Night Shift by Stephen King

I like Stephen King’s writings in general, and he has some novels I am absolutely fascinated by (such as The Dead Zone), so I started reading the short stories in Night Shift readily and with great expectations, as I know that King can be a wonderful storyteller. Unfortunately this collection was a bit of a disappointment for me. Among the 20 stories contained in the book, there are some which are awfully banal, pathetic, or simply ridiculous, and of course there are a few masterpieces as well, but the bad or uninteresting stories are in majority, so on the whole the collection made a rather negative impression on me.

What disturbs me most is the fact that King does not hesitate to borrow from the oeuvre of other authors (or should I say: steal from them?), and he does it in a completely unimpressive way. The very first story of the collection, “Jerusalem’s Lot” is a perfect example of this: the story is painfully similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Rats in the Wall”. The resemblance surprised me all the most as this is the only story by Lovecraft I have read so far, and this suggests to me that perhaps King builds upon Lovecraft’s work in some of his other stories as well, only I am not aware of it. Being a lover of postmodern, of course it is not the free usage of other texts which irritates me, but the fact that King does not seem to add anything of his own to his sources, so for me this is not a postmodern game, but a rather sorry example of copy-paste writing.

Apart from building heavily on other writers’ work, King also repeats himself a lot. I do not see why a book of 20 short stories needs two separate stories about rats, vertigo, haunted cities, or machines come alive. True, these are very rewarding topics for a horror-writer, and I also admit that the corresponding stories deal with ancient or quite modern human fears, but I believe that one well-written story would have sufficed in all these themes, and then perhaps I would not have felt as if I had only been wasting my time with reading another boring story of yet another ghost-ridden town or rat-scare.

In his introduction to the collection, King writes that in every work of fiction the single most important factor is the story, and not even the most intriguing characters, the most unique style or the most eery tone can help if the reader is not spellbound by the story itself. I do not agree with this idea, but King’s claim certainly shows that he is aware of his abilities and the limits of his talent. I usually think that King is correct in his self-assessment and his major talent lies in creating a story, however, in Night Shift the best tales are the ones that do not entirely depend on the story value, but rather depict a certain mood or state of mind (such as “Night Surf” or “The Man Who Loved Flowers”), deal with the relationship of the characters in a mature way (“The Children of the Corn”), or are marked by atypical narration (“Strawberry Spring”). In these stories one gets a few flashes of King’s true genius: his great ability to conjure a distinctive atmosphere in his work and his talent to create wonderfully absorbing characters in a few simple sentences. I have a strong suspicion that these stories will stay with me much longer than the less-than-interesting, less-than-unique pieces which are more strongly centered around the events themselves.

However, a collection of 20 which only contains 4 or 5 good pieces is not satisfying for me. I do not like to waste my time reading a lot of unexciting stories just to come across a gem every once in a while. And anyway, I expect more than this from Stephen King.

Of course King himself does not claim to be a literary genius, and the stories in Night Shift can prove to anyone in doubt that King is indeed only a literary craftsman in most of the cases, someone who usually knows how to put a story together to make it work, but who can hardly be called an artist. Again, this is not a fault in itself, but here the pieces King uses to build his stories are often far too obvious, and this spoils the reading experience.

Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon

After reading The Crying of Lot 49 last year, I became enthusiastic to read any other Pynchon books I can lay my hands on. So when it turned out that one of my colleagues owns a copy of Slow Learner, I was happy to accept his offer that he lends me the book. Slow Learner is a collection of five short stories that Pynchon wrote early in his career, and I was quite eager to read them, as I had only read one of his short stories, “Entropy” earlier, and I loved that so much that I wanted to know if he could write other stories which were similarly good.

As I adore both The Crying of Lot 49 and “Entropy”, I was greatly biased towards this volume, and it is not easy for me to admit that the book was quite a disappointment to me, even though it started out in a highly exciting way: Pynchon himself wrote a preface to the decade-old stories, and this must have been quite an event in the life of such a reclusive author who avoids every kind of personal interaction with his audience. No wonder that I devoured the pages of the preface and I tremendously enjoyed Pynchon’s wit and style. But then a strange thing occurred: because of Pynchon’s preface, I lost my interest in the stories themselves, or at least my attitude towards them underwent a great alteration and I could not really appreciate them when I finally got around to reading them.

Here is what happened. In the preface Pynchon takes each of the five stories one after the other, and systematically disparages them, while displaying his huge reserves of self-irony and wit. However, it is not only that the older, more experienced and more mature Pynchon mildly ponders over the deficiencies of his early writings. It seems to me that he positively relishes in disclosing his earlier weaknesses: his penchant for choosing a scientific or philosophical concept first, and then writing the story around it; his pretense that he is an expert in a lot of different American dialects even though this is hardly the case; his tendency to fill his stories with words he likes, regardless of (and sometimes not even knowing) their meanings; or his habit of using his characters only as illustrations of certain concepts, and failing to fill them with life in the meantime.

True, it was immensely entertaining to read these trains of thought, since Pynchon’s irony is virtually inexhaustible, but this was basically all I could get out of this book. After reading twenty pages of ruthless (though funny) self-criticism I automatically kept looking for the faults in the stories, and only wanted to find the parts in each of the stories that the mature Pynchon criticizes in the preface.

But even if I forgot my obsessive search for faults, the stories on the whole still failed to impress me, and I only liked two stories out of the five. One of these was “Entropy”: I found this story just as fascinating and creepy now as five years ago when I had first read it. The other good story was “Secret Integration”, which is a happy blend of humor, mystery and a distressing picture of its age and society.

This time I would rather not go into the story-lines themselves. As these are short stories, and one is quite different from the other, I cannot give you any idea of the whole volume if I write about one specific story only, and I certainly do not want to outline all five here. So I only will add one piece of advice: if you want to enjoy the stories and form your own opinions without the author’s influence, make sure you leave the preface to the end.