I’ve a tendency to relate my life through the popular arts. Given the movies, music, and books I’ve done over the years, it’s easy to do. Blame the gift of memory I inherited from Mom. Call it a curse. How it feels sometimes. Because I tend to notice connections or coincidences, a reaction of some sort was inevitable. Keeps me writing, if anything. Building toward something. A revelation, maybe. Therapy for sure. I don’t know, but I continue to reflect.
Sticking with the theme I’ve going for October and the Halloween season, found myself on an unexpected course. Revisiting some works by a favorite author. One tiny tale of his, read only once, holds an out of nowhere parallel. Also connected with the novelist’s most consistent film collaborator. I’ve held that one short story, which bookended a startling compilation, at bay for a long time. Till now. Out the month before life, as I knew it, changed. It has rippled through time to this day.
1978 was pivotal. For some, more than others. In the case of author Stephen King, he’d have two unique works of fiction published that year, both for Doubleday. Each left their marks, like the Devil, as some would say. The latter, published in September, a gargantuan1 tome, which brought King further popularity and acclaim among his fans. The Stand carries a personal distinction with me, and tends to overshadow the former, unfortunately. It shouldn’t. For his short story collection, Night Shift, released earlier in February, was figuratively the horse of a different color.
Only one has sat on my bookshelf to this day.
Back then, a proud member of both the Book of the Month Club and it’s competitor, The Literary Guild, was I. The last mentioned supplied me both works. No doubt, influenced early on by living in the same house as my mom’s younger brother. A longstanding BOMC member who lent his sister and I plenty of reading material.
Doubleday’s Literary Guild versions somewhat notorious with their editions, as noted by Craig Stark of Book Think:
“Doubleday entered the book club game shortly after the BOMC, and their initial (and indeed longstanding) competitive strategy was to offer books at lower prices – accomplished by sacrificing quality. Most LG books are significantly lighter and smaller than trade editions, not to mention printed on inferior paper, sometimes with significant acid content.”
Even The Literary Guild’s book covers sometimes differed. This one being the decidedly creepier variant (imaged from an SK story), which clinged to mine like the bandage depicted. Certainly, disturbed more than the above bland original ever could:
Stephen King, nowadays known for his voluminous novels (The Stand, It, 11/22/63, Under the Dome), may well be a better short story writer than given credit. So glad many continue to uncover treasures buried in early and later collections. Night Shift a spearhead landing near the end of a turbulent era. Enough that publishers happily promoted more in shorter tales from Maine’s prolific wordsmith. Paid back in spades with the popularity of Different Seasons, Skeleton Crew, Four Past Midnight, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes (will get to Full Dark, No Stars soon) in the coming decades.
The new tack blazed by the digest’s stack of bizarre, eerie, and surprisingly touching tales within. Good that friends and blogging colleagues continue to bring the dark compendium to light. Recently, Jonathan Robbins from RobbinsRealm Blog, posted a wonderful article on Strawberry Spring from King’s Night Shift Collection. Author Joe Maddrey in 2012 wrote a fine blog post on the collection in general, and specifically on the story Graveyard Shift, covering TV and film adaptations sprung from it. Noting how much they captured ideas, which later…
“…proved to be the seeds of his more famous novels. “Jerusalem’s Lot,” written in 1967 as a college term paper, eventually became Salem’s Lot. “Night Surf,” first published in 1974, reads like a prologue to The Stand. “The Boogeyman,” first published in 1973, is the forerunner of It. In comparison, several of the other stories in this collection evolved (or devolved) into films.”
Even observing writer-director Frank Darabont started his career with another short story from that book.
“At this point, many of the Night Shift stories have been faithfully adapted into independent short films. The trend started in the early 80s, when “The Boogeyman” (an effectively moody adaptation by director Jeff Schiro) and “The Woman in the Room” (an early effort by Frank Darabont, who would become one of King’s most successful collaborators) were paired together in a video release called STEPHEN KING’S NIGHT SHIFT COLLECTION (1989). “The Ledge” and “Quitters, Inc.” were combined with a third story for Lewis Teague’s anthology film CAT’S EYE (1985).”
The Woman in the Room
As Jonathan noted in his post, “Four other stories: “Jerusalem’s Lot,” “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” “The Woman in the Room,” and “Quitters, Inc.” were previously unpublished works.” The first, “Jerusalem’s Lot”, led off Night Shift and set the nerves just so. Readying the reader for what was to come. “Quitters, Inc.” a modern urban nightmare two-thirds of the way through the book, and of the darkly human variety. However, it’s the middle two, “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” and specifically, “The Woman in the Room,” that offered mortal torments without need of the supernatural.
Sadness, like death, focuses the mind like nobody’s business.
Random House came out with an unabridged audiobook in 2005, wonderfully narrated by John Glover. However, it would jumble the story order and ignore Night Shift‘s original sequence of stories.
Since it first scored me, I’ve wondered whether it was the publisher or the author who placed “The Woman in the Room” at the tail end of Night Shift. Given its contents — from freakish rats infesting a textile mill, a killer industrial laundry press machine, to the Bogeyman himself — culminating with something like this was bound to leave the reader in a state. Dumbfounded (in a good way), or horribly disappointed. The latter feeling gypped2, while the former amazed the maestro of horror could do the same with the real life variety. The story bares that out.
The burdened narrator telling the tale, John, is the loving (surely less wouldn’t be there at all) son dealing with his mother’s terminal illness. We learn of the severe pain issues her stalwart companion, cancer, bring them both. She, the woman in the room. As author Steven Hart noted, SK writes character studies. Within a short few paragraphs, King’s story becomes crystal clear. Familiar even, especially for anyone dying in America. Centering on John’s internal dialogue in making the difficult choices many of us will have to decide at some point or another.
For others, or for ourselves.
His mother admitted to relieve her suffering. Having a procedure John identifies as a ‘cordotomy’3, where a needle is placed into a localized pain center in the spine so that it is “blown out”. Granted, this was penned during the 70s, and the terms and descriptions King used were of the pre-Palliative Care variety we live with (there’s irony for you) today. The protagonist having found a bottle of “Darvon Complex”(AKA propoxyphene with aspirin) in his mother’s medicine cabinet. Bitterly contemplating now if he can, or should, end her misery on his own.
As usual, SK wrote it in that exceptional way of his. Placing the reader right there, in that distinct setting. Reliving for those of us who’ve been there. Almost smelling the mix of disinfectant and death coating the linoleum, its pervasive sequela, once more as we followed along. While more good comes out of modern medicine, it is the bad outcomes we most remember, isn’t it? King nails all its conditions and signs most adroitly here. Moreover, sizing up the emotional baggage we carry into them even more clearly than in his prose. Especially telling in this passage:
“Perhaps it is his fault anyway. He is the only child to have been nurtured inside her, a change of life baby. His brother was adopted when another smiling doctor told her she would never have any children of her own. And of course, the cancer now in her began in the womb like a second child, his own darker twin. His life and her death began in the same place: Should he not do what the other is doing already, so slowly and clumsily?”
Re-reading this, I subsequently discovered The Woman in the Room echoed more beyond its pages than I’d thought.
Stephen King likely lifted from his own experience as he crafted the sorrowful tale. He, too, has only one brother, adopted. His dad left his mother to raise him and his older brother, David, by herself, sometimes under great financial strain4. His mother, Nellie Ruth, died from uterine cancer in 1974. It’s said the author’s well-known drinking problems stemmed from the time of her death. Paralleling John’s proclivity in the story. Perhaps why the writing rings so poignantly personal at times. Not so strangely, it’s the same way the author has connected with his readers through the years.
Outside of staggering them with horrific situations, that is.
Short Film Adaptation
The short is available on YouTube.
As cited a short while back, Frank Darabont began his writing-directing career with this Stephen King work. Darabont sent King a query letter in 1980 asking for permission for him to adapt the short story into a film. King agreed because he thought students taking short stories and adapting them into films was a good idea.4 I guess, “From little things big things grow.” He got a lot of them right with this, but whoever created the front cover of its VHS tape surely hadn’t read the story. How they came to represent the woman, now melded-in-a-door, with this graphic I’ll never know.
I’ll quote from last year’s’ fine blog post review at over The Bloody Pulpit for this:
“Not only is Woman the first of many adaptations of writer Stephen King’s work the director would become best known for, but it also sets down the familiar tone for much of his later films. It’s very sensitive and emotional, deals strongly with moral issues and even has scenes set at a prison.”
Though a low-budget production, Darabont provided a solid basis for the short story. Michael Cornelison as John portrayed him fairly well, but the performance by Dee Croxton (The Green Mile), as the woman in the room, really hit home. Uncomfortably so via the frailty and manner she evoked. Interesting to recognize an early Brian Libby (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) in this. He there solely as an add-on by the budding writer-director. The short film a better than average precursor, if a bit dramatized, for the visualizations he’d depict more credibly and cinematically in later Stephen King adaptations. As well for his own contributions to each5.
Still, why does this one short story by the novelist stick with me all these years later, you ask?
If I’d have opened the book in the second month of ’78, may have been among those let down with the twentieth tale in Night Shift. Will never know as I, looking for a needed distraction by that Spring, read it on the other side of the divide. When its effect by then was a gut punch. After my mother had joined King’s a mere four years later.
Eerily retracing a similarly heartbreaking course of events within weeks of it.
Except I wasn’t there to give mine a similar send-off. Not there at all, in fact. Just home waiting for the word. Mistakenly inuring myself to start the process of arranging a burial. Even if the attempt by some means got the job done, it’s the wound that never really heals. The Woman in the Room another of those I painfully relate to (as I’ve done before).
The reason Stephen King’s first published short story collection was given away long ago — its final page a bit tear-stained.
- “I’ve always liked that word… “gargantuan”… so rarely have an opportunity to use it in a sentence.” ~ Elle Driver, Kill Bill Vol. 2 ↩
- A negative term I learned, care of my wonderful wife, to stop using. ↩
- Cordotomy (or chordotomy) a surgical procedure to disable selected pain-conducting tracts in the spinal cord, in order to achieve loss of pain and temperature perception. While effective in the relief of pain, the effect is usually temporary. ↩
- Wikipedia ↩ ↩
- His aria sequence representing his best from The Shawshank Redemption, his ending for The Mist his worst, in my opinion. The changes to The Green Mile somewhere in-between. ↩