“Quitters, Inc.” is one of only four previously unpublished stories in Night Shift, and like the other four stories, it shows an author starting to truly grasp his craft. It’s a clever, zippy story, that captures the reader from the opening sequence, and doles out its secrets at regular enough intervals that there’s no room for boredom.
It’s also a strangely dated, exceptionally upper middle class tale that captures a particular moment in popular culture when smoking, and the cache of smoking, was besieged on all sides. The main characters of the tale, Dick Morrison and Jimmy McCann (interestingly, Philip Morris is a huge tobacco company and McCann is a big advertising company), are both New York Ad Men, jet setters just as that was beginning to be a thing. They meet, after-all, in an airport bar, waiting for their flights and gabbing about the business. While their conversation and the meet-cute that leads to Jimmy passing along the Quitters Inc. business card is believable, it’s also the type of conversation that would only happen among yuppies.
While smoking tobacco has been around for at least the last 5-7 millennia, it took the world by storm in the middle of the 17th century when Europeans started to get their hands on cheap American tobacco. By the end of the 19th century, mass-produced cigarettes launched the American Tobacco Company to sales of $316m by 1903. Some of the first product placements in movies helped popularize the drug even more, with people all over the world literally dying to be like Cary Grant or Bing Crosby. Smoking increased worldwide until the 1950s when a series of articles published in Reader’s Digest lobbed the first mortars in a decades-long battle against smoking that wouldn’t be resolved until the 2000s, and maybe not even then.
But in the late 1970s, when King was writing this story, the very beginnings of the turning tide were starting to show. Quitting smoking began with the upper management guys, with the affluent, country club folks, because they were the ones who could most afford the “habit” of quitting smoking. The fad diets, pop psychology, and feux-fitness crazes that started cropping up everywhere were expensive, and frankly required a healthy dose of time, money, and emotional support, which made the wealthy and upper middle class the most likely candidates. By the time King wrote “Quitters, Inc.” it was already starting to be hip among the upper crust to quit smoking.
So, while the characterization is a perfect, realistic fit for the story, it’s odd for these to be the type of people King would choose to write about. He is, after-all, is one of the most notorious working class writers in the world. He wears his down-home, Mainer heart on his sleeve, and throughout most of his work (especially his first decade) there’s a distinctive blue collar attitude. Yet in Night Shift there is an obvious split between the previously published work—peopled by working class heroes and villains, and grimey settings—and the brand new material, which discussed the horrors and spectacles of the rich.
It makes sense. Though he cultivated a reputation as an iconoclast and literary rebel early in his career, the success of his first three novels and the Carrie movie, meant that by 1977 King was a wealthy man, relatively assured of his career, and starting to rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty. He started drinking more and he began using drugs, most notably cocaine. It was the start of a nearly decade-long bender that would culminate in the publishing of arguably his magnum opus, It in 1986, and would contain the lion’s share of his most famous creations. He also managed to dash the hopes of any future author with directorial ambitions, when a coke-addled King gave stillbirth to the much maligned Maximum Overdrive.
Ultimately, King crawled back from the ledge, and settled into his comfy Maine hometown, where he resides still, churning out story after story, as reliable as the sun.
But, stories like “Quitter’s, Inc.” chronicle—through their characters, fears, and settings—a particularly short lived period in Stephen King’s life; A young writer, already successful beyond his wildest dreams, just starting to get a taste of rock stardom. And he kinda likes it.