-interview by King, as well as thumbnail images from some of his previous stories for the magazine.

Running a bit less than twenty pages, "Graveyard Shift" is a relatively simple tale that focuses primarily on the conflict between a mill-worker and his foreman.  The mill is infested with rats, and the lower you descend into its sub-levels, the bigger the rats get.  That's essentially all the setup you need.
King has listed rats as one of his big fears.  Understandable; rats creep a lot of people out.  "Graveyard Shift" seems to exist primarily as a means of exploiting that fear, and you could make a strong argument that it is this very tale that finds King making his first solid hit in terms of finding and exploring a semi-universal phobia.  He'd continue doing so for quite some time to come, needless to say.
For me, what really moves the story is the relationship between Hall and Warwick.  The former is a "college boy" employee, the latter is a "big beefy man with a crew cut" who serves as the night-shift foreman at the mill.  Warwick is a supercilious, condescending fellow who never passes up an opportunity to put his subordinates in their place.  He gets onto Hall for chucking soda cans at rats rather than working; he gets onto Wisconsky for sitting (pants up) in a toilet stall rather than working; he threatens to fire Ippeston when he considers walking out rather than risking his health and safety farther than it has already been risked.  In short, Warwick does what middle managers do: he presides over workers who'd just as soon do as little work as they can possibly do.
I should at this point mention that I myself am middle management, in the world outside this blog.  So the fact that I found myself kind of sympathizing with Warwick at times during this reread is perhaps not that surprising; distressing, yes, but not particularly surprising.
Rather than engage in a conversation about how much it sucks to have to try to herd people into performing tasks they do not want to perform (but which you are being employed to ensure that they do perform), let's go another route.  King obviously sees Warwick as the bad guy.  So do I, just not as strongly as King probably intends.  Let's leave that at that.
Instead, let's talk about Hall:
He was a drifter, and during the last three years he had moved on his thumb from Berkeley (college student) to Lake Tahoe (busboy) to Galveston (stevdore) to Miami (short-order cook) to Wheeling (taxi driver and dishwasher) to Gates Falls, Maine (picker-machine operator).
Hall is the story's main character, but we don't find out much about what motivates him.  He's obviously not a fan of Warwick's ("Why couldn't you stay the hell put and drink your coffee?" he thinks when Warwick pays him a surprise visit early on), but this may have less to do with Warwick himself than it does with Hall's seeming desire to be left alone.  He doesn't have any interest in talking to, or interacting with, anyone.  Warwick taunts him for being a "college boy" on numerous occasions, and while this is obviously a big deal to Warwick, it doesn't seem to be a big deal to Hall, who shows no sign of wanting to be an overachiever in terms of his career trajectory.  Indeed, being a drifter who goes from one subpar job to another hardly seems like the path of a "college boy."  King does not tell us that Hall is a college graduate, of course, and the wise assumption would probably be that he is not; but King does not let us know for sure either way.
The story's first turning point seems to come during Warwick's pep-talk to the cleanup crew.  "Hall studied the foreman's face closely," King tells us, "and he had a sudden premonition of a strange thing coming.  The idea pleased him.  He did not like Warwick very much."
These three sentences are easy to skip right by, but if you stop for a moment and consider them, they can really mean only one thing: that Hall is somehow planning to use the cleanup hours to do something bad to Warwick.  Is he outright planning to kill him?  Hard to say; King gives us virtually nothing to go on.  At the end of the first night, Hall goes home and takes a shower, "still thinking about Warwick, trying to place whatever it was about Mr. Foreman that drew him, made him feel that somehow they had become tied together."
As far as I can tell, Hall never places it.  As the story plays out, Hall finds an entrance to a sub-sub-level, and cajoles Warwick into joining him in exploring it, despite the increasing size and mutated weirdness of the rats they continue to find.  While there, Hall uses the industrial-strength firehose to intimidate Warwick into proceeding farther and farther, and the foreman is finally killed and eaten by a blind, legless rat that is "as big as a Holstein calf."  Which, for reference, would (I assume) be roughly this size:

image taken from
Now, I'll grant you the following things: (1) Warwick is an asshole; (2) Warwick does not care about the safety of his employees; (3) Warwick waves the threat of firing around in order to get his way.  These are decidedly negative qualities in anyone, and especially in a foreman for a non-unionized company.  The idea, I think, is that Warwick receives an EC-style comeuppance due to his negative qualities.  And that Hall then himself receives an EC-style comeuppance for his treatment of Warwick.
None of this plays particularly well.  The morality of what Hall does is left too ambiguous.  Is he planning for something awful to happen?  Maybe, but how would he know that a result like giant man-eating blind rats would be a possibility?  Warwick is a nasty fella, but he's not nasty enough to actually deserve something like what happens to him; which would be fine if Hall's comeuppance was the point of the story, but it isn't.
Worse than that, at a certain point in the story it becomes obvious that Hall can only proceed with his vendetta against Warwick by risking his own life; he proceeds anyways, an action that can only be described as insane.  Fine; no problem . . . assuming that Hall's insanity is the point of the story.  Again, it isn't.  In fact, for the majority of the story, we are asked to sympathize and empathize with Hall, and to look on him as a sort of champion of the working man.  His sudden descent into suicidal antipathy toward Warwick makes no sense from that perspective.
The end result, for me, is a story that does not work.  Hall is an enigma, and the fact of his enigmatic nature is not the point of the story, and so "Graveyard Shift" feels like a piece that never really came together.  Instead, it is merely a loosely-plotted excuse to write a few creepy scenes about rats.
On that level, it works relatively well.  The atmosphere and tone of the story are strong, and while they cannot get me all the way over the fact that the character work is (in my opinion) a failure, they go a long way toward redeeming the tale.
Much of what powers "Graveyard Shift" is the idea -- possibly not a universal one, though it feels like it to me -- that we are correct to fear (and to be repulsed by) spaces in which decay and disorder have been allowed to flourish.  This is itself an extension of the idea that we typically will not like what we find if we turn over a long-planted boulder and see what is beneath it.  Probably this is best felt as a fear of burial (i.e., what lies beneath the ground), but it can also be extended until it becomes a fear of and distaste for a room that has not been cleaned out in far too long.  There is nothing that scares me more than spiders scare me, and if you put me in charge of cleaning out a space that had been allowed to be junked up over a period of a dozen years, I would do whatever I could to refuse the task, and would be proud to admit to you that it was because I assumed that everything in that room had long since become a retirement home for arachnids.
Many people might express the same fear and loathing, but for the potential presence of rats instead; others might fear roaches, or beetles, or whatever else.  Fill in the blank with your personal bugaboo, but it all comes down to the same: a junky, decayed room feels like a room that holds whatever we most want it not to hold.  And the worse the room, the worse the likely infestation of fill-in-the-blanks.
"Graveyard Shift" plays on these fears, and sure enough, the farther the workmen go into the sub-levels of the mill, the bigger and worse the rats get.  But King also puts spiders and beetles into the mix, and gross old mushrooms, and weird nasty moss.  And the whole place smells; we can't smell it, but King does his best to put a phantom scent in our mental nostrils, and he does a pretty good job of it:
Hall had known it would be bad, but this was murder.  For one thing, he hadn't anticipated the smell.  The polluted stink of the river, mixed with the odor of decaying fabric, rotting masonry, vegetable matter.  In the far corner, where they had begun, Hall discovered a colony of huge white toadstools poking their way up through the shattered cement.  His hands had come in contact with them as he pulled and yanked at a rusty gear-toothed wheel, and they felt curiously warm and bloated, like the flesh of a man afflicted with dropsy.
That's one of the stronger descriptive moments in the story, and King's descriptive powers in "Graveyard Shift" are probably the strongest they had been in any of his stories to date.  (Bear in mind, of course, that I'm reading from a 1978 revision; the 1970 version of the story might not be quite as strong in its descriptive powers, for all I know.)  He'd written at least two genuinely good stories already ("Strawberry Spring" and "Night Surf"), and while this one is arguably a backwards step in characterization, it's a leap forward in tone and mood.  Less than a year out of college, King was still struggling his way toward becoming the author we know him to be today; and while it does not entirely work, "Graveyard Shift" is, in some ways, an important step toward that goal.
A few others notes:
  • The story is broken into ten sections, each of which has a time-stamp (e.g., "Two A.M., Friday") at the beginning.  For some reason, I find this to be a very effective device; it gives the feeling of the passage of time, which somehow works hand-in-hand with the theme of decay.
  • Two early instances of King's proclivity toward including brand-name items: an Orange Crush thermometer, and Hall's use of Nehi cans as anti-rat projectiles.  For me, that Orange Crush thermometer -- which reads an oppressive 94 degrees even at two in the morning -- is an especially vivid detail, for some reason.
  • "They looked like a jury," King writes of a group of rats that are silently looking at Hall at one point.  Sure enough, Hall will end up committing a sort of crime before the end of the story.
  • The reason the workers don't just say "to hell with this" and abandon their loathsome task is that they need the money.  To some degree, you could make the argument that the story's events are motivated by economic necessity, and maybe even economic despair.  Maybe that's something else to be afraid of: not merely rats and spiders, but the necessary of taking of a job that requires us to perform tasks we very strongly wish to not perform.  It might even be true that this could be an especially vivid fear for a recent college student, who fears that all that education might not have actually amounted to much.
  • There is a minor character named Charlie Brochu in the story, and for some reason, I became convinced while reading that I somehow knew the name "Evelyn Brochu," possibly from some other King story.  Nope; it's Evelyne Brochu, who plays Dauphine on Orphan Black.  Derp.
  • Warwick at one point says of the mill, "this ain't no unionized shop, and never has been."  This made me think of The Shop, the shadowy government agency that appears in Firestarter and Golden Years.  I never put much thought into why King called that agency the "Shop," but that line of Warwick's set me to thinking.  Is "shop" perhaps a northeastern slang word for any company or business?  If so, then "The Shop" might be so-named as a sort of ironically-mundane joke; it's called The Shop because it's just like any other workplace . . . except, of course, it very much isn't.
  • If you really want it to be there, there is some subtle political content in the story: the Fourth of July backdrop; Warwick's right-winger anti-union sentiment; Warwick's snide line asking Hall if he wants a Purple Heart for barking his shin.  Of course, in 2014 we are trained to seize on any political in-fighting, but 1970 -- the early days of the Nixon administration, the late years of the Vietnam War -- probably had its fair share, too.  Especially for recent college graduates.
  • It feels like there is intended to be a bit of mystery -- possibly mystery of a Lovecraftian variety -- over why that subcellar exists at all, and especially why it was locked from the inside.  Does King pay that element off?  I'm not sure sure he does; sure, a calf-sized rat is gross and disturbing, but it ain't exactly Cthulhu, is it?
That's all I have to say about "Graveyard Shift," I suppose.  It's not a bad story, but neither is it an especially good one.  There was a movie adaptation in 1990, and that will be the subject of my next post.
So you've got that to look forward to...


  1. I have a soft spot for the movie. But I'm also the guy who has a soft spot for "Return to Salem's Lot," so I sometimes can be flaky.

    This one always struck me as you put it - not an especially good one, but not a bad one. It's more or less not essential to the Stephen King experience, but I think you're right: it's a big step forward for tone. Actually, if the topic was "How SK became SK," I'd include it, definitely. If it was a matter of choosing, say, 50 or 60 other stories to showcase his writing, I'd probably leave it out.

    King probably feels of it how James Cameron feels of "Piranha 2." "the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made."