From one of the greatest storytellers in modern times comes this classic collection of twenty-two works of fright and wonder unforgettable tales that will take you to where your darkest fears await. Whether it’s a mysterious impenetrable mist camouflaging bizarre, otherworldly terrors that could herald the destruction of humanity or an eerie-looking child s toy that harbors an unimaginable evil or four college students on a deserted lake encountering something that crosses the boundary of sanity or a man suddenly given the omnipotent ability to quite literally edit his own reality the extraordinary narratives found in Skeleton Crew are the enduring and irresistible proof that Stephen King is a true master of the short fiction form.
Skeleton Crew is my first true foray into Stephen King’s works of short fiction. I did read Hearts in Atlantis last year, but that is a cohesive collection of interconnected stories with recurring characters and themes. This collection of stories, originally published in 1985, brings together various short works from his career at the time, many of them previoiusly published on their own in magazines and other publications. Included in this collection is the more famous story “The Mist,” which has been adapted into a film and a TV series. It’s a novella in its own right, making up the first 200 or so pages of the book, followed by two poems and 19 short stories, for a total of 22 pieces of fiction.
I really enjoyed just how varied this collection was in terms of content. First off, there are plenty of stories that one might consider more classic King featuring cursed objects, eldritch family members, or encounters with deadly phenomena, most of which I found to be superb. I was especially excited to finally read “The Raft,” a story that held no surprises thanks to campfire retellings from my father when I was younger yet was still great to experience firsthand. “Gramma” was a harrowing tale I was unfamiliar with, told from the perspective of a young boy forced to stay home alone with his ailing grandmother. His anxieties about being home alone with her were effective enough, before the true horror started. “This Mist” is of course a well-deserved classic as well, doing a great job of capturing the varied reactions of everyday people to a crisis, with the exception of the religious zealot Mrs. Carmody, who was a bit much at some points. Not supernatural in the slightest, a special mention goes to “Survivor Type” for its use of body horror. It’s the only story that truly made me feel sick.
There is more to it that those, however, with other stories exploring more of the bizarre or otherworldly, violent crime, and a few cases of science fiction. Horror is definitely his forte, but I love being reminded of how good of a storyteller he is in general. Tales like “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” or “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” are not really horror at all, the former dealing with strange phenomena on the back roads of Maine allowing a woman to take seemingly impossible shortcuts, while the latter explores the pressures of success and descents into insanity with just a hint of the otherworldly at play. “The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands” reads more like an old-fashioned tale of intrigue too, with a tragic supernatural twist to it.
There are only two—maybe three—stories I would consider science fiction, but they especially stood out to me. “The Jaunt” is a story about the wonders of teleportation, possessing one horrific drawback that gets built to in a predictable yet enjoyable fashion. The other is “Beach World,” a tale of two men whose ship crashes on a planet covered completely in sand. One of the pair becomes fixated on the idea that it is in fact a beach, though there is no ocean, and refuses to eat, drink, or even move once he’s planted his feet on it. It’s a really bizarre and troubling story that will definitely stay with me. There are references to the Beach Boys and beach-day activities that are silly in a way that adds to the tension of their situation.
King has a way with characters that I always enjoy. Occasionally voices sound a little similar; he has a distinct style that makes certain protagonists, but especially background characters sound similar to others in his stories. Most of the time I do not find this to be a detriment. Beyond that, he’s just great at adding little details that give characters a unique feeling to them. Particularly I think of the love/hate between Deke and Randy in “The Raft.” Randy resents Deke’s confidence and charisma with women, to the point where it is said he would never bring a girl he was in love with anywhere near him, yet there is a genuine care they seem to have for one another that doesn’t crumble under duress. It may not matter much with how the story eventually ends, but it helped to elevate the characters to more than just victims adjacent to each other in a desperate situation.
If you’re curious about reading some Stephen King Skeleton Crew is a pretty great collection of stories to test the waters with. It also offers a certain look at his earlier writing career, as none of these were written after 1985. The horror stories are great, made even better by tales of desperation, intrigue, and crime that show more of King’s range. I’d say the weakest parts are his poems, which did nothing particular for me, but there were only a couple of those that were not so long that they bothered me either.
My rating: 4 out of 5