Sunday, May 15, 2016

We Who Watch Behind The Rows: Graveyard Shift (1990) Pt. 1

Welcome to our first installment of We Who Watch Behind the Rows: Stephen King Print vs. Film. The focus of this new column is to compare the written works of author Stephen King against the numerous adaptations made for either the movie or television screen. Since there are what seems to be about 4,000 such adaptations released into the wild to this point, we expect catching up with all of them will take a good amount of time on our parts.

As with our other semi-regular column -- Visiting and Revisiting -- your hosts are myself, Rik Tod Johnson of The Cinema 4 Pylon and Cinema 4: Cel Bloc websites, and Aaron Lowe of the Working Dead Productions website. We are both hardcore, longtime cinema fans, but we are also, to varying degrees, big Stephen King fans. 

The difference between us is that I, after following King earnestly and faithfully around every turn in his career since I first read The Dead Zone around 1981, largely gave up on his writing (with a couple of notable exceptions) post-Gerald's Game (that would be around 1992). So with this project, I will basically begin my personal reintroduction to each of King's stories and novels as we make our way through his oeuvre.

Aaron, what is your personal experience with the written works of Mr. King?


Aaron: I actually started reading Stephen King and stopped reading Stephen King around the same time. I read my first novel from him in 1990, when I was in 6th grade, and I more or less stopped following his career post-1992. That isn't to say I stopped reading King after those two years; no far from it. By the time I came on board, Stephen King had twenty-three novels and five story collections in print, which means I had a wealth of material to dive into. It also means that, much like you, I stopped keeping current with him sometime around Gerald's Game. There were a few exceptions to that, when I would get gifts from relatives who knew I liked Stephen King and not much else about me, but for the most part I fell out of touch with him once I'd caught up, and didn't start buying his novels again until Black House (2001). That may not seem like a lot of time to not be reading Stephen King, but it means that I missed seven novels that I still haven’t caught up with.

Along with reading Stephen King, I was watching his movies nearly constantly. I was a child of the video age, and it seemed as if nearly everything King had written had become a movie or short film or episode of some anthology horror show. There were four filmed adaptations in the year I began reading him, and the world was entering a golden age of Stephen King television, with mini-series versions of some of his biggest books (and, ahem, The Langoliers). It’s certainly no coincidence that I first became acquainted with Mr. King at this point in time.

I’ve pretty much reached the point where I’m back to looking forward to each Stephen King novel or story collection with quite a bit of low-key excitement. It’s no longer a pressing issue to buy the latest King novel as soon as I see it, since he still has one or two books come out a year, but every birthday or Christmas the first thing I use my gift cards on is whatever his latest offering happens to be. And I can say honestly; I’ve never not enjoyed a Stephen King novel. Even a King novel I end up disliking on the whole entertains me and speaks to me in such a way that I never feel like I’ve wasted my time on it. Whatever the outcome, I always enjoy the experience of reading Stephen King’s prose.

Rik: Since rereading each novel takes a bit more time, we have decided to jumpstart We Who Watch Behind the Rows by reviewing the varied pieces in King's 1978 short story collection, Night Shift. From the twenty stories in Night Shift, there have been eight feature films and four television adaptations made thus far. Of the remaining stories in the collection, most (but not quite all) have been adapted into short, amateur films known by King and his fans as "Dollar Babies". Overall, this gives us quite a surplus from which to begin.

The Story: Graveyard Shift [Night Shift, 1978; first published in the October 1970 issue of Cavalier magazine]

Original Cavalier appearance of the story 

Aaron: I’m not entirely sure when I first read the Night Shift collection, but it would have been in the early nineties as I was in the midst of my full-blown King obsession. I remember reading other stories from the collection in the back of my uncle’s pickup truck on a family camping trip, but Graveyard Shift kind of melds into the pile of stories I was reading at the time. There are a few tales in this collection that I have some fairly strong sense memories of where I was when I read them, but Graveyard Shift isn’t one of those. It’s not that the story is bad or lackluster, it’s just that it lacks a central image as striking as that of Grey Matter or I Am the Doorway (the latter of which inspired the cover of the paperback in which I first read these stories).

At its heart, Graveyard Shift is a simple, straightforward, grisly little shocker equally inspired by Poe and EC Comics. That’s not to say it’s derivative or unenjoyable. Quite the contrary; this is an economic, fun shock story that I’ve read through twice now in a short time period and enjoyed each time. Stephen King would, in just a few years, be known for epic, encyclopedia-sized books, and he himself would self-deprecatingly discuss his tendency to ramble on and on and on. But this collection proves that he was just as adept at sketching in characters that seem fully realized within the span of only a handful of pages, and possibly only a couple of lines of action. It’s true that most of the characters in this story are basically background, given only a name or a single line of dialogue, but a few of them become living, breathing characters on the page in a very short span.

I have quite a few friends who only really like Stephen King’s short stories, and avoid his novels. While I don’t agree with that stance, clearly, it’s one that I can understand. His short stories tend to be swifter, nastier, and stranger than his novels. It’s almost as if he lets his imagination run wild for a dozen pages or so and puts no restrictions on his concepts, no matter how bizarre or unsettling, while his novels tend to rein things in a little bit. Also, one thing I discovered early on: Stephen King loves a happy ending. With very few exceptions his long form work (novels or novellas) end with a positive outcome, whereas his short stories have no such assurances. In a Stephen King short story, all bets are off, and no one is safe.

How about you? Where do you stand on this divide? Do you prefer his short stories to his novels, or are you a fan of each in equal measure? How did you feel about his ability here to sketch in a believable world within 26 pages?

Rik: Until I reread Children of the Corn in this same collection a few months ago, it had been so long since I had read any of King’s short stories that I forgot just how economical he could be in his writing. Part of why I started to have a falling out with him is that I felt that he had grown too much in love with his voice, and that voice had definitely developed a rambling tic that I found somewhat annoying, and therefore rendered King a chore to read at times. He had also started to veer slightly away from the supernatural around the time of Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, and I was mostly uninterested in the topics he was starting to explore. Even when he touched on the supernatural in that mid-‘90s period – such as in Insomnia or Rose Madder – I couldn’t muster much excitement. I read the first couple of chapters of each and gave up. And for the novels leading up to that period, his record was hit or miss with me; mostly miss really. I did not like The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, or Needful Things. While I was a big fan of most of his early novels (especially The Stand and The Dead Zone), the last novel of his that I really liked was The Dark Half.

But his short stories? Loved them. The tales in both Night Shift and The Skeleton Crew were constant re-reads for me throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s; likewise for his classic novella collection, Different Seasons. It was thrilling in those days that so many of these pieces were being made into films in theatres and on television as well, even if the quality varied greatly from project to project. But perhaps it is telling that his ‘90s work in the short story and novella area also failed to grab my attention as well. I liked Nightmares and Dreamscapes well enough; I read through it a couple of times, and some stories, like The Night Flier, really stuck with me. But I really did not enjoy Four Past Midnight all that much, so maybe that is where my real ennui with King started to set in for me.

The beauty of the short story is in its succinctness, in the sparing of details unnecessary to the moment at hand. In those early collections, King is brilliant in keeping a tight grip on information, his pen is sharp and concise, and he even seems to practice a form of subtlety – no matter how fantastical the situations, characters, or creatures – that would run away from him sometimes in his longer novels. Since I have rarely read King in recent years (and that would almost entirely be non-fiction and his pop culture columns in Entertainment Weekly), I don’t know if I would still perceive this problem with him.

Just like you, my friends and I – many of whom were also massive fans of King in those bygone days (I am unsure if any of them still read him; many were having a similar falling out with his ‘90s work) – had many discussions regarding “short stories vs. novels.” The short stories usually came out on top about two-thirds of the time. While I did love many of his early novels, I too ran with the short story crowd. And I would have to say that I am probably still with that group today.

Without diving fully into the actual movie version of Graveyard Shift until a bit further on in this discussion, I must admit that my initial re-read of the short story was colored by the fact that I did my re-watch of the film first. (I will not do this with future installments of this column.) Although only two characters truly bear the same name and gender (more on this later), I kept hearing the dialogue in the voices of the actors in the film, one actor (Stephen Macht) in particular. Did you have this problem, or did you do the smart thing and read the story first? If not, were you able to divorce yourself from the screen experience enough to enjoy the story without being influenced by the film?

UK Poster

Aaron: My process went like this; I read the short story, and then watched the film. A few days later I read the story again in preparation of writing this article. I have to say that’s probably the path I’ll be taking from here on out, as it provided me with a few neat insights into both. In fact, I’d like to try and watch the movie one more time before we truly wrap this thing up, and may end up doing so. One thing that I noticed on my second reading of Graveyard Shift (which would actually be the third or fourth lifetime read for me) is how much the film actually stuck to the brief descriptions in the story. We’ll get into the film later, of course, but almost every word Stephen King wrote found some form of representation in the filmed version in one way or another.

The story takes place in just under one week, divided into short sections, each covering one night on the titular graveyard shift as a crew of textile mill workers cleans out a disused basement. Though the narrator is omniscient, the focus of Graveyard Shift is Hall, a college dropout who has been drifting around the country taking odd jobs and searching for something in his life. The only other character of real note is Warwick, the foreman of the textile mill who seems threatened by Hall’s youth and college background. Warwick is the character Stephen Macht plays, and at the risk of getting ahead of myself, I felt that he was the best at capturing the flavor of the character as written. A few of the other mill workers have lines here or there, like Wisconsky or Ippeston, but they’re basically background characters, extras in this story.

Right away, King introduces a stylistic flourish that will eventually become a trademark: grounding his story in the mundane details of everyday life while introducing characters that speak in exaggerated vernacular. The details of the mill are made more real through King’s use of actual product names or pop culture references. The Orange Crush thermometer that Hall keeps checking, or the cans of Nehi that he throws at the rats. There’s no reason for King to point out that the thermometer is a promotional item from Orange Crush, nor that the aluminum cans Hall launches are Nehi, yet doing so gives the story a quick jolt of verisimilitude. We recognize these items from our own lives, and it places this story directly within our understanding.

King also has his characters speak in a weirdly poetic, often stilted, frequently profane style. He claims this language came from his youth surrounded by older blue collar New Englanders, and yet I have a feeling no one actually spoke like he writes. Like when Carmichael gets bitten by a large rat, and complains that he wants compensation, Warwick’s response is “Sure. You got bit on the titty.” This isn’t the most outrageous example in his bibliography, but you get the point. King himself has credited most of his success to this simple act of having his characters say bizarre, distinctive things.

I think Graveyard Shift turned out to be an unexpectedly subtle way to start this project. It features a lot of things Stephen King is known for, but toned way down to the point where it would be easy to miss them. Reading ahead in this collection (though skipping for now the ones we’ll eventually cover for this series) I can say that his stylistic tics become more pronounced the further along we go. Have you read ahead yet? What do you think of his penchant for cultural references and idiosyncratic dialogue? Anything else in the story we should cover before jumping into the film?

DVD Cover

Rik: I only read ahead through the next story, Night Surf, but that was because I remembered that it is connected to The Stand (the use of the Captain Trips influenza as a device), and I loved The Stand. (As to whether I still do, that remains to be seen for future columns.) It was amazing to me how I had almost completely forgotten the story over the intervening years, but the second that I started to read the story, details came flooding back into my head mere sentences before I happened upon them on the page (or really, on the screen, since I was reading it on my iPhone).

We had three constant battles in my gang when we seemed to be group reading King’s latest book back in the day. (Many of us worked for the same bookstore chain, so we were able to get discounted copies of each release, and thus nobody really had to wait to read each one.) One battle was over the overtness of his use of sexuality in his stories, and by that, I mean his descriptiveness and openness. (We had a couple of people in our group who felt he went a little bit too far with the details and sordidness in some scenes, and others, like – ahem -- me, are pervos who felt he never went far enough.) (That I ultimately found happiness in the far sicker and gooier writings of Clive Barker is no surprise.) The second battle was indeed about his use of product placement to sell the reality of his settings to the reader. Certainly he wasn’t getting paid to use any of these trademark names, and I agree with you that it made his stories seem like they were taking place exactly within our own dimension. We again had a couple of dissenters, who felt that it actually cheapened his writing, as if he were taking shortcuts instead of relying more fully on his imagination to set a scene. I saw their side of it as well, but overall, felt that King’s concentration on Nehi and other brands is part of what made him popular: his ability to make us imagine ourselves in his outrageous scenarios.

Such scenarios might even make us say the most outlandish things in the midst of trying to stay alive. That third battle was most certainly over his dialogue. I have always been torn on it myself, but he certainly makes his characters more memorable by his use of it. His characters sometimes employ the most ridiculous, out of left field wording, but King generally gets away with it. While the words may not jibe with our own understanding of the English language, you definitely can’t forget those characters.

In the case of the most egregious user of such language in the story version of Graveyard Shift – the foreman Warwick – he is definitely memorable, though that doesn’t excuse him from how profoundly (and purposefully) annoying he is. Warwick speaks in a manner that I could only proscribe to Stephen King; I have never met anyone in real life who converses as he does, at least when combined with an inability to even attempt to relate to anything living thing on even the smallest level. I will save any discussion of his movie counterpart until the appropriate section of this article. Taking the written Warwick as is, he is probably one of the best examples of how far King was willing to take a character into the realm of the completely unlikable.

Look, I’ve never been to Maine, and I probably will never go there. I am not knocking the state, but I grew up in Alaska, so there is not much in Maine that I can’t get by just going back home for a visit. And I am allergic to shellfish, so in a gastronomic sense, why would I even? Nor have I ever met (to my knowledge) anybody directly from Maine, so I have zero experience in any actual dialect from that state. What has always struck me in the King adaptations (when they stick to that region) is how phony the dialogue sounds to my ear. Period. No one speaks like that at all, I tell myself, and the overriding effect has been that if there is a feature of pure artifice to King’s stories, it is not the fantastical creatures that never have or never will be in this world, but the words that fall from his most annoying characters mouths and the odd angles at which those words hit my ears.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy some of those words. I find their use annoying, but at no point would I admit that King doesn’t achieve the exact goals for which he is striving. When I saw George A. Romero’s (and King’s) Creepshow in the theatre for the first time in 1982, and saw King on the screen as the doomed Jordy Verrill – or even in his cameo role as a loudmouth spectator in Romero’s earlier but equally fascinating Knightriders -- I got the sense (apart from King being a shitty actor) that in his head, all of King’s characters spoke within those parameters – as annoying as possible and with accents so outrageous they may as well be the “Frenchies” in Monty Python.

Of course, I exaggerate – as King does as well -- and it does bring me to my point. I can say “No one speaks like that in real life!” but what do I know? Right down the street, in any direction, there are groups and nationalities and subgroups and cultures that speak to each in ways that I have never heard. Nor am I likely to hear if I don’t immerse myself in their cultures. I am no expert on anything. Do I know anyone from the backwoods or small towns of Maine? No. So how can I say that Warwick doesn’t exist somewhere, and that people just like Warwick influenced King? I cannot know. It doesn’t mean that I have to accept every frustratingly odd piece of dialogue, but I will give King the benefit of the doubt in most cases.

There is some memorable imagery in Graveyard Shift – such as King’s vivid descriptions of the mutated creatures –but the one that gets my mind racing is the lock on the underside – yes, the underside – of the trapdoor that is discovered, which will eventually lead to a hidden sub-basement and much carnage by the end of the story (and possibly portends more carnage post-story). The rusted lock is a marvelous tension builder, and the “hero” character, Hall, seems to revel in its discovery, if only because it helps continue to cut through Warwick’s blusterous façade of toughness. Trying to fathom exactly what purpose led to its necessity almost distracts me from the exploration of the dank subbasement and the mutant rat-bat action that occurs next. Did the lock perform similar black magic on you? What other imagery stuck in your memory the most?

Aaron: Definitely the lock is the big, glaring, flashing light at the center of this story. It hints at something grander and stranger than the inbred, mutant rat action we get. At first glance it seems like an early example of yet another Stephen King tic; the offhand remark or briefly mentioned artifact that hints at an older, more horrific story only tangentially related to what we’re seeing. Eventually those digressions would get the best of him, and Stephen King would devote hundreds of pages to ideas that were only really incidental to the main plot, but I’ve always loved them. Even when they threatened to overload the main story, my favorite parts of King books tend to be the brief (or not-so-brief) detours that give the impression that the world is weirder and scarier than you thought. Right now I’m going to take a page out of Stephen King’s book and back up a bit and work my way back to answer your question.

On my first re-reading of this story, I felt the ending had a few rushed elements. After some pretty leisurely storytelling, and without much foreshadowing, the ending comes rushing at us in just a couple of quick pages. Warwick and Hall seem to undergo some pretty major shifts in personality, and Hall in particular gets a new motivation that seems to come out of left field. I’m speaking, of course, of Hall’s decision to not just force Warwick into a rat infested basement in order to prove his aggressive blustering is merely a show, but to actually take an active role in Warwick’s death as almost a sacrifice to the rats.

As soon as Warwick and Hall enter the sub-basement, Hall’s entire attitude changes. Where earlier in the story he had been silently acquiescing to Warwick’s demands and insults (though often with some passive aggression), here he begins to take charge of the situation, to badger and harass Warwick openly. His inner thoughts change as well, as he begins to feel a wild elation, ‘something lunatic and dark with colors.’ He feels a sense of purpose drawing him on, and his inner thoughts remark that ‘he had perhaps been looking for something like this through all his days of crazy wandering.’ This change happens so suddenly, over barely a page, that at first blush it seemed unearned. Then, when re-reading the story it all fell into place; of course Hall was unmoored and probably a little unhinged, despite his seeming sanity at the story’s outset. And of course a drifter who seems to be searching for his place in the world would find something almost religious in the mystery and violence of what happens in that sub-basement.

Which brings us back to that lock on the underside of a trap door. Why would it be there, on that side of the door? The characters in the story all wonder this, but it’s glossed over rather quickly. As I see it there is only one real reason you would lock the inside of something; you are locking yourself in and something else out. Based on the disused nature of the basement, and the certainly even more disused nature of the sub-basement, neglected for decades, who could have set that lock? And what must their rationale have been? How could anyone with even the barest sense of curiosity not be tempted down those stairs?

But there’s more to this mystery, and although we never get a definitive answer we get a lot of weird clues. First off is the basement itself, which is ancient and full of weird fungi the characters have never seen before, strange and swarming beetles, and of course giant rats and bats. The basement is also larger than the mill that lays on top of it, extending past the mill’s borders, and we get explicit evidence that the basement might predate the above structure by several decades. Warwick and Hall discover a large wooden box with a name and date painted on it; “Elias Varney, 1841.” At the discovery of that item, Hall asks Warwick if the mill is that old, to which Warwick answers that the mill was built in 1897.

In the sub-basement Warwick and Hall find one skeleton, and though no connection is made in the text, I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the skeleton belonged to whoever locked the basement from the inside. I think another assumption could also be made that the skeleton and Elias Varney are one and the same. So now the question remains, who is Elias Varney? I’m going to get a bit extra-textual here, and go outside of the book for a theory I’d like to put forward.

Knowing how much Stephen King likes to make allusions to his own works I went online to look up any other instances of an Elias Varney in his work, or even just another Varney, and could find nothing (Stephen King fans have tirelessly plotted most story connections throughout several websites, so if a connection existed I should have found it). What I did find, buried in a forum thread from ages ago, was the idea that the name meant nothing in and of itself, it was just there to identify the skeleton, and perhaps Varney had been chosen because King is a ravenous fan of horror literature, and wanted to give a shout out to Varney the Vampire, the first English-language vampire tale.

But what if the naming wasn’t random? What if it was a clue to the very origins of the story? The wooden box they find isn’t really described, other than it is apparently huge, but what if it was a coffin? What if Elias Varney is related to Francis Varney, the titular vampire of that story? Or, what if he had nothing to do with that story and was simply a clue as to the nature of the trouble beneath the mill. There are a couple ways it could go from there. This vampire had sealed himself away from the dangerous humans above, or perhaps this Varney was as self-hating as the original, and had sealed himself away to keep humanity safe. Either way, it’s clear that he died beneath what would eventually become a textile mill.

Now, I’m not saying that I’ve solved a mystery in a 26-page Stephen King story that no one had ever even noticed before, and I’m not saying that King wrote a secret sequel to a half forgotten penny dreadful from over a century earlier, but it does serve to highlight what I love most about short stories like this; the idea that there is a larger world and we are looking at it through a keyhole. In this case we’ve got Elias Varney, who may or may not be a vampire, but who has locked himself away in an ancient cavern that ends up full of mutated rats, bats, and other forms of life normally found in caves. Did he lock himself up before or after this change in the natural order? Did he do it because of the change? Did the change happen because of him? We’ll never know, and whether you want to buy my version of things or not, I think it’s a fun way to look at the story, and it got my imagination whirring.

Rik: I am willing to entertain the notion, though I really think King never meant anything more than simple literary name-dropping (at most) to add an extra spooky layer to his story’s trappings. But, just as the strange positioning of the lock lends itself to allowing the reader to wander off in epic flights of fancy regarding just exactly why it appears that way, so too does the box with the name of Elias Varney. Why not imagine such a connection?

I, too, had set myself toward scouring the interwebs for some corroboration of the Varney theory, but found nothing beyond the forum source that you did. Since I am not prone to jumping on theories without multiple sourced facts to back it up, I discounted the notion. But I will agree that it is a most engaging idea, and it caused me to head further to King’s non-fictional foray into the history of horror fiction and film, Danse Macabre, itself first published a couple of years (1981, to be precise) after Night Shift. In Danse Macabre, King name-checks Varney while discussing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but nothing beyond informing us that the novel “never degenerates to the level of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Varney the Vampyre.” So it is clear that King is well aware of Varney, but doesn’t hold it in high regard as literature. He also fails to include it in his list of important horror novels and stories in the appendix for Danse Macabre. Since there, by his own words, “roughly a hundred” such works included, it seems there would have been plenty of room if he wanted Varney there.

But it also doesn’t mean that he was beyond dropping a Varney reference into Graveyard Shift as a gag. And no matter how much certain writers might bemoan this fate, once the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it is not going to go back in easily. Once he published the story and the readers took in his words, the fate of Elias Varney became their concern, whether a lightly implied joke or the doorway to further horrors left undiscovered and untold.

Our discussion continues over on Rik's site as we delve into the film and its differences and similarities to the short story. To read that part visit Rik's Cinema 4 Pylon here.

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