Battleground and Gray Matter
Night Shift is considered by most King aficionados to be the best of the Master’s short story collections. While it’s subject to the same hit or miss quality that plagues most story collections, over-all the sheer imaginativeness at work is a joy to read. Even the misses don’t miss by much.
Which is what makes the one-two punch of “Gray Matter” and “Battleground,” right smack in the middle of the collection, land so awkwardly.
“Gray Matter” is one of King’s best short stories. It’s tight, psychologically complex, and heartbreaking. It does everything you could ask of a short story and then some. But then he follows it up with “Battleground,” one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve ever read from Stephen King. It’s genuinely awful; stock characters, a stupid premise, terrible execution, and a narrative with zero tension. Perhaps his editor thought they could sneak “Battleground” in behind the afterglow of “Gray Matter,” but regardless it’s a surprisingly large belly flop, placed at the literal heart of the book.
Yet, the two stories, set side by side as they are, are instructive in the way that they show both the best and worst impulses of Stephen King. “Battleground” is essentially an elongated sequence where something bad happens to a character we don’t ever get the chance to care about. The weak characterization is by far the most blatantly terrible thing about it. Instead of drawing an interesting, motivated character, King gives us a hitman from central casting, with almost no background, no stakes, and cheap, throwaway dialogue. So, when the killer toy soldiers emerge and start to take him down, not only is it jarring tonally, but we simply don’t give a shit what happens to this dude. It’s King displaying his worst tendencies, substituting cliche Hollywood stereotypes for actual characterization, and hoping the bizarre premise will be enough to carry the story. I’ll grant that the idea of toy soldiers coming to life and waging war on a person may have seemed novel in a pre-Child’s Play world, but it’s presented with zero explanation or wider consequences, which leeches much of the punch it might have packed. In the end, “Battleground” shows an author early in his career, not fully in control of his raging imagination, with a fairly undeveloped internal editor.
“Gray Matter,” on the other hand, shows off all the qualities that have made King a household name. The setting and characters are instantly recognizable, the mystery at the heart of the story is gripping, and, as he does so well, a well-drawn child character gives the story real stakes.
Like all the best King, the story is fairly straightforward. A pre-teen kid goes to the bar to pick up his dad a case of beer like he always does, and while he’s there he tells the bartender and some of the regulars that he’s worried about his dad. The men follow the kid back to his apartment only to find a creeping horror that is as emotionally devastating as it is original.
King is writing in his sweet spot. Small, blue collar life. Alcoholism. Child-endangerment. Endearing, outmatched locals. All the Kingisms are there on full display, and they add up to a compelling tale that draws the reader from the first sentence to the last.
Like he would do a few years later with The Shining, “Gray Matter” shows King picking at the edges of nightmare fatherhood and alcoholism. Even without the musty, moldering creature the father becomes, there is sufficient tension in the down-home realism of the premise to keep the story moving. How many children have been sent to the bar weekend after weekend to fetch a case for their dad over the years? How many kids unwittingly feeding the monster at home. Every case of beer the monster gets bigger, sadder, hungrier, harder to defeat. But if they don’t feed it, it might turn its anger and violence on them.
The dad becomes gray matter, a pulsating, stinking hunk of mass that needs the yeast from the alcohol to grow and survive. It’s a tremendous metaphor for the tumor of alcoholism, which also requires the alcohol to survive, yet grows more terrible with every drink.
Gray matter is, of course, also the term used for the part of the brain that contains the majority of the dendrites and axon terminals of neurons. It’s essentially the stuff that keeps the brain connected to itself, and when gray matter is diseased, neurons misfire or are unable to connect properly to other neurons. It’s another apt metaphorical layer to the story. Eventually alcoholism feeds only the beast, while destroying all the important connections of life until there’s nothing left but a moldering lump of anger, sadness, and shame.
“Battleground” and “Gray Matter” show us a young writer see-sawing between his best and worst selves, trying out different tactics and narratives, finding himself. While the excesses of “Battleground” occasionally rear their ugly heads over King’s 40+ year career, fortunately the brilliance of “Gray Matter” shows up a lot more.
* Small Reader Note: At one point one of the regulars describes a time he had to go into the city’s sewers for a job, and describes seeing a tons of distended, mutated cobwebs, and a mutant spider down there.