12.12.2012

King's Highway pt. 55: Ranking the Short Stories pt. 1 of 2

A few weeks back, I made a list of all the King I had left to read and realized I wasn't on track to make my personal-deadline of New Years 2013 to finish all of it. It was an ambitious deadline for taking in the whole catalog, anyway, and as forthcoming events will (happily) be taking up my time and attention in 2013, it seemed that defeat was inevitable. You gave it the ol' college try, McMolo and Hey, you did pretty well and Crikey, mate, it's not like this is anything but an internally-imposed deadline on a non-vital personal project and all that. Reasonable enough, right?

But reason-be-damned, the idea stuck in my mental craw. My plan all along was to get to the end and then do a hard-won list of favorites/ Best-Ofs. How could I do that if I was leaving works unread? So, that part of my brain that would man the machine-gun post til my dying breath rather than surrender got to thinking... if I tripled my current-reading, could I do it? More importantly, could I do it without neglecting anything vital? December's a busy month, and a man has responsibilities and all. 

I consulted with my staff -

and it turned out that yes, verdammt, it is possible. Maybe not by New Year's, but by reading two (possibly three, we'll see; here's where my daily-workday-commute comes in handy) books at a time instead of one, adding an audiobook to accompany any cooking/ cleaning, and loading up my wife's Kindle - not to mention giving myself a pre-D-Day Eisenhower-esque pep talk - I think I can make it. I've got my foot on the gas, and the remaining stretch of the King's Highway is lit up like the landing strip at the end of Die Hard 2.

If I had any Photoshop skills whatsoever, I'd have replaced all these Mass Pike exits with the remaining-titles of King's catalog, but... so it goes.

So, instead of just Blaze and Thinner, I started in on Pet Sematary and am a few discs into Under the Dome. (Why I chose one of King's longest novels as my first King-audiobook adventure is beyond me, but I appreciate the challenge.) As a result, I'm not exactly sure which of the above will get finished first, and since I'm now back to wiping them all out, then that brings The Regulators back into consideration. Which further means: why not postpone my Blaze/ Thinner blog and group the remaining Bachmans together? 

Which means I can proceed with the original and preferred-plan of ending my King's Highway project with the Best-Of blog(s): grouping King's work by decade and ranking them, then pitting the champions against each other in a King Bracketology of the Gods. Which seems like the natural end for such a project. 

DAMASCUS!!!

Anyway, that got me thinking of the other Best-Ofs I'd intended... one for the novellas and another for the short fiction. I still have some novellas to read (I'm considering the e-books as novellas; I might be wrong in that but such-will-be-they-considered when I get to them) but all the short fiction's been read, so why not do the Best-of-Short-Fiction blog now? 

Good lord he's still talking. I'll rank the stories within each collection, adding some links and remarks here and there, then we'll bracket-off the champs and see which reigns supreme. As with any list of this nature, a) I can only rank my own favorites, so what follows is of course 100% "subjective;" by all means, disagree/ argue/ tell me I'm a bonehead, in the comments. b) To provide exhaustive argument / links for each selection would make this unwieldy. c) I am only including one of his un-collecteds, "The Reploids." Unfairly, perhaps. d) I wasn't sure what to do with "Little Sisters of Eluria" and "Everything's Eventual," since they're Dark Tower tales, so... I just left them out. I covered them most recently here, though, so I won't beat myself up for this. e) Ditto for Hearts in Atlantis. And f) I left any Creepshows that-don't-appear-in-the-following alone. 

If you can live with these exceptions/ rules, then lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries "Hold! Enough!"

(1978)
The McRankings, from Least-Favorite to Most-Favorite:

20. Night Surf - Even my least favorite among these is an engaging read. Here, tho, we have only the seed of an idea that grew into the mighty oak that is The Stand, so it feels rather slight.
19. I Know What You Need
18. The Boogeyman - Fun ending, and a fun-enough story, but not one that would "lead," say, in a Tales from the Crypt comic.
17. The Mangler - The idea of a laundry machine that achieves malevolent sentience from a combination of spilled-blood-and-antacids, develops a taste for murder, and then tears itself from its moorings and takes to the streets in search of prey is... well, it's silly. But the story takes itself seriously, and there's really nothing really wrong with it. Perfect for an EC back-up, maybe even the lead story. (Too bad we can't get Graham Ingels or Johnny Craig to illustrate it.) I cannot believe this spawned three movies.
16. The Man Who Loved Flowers
15. Sometimes They Come Back - Here's another one I cannot believe spawned a trilogy of films.
14. Last Rung on the Ladder
13. Graveyard Shift - I enjoy the film version of this much more than it deserves, most likely, but it's always a fun one to catch on cable.
12. The Ledge - I saw Cat's Eye before I saw Airplane! so Robert Hays will always first be "Mister Norris" to me rather than "Ted Striker."

11. The Woman in the Room - Pretty much every story in Night Shift is great, for my money, but I might be putting this one higher-than-I-otherwise-would simply because without it, the world might never have seen Frank Darabont adapt Shawshank, Green Mile, or The Mist. (On that Darabont-less level of the Tower, they might (shudder) have been adapted by Mick Garris.)
10. I Am the Doorway - From this point on, each story is more-or-less a classic and are arguably interchangeable for the "top spot." I'm convinced there is a surreal, spooky masterpiece feature-film waiting to be made of this story.
9. Grey Matter - Ditto for this one. (I haven't seen this version, so maybe that's it. If so, someone should tell me.)
8. The Lawnmower Man - Okay, as with The Mangler, the central idea for this one is a bit silly. But it's such a bizarre (and original) idea that I am including it way up on the list. Making Pan the God / Ultimate-Head-Honcho of Renegade Landscaping Companies is inspired.
7. Battleground - It may only be #7 on my list here...

but the TNT-series adaptation vies for the number-one-spot on All-Time King Adaptations. Just a perfect little piece of filmmaking. And fun as hell, to boot.

6. Quitters, Inc. - King's first (and arguably best) fictionalization of his nicotine habit.
5. Trucks - I love the way this ends. As has been discussed before in these pages, I'm a fan of Maximum Overdrive, or rather, I'm a fan of the watching-Maximum-Overdrive experience. But this story, if it was the only thing King ever published, would still stand out as a reasonable artistic response to the Oil Crisis of the 70s.
4. Strawberry Spring - Springheel Jack Lives!
3. One For the Road - Some may be surprised I place this so high on my list, but as a coda to Salem's (before, of course, Father Callahan's appearance in the Dark Tower series), it's among my most-loved King stories.
2. Jerusalem's Lot - I suppose it's no surprise, if "One for the Road" is at #3, that I place this in the penultimate spot. I'd love to see King write a more fully-realized historical-fiction piece, maybe even another Salem's prequel along the lines of this. It's fun to see King adopt a more Washington-Irving-esque voice in this one, and the Lovecraftian-horrors within are as well-done as any in his catalog. 
And speaking of Irving:
1. Children of the Corn - Like the Headless Horseman, I'd say this has become an indelible part of American folklore. For that reason alone (which is huge, when you really think about it) where else could I put it? Covered more in depth here, should you want more.

(1985)
The McRankings, from Least-to-Most (and excluding "The Mist," which will be covered with the novellas)

20. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet - Although I like both the "fornit" ideas and the mind-unraveling-descriptions, this one stays too damn long at the party, so to speak. I have the same problem with "Dedication," though I like this one a tad better than that one. My problem with it is essentially that I just can't buy the idea of any characters sticking around long enough to hear this tale go on and on and on, over what seems to be several hours. It works on the page (arguably) but not when you actually picture it. Of course, that may be just me; I'd have excused myself well-before-either-story finished, had it been me to whom the story was being relayed, in person. Anyone who inflict this on someone else - in real life - would be insufferable.
19. (tie) Paranoid: A Chant / For Owen - Meh. I'm just not into King's poetry, I guess. Not to say it's bad, I just don't connect with it.
18. Word Processor of the Gods - One that ends right when its writer has a hard (and compelling) choice to make. If this was a student's assignment, I'd give him/ her an extension to finish it up, because I like what is here. But (like "Everything's Eventual," come to think of it, though that gets continued in Dark Tower 7) it ejects before the mission is complete.
17. Here There Be Tygers - An interesting glimpse into King's early work.
16. The Raft - The characters are so despicable that it's difficult to do much besides root for their demise. Which, granted, we get. Satisfyingly.
15. The Monkey 
14. Cain Rose Up
13. Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1)
12. Big Wheels: Tales of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2) - That title is deliciously-awkward. I kind of love it. A harrowing account of an epic day of drinking, to say the least.
11. Gramma
10. The Wedding Gig - Absurdly touching, in spots.
9. The Jaunt - As King says, the sci-fi-aspect of this is "a little wonky," but it's told well/ has stuck with me.
8. The Reaper's Image - A slight entry, to be sure, but atmospheric, and I look forward to seeing what Mark Pavia is going to do with it.
7. Nona
6. The Reploids - Not, as aforementioned, from Skeleton Crew but from this time period. (Maybe I should've included among the next, actually... but whatever.) I include it here - and perhaps too high in the McRankings but so be it - because I just think it's a fun, weird tale. I think there may, someday, be more to the President Chadbourne tale.
5. The Reach
4. Mrs. Todd's Shortcut - A personal-favorite, though I can see how many would down-rank this one. But I love backroads and shortcuts and Mister Toad's Wild Ride, which I always think of (no accident, I'm sure) from the title.
3. Beachworld - What? I can hear people say. But I love this story! It "gives great atmosphere." This could easily fit into Weird Science or any Wally-Wood-illustrated old EC, to be sure.
2. Uncle Otto's Truck - I have some small experience with "backwater" Maine, and it comes to life so well here. It's tough to describe why I esteem it so highly, but it all just works for me.
1. Survivor Type - I don't think this is really one of King's best works (and I probably enjoy reading either of the last two stories more) but this tale of a shipwrecked-drug-addict-cannibalizing-himself is undeniably memorable and grisly fare. It's also deceptively well-written; King accomplishes much with little. (Sort of the opposite of #20.)

(1993)
Again, from Least-to-Most (and excluding "Head Down," obviously, as well as "Dolan's Cadillac," which will be covered with the novellas, and "The Beggar and the Diamond" which while great isn't an original work.)

20. Dedication - In addition to being structurally-unsound re: the one-character-telling-a-story-that-would-never-translate-to-"real time," this one is just gross. (I'd love to know who the "famous writer" he is ridiculing is, though!)
19. The Moving Finger - King tells this as well as anyone could tell a story about a guy menaced by the supremely-ridiculous image of a finger poking out of the drain. But it never overcomes that ridiculousness, for this reader anyway.
18. Brooklyn, August - See above re: poetry.
17. Sorry, Right Number 
16. It Grows On You
15. Suffer the Little Children
14. The Fifth Quarter - Though having just read The Dark Half, I have a new appreciation for this as a glimpse into the fiction of George Stark.
13. Popsy - How I wish this was a short film special feature on The Night Flier dvd!
12. (tie) House on Maple Street / Sneakers
11. Chattery Teeth - Okay, it may seem inconsistent to complain of the ridiculous-image of the moving finger and then rank a story about evil-chattery-teeth relatively-high, but the characterization, setting, and pacing of this one are top notch. (Though the last 7 paragraphs are unnecessary and, had I red-pen-privileges, I'd strike them.)
10. My Pretty Pony
9. You Know They've Got a Hell of a Band - If one can dismiss the awful TNT-series version, this story is actually pretty cool.
8. Crouch End - Ditto for excising the awful-TNT-series version from mind. Probably the best of King's Lovecraftian" works. Side-note: King should set another story in London. It's enjoyable to "see" it through his eyes.
7. The Doctor's Case - I'd love to see King try his hand at other established-characters. I'm a confirmed Sherlock Holmes addict as well as a King-addict, so this was crack-cocaine-on-the-page for me. And he pulls it off, too; most of those who try to pen a further-tale-of-Sherlock do not.
6. Umney's Last Case
5. The Ten O'Clock People
4. The End of the Whole Mess
3. Rainy Season
2. Home Delivery - I suspect I rank this (and "Rainy Season") higher than others, but... well, there it is. I just love them.
1. The Night Flier - I always thought Richard Dees got the short end of the stick in The Dead Zone, but his media-parasitic-nature is fleshed out much more, here. A side-note: I love when King writes about airplanes.

THE ROUND OF SIXTEEN

I'm of the opinion the stories in the next two collections, as works of short fiction/ literary construction, trump all that came before. True, some of the stories (especially in Night Shift) may have had a more-far-reaching effect on King's reputation, but the majority of them feel like (admittedly great) Twilight Zone episodes, or EC stories. All well and good, of course, (and who's to say such things shouldn't be evaluated as short stories and not as episodic-tv/ comic books?) but the stories from here on out feel like, well, more like short stories, i.e. examples-of-a-literary-tradition I'd evaluate alongside any other "master of short fiction." So, I'll save those for next time and evaluate them separately.

A judgment call? You betcha'. Nevertheless, let's make our Sweet Sixteen, here, and come up with a winner... (Further arbitrariness: I chose the top 6 from Night Shift and Nightmares and Dreamscapes and only the top 4 of Skeleton Crew, which I feel is the weakest story collection.)

Umney's Last Case vs. Quitter, Inc.: This is a tough call. I think I like Quitters more than Umney's, but Umney's is arguably the better story. WINNER: UMNEY'S

The Ten O'Clock People vs. Trucks: Another tough one. I'm going with Trucks, though, as I think Ten O'Clock People might benefit from another page or two to fully-wrap-itself-up. WINNER: TRUCKS

The End of the Whole Mess vs. Mrs. Todd's Shortcut: Whole Mess wins, here, simply for "scope." Perhaps not the fairest match-up; Mrs. Todd put up a spirited defense, nonetheless. WINNER: MESS

Strawberry Spring vs. Rainy Season: This is a match that definitely went through two overtimes and was decided only on penalties. WINNER: SPRINGHEEL JACK

Beachworld vs. One For the Road: I don't pretend to be making anything other than a personal-favorite choice, here. WINNER: ONE FOR THE DANG OL' ROAD (Beachworld's go-ahead goal was disallowed by the ref, who later admitted he didn't even see the play.)

Home Delivery vs. Uncle Otto's Truck: Another nail-biter! But, WINNER: HOME DELIVERY

Jerusalem's Lot vs. Survivor Type: Again, not the most evenly-balanced match-up. Jerusalem has different strengths than Survivor Type. But, them's the breaks. WINNER: JERUSALEM'S

The Night Flier vs. Children of the Corn: Another match decided on penalties. WINNER: OUTLANDERRRRRRRR! (I know, I know, that doesn't even appear in the story. But, come on.)

QUARTER-FINALS

Umney's Last Case vs. Trucks. Another tough call. Trucks fought valiantly, but Umney's prevailed with a late go-ahead goal. WINNER: UMNEY'S

The End of the Whole Mess vs. Strawberry Spring: Whole Mess once again benefited from a match-up that played to its strengths. It just has more "scope," which, in the end, proved too much for Springheel Jack's beleaguered-defenders. WINNER: MESS

One for the Road vs. Home Delivery: Even the personal-bias of the ref (who handed out three red cards to Home vs. barely-a-whistle-blow for Road) couldn't save the day for Booth and Tookey. WINNER: HOME DELIVERY

Jerusalem's Lot vs. Children of the Corn: Some say this was the Final that should have been. And a spirited match it was... But even with the power of Malachi on its side and the intimidating sideline presence of corn-husk crucifixions, Jerusalem's proved triumphant. WINNER: JERUSALEM'S

SEMI-FINALS

Umney's Last Case vs. Jerusalem's Lot: The power of colonial Maine invoking the unspeakable evil of Lovecraft finally ended Umney's World Cup dreams... WINNER: JERUSALEM'S

Home Delivery vs. The End of the Whole Mess: Zombies vs. allegorical-kill-em-with-kindness... A tough match ('one of the best in Dog Star Omnibus Fiesta Bowl history!' said some commentators) and both sides acquitted themselves with honor. But there can be only one! WINNER: HOME DELIVERY

THE FINAL

It's Jerusalem's Lot vs. Home Delivery! The Pain in Maine! The weighty-historical fiction vs. the little-story-that-could! On one side, you've got the power of Lovecraft; on the other, the power of Romero. And straddling both is "Big" Steve King, the man with the plan, the Bear in the Chair!! These two sides have given it all their all to get to this point... who will prevail? 

Bryan: It might be too much to continue this self-indulgent fake commentary, but it's kind of fun.
Bryan2: Self-indulgence is another word for enlightenment, Bryan! The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom!
Bryan: Both stories are undeniably good... no matter who wins, here, the real winner is the reader.
Bryan2: You're abso-fookin'-lutely right, Number-One. I haven't been this excited since Lionel Messi chipped it into the back of the net to break Gerd "the Hun" Muller's record for most goals in a calendar-year! Or since they got the TNG cast to appear on Family Guy!
Bryan: I prefer the original-cast's appearance on Futurama, to be honest, but -
Bryan2: NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU THINK, PLANT-POT!!
Bryan: But I-
Bryan2: It's time for you to meet your own George Stark on a hot-plate of fists-and-Jesus!

(sounds of scuffling.)

(Two forty-five minute halves later...)

THE WINNER IS... 

Jerusalem's Lot. (Pic taken from here)

NEXT:
Ranking Everything's Eventual and Just After Sunset, and crowning the All-Time King Short Fiction Champion!

8 comments:

  1. For the record, if anyone had told me I'd be choosing between "Jerusalem's" and "Home Delivery" for "best King short story" when I started this blog, I'd have said he/she was crazy. Well, maybe not crazy, but I'm as surprised at the progression of events as anyone. Like King says about the conclusion of his own stories, "that's just the way it ended up; it was news to me, too."

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  2. Just got part way through your post, so I may say more later. But in my humble opinion, Cain Rose Up is one of the finest pieces of short fiction King ever did -- with the emphasis being on short.

    No backstory. No motivation. No triggering event. Some dude just starts opening fire from the window of his dormitory. As King got older, his "short" fiction got a LOT longer. This one was so powerful because it gave you the creeps in just a few pages.

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    1. Cain Rose Up is an early story. You can feel King still learning his craft. It's a young man's story, i.e. "guy starts killing people for no reason" (like you mention) story. As he went along, his fiction got a more nuanced, literary, and well-constructed.

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    2. Not that I'm quibbling - I DO like it. I imagine most people's lists will look different than one another. Just explaining why "CRU" is where it's at on mine.

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  3. I thought Nightmares and Dreamscapes was his least worthy collection of short stories. But there were a few gems.

    I agree with your rankings for the most part. But I hold the TV versions of ...Hell of a Band and Crouch End in higher regard. I reviewed the entire series on my blog and thought each episode got good screen treatment.

    More later.

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  4. Thank you for linking back to my site! I'm going to have to do new illustration for that story someday.

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    1. My pleasure - amazing illustration, well done!

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  5. I just finished rereading "Jerusalem's Lot" and thought I remembered it faring pretty well in these rankings. So I popped over to find out, and now I'm leaving a comment to prove I done it!

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