The Ledge & The Lawnmower Man
By the time you get halfway through Stephen King’s first short story collection Night Shift, it’s tempting to assume that you’re ready for just about anything the Master of Horror can throw your way. You’ve seen demonic laundry presses, evil towns, killer toys, and tainted beer, a litany of terrifying creatures and scenarios that have run the gamut from classic to borderline laughable. Yet King still manages to surprise nearly ten stories deep into the collection, with a one-two punch that highlights the deep bench of genre tools King has at his disposal, even at this early stage in his career.
“The Ledge” and “The Lawnmower Man” are both excellent stories in their own right, but what makes them so remarkable is that they showcase two of King’s heretofore hidden talents: narrative tension and weird horror.
“The Ledge” is by far the better story, taking its time early on to establish the two primary characters, and the stakes at play. While Cressner is borderline stock rich guy, he is saved by the conceit at the heart of the story and the masterful way King manages the ledge walking sequence. I may be especially susceptible to a story like this because of my fear of heights, but nearly a third of the story is taken up with the painstaking description of the protagonist, Stan Norris, tiptoeing inch-by-inch around the ledge of a high rise, every sentence dripping with tension. It’s so well-written I found myself having to consciously loosen my grip on the book throughout.
While all four of King’s published books prior to Night Shift show his ability to craft engaging page turners, “The Ledge” is the first time he really shows off how well he can squeeze every bit of tension from a individual sequence. Like “The Pit and the Pendulum” over a century before, “The Ledge” is more of a thriller than a horror story, rooting it’s horror in the existential dread of impending death, and the fat wheel of paranoia and fear these scenarios can engender. When “The Ledge” concludes, with our hero surviving and managing to turn the tables on his erstwhile tormenter the reader can’t help but cheer, not just because the good guy wins, but because we’re so damn glad we got off the ledge.
“The Lawnmower Man” isn’t nearly as good, but it’s zippy read time and utterly bizarre premise makes it a fascinating peek into the mind of Stephen King. Up to this point in King’s canon, his stories consisted of found bits of horror and paranoia, set in realistic circumstances. Ghosts, haunted hotels, vampires, telekinesis, these are all things that are terrifying but rooted in a certain historical cultural context. But “The Lawnmower Man” is legit strange, solidly leading the reader through the uncanny valley, displaying a darker, more surreal edge to King’s imagination. As it stands, “The Lawnmower Man” could be said to be the first instance of Weird Fiction in the King catalog.
The story is really very simple, but no less weird for the synopsis: Harold Parkette calls a lawn care company that appears to be a front for a Circe-worshipping cult who eats the grass clippings and controls the lawnmower with their minds. When Harold takes issue with this bizarre ritual, The Lawnmower Man runs him over with the lawnmower, and...well, that’s basically it. No explanation is given as to who the Boss is, why there’s a grass clipping cult, or what consequences might follow from the murder. There are so many holes one is tempted to write the whole thing off as a mess, yet the story zips by so quickly and is so strangely engrossing and memorable, it’s not easy to dismiss.
What we know now that wouldn’t have been obvious to the average Stephen King reader in 1978 is that his overactive imagination is capable of some truly bizarre and unsettling flights of fancy. From Eddie’s Leper in It to the entire conceit of Gerald’s Game, King is capable of going just about anywhere to prove a point, but the “The Lawnmower Man” was the first good glimpse at the depths of his depravity.
“The Ledge” and “The Lawnmower Man” both proved to early King audiences that the man had a lot more gas in the tank, and provide a solid shot in the arm for a collection that, at the mid-way point was in danger of careening off the tracks.