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Reviewing "Battleground," "The Ledge" and More from Stephen King (NIGHT SHIFT, Part 2)

Welcome back to Drunk on Writing, and the sixth episode of the special Stephen King Series of Dissections. Today, we’re continuing our look at Night Shift, covering the stories from “Gray Matter” to “The Ledge” along with any adaptations I feel are worth a mention.



Gray Matter


“Gray Matter” comes off as a pretty straightforward little tale that first showed up in the October 1973 issue of Cavalier but, and perhaps I’m completely off-base on this and, like in my Dissection of The Shining, my personal life is coloring my interpretations of the story and I’ll get some more flak from you die-hard fans out there, I think “Gray Matter” is about the horror of alcoholism.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch, really, and I’m doubtless not the first one to make the connection. After all, “Gray Matter” includes more than a few sentences’ worth of commentary about drinking and overdrinking—I mean, the kid goes and buys the beer for his dad… who, throughout the course of the story, becomes an increasingly more disgusting fungal slug of a man.

I mean, that’s totally a metaphor, right? Right?

This one’s had a number of adaptations, including a 2017 take from Red Clark, which had its first trailer about four years back. This one stood out to me because that trailer makes the “It feels kind of nice” line soooooo extra creepy, way creepier than I ever imagined it’d be. I didn’t get to watch the full vid, which looks to add quite a bit to the tale, but if it’s anywhere near as creeptastic as that tease, I bet it’s pretty good.

There’s another from 2017, written and directed by Bobby McGruther and which oddly changes the a in Gray to an e, which I did get to watch, and you can watch that one on YouTube, too. It’s not quite a Hollywood take, but it straight-up takes the lines, the cues, the pacing right from the story, making it dang faithful despite being very much an amateurish film with an obviously low budget.

Though the faithfulness, which makes the three duffers as they go by seem really talkative, made me wonder—how exactly did the kid tell the bar owner so much with so much detail in such a short amount of time? When I’m panicked, I can barely get a sentence out, but he manage to give a whole timeline of the shenanigans? I don’t know about that.

But I want to give this adaptation extra props because it includes the little encounter with Blind Eddie. God, I loved Blind Eddie—who was just there for all of two paragraphs in the story. Why wasn’t there more Blind Eddie? Why is he blind? Where’s his story? Answer me these things, Stephen King.

But until we get his full tale—and maybe we already have and I just haven’t gotten there yet?—Blind Eddie leads us to this fantastic quote after he blatantly steals some bread and a customer asks the owner why he lets it happen.

"'I'll tell you,' Henry said. 'A few years back the Air Force wanted twenty million dollars to rig up a flyin' model of an airplane they had planned out. Well, it cost them seventy-five million and then the damn thing wouldn't fly. That happened ten years ago, when blind Eddie and myself were considerable younger, and I voted for the woman who sponsored that bill. Blind Eddie voted against her. And since then I've been buyin' his bread.'"

Imagine the world we’d live in if people actually admitted they were wrong like this? Wow.

Battleground


All I could say after finishing “Battleground,” originally published in the September 1972 issue of Cavalier, was DAAAAAAAMMMMMNNN. Because that ending! Agh, it was soooo gooooood. I seriously raced online to find out if it’d ever been adapted, and thankfully, it had! And the adaptation was everything I hoped it would be.

But first, let me just say I’m a sucker for this kind of story. I loved Small Soldiers as a kid, had a bunch of figures from it along with what I called “Little Dudes”—these little miniature figures. Had a whole playset—still think there’s a shelf of them hanging at my parents’ house, actually.

And I not only had the bucket of Army Men, I bought every single videogame in that series—I still remember the end of the first game, which is meant to be all “realistic” warfare, but at the end you go through this portal and your Army Man is suddenly in the real world—our world. And it blew. My. Mind!

And this story, this was that! And not only was it Army Men in the real world, doing what Army Men are designed to do, it was Army Men versus a professional hit-man! And who cares if the story treads a little too closely to “The Ledge”—if they attacked him out on the ledge, it might’ve been too much, but even when they do in the adaptation, which opened the 2006 TNT anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King, it works perfectly.

I mean, I smiled nonstop while watching this. William Hurt is amazing in it, and he doesn’t even say a word. It’s completely free of dialogue. All we get are screams, grunts, howls and the occasional subtitle and handwritten note.

Now, going in, I was a little worried about the hour-long runtime, but I didn’t need to be. It’s filled to the brim with grim fun, and the effects work is exquisite, using green screen shots and miniatures to bring the Army Men to life. If you haven’t seen this, please, do yourself a favor and find it and watch it. It is simply brilliant.

And it wasn’t even the only great adaptation of this story! There was also an animated version, Srazhenie—hopefully I pronounced that at least close to right—made by the Soviet Kievnauchfilm studio in 1986 and directed by Mikhail Titov.

You can see the Russian influence in this one, as the toys aren’t little green men but what look to be almost little astronauts, and they even use a laser satellite at one point.

Again, it’s so well done, and at just ten minutes or so, you really need to watch it. It’s very noir, looks hand-drawn with some rotoscoping for extra effect—sort of like something out of Heavy Metal, and the soundtrack, the use of trumpets and sax, is superb.

I know I was really pumped throughout this whole section, so let me just take a quick, heavy breath.

Man, I really enjoyed this one. But I guess we’ve got to move on to…

Trucks


I started reading “Trucks,” which first appeared in the June 1973 issue of Cavalier, without any idea what it was about. I’d seen the poster for Maximum Overdrive most of my life, for sure, but that was about it.

So, I’m reading this story, which is, of course, about trucks and buses and whatnot coming to life, and my almost immediate thought was, wait for them to run out of gas. Duh. Sure, I bet a ton of people would be slaughtered before that—and the story kind of addresses that, with the narrator considering double decker New York buses, like those red boys that rip tourists off every day of the year, one of those rolling down sidewalks—but, just like a zombie apocalypse, you pretty much just have to wait for them to starve, right?

Well, King was of course ahead of me, and the story gets there about halfway through, pivoting the whole tale from a case of survival horror to one of… indentured servitude? Though I’ve got to say, the trucks have to figure out how to keep their slaves in better health if they’re going to make it long-term. One of those blisters gets infected? Heck, there might not be a doctor around to save them.

And let’s not even worry about how trucks know Morse code. I don’t know Morse code. Do you know Morse code? It seems someone in every movie and story knows it.

Maybe the trucks were in the boy scouts.

I finally watched Maximum Overdrive after I read the story, and I was pretty amazed to find out it was not just written by Stephen King, but also directed by him—the only thing he’s ever directed actually. He said in an interview when, ironically, talking about the Under the Dome television series, that Maximum Overdrive was the worst adaptation of his work.

Now, I don’t agree with that. I actually found Maximum Overdrive pretty enjoyable. Sort of in the same way people find the Transformers series fun, I think. I mean, it’s not Casablanca, but that’s perfectly fine!

And sure, it has its issues—the whole comet thing never needed to be said or shown, the green “tail” was just horribly rendered, and the opening and closing text wasn’t needed either—but that should never be used unless you’re Star Wars and even there it’s overstayed it’s welcome.

And the acting wasn’t so great and the rocket launcher was one heck of a get-out-of-jail-free card…



But the opening scene was great! The ATM calling Stephen King, in what I believe was an uncredited cameo, an asshole while the temperature thing above swears at the viewer. That was brilliant. And the kid, Deke, he was badass. And just watching the trucks absolutely wreck the truck stop was fun to watch.

But how the hell did they get permission to use the Green Goblin in this?

And for all of you who want to pan Maximum Overdrive, I have one question for you. Have you seen the 1997 adaptation of this story? Trucks? Directed by Chris Thomson? It was made-for-TV, and probably had next-to-no budget, but, well, let me just say, the only good thing about it was the remote-control dump-truck scene.

I couldn’t help thinking about the truck my son plays with, which he, for no apparent reason, calls “The Bad Truck.” He can’t tell us why. And now it kind of creeps me out.

One final pair of questions for you before we move on: given we’re starting to let vehicles drive themselves… is the world of “Trucks” in our future?

And was this, or the original story, the inspiration for Disney Pixar’s Cars?

Sometimes They Come Back


So I really enjoyed “Sometimes They Come Back,” originally published in the March 1974 issue of Cavalier, but it also really annoyed me. Why? Because it takes place in part in Stratford, Connecticut—my neighboring town—and you know what’s right next to Stratford, Connecticut? Milford, Connecticut!

So why, exactly, does the main character, who grew up in Stratford, have no clue what the characters in this story mean when they say they’re from Milford High? And worse, it isn’t just him. He asks a Stratford cop about a Milford High School, and what does the cop say?

“Only thing name of Milford around here is Milford Cemetery out on the Ash Heights Road.”

Milford High School was a school back then. In the next town over. The building’s still there—I was just in it the other night!

Which brings me to my point here: why use a real location like Stratford, and even Bridgeport, and real streets like Barnum Ave. and Broad St., but then ignore that Milford exists? And hinge the whole reveal on the idea the only thing around here is Milford Cemetery? You couldn’t pick another name? Something no one’s ever heard of? Especially something no one familiar with Stratford would ever most definitely know about it?

So, yeah, I was annoyed, but I still liked the story, the way this childhood nightmare was coming back to haunt the main character….

Well… you know, I liked it until the story did what a growing number of King stories do and went in a really weird direction for the ending.

I mean, it gets dark. If you’ve read it, you know. The main guy, Jim, he kills an alley cat for its blood. He cuts off both of his index fingers. He draws a pentagram on the school floor and makes a deal with the devil.

What. The. Actual. Hell.

And I’m not saying it doesn’t work. It does, barely, but it’s just so… sudden. I mean, looking back at “The Mangler,” the idea of possession and exorcism was a slow build, but here, it’s just—he happens to be reading this book and then boom, it Let’s Make a Deal time.

The adaptation, which was a 1991 made-for-TV film directed by Tom McLoughlin and originally meant for another Cat’s Eye segment, manages a better ending. In fact, I’d put the whole thing above the short story. For a number of reasons, though it has its problems as well.

For one, the older brother Wayne’s death was handled better I think, making it less an honest-to-God murder and more something of an unintentional accident. It’s more in-keeping with high schoolers I think, even high schoolers back then.

And the film also was able to give a face and personality to the first two unfortunate victims of the story, Billy and Katie, who are basically nothing more than names in King’s brief tale, as is sometimes the case with short stories.

And my favorite part of the adaptation? They put the death of the three bullies on the main character. He took their key! That is so baller—he grabbed that thing so quick they never stood a chance against that train. No wonder they came back for revenge. An odd 27 years later, but who am I to judge how time works in the afterlife?

So, problems with the movie: They gave him a kid with no real purpose, probably just because of the lead’s age. And the moment the kid showed on-screen I said to myself, yup, he’s going to be problematic—a liability.

And the fourth bully, the one that didn’t die, he drops this line toward the film’s end, this blop of knowledge: “For every life they take,” he says, “another can come back.”

Is that how it works? Then why were the ones who can come back always there before anyone was murdered? Does the then come before the if in this universe?

Whatever, the movie clearly did well enough because it got two straight-to-video sequels, Sometimes They Come Back... Again in 1996 and Sometimes They Come Back... for More in 1998.

We’re not gonna touch on those, but what would the next one be? Sometimes They Come Back… Because They Know What You Did Last Summer?

Strawberry Spring


I’d never heard of a strawberry spring before reading this. Being a New Englander, if it’s a real term, you figure I’d know it. But it’s a good phrase, nonetheless. It should be a thing. And if we go by the definition King gives us through one of the characters, I think we just had one.

“’Strawberry spring is like Indian summer… only much more rare. You get a good Indian summer in this part of the country once every two or three years. A spell of weather like we've been having is supposed to come only every eight or ten. It's a false spring, a lying spring, like Indian summer is a false summer. My own grandmother used to say strawberry spring means the worst norther of the winter is still on the way -- and the longer this lasts, the harder the storm.’”

You know, it’s interesting, the effects weather has on people. You always hear comments like ‘Oh, it must be a full moon’ or ‘My hip’s hurting, must be about to rain.’ So, could a strawberry spring like this, one that brings fog, sunny days and melting snow cause someone to lose it? Sure, why not. Crazier things have happened. Just look at who our president is.

But this story, which I should say was originally released in the Fall 1968 issue of Ubris, didn’t really do it for me. It’s got all the detailed touches of any great King story, a nice build, good mood setting, but the twist? Not so much a twist. I called it the moment the narrator met that first cop.

And it was especially transparent after he went out walking in the fog and couldn’t really make out any of the faces around him. Oh, he was losing it, alright.

Now, this one hasn’t had a film or TV adaptation, but a Dollar Baby short was directed by Doveed Linder. It’s not the best of the Dollar Babies that I’ve seen, but I say that mostly because it relies far too heavily on a voiceover rather than visuals to tell the story. I mean, you don’t need to read the story to viewers. Then your movie is just an animated picture book.

And I checked a number of other student versions, and they all do the same, which is unfortunate, but they really made me wonder… why hasn’t this been made into a film? Or at the least an episode of some anthology TV show? Surely someone could nail this without the need for an overbearing narration?


The Ledge


This one, which first appeared in the July 1976 issue of Penthouse, just didn’t do it for me. At all. For such a suspenseful situation—I mean, the guy’s walking on a five-inch rail around a building some forty stories up, and who knows if he’ll even be able to live if he makes it around—for all of that, I never really felt a sense of, well, suspense.

Maybe it was the framing of the story, the way so many plot threads seemed left dangling as the main character lowered himself from the balcony—it just doesn’t seem very King-esque not to close them, or even to have the character fall off, tumble to his death, and think back on how he should’ve done it differently. Another author, sure. King, no, that’s not quite how he rolls.

I did like the ending, though. What man who’s ever been in love wouldn’t appreciate sending that bastard out on the ledge? Sending him to get pecked by that pigeon, to get whipped by that wind, to piss himself on the opposite balcony? That’s pure vendetta right there, I tell you what.

And the ending played just as nicely in the adaptation, which was the second part of the 1985 anthology film Cats Eye and starred Robert Hays, best known for his role in Airplane! In fact, I think the ending might have been a little better in the film because it gives us a definitive conclusion. You don’t mess with pigeons, man.

Seriously, though. That pigeon? Wow. Like I said with “Graveyard Shift,” it’s impressive what people can get animals to do. And that whole scene made me squirm like nothing else. The way it just… pecked. Peck peck peck peck and I could almost feel it in my foot, that peck peck peck. You best believe I cheered when that pigeon got kicked to high heaven.

Of course, the adaptation seemed to up the stakes a bit for our ledge-walker. I mean, he got sprayed him with a hose. Forty stories up, and he got sprayed with a hose. And then the millionaire had the wife’s head in a bag. His wife’s head in a bag. What a nutcase that guy is.

Oh, and did you catch that Penthouse cameo? Not sure if it was the same issue “The Ledge” originally appeared in, but—way to bring it around, guys.

Next time: Finishing up Night Shift.


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