"Children of the Corn" vs. "The Lawnmower Man" and More (Night Shift, Part 3)

Welcome back to Drunk on Writing, and the seventh episode of the Stephen King Dissections. Today, we’re finishing up Night Shift by taking looks at everything from “The Lawnmower Man” to “The Woman in the Room” plus their worthwhile adaptations.

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The Lawnmower Man

I loved the 1992 The Lawnmower Man probably far more than it deserved. And while I haven’t seen it in a while, I still have fond memories of its horrible CG.

So, when I went to read this short story, first released in the May 1975 issue of Cavalier, I figured I’d get some sort of sweet sci-fi… but, news to me, the movie apparently pulled a Blade Runner and only used King’s title.

Which means, instead of a virtual reality cyber god and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan, I got an overweight, naked nymph with green pubic hair who operated a self-driving lawnmower.

That was… quite a surprise. Not a bad one, per say, just… the story wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Though I guess no one probably expects to read about a nude man eating grass clippings and shredded mole guts.

Funny enough, there was a true adaptation of “The Lawnmower Man” as part of the Dollar Baby shorts, produced and directed by James Gonis and released in 1987. I got to watch this one, and despite its amateur status, it was pretty brilliant. Particularly because the dude playing the lawnmower man is committed to the role.

And while the film’s nothing to really write home about, it had one of those shots that’s just perfect, one it really should’ve ended on, where two cops are hanging at the edge of the lawn, and in the foreground is the birdbath with blood dripping on it because that’s, of course, where the owner’s body is. And the cops just comment on how great the grass looks and wish theirs could look that good.


Quitters, Inc.

What a creepy story this was, and not because it deals with any of the horror story regulars—it’s creepy because it preys on our own frights and insecurities as normal, everyday citizens. The fear of being watched in our most private moments. The fear of letting down a loved one, of doing something that will lead to their suffering.

“Quitters, Inc.” is another one previously unpublished, but man, is it good. I thought at first it was all scare tactics, them just messing with the main character’s mind. Until that snuck cigarette in the traffic jam and his wife’s little electrocution. They really weren’t playing.

As they weren’t about the pinkie.

And imagine if it were a real thing? I mean, it could be in a sick way, couldn’t it? And it would work. It would definitely work. And if it didn’t? Well, as the story says, even the unregenerate two per cent never smoke again.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this one, and I loved the adaptation, which opened that 1985 Cats Eye with James Woods in the lead role. This whole short runs around 30 minutes or so, and is just chock full of looney awesomeness, from the way Denati crushes the cigarettes to the way he so casually notes they’ll rape Dick’s wife if he relapses too many times.

And the hallucinations in the party scene? I laughed out loud. Eyes in the walls, eyes on the platter, the little kids smoking, the guy he’s talking with getting increasingly demented looking—my God, was that brilliant. And completely original to the adaptation, which is otherwise pretty dang faithful.

Actually… I think, other than “Battleground," this might be my favorite adaptation to this point. I kind of want to go watch it again. Maybe I will.

I Know What You Need

There’s a lot going on in “I Know What You Need,” first published in the September 1976 issue of Cosmopolitan. First, I should mention the inclusion of the Bluebeard story, which of course we heard in full in The Shining—Jack reads it to Danny, even though it’s not quite an appropriate bedtime tale.

Second, for the most part, this is a story all us hopeful romantics can probably relate to in one way or another, and mostly reads almost like a short Nicholas Sparks novel. A boy who falls in love with a girl way back in grammar school meets her again in college and, after her boyfriend tragically dies, he helps console her and they fall in love. It’s bittersweet. It’s romantic.

To her, he’s someone who came into her life at just the right moment, someone who made an instant impression on her. It’s a common trope, but it’s a true one. I’ve had people like that, who made me wonder how I’d ever existed before them or how I could ever exist if they left. And they always leave.

Which is good for us. Because, and this is actually a great quote from this story, when those pixie-likes come into our lives, we’re “trying blindly and jealously to hold on to something that [is] easy rather than good.” Much as we want them to stay, we need them to leave.

Except in this case, he doesn’t want to leave. He wants to hang on to Elizabeth, sometimes Liz, sometimes Beth, as long as he can. And then it gets really creepy. And reminiscent, to me, of an X-Men plotline I’d read, one where—and I’m gonna get downright comic nerdy for a second—the telepathic former White Queen Emma Frost gets in Scott Summer’s head—that’d be Cyclop’s head for those following along—and seems to make him fall in love with her.

Now I don’t know if that was ever explicitly stated, or retconned or whatnot—it probably was—but I remember that pretty clearly and it’s been years since I’ve read X-Men, so it definitely left its mark on me. But another story quite similar to this one, one you’re probably far more likely to know? The story of Jessica Jones.

As “I Know What You Need”’s Alice, that is, Elizabeth’s roommate, as she says, “He's made you love him by knowing every secret thing you want and need, and that's not love at all. That's rape.

That might be why this hasn’t been adapted into anything other than a few Dollar Babies and student films, but I think it could really work today, not in spite of, but because of the current political trends. I know I’d watch it, and grin maddeningly as Elizabeth takes all that guy’s power away and washes her hands of him.

Children of the Corn

My takeaway from “Children of the Corn,” originally published in the March 1977 issue of Penthouse: if you find yourself driving through what looks to be an abandoned town and your wife says “let’s keep going,” listen to your wife!

But seriously, I think “Children of the Corn” is the most horrific piece I’ve read of King’s to this point. Little kids turning into murderers, sacrificing each other once they turn 19, building this cult all around growing and feeding corn? Terrifying.

The story loses its wind a bit once the more supernatural elements of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” are revealed toward the end, but the narrative shift helps, and everything to that point—the kid at the start, Vicky’s death, the dude running through the corn, feeling helpless but desperate—is brilliantly creepy.

It also calls to mind a few other stories from this collection. Like when they head into the bar and see it’s ransacked and the mirror’s broken—just like the main character from “Jerusalem’s Lot” expected that town to be if kids had gotten to it. The focus on the church also was a bit of a call-back to that one, and when the lead notes he quit smoking—well, I couldn’t help wondering if “Quitters, Inc.” helped him out there.

Now, there’ve been a few adaptations of “Children of the Corn,” and cool enough, I think I might’ve seen them all. First there was the 1983 Dollar Baby short film, “Disciples of the Crow.” This has a more open ending than the story and the other adaptations—as a whole, the film skips over most of the reasoning and conclusions—but it did provide a nice template for the 1984 Children of the Corn, directed by Fritz Kiersch, which spawned a whole franchise. I’d never seen it before, but I’m glad I finally did, mostly because I now know where that whole “Outlander! We have your woman, outlander!” came from. I always thought it was a Mad Max reference.

But what a movie—from that horrific opening scene in the diner to the Enigma-like soundtrack of a kid’s choir to the creepy Malachi and Isaac played by equally creepy looking actors, the bulk of it is actually pretty enjoyable. And pretty funny, to boot.

We just need to not talk about those horrible He Who Walks Behind the Rows special effects that look like afterglow on a sped up thunderhead. Or that corn zombie Isaac.

And, finally, there was a 2009 made-for-TV film that was much more true to the story. Which you’d think would be a good thing, except for the fact it drags on a little too much and the woman comes off as such a piece of work.

I appreciated this version, though, because it not only recreated the short story, it recreated some of the better parts of the 1984 film and then went further and did its own thing, too, like that knife throw—that was something—and the husband being such a badass. A cornfield John McClane, complete with catchphrases. And this movie actually got me to care for Malachi. Malachi, who was just a dingus in the original.

This one got me with all the small touches, too, like the muddy street, the recreated diner, and even the “Got any change?” to the “All the money in Nebraska” payoff. Plus, the Vietnam hallucination at the end. All that was great, and if they’d shortened this, and maybe taken out that gratuitous sex scene—excuse me, “fertilization” scene—I think it would’ve been the best take the three.

Given this was originally made-for-TV, maybe it was the best take when it originally aired, and this version I watched—the unrated and uncut—was just the cash-grab version?

The Last Rung on the Ladder

“The Last Rung on the Ladder,” which wasn’t released before this collection, is most remarkable to me because it’s the only story in this whole book that made me cry. In fact, after finishing it, I had to stop reading for a bit, go take a walk, and then come get my thoughts down before doing anything else.

It was a culmination of a number of things, I think. Namely, it stirred up a lot of memories, of people I’ve known, people I’ve loved, people I’ve lost. People who, like the kid, like the man in this story, concentrated on their work, their career rather than the people who loved them, who depended on them.

It didn’t help that King just kept ratcheting that tension right from the first paragraph, making me want to know what the Barn Incident was, what Kitty wrote in the letter.

I kept waiting, kept thinking, “Surely she’s going to fall. She’s going to get hurt.”

Then she fell, she broke an ankle and he got a whooping, but I thought—that’s not so bad. What’s the big deal? But then Kitty looked at her brother after she fell and said to him, “'I knew you must have been doing something to fix it,' she said. 'You're my big brother. I knew you'd take care of me.'"

And then… the point of the story. He doesn’t. Because, right when I think that was the end of the barn incident, we get:

It was the end, but somehow not the end. Somehow it never ended until nine days ago, when Kitty jumped from the top storey of an insurance building in Los Angeles.

And what gets me is here is that Kitty tried. She tried reaching out for help. She tried to get in touch with him, but he just stopped caring. And I guess sometimes that happens, sometimes you just can’t care for everyone. But if you say you love someone, if you say you care, be there when a person needs you.

You might be all that’s keeping them from swanning off a building.

The Man Who Loved Flowers

I love this story. Published originally in the August 1977 issue of Gallery, it features everything I want from a short, and it does it in a scant number of pages. It takes a thing I know well—in this case, the lovesick male and the look you see on his face. Yes, I’ve definitely had that look on me at one point or another. And I could practically hear some sort of holly jolly 50s tune, maybe something by The Four Seasons or something, a tune like that playing in my head as I read through this.

And then King does what every short story writer must—he shatters my expectations! With just the slightest drop of foreshadowing, a scant one-liner I registered but didn’t even think about. Obviously, despite not being exactly perfect—the flow of time was a little weird, and the overall atmosphere felt a little too Pleasantville for its own good—I was instantly excited to see an adapted version of this tale.

And boy, I wasn’t let down. A 2012 short film version by Christopher Harrison has the absolutely perfect, bubbly soundtrack, exactly what I wanted and expected—which makes it unfortunate when a few odd liberties are taken to tie the story to The Dark Tower.

But liberties are the things that make or break film students I reckon. Because another adaptation, this one from 2013 from Leen Thevarajah, includes a whole bunch of backstory about who can only be Norma—a super cute Norma played by Michelle Crane at that. Though the film never goes that extra step to give the why, the reasoning for the killing.

Oh, and it seems there’s also a 2015 Dollar Baby short from writer/director Justin Zimmerman. Like the other Dollar Babies, it’s not online, but you can go check out the trailer… which is basically the movie. Far as I can tell. Maybe that was just a way around the posting requirement? But that doesn’t do anything terribly special in the little bit I saw, and I honestly just wanted to watch the Harrison version again.

Maybe do it over and drop Michelle Crane in that one, too? Just a thought.

One for the Road

This one first came out in the March/April 1977 issue of Maine—less than two years after 'Salem’s Lot was released, and it plays as very much a sequel to that book—in the sort of straight-to-DVD nature of certain sequels anyway since it doesn’t follow any of the characters from the original story.

From the start, as a follow-up to ‘Salem’s Lot, I liked this a whole lot more than the other story in this collection, “Jerusalem’s Lot.” And that’s purely for the writing style. This doesn’t play as some ode to another author—this is Stephen King right here, complete with asides that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot itself but just serve to build the world, give us more info on the characters.

For instance, King spends a long paragraph after a tangent about a rocking chair just explaining why the bar isn’t really so much a bar as it is a public house, and how the bartender’s wife decorated the place and once thought of changing the name, but the narrator was glad that never happened. That wasn’t needed. But it was. Because those are the touches that make King’s narratives a cut above the rest.

One thing I thought was weird about this story—it reminded me of so many others. First, its opening was very similar to one I’d just read earlier in this collection, “Gray Matter.” Except instead of a kid running into the bar in a panic, it was a father. But it was still in a blizzard in Maine, and they still went out in it.

And the bit with the little girl at the end, the one about which the narrator says, “She was no more than seven years old, and she was going to be seven for an eternity of nights.” I mean, that’s straight-up Interview with the Vampire’s Kirsten Dunst, right? Claudia, I think her name was? Interesting that Interview with the Vampire was first released in May 1976—just a year before this story.

Oh, and finally, the ending, the very last few paragraphs. That whole, “You may have an occasion to be travelling in southern Maine yourself one of these days. Pretty part of the countryside. You may even stop by Tookey's Bar for a drink. Nice place. They kept the name just the same. So have your drink, and then my advice to you is to keep right on moving north. Whatever you do, don't go up that road to Jerusalem's Lot.

Especially not after dark.

Am I the only one who started reading that in Randall Peltzer’s voice?

The Woman in the Room

This was an odd one to end the collection on—wouldn’t “One for the Road,” with that Gremlins-like ending have been better to send readers out on?

And I got to confess, I sort of drifted from “The Woman in the Room,” which was new as of this collection. I drifted in the way the narrator seems to drift from scene to scene, losing interest, forgetting where I was, looking to go on to the next paragraph as I awaited the end.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a touching story—the way the son wants to help his mother. It’s one I think a lot of people can relate to. I can certainly relate to it at this moment in my life, which makes me even more surprised by my reaction. Because this story just didn’t grab me. It didn’t interest me. I think it was well-written, but I don’t see any reason to revisit it at any point, which I think, given I’ve read a lot of King’s pieces more than once, is truly saying something.

The Frank Darabont adaptation, though, which he wrote and directed in 1983 as part of the Dollar Baby deal, I would revisit. Given it was the very first thing he wrote and directed, it’s actually pretty astounding how much he built and improved on what King wrote—the heavy silences, the great acting by Michael Cornelison in the lead role and Dee Croxton as the mom—I couldn’t help but start pouring tears.

Though I think Brian Libby, playing the insightful prisoner in a scene original to the adaptation, completely stole the show. And the way he talked about Vietnam made me realize something. Vietnam came up a lot in Night Shift.

Closing Notes

Night Shift, as a collection, was published in February 1978, but many of its stories were first released long before that, and even in 1978 the world was very much still reeling from the effects of the Vietnam War, which ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, though direct U.S. military involvement ended in August 1973.

So it makes sense why the war is referenced so often in the collection’s pages. In “Children of the Corn.” In “The Man Who Loved Flowers.” In “The Boogeyman,” “Strawberry Spring,” and “Battleground.”

That’s at least a quarter of the stories that directly reference Vietnam, and I’m certain many of the others are, at the very least, influenced by it. “Night Surf,” for instance, could easily be seen as a metaphor for the atrocities of war, while “I Am the Doorway” tackles what it’s like to come home from an alien world.

That isn’t to say every story here deals with sit. Many seem pure escapism. But King would go on to explore more about Vietnam in another collection down the line, Hearts in Atlantis—which we’re going to talk more in-depth about some other time—so I think it’s fair to say the Vietnam War played heavy on his heart.

And can you blame him? Over 58,000 American troops were killed, and about 1,600 were missing. People like Senator John McCain were stabbed, bound and beaten, and held for years. McCain himself was a prisoner of war for five and a half years and because of it, he can’t raise his arms above his head. And he was the son of an admiral. He was a POW elite.

War is hell. And Night Shift helps reminds us of that fact.

Next time: The Stand!