"The Mangler" is not a terribly great story. The characters are boilerplate, the thinly-plotted police procedural is limp, and the overwrought ending is almost laughable, since the image of a lunky, metallic monster inching down the street is far from terrifying.
Yet between the the clunky dialogue and bizarre leaps of supernatural logic lies an interesting take on the uncomfortable ceasefire between blue collar workers and their metal counterparts. With the manufacturing sector a 20th century fever dream to modern audiences, King’s work is a time capsule to another time, when women, people of color, and the uneducated could squeeze out a living at the local factory. It was never glorious work; it was always tedious, backbreaking, and mean, but it was a living and in some cases a good one.
What started in the late 18th century flowered by the mid-20th, as electric lights, crude oil, and global war combined with increasing demand for consumer products to make blue collar workers the literal lifeblood of the capitalist gears. Machines may have been the pack mules and beasts of burden, but it was people who made the whole thing go. And for about 40 years there was a truce between people and machines, as employers could realize enough efficiencies through the use of machines that products could be simultaneously cheap, and labor expensive. It was the literal golden age of American life.
Then the efficiency gains stopped, and employers realized the “inputs” were too expensive to get the profits their investors required. Since commodities like oil, wheat, and cotton were viewed as fixed costs, subject to the whims of the invisible God Hand of the market, the only input that could be slashed were the workers themselves. Suddenly, by the mid-1970s, women, people of color, and the non-college educated could no longer find the easy manufacturing work their parents had, and those who did couldn’t live off it like they could just 20 years before. Then the machines didn’t seem so innocuous. Suddenly, they seemed more sinister, stealing the livelihood of millions of Americans.
In the early 20th century, fiction portrayed machines as the heralds of a new, gorgeous age of humanity. By the time Stephen King was writing “The Mangler” it was clear it was a zero sum game, and the machines were winning. As he’s so good at doing, King takes these fears and literalizes them in “The Mangler,” turning the machines that should work for us into demonic monsters, bent on literally consuming the people that make the system go. It takes the phrase “I gave my life to the company,” and follows it to its logical end.
Whether the machines literally ate the workers, or they just enabled the desecration of their “lifeblood,” the 1970s saw a way of life diminishing, with tragic consequences for America’s cities and small towns, and the people that made up the fabric of his country. It wasn’t necessary for King to have the Mangler stomping through the streets at the end. The implication was already clear; the monster was loosed from the factories, and America would never be the same again.