Skeleton Crew (1985) – Stephen King

Stephen King’s second short story collection, Skeleton Crew looked like a giant sitting on my mom’s bookshelf. It was a hardcover and had that creepy monkey on the front. And while I didn’t recall all of the stories as I did this re-read, some sent me right back to the first time I read it, when they established themselves as favourites.

The Mist is one of my favourite King stories. I love the film adaptation and I love the original text. This one resonated with me as a young teen reading it, the idea of being holed up in a location (which serves as a microcosm of society) surrounded by a mist with a variety of deadly creatures in it that you couldn’t see just really got to me, and still does.

Here There Be Tygers is a concise tale that follows a young boy who really needs to go to the bathroom and a strange encounter he has in the commode.

The Monkey is a horrific story about one of those windup cymbal-clapping monkey toys, which I think a number of people have a latent fear of. This one keeps showing up in one man’s life, starting when he was a child, and each time the cymbals clap, someone is going to die, violently and horribly. Now, it’s up to this man, and his son to rid their family of it once and for all (?).

Cain Rose Up is troubling because of its subject matter, schools and gun violence. A university student at the end of his term, having just finished, and most likely flunked, his final exam seals himself off in his room, grabs a rifle and begins shooting. No spooks, no ghosties, just the everyday horror of American gun violence laid bare.

Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut is an entertaining escapade about a woman in Maine who is intent on finding faster routes, little shortcuts, taking to heart the message of her father that it could save time as well. And she finds holes to pass through that guide her but may claim her in the end.

The Jaunt has a gut-wrenching ending as King takes us into a future and details the history of teleportation, how it changed the world and the way it was developed and its use prerequisites. I saw a variation of the ending coming, but it’s still creepy.

The Wedding Gig takes us back to 1927, when a small-time band gets an offer they can’t refuse, but it’s one that is going to haunt them as organized crime, and a very large bride come into conflict.

Paranoid: A Chant is a round that descends not only to paranoia but back around to itself as the stanzas continue. Madness ensues.

The Raft is one of my other favourite stories, and while none of the characters are particularly likeable, I read this at just the right time. Growing up near the ocean, we had a raft not completely unlike this one, and I remember the way it would slip into my thoughts anytime I went swimming. And the idea of a creature that can be reasoned with striking at you when you are at your most vulnerable, love it.

Word Processor of the Gods is a silly little tale about a specially-made word processor, back when they were insanely expensive. It’s a gift to a writer, and he quickly learns that the EXECUTE and DELETE buttons have real-world impacts.

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands has the overtones of a Victorian-esque gothic tale, or that is how it felt to me as a tale of a strange encounter with a man, who believes he is cursed, joins in a game of poker with long-lasting results.

Beachworld is a sci-fi-tinged tale that sees a spaceship crash land on a world of dunes, sand everywhere (Tatooine? Arrakis?), and while one of them works to get a rescue signal sent out, the other falls into a hypnotic state of the moving sands. Are they alive? Will rescue arrive? And will the dunes let them escape?

The Reaper’s Image is a short trip that gives us a glimpse of a very strange mirror and hints at what it may reveal when the right (or wrong) person looks into it.

Nona is a strange tale that hints at a number of dark things going on as a student is hitchhiking and has a strange encounter or causes it, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. There is some question about what is really happening, but that is left to the narrator to reveal, and the reader to decipher.

For Owen is a nice little rhyming set of couplets that King wrote for his son.

Survivor Type deals with a surgeon turned castaway from a cruise ship who was smuggling in some heroin, the effects of shock trauma and his will to survive as he struggles to find something to eat, create a rescue message, and the lengths he will go to make sure he doesn’t starve. Definitely not one to be read while you are eating.

Uncle Otto’s Truck is a bit of a ghost story, this team features a beaten-up old truck that is slowly stalking an old man who is slowly losing his mind. I like how it unfolds, and it’s truly spooky by its end.

Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1) is a short story following a milkman making his deliveries, and how for some of them, not all of them, and with no rhyme or reason, he leaves special things, tarantulas in milk cartons, poison, gas, and sometimes just milk and creamer. The really spooky thing behind it is the fact that his choices seem completely random.

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2) brushes up against the milkman character in the prior story towards the end, but it follows a pair of increasingly drunk work friends who are set on getting the car checked and certified that night. Luckily (or not) working at a local gas station is an old high school buddy who reluctantly joins in the rowdy drinking and eventually certifying the car. The attendant goes home to commit some violence and a car accident befalls the drunken pair as they drive away, both prompted by the milkman, and perhaps a strange bug that watches over the milkman.

Gramma is a story I remember from when it was adapted to the 80s version of The Twilight Zone. I was still anxious about watching scary things, getting into them slowly, even though I was happy enough reading them. I couldn’t watch the entire episode, and re-reading the short story for the first time in decades, I get it. A young boy is left at home with his blind, senile and deathly ill grandmother, layer in some stuff witches, and illisict books, and you have something really spooky when the woman dies on the boy’s watch.

The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet feels a little overlong at forty-five pages, and while it explores the edges of insanity and creativity and ‘where do all those ideas come from?’ I felt that it just took too long to get the ball rolling. I do like the reveals and the discoveries, but it just seemed a little too slow as we were closing in on the end of the book.

Reach is a compassionate ghost story about the way some communities look after each other. This one is a small one set on an island, and the elderly Stella who has never left its confines for all the days of her life.

Overall this is an incredibly solid collection, and shows all manner of tales that King can dole out. Those that stayed with me continue to do so, and with the added perspective of age, allow me to see them in a new way.

King is a storyteller of the highest order!

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