STEPHEN KING could no doubt make a megabuck deal for a paraphrase of the telephone directory, so a simple short- story collection (his third) may seem unsurprising. When you think about it though, it reveals a commendable absence of greed. Even for Stephen King (and especially for anybody else) short stories are not great money spinners. If he writes them, it must be because he enjoys writing them.
Skeleton Crew makes it obvious that King is not worried now, if he ever was, about his pulp- magazine past. There are stories here from 1968 onwards. As his first collection, Night Shift, did not appear until 1978, there seems no reason why some of these stories should not have been published then rather than now; presumably he was more self-conscious then. These days he can afford to be amused by his own juvenilia (some from the University of Maine magazine Ubris) and rightly so. The early stories are pretty good, but the real winners are recent.
There are two poems (better than some of you might have expected) and 20 stories. Four stories are classics. The other 16 are, without exception, highly readable; eight definitely above average and none of them contemptible. Other critics might call the score a little differently, but overall there can be no argument: the big guy from Bangor, Maine, has made another touchdown. No question, King is the most successful good ol' boy in the book business, though he continues to give the impression (can it be true?) of being unspoiled by success.
King is, of course, well known as an excellent contriver of laid-back New England dialect (Ayuh, those old fellers sitting on a bench and yarning), and also of a generalized downmarket prose, either straight-from-the-shoulder or filtered-through-the-beercan. But it would be a mistake for King to become overconfident about his mastery of the common touch. In his afterword he tells an anecdote about the difficulty he had in selling a story ("Mrs. Todd's Shortcut") to women's magazines. It seems that two of them turned it down "because of that line about how a woman will pee down her own leg if she doesn't squat." Well, Steve, I don't want to be difficult, but the same line made me wince too, and it didn't do a bit of good to the story; it makes a likeable narrator seem momentarily insensitive, even vulgar. I suspect that a lot of us plain folks who admire King's work do so in spite of, and not because of, this sort of thing. My granny, herself plain folks, would have said "That Stephen King should wash his mouth out with soap."
But one's adverse judgments are really quite mild. Several of the stories, as with too many genre short stories, are f the kind which one describes to friends in sentences that begin "Did you ever read the story about . . . ?" For example, in more than one interview, when asked to define the term "gross-out," Stephen King has referred to his own story "Survivor Type," which appears here. This is well told, but once you have heard someone say, "Did you ever read the story about the man on the desert island who got so hungry he ate himself?," there is not a lot of point in reading the actual story. As gross-outs go, I preferred the scene in "The Raft" where a teen-age couple, menaced by a floating and carnivorous blob, make desperate love. Unfortunately, the young man notices too late that "HER HAIR IS IN THE OH GOD IN THE WATER HER HAIR . . . Randy screamed. He screamed. And then, for variety, he screamed some more."
THE SHORT STORY is not, on the face of it, a form to which King's undoubted talents are suited. Polished gemstones of precision are not his line, and mandarins and collectors of lapidary delights should seek their pleasures elsewhere. One joins King for more leisurely, outdoor pursuits: a ramble through the graveyard perhaps, with the chill of fall in the air.
Even in the short story, however, King's refusal to be hurried can pay dividends, especially in "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," a vibrant, memorable tale about a young woman obsessed with the possibility of finding ever shorter automobile routes between her home village and Bangor, 79 miles as the crow flies. As the shortcuts become more elaborate, the back roads wilder and the distance shorter, it is no longer certain through what dimension these tracks are cutting, but some nasty little animals get caught up in the radiator grille. Part of the story's strength lies in the ironical, moving contrast between the relaxed telling of the tale and the mad hurry it encapsulates.
The other three classics vary in tone. "The Monkey," perhaps, cuts closest to the white dead bone in its tale of a children's toy which laughs and bangs its cymbals when death is due. Here King's well known sore spot (highly visible in Pet Semetary), which has to do with parental love and fear and mortal threats to children, is hectically picked at yet again. On a much more expansive and amusing note, "The Mist" (almost a short novel) is by far the best supermarket-menaced-by-horrible-monsters story ever likely to be written, and some of the nastiest monsters are human. (Some, on the other hand, have tentacles, enormous claws, and leave footprints in the blacktop deep enough to hide a car in.)
Finally, something out of the way for King: a piece of true-blue surrealism, beautifully judged and paced, "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman *2)". The horror in this one bubbles up through the beercans that are central to its imagery, and the reader discovers more about the soft white underbelly of blue- collar life than he could conceivably want to know.
Skeleton Crew is probably better than the first collection, Night Shift, and as good in its very different way as the second, Different Seasons. King does not have too much to worry about, though he has one failing, perhaps because he likes to be liked. In a few too many stories (including the last, "The Reach") he sacrifices the hard edge of his vision for something that can only be called cute.