Column: Summer Screams: Gray Matter and Other Stories From “Nightshift”

By Maria Mitchell

King. Stephen. Gray Matter and Other Stories From Nightshift (1993). Read by John Glover. Audio Cassettes.

“The Bogeyman”

Once a shrink knows what scares you, anything can happen. Distraught Lester Billings seeks psychiatric advice after his children die under mysterious, sinister circumstances. The shrink plays the professional ropes well, until the end, when he reveals what he really thinks of the whole sorry business of Lester Billings. Stories about bogeymen are common in horror media and if a writer is going to tackle this familiar horror, the words have to tell the same fear in a new way. It has to have a seamless blend of old and new fears. The classic fear of a bogeyman melding with the modern fear of psychiatric dysfunction made this story memorable and classic.

Favorite quote from the audio adaptation: “I began to think if you think of a thing long enough, and believe in it, it gets real. Maybe all the monsters we were scared of, like Wolfman, and Frankenstein, and Mummy…maybe they were real. Real enough to kill the kids that were supposed to have fallen into gravel pits, or drowned in lakes, or were just never found.”

If there is a moral to this story, I guess it would be: Don’t believe in what you’re scared of. It might be real, but the belief makes it stronger.

“I Know What You Need”

“I know what you need.” The first line is the best, but it won’t be completely digested by the mind of the reader until you’ve heard the whole story. Great story, complete with a special guest appearance by *drum roll* the Necronomicon! This story starts out sounding like an eerie romance story concerning the relationships of Elizabeth Rogan, a college student with a pretty countenance and bad luck with guys. John Glover does a good job speaking the lines of Elizabeth as he makes her sound sharp, giggly, mournful, and resolute. Is this story Mythos? I’d say so, but not just because it throws in the name of Lovecraft’s most famous accursed tome. It’s a story that exemplifies a nice example of a female character being the center of a mythos horror story. This story is Elizabeth verses the Necronomicon more than it’s Elizabeth verses the creepy guy, Edward Jackson Hamner, Jr. Edward, himself, is a tool of the Necronomicon. He is a disaffected youth who uses magic to alter his reality. He lives inside the book more than his own life. This is a detail that Elizabeth picks up on near the end of the story when she notices that his apartment, without him in it, looks as artificial as a stage set.

“Strawberry Spring”

“Springheel Jack was a man. No one seemed to doubt that. But the fog was his accomplice. And it was female. Or so it seemed to me.”

This quote is one that stands out in “Strawberry Spring.” This story deals with a traditional plot in horror: serial killer stalking human prey against a moody backdrop. This story differs from others of its kind like Robert Bloch’si Yours Truly, Jack the Ripperbecause of its very beautiful, mournful tone. The narrator is bemused and thrilled by the killings. At first. The narrator’s enthusiasm taps into the same interest many people have in real-life criminals such as Jack the Ripper and The Night Stalker. Many of these killers take on the aura of a celebrity in the minds of the public. This disturbing emotional response elicited from the public by serial murderers stimulates their psychopathic drive. Chances are good that if Jack the Ripper had not become a “household name,” no one would have ever heard of him today.

“Gray Matter”

“The beer’s good food for some of those bugs.”

After you hear this story, you’ll never reach for a beer with the same attitude again. Wine aficionados shouldn’t feel so secure, either. Mutated germs might find aged hops a fine bed to multiply within. This story doesn’t explain the origin of the germ that infests a tiny hole in a can of beer, but it does explain in exceptional detail what happens after the beer becomes an impromptu test tube for the germ that will multiply and the mathematical answer is the end of the human race. The concept of a mutated germ ending the human race, to my ears, makes this story science fiction horror, and probably more Lovecraftian in its nihilism than “I Know What You Need,” since “I Know What You Need” ends on an essentially positive note when Elizabeth is free from the Necronomicon‘s control. These four stories from Night Shift are guaranteed to elicit some summer shudders.

The cassettes of Gray Matter and other stories are available at Amazon.com.