Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kobra Kid Reviews: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The following is a true story.

I work in a call center, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Glamorous, right? Don't answer that. Anyway, toward the end of the night, when the calls slow down, there can be stretches of up to five or ten minutes, sometimes longer, where there's nothing to do but stare blankly at the computer screen. And since we're not allowed to use said computers to amuse ourselves in any way--even a simple game of solitaire is strictly verboten--it gets so fucking boring I've seriously considered strangling myself with my own headset cord just for the excitement. So we've all found ways of keeping entertained, at least to some small degree, because we can't exactly go killing ourselves over our shitty job. Some people knit, some nerds people work on their D&D character sheets, some people...do whatever it is that they do, I don't even know. Me? I read. Go figure.

So, one night, around about midnight, I was reading this book between calls when my supervisor decided to sneak up behind me and scare the everlasting piss out of me. Because she is, essentially, a horrible fucking person. And I say that with love, of course. So then I was like, "What the fuck, L?" in a voice perhaps inching close to that frequency only dogs can hear. And she was like, "That's what you get for reading that creepy-ass book." Somewhere deep down, I'm sure she's a very sweet girl.

And then, naturally, the shift manager had to come over and see what all the squealing and flailing and wicked witch laughing was about, which somehow led to a discussion about the relative merits of Stephen King's work. Don't ask me how. It's hard to keep track of these things when you're having a fucking heart attack. At any rate, the aforementioned shift manager, whom we'll call E, declared King's to be the weakest brand of horror, or something more or less to that effect. And seeing as how I've been a fan of Stephen King for longer than I've even been old enough to read his books*, one might expect me to have gotten my panties all twisted up over such an assertion. The problem is that E's position is one I can neither support nor refute, for the simple fact that I've never actually read King for the horror.

That seems a little weird, right? I mean, Stephen King is a horror writer. Primarily, anyway. It's what he's famous for. The Master of the Macabre, they call him. But here's the thing: I don't scare easily. (Aside from when I'm being sneaked up on by little midget ninjas, that is.) And what does scare me isn't the usual stuff that scares other people, nor do I get tend to get grossed out by blood and guts and gore and all that. So I've honestly never picked up one of King's books with the intention of getting good and scared, or whatever, and the only book of his that ever did freak me out was The Tommyknockers, which played into certain phobias of mine. My point being that, clearly, I am a poor judge of whether or not King is a good horror writer.

I suppose it all comes down to a matter of personal taste, really, like anything else. But personally, I think if you're reading Stephen King for the horror--only for the horror, that is--you're doing it wrong. If you're reading King only for the horror, then you might as well be reading, I don't know, Dean Koontz or something. Because here's the thing: Stephen King doesn't write horror, he uses horror as a tool to show us all those things about the world we'd rather not think about. All the worst things about humanity, all the worst things about ourselves, and the best too--he holds a mirror up to them. Stephen King writes social commentary while using horror to keep us engaged, to keep us from being scared away when he shines a light on the ugliest aspects about us and the world we live in.

As in the first short story in this anthology, The Mist. It stands as a prime example of the reason why I read Stephen King. In the story, a mysterious mist descends over a small Maine town, trapping David Drayton and his son, along with several other townsfolk, in the local grocery store. They are cut off from their homes, from their families, and from safety, besieged by the eldritch abominations lurking outside, lying in wait for any poor bastards unlucky enough to wander into their clutches. Sounds pretty fucking terrifying, right? But in true Stephen King style, the scariest part of this story is not the enemy outside, it's the enemy within. It's not the unknown element, but the human element.

While Drayton and a handful of allies are doing their level best to ensure everyone's continued survival, the friendly neighborhood religious zealot, Mrs. Carmody, is doing her best to twist the situation to her own advantage. It's the way of the charlatan. God sent this disaster, they say, because you're all sinful and damned, but if you listen to me, all will be well. And the problem is that there's always folks crazy, stupid, or just plain scared enough to listen. In this case, there are plenty of all three--everyone is scared, and several people come unhinged, and others are just weak-willed and drawn to Mrs. Carmody's strong personality like moths to flame. So, as the situation worsens, the hellfire and brimstone old bat amasses a considerable following.

The problem is that Mrs. Carmody isn't just crazy, she's dangerous. She sets her sights on Drayton and anyone else who dares to oppose her, painting them as the enemy, as Other, as evil, until they find themselves in a terrible dilemma: face the danger outside, or face certain death at the hands of their own. In the end, Drayton and his allies choose to brave the unspeakable horror waiting for them in the mist. And it's because of this that The Mist really encapsulates the unique way Stephen King uses horror--no matter how many horrible monsters are in his stories, no matter what gruesome scenarios, what he shows us about ourselves is always far worse. The alien is never as scary as the devil you know.

Now, whenever I review anthologies, I usually try to say a little something about each story. But there are an awful lot of stories in Skeleton Crew, and to be honest, not all of them are very good. In fact, The Mist is the best out of the whole book. I won't pretend it doesn't have its problems--like the ending, which I personally didn't care for--but overall, it's a great piece of standalone fiction. And I would be tempted to advise anyone still reading this stupidly longwinded review to read The Mist and skip the rest, if it weren't for two other stories.

Gramma is probably the most chilling story in the entire book, and anyone who has been alone with a loved one when they died will understand why. I was alone with my father when he died, and even though I was an adult at the time, this story still got under my skin in a way I'm not even sure I can describe. The artfully drawn-out psychological horror is, on its own, enough to make this story worth a read; the nods at the Chtulhu mythos are just icing.

The other story that I enjoyed was The Reach, which is beautifully written and atmospheric. It is both a story about dying and a metaphor for dying, and I'm not sure whether that makes Stephen King a genius or a hack, but his prose is so lovely and almost-poetic that it doesn't even matter. I liked the tone, I liked the style, I liked the imagery, and yes, I even liked the metaphor. Not everything has to be obscure and impenetrable and couched in so much careful, artistic language that you have be an English major to even begin to comprehend it, okay?

So, in conclusion, this book is worth reading for The Mist, Gramma, and The Reach, but I would recommend skipping the rest. Perhaps it's because I'm not a great reader of short stories, and therefore lack a certain necessary appreciation for them, but in my humble opinion, most of these are poorly thought-out, poorly written, and lacking any sort of a point. So unless you're a diehard Stephen King fan hell-bent on reading his entire body of work, or unless you have absolutely nothing better to do, then don't waste your time. You're not going to be missing anything by passing over the other offerings in this anthology.

*I read Gerald's Game when I was ten. My mother was not amused. It's the only book I can remember her ever trying to keep me from reading. Then she found out I'd also stolen her copy of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and read it, and she gave up. "Precocious" doesn't even begin to describe me as a child.

Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]

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