Stephen King is one of the most aggressively blue collar authors ever. Despite also being one of the most successful authors ever, King protects his image as a lucky bastard milltown boy with everything he can muster. He likes rock and roll, blue chambray work shirts*, has stayed married to the same woman all these years, lives in the same house in the same town, and populates his literary work with endless blue collar characters.
The problem is that he’s a college educated, classically trained writer, and he's been a household name and fabulously wealthy since he was in his late-20’s. I’m sure to him he remembers vividly what it was like to be 23 and struggling, but the truth is he’s been the most popular author on the planet for three times as long as he was a “starving artist.”
Which is probably why he so often writes about college graduates struggling in blue collar environments. In ‘Salem’s Lot, successful author Ben Mears comes to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot and comes face to face with the local rubes. In The Shining, college educated, struggling author, and ex-prep school teacher Jack Torrance is beaten down so low by his alcoholism that he’s forced to ply his trade as a glorified janitor.
King has made it clear in his writing and in interviews how useless he found his college education, especially the literary analysis part. He’s so hung up on it that he basically gave Gordon Lachance and Bill Denbrough the exact same literary backstory as himself, a pulp writer labeled a hack by his snooty, literary colleagues. This is all probably true, but I think we can all agree, King got the last laugh in the end.
But of all his "college boy fish out of water" stories, “Graveyard Shift” probably dives the deepest. Written when he was in college, the story deals directly with the tension between college graduates and the blue collar towns they're so often trying to escape.
The story is simple enough: Hall finds himself floundering after college, grabbing at any job he can find, and winds up on the graveyard shift of a down-on-its-luck textile mill. As can be expected in the basement of an old 19th century building, there are rats, and Hall hates them. He also hates his job, his supervisor Warwick, and himself for being such a lazy ass that he’s landed himself in such a crappy situation. In the vein of a great many privileged young men, Hall has open disdain for his work and his coworkers, not least of all Warwick, who seems to care just as little for Hall.
When the supervisor offers a little overtime helping clean out the sub-basement over Independence Day holiday, all the ingredients are there for the final showdown: darkness, rats, close quarters and heat, and an open tension between the blue collar supervisor and the college boy. What unfolds is pretty classic King, a depressing Faustian deal in which Hall gets the best of his supervisor but pays the ultimate price.
King’s college boy self-loathing is on full display; Hall is a privileged asshole, essentially an unlikeable character. But underpinning it all is a sort of labor union logic, that when the classes fight among each other, neither can win. College educated, illiterate, blue collar, white. None of it matters, because in the end, squabbling just gets everyone dragged into the dark and muck, with the rats.
*The good folks over at Derry Public Radio first pointed out the fact that nearly all male characters in King's work wear blue chambray shirts.