Monday, 22 June 2020

Skeleton Crew at 35

Skeleton Crew, the second of Stephen King’s short fiction collections, was published on 21st June 1985 by Putnam in the US and Macdonald in the UK.  It features nineteen short stories, a novella (The Mist), two poems (Paranoid: A Chant and For Owen), a chatty introduction and some marvellous story notes.
cover scan of my copy, the 1986 Futura edition
The stories, collected from a variety of magazines and anthologies, spanned seventeen years from The Reaper’s Image (King’s second professional sale) to The Ballad Of The Flexible Bullet (completed in 1983) and three were previously unpublished - the two poems and Morning Deliveries (Milkman No. 1), adapted from an unfinished novel, The Milkman.

I got the 1986 Futura paperback which appeared around about the time I started work at Hunters Foods in Corby and for many weeks it was my book of choice at lunchtimes.  I was already a big fan of Stephen King (and 1986 would cement that, with the publication of IT, which I wrote about here) and I went into Skeleton Crew full of enthusiasm.  Thankfully, it delivered everything I wanted it to.  Obviously, some of the pieces didn’t work for me (the poems, certainly, along with the more sci-fi orientated stories) but a handful were so special they’ve long remained favourites of mine.

The Mist opens the collection.  Perhaps the best known of the stories here, it’s a fantastic read exceptionally well told, perfectly constructed and scary as you like.  Alongside it, I’d place Here There Be Tygers, The Raft, Nona, Uncle Otto’s Truck, Gramma and the gleefully gory Survivor Type which King mentions in his excellent non-fiction book Danse Macabre calling it an example of a story he didn’t think he’d ever be able to publish.

from Fangoria #42, February 1985
Written as the diary, it charts the final days of Richard Pine, a disgraced surgeon who was attempting to smuggle a large amount of heroin on a cruise ship.  He finds himself marooned on a tiny island in the Pacific with very few supplies, no food but all the heroin he could ever need and our self-proclaimed “survivor type” charts his day-to-day activities as he succumbs to isolation and starvation.  After being forced to amputate his foot, he realises he can eat it to survive and things go downhill from there.  Like I say, I loved the story and I really loved the last line (which I won’t spoil for you).

The story was first published in Terrors (1982), edited by Charles L. Grant and in a Monsterland Magazine interview between them in May/June 1985, King says “as far as short stories are concerned, I like the grisly ones the best. However the story Survivor Type goes a little bit too far, even for me."  In his story notes, he writes “I got to thinking about cannibalism one day - because that's the sort of thing guys like me sometimes think about - and my muse once more evacuated its magic bowels on my head. I know how gross that sounds, but it's the best metaphor I know, inelegant or not...”

Released in the middle of the King boom, a lot of the Skeleton Crew stories were adapted for film and television.  The Raft became part of Creepshow 2 (1987), Word Processor Of The Gods was an episode of Tales From The Darkside series in 1984, Gramma was an episode of The New Twilight Zone (with a screenplay by Harlan Ellison) in 1986, The Mist became a 2007 film written and directed by Frank Darabont and then a TV series in 2017 while Gramma was adapted into the feature film Mercy in 2014.

The collection also followed Night Shift (which I wrote about here) with several Dollar Baby films (a deal whereby students could make an adaption after buying the rights for $1).  These were Here There Be Tygers (1988 and 2003), Cain Rose Up (1989), Paranoid (2000), The Jaunt (2007), Survivor Type (2011) and The Reaper's Image (2013).  The Mist was also adapted into a 90-minute full-cast audio production as well as a text-based video game from Mindscape.

1985 turned out to be a very busy year for Stephen King.  He began publishing his fan newsletter Castle Rock, which ran until 1989 and Cycle Of The Werewolf, a previously limited edition, was published as an illustrated mass market paperback in April (the film version of it, Silver Bullet, was released in October).  April was also the month his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, was exposed, which led to Misery becoming a Stephen King novel. Production began in June on Stand By Me (based on his novella The Body, from Different Seasons (1982) and in July, King began filming Maximum Overdrive (his sole directorial credit, based on Trucks from Night Shift) while also working on revisions to IT.  He made the cover of Time magazine in October.

Skeleton Crew published with a first printing run of 500,000 copies, would sell a total of 720,000 by the end of the year and another 100,000 before 1990.

The collection was nominated for the 1986 World Fantasy Award and won the Locus Award.
Macdonald hardback edition dust jacket, 1985
Table Of Contents
The Mist (1980)
Here There Be Tygers (1968)
The Monkey (1980)
Cain Rose Up (1968)
Mrs. Todd's Shortcut (1984)
The Jaunt (1981)
The Wedding Gig (1980)
Paranoid: A Chant (1985)
The Raft (1982)
Word Processor of the Gods (1983)
The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands (1981)
Beachworld (1984)
The Reaper's Image (1969)
Nona (1978)
For Owen (1985)
Survivor Type (1982)
Uncle Otto's Truck (1983)
Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1) (1985)
Big Wheels: A Tale of The Laundry Game (Milkman #2) (1980)
Gramma (1984)
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet (1984)
The Reach (1981)

Skeleton Crew is a solid collection of horror fiction and even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the standard King himself set with Night Shift, it’s still an excellent piece of work.  If you haven’t read it before then I envy you the experience - if you have, why not read it again?



sources:
Grady Hendrix at Tor.com
Too Much Horror Fiction
Wikipedia

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