February 1978, marked the first time that a collection of bestselling author Stephen King’s short stories were available to be read in one publication. Doubleday published “Night Shift” which contained twenty stories in all, sixteen of which, had been previously published in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Ubris. The four stories that were published for the first time were “Jerusalem’s Lot,”“The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Woman in the Room,” and “Quitters, Inc.” Furthermore, this was the first time King had ever written a forward to one of his works. In addition, prolific writer, John D. MacDonald (The Executioners), who King has called “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller,” wrote the introduction to the collection. MacDonald, who passed away on December 28, 1986 was an accomplished author in his own right, who in 1980, among many career accolades, won the National Book Award for Mystery for his novel “The Green Ripper.”
One story, in the collection, which I felt was worthy of singling out for review, especially for King fans, who may never have read it, is “The Ledge.” The short story was originally published in the July 1976 issue of Penthouse Magazine. The method King uses to advance the story forward is first person narrative. Stan Norris is the main protagonist. He is a local tennis-club pro who has been having an affair with Marcia, the wife of a crime boss. Cressner is the criminal’s name, and at the start of the story, he offers Norris a proposition; which at first seems hopelessly one sided. While Cressner doesn’t threaten to kill Norris outright, in a manner of speaking, the terms of his proposal, most likely spell certain doom for Norris.
Cressner is a gambling man, and he makes a wager, which Norris really has no choice, but to accept. Cressner is wagering that Norris will not be capable of making his way all around the building, on the five-inch wide ledge of Cressner’s penthouse apartment, which is forty-three stories up. If successful, Norris will not only get Cressner’s wife, but he will also receive the sum of twenty-thousand dollars cash, all in twenties, in a shopping bag, which Norris confirmed by dumping the money onto the carpet. If Norris refuses to take the wager, he will be framed for possession of heroin. Tony, one of Cressner’s men, has stolen Norris’s car, and moved it into a parking lot. If Cressner calls him, Tony is to plant over six ounces of heroin in the trunk of the car, and then alert the police as to where to find it. Cressner informs Norris, that he has made the same wager to six other people, three of whom were professional athletes, the other three people owed Cressner money; five of the six refused to take the wager, the sixth, started and backed out immediately, offering Cressner, six months of unpaid employment.
Norris, knowing that Cressner is not the sort of man to bluff, begrudgingly takes the wager, as he seemingly has no other choice. The weather is against Norris; it’s nighttime so he has less visibility; he’s wearing a light jacket, and it is the middle of winter. The narrowness of the ledge is also very much against him, and the pigeons occupying the ledge’s perch, will probably not be welcoming to Norris. King lets the reader know Norris’s fears:
“My eye had fastened on something else outside the window . . . something that made my blood temperature sink several degrees. It was a wind gauge. Cressner’s apartment was quite close to the lake, and it was high enough so there were no higher buildings to act as a windbreak. That wind would be cold, and it would cut like a knife. The needle was standing at ten pretty steadily, but a gust would send the needle almost up to twenty-five for a few seconds before dropping off.”
“Ah, I see you’ve noticed my wind gauge,’ Cressner said jovially. ‘Actually, it’s the other side which gets the prevailing wind; so the breeze may be a little stronger on that side. But actually this is a fairly still night. I’ve seen evenings when the wind has gusted up to eighty-five . . . you can actually feel the building rock a little. A bit like being on a ship, in the crow’s nest. And it’s quite mild for this time of year.”
Norris lowers himself onto the ledge, beyond the railing there is nothing for him to grip with his hands, but, even with that fact, he begins his perilous journey. His motivation is simple, he doesn’t want to spend four decades in prison, which is the going sentence for the possession of the amount of heroin, that has been planted in his car. He also, as he indicates at the start of the story, genuinely loves Marcia, and wants to be with her. The money he could win, offers him, not only his freedom, but a chance to leave town, along with his lover, and start over.
“The Ledge” was included as one of two stories from “Night Shift” in the film “Cat’s Eye.” The other story is “Quitters, Inc.” Originally “Sometimes They Come Back,” which is also part of the “Night Shift” collection, was going to be adapted to be part of the film, but Oscar winner Dino De Laurentis (La Strada), who co-produced the film, along with his wife, Martha De Laurentis, and Milton Subotsky, felt that it was a good enough story to have its own film adaptation. “Cat’s Eye” was directed by Lewis Teague (The Jewel of the Nile), and the screenplay was written by Stephen King. The stories in the film, are linked together by a seemingly, supernatural cat named General. The film, which was released theatrically on April 12, 1985, is parts comedy – horror and thriller. The film features Golden Globe winner Drew Barrymore (Grey Gardens); two time Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner James Woods (Salvador); and Oscar nominee Candy Clark (American Graffiti), among numerous others. “The Ledge” segment stars Robert Hays (Airplane) playing the part of Norris, renamed Johnny for the movie; Kenneth McMillan (Blue Skies Again), portrays Cressner; Patricia Kalember plays the part of Marcia; and Tony Munafo, is cast in the role of Tony, who has been renamed ‘Junk’ for the film. The music of Oscar winner Alan Silvestri (Cosmos), is heard throughout all of the segments.
In 1979 “Night Shift” was nominated for a Locus Award, which since 1971, are annual literary awards given by the monthly science fiction and fantasy magazine “Locus.” The winners are selected by the magazine’s readers through voting. The same year, the collection was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, which has been given yearly since 1975, and awards the best fantasy work published during the previous year. In 1980, “Night Shift” received the Barlog Award, which was given annually from 1979 through 1985 to the best works and achievements in speculative fiction from the previous calendar year.
“The Ledge” is a well written and excellently paced story. The horror King presents to the reader is plausible, given Cressner’s criminality. Gangsters frequently engage in crazy antics, especially when they are trying to get retribution against an enemy. This is the type of story, that, when you read it for the first time, has the ability to raise your anxiety level, because King puts the reader into Norris’s mindset. Every step Norris takes out on the ledge, while reading it, I felt like I was right there with him, even though I was in the safety of my own home. King, even early on his career, was able to masterfully keep building the tension with each sentence; as readers, we join Norris, as he faces what can be, at any second, his impending death. Once Norris begins his journey out on the ledge, the story should grip most readers, especially fans of King’s work, until its conclusion.