The career of ultra prolific and best selling author, Stephen King, has been a long and distinguished one. The collection of short stories, contained within the pages of the book “Night Shift,” marked one such distinction. When Doubleday published the book in February of 1978, it marked the first time that King’s short stories had ever been released to the public in one work. Sixteen of the collection’s twenty stories were originally published in the following magazines: Cavalier, Cosmopolitan, Gallery, Maine Magazine, and Ubris. Four other stories: “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Woman in the Room,” and “Quitters, Inc.” were previously unpublished works. “Night Shift” was the first book in which King wrote a foreword to one of his works. Additionally, one of King’s literary idols, John D. MacDonald, wrote the introduction to the collection.
The words Springheel Jack, appearing in a newspaper article, is the catalyst which has brought back memories to the unnamed protagonist of the story, “Strawberry Spring.” The piece was originally published in 1968, in Ubris, which was a literary journal at Stephen King’s college, The University of Maine. The character, through first person narration, starts vividly remembering a time, eight years earlier, when a series of grisly murders took place. The crimes were committed on the campus of the fictional, New Sharon Teacher’s College, which he was attending at the time. The same type of weather is upon the area in which he lives, just like it was on March 16, 1968. The term ‘strawberry spring’ refers to a false spring, that has arrived earlier than expected and will not last long, before the cold replaces it once again. The protagonist can’t help but wonder, if the coming of that weather will begin another cycle of violence, the likes of which, began and ended with its arrival and departure in March of ’68. King has the narrator describe his feeling regarding the rare weather condition, in almost magical terms, and even briefly inserts characters from The Lord of the Rings into his story:
“And when night came the fog came with it, moving silent and white along the narrow college avenues and thoroughfares…It made things seem out of joint, strange, magical. The unwary traveler would step out of the juke-thumping, brightly lit confusion of the Grinder, expecting the hard clear starriness of winter to clutch him . . . and instead he would suddenly find himself in a silent, muffled world of white drifting fog, the only sound his own footsteps…You half expected to see Gollum or Frodo and Sam go hurrying past, or to turn and see that the Grinder was gone, vanished, replaced by a foggy panorama of moors and yew trees and perhaps a Druid-circle or a sparkling fairy ring.”
On that same evening, the screams of John Dancey, a Junior at the college, can be heard piercing the foggy night air. While heading home for the evening, he has come across the body of Gale Cerman; her throat has been sliced from one ear to the other. The next day, the college is a buzz with all sorts of gossip, not only about the details of the crime, but the type of person Gale was. Most of the information is completely made-up on the part of the individuals who engage in gossip mongering. One rumor offsets another, until the arrest of Gale’s recent, ex-boyfriend, Carl Amalara. The police have found a hunting knife, as well as a picture of a cut up, Gale, in the foot locker, under his bed. That, combined with the fact that the couple had been arguing for a month prior to her murder, was enough for the authorities to make an arrest.
With Carl’s arrest, the students of the campus can breathe a sigh of relief, or can they? Why not? The killer has been caught, and is behind bars, so therefore, it is safe to venture out into the night again. Not so fast, as the narrator informs the reader:
‘He got another one,’ someone said to me, his face pallid with excitement. ‘They had to let him go.’
‘Amalara!’ someone else said gleefully. ‘He was sitting in jail when it happened.
When what happened?’ I asked patiently. Sooner or later I would get it. I was sure of that.
‘The guy killed somebody else last night. And now they’re hunting all over for it.’
The pallid face wavered in front of me again. ‘Her head. Whoever killed her took her head with him.’
This time the victim was Ann Bray, who, according to the narrator, was the first runner-up in the Miss New England pageant. The second murder puts the police, as well as campus security, on an even higher alert level. The school’s administration also issues a mandatory, nine o’clock curfew. The day after the second murder, everyone on campus is extra guarded, having thought everything was back to normal with Carl’s arrest. The students’ study one another’s faces, even though, as the protagonist pointed out earlier in the story, the school is small, and everyone had at least a nodding acquaintance with one another. Someone among their number, however, is committing the crimes:
“There was someone dark among us, as dark as the paths which twisted across the mall or wound among the hundred-year-old oaks on the quad in back of the gymnasium. As dark as the hulking Civil War cannons seen through a drifting membrane of fog. We looked into each other’s faces and tried to read the darkness behind one of them.”
The next three evenings go by without incident, until March 20th. On that night, a campus security guard thinks the killer has struck again. The body of an unconscious undergrad, Donald Morris, is in the same parking lot where Gale Cerman’s body was found. While driving the boy to the hospital, he sits up in the back seat, and begins asking questions. This causes the guard to run his car off of the road. As it turned out, the student had passed out, while walking to get something to eat, having been in bed the previous two days with the flu.
The well written, atmospheric story contains a lyricism to it, that is brought to life by the narrator’s manner of looking at things. Almost a decade later, he is able to look back and remember with such vividness, all that transpired during the brief period of time known as ‘strawberry spring.’ The method by which King writes the story, concentrating on the reactions, of both the students on campus and of law enforcement, to the murders, instead of getting into graphic detail about how the killer murdered his victims, was done to great effect. King’s writing follows a well charted progression that involves the mindset of those who are living where the murderer has struck. At first the conversations are gossipy, and rumor filled, as mentioned earlier, but after the second killing, more of a panic sets in, not only on the part of the students, but the authorities who are trying to catch the killer.
Will it turn out that the narrator was the killer? After all, on the evening of Ann Bray’s killing, he speaks of leaving his room to go for a walk because he has a headache. He recalls the fog, and how the faces in it are obscured; he talks about the shadows; he also makes mention of hearing footsteps. The narrator admits to the reader, that any one of the shadows, or set of footsteps he heard could have belonged to Springheel Jack, but he never once seems to fear them. And when his roommate asks him if he wants to go out for the evening, he claims he has to study for a trigonometry exam, but once his roommate leaves, the narrator spends time thinking thoughts, that make one wonder:
“For a long time after he was gone, I could only look out the window. And even after I had opened my book and started in, part of me was still out there, walking in the shadows where something dark was now in charge.”
Will there be more murders? Has the killer moved on to another location, due to the heightened police presence? Does the killer ever get caught? Read the short story, discover the clues, that King places in the text, and enjoy the offering from an overall excellent collection of the author’s early work.