Stephen King is a master at creating diabolical metaphors for the plight of the working man. Night Shift, in particular, is littered with tales of blue collar stiffs battling real world and supernatural disorder. “Graveyard Shift,” “The Mangler,” and “Gray Matter” all do a tremendous job of rooting the horror in the real world anxieties of the northeastern industrial working classes. King himself came from such a background, and at the time he was writing most of the stories that would make up Night Shift he was just a few years removed from his working class youth. His own anxieties seem more in line with the small town weirdo desperately trying to get out (as evidenced by all of the blue collar “college boys” that populate his first decade of writing), but that doesn’t mean he was deaf to the issues of the industrial poor. It could be argued his fear of never finding a way out fueled much of his passion for writing. He found a small glimmer of hope in the soft sands of imagination and dug with all his might until he popped out the other side.
While it’s hardly his best blue collar work, “Trucks” is arguably the most famous story from Night Shift largely because of the trainwreck that was the Stephen King-helmed Maximum Overdrive, based on the story. But where the movie gets bogged down in the cocaine-fueled antics of a first-time director, the short story is much more potent. “Trucks” is the second story in Night Shift to revolve around everyday machines taking control of the “means of production,” and so one can look at “The Mangler” and “Trucks” as companion pieces to one another, bookends on the metanarrative of industrial decline. If “The Mangler” represents the decline of the industrial north for women, “Trucks” shows just how far out on the edge their husbands were.
Northeastern small towns were decimated in the 1970’s, by gas prices, by stagflation, by outsourcing. The signs were all around, with industrial small towns acting as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. In response, so much of Stephen King’s early work obsessively chronicles the decline in America’s small towns, albeit with a horror edge. Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, “The Mangler,” “Graveyard Shift,” “Gray Matter,” and “Night Surf” all deal with small towns obliterated or in decline, the horror often a symptom of the general decline rather than the cause.
One of the few careers that managed to weather the upheaval in America’s industrial small towns was trucking. It was there as a buffer in the 1970’s and it still is. When the plants close, able-bodied men and women can still carve out a living riding the highway. But the job itself requires a strange symbiotic relationship between the truck and trucker. The trucker must care for and cater to the needs of the truck or else she won’t be able to compete in the market. In some respects, the relationship between truck and trucker isn’t so dissimilar from that of a cowboy and a horse, with one key difference: the truck isn’t sentient.
“Trucks” simply posits the question: “What if the trucks came alive?” How would they react to the arrangement they’ve found themselves in? How would humans fare? It’s an old story, really. Whenever humans have relied too heavily on creatures, the culture seems to cough up folktales of evil versions of these creatures. Like a blister growing to protect the new skin, these folktales protect the carefully cultivated boundary between the driver and the driven. “Trucks” updates this tale for the modern age, and unsurprisingly finds humans lacking in some key ways against their better equipped, larger, heavier, and more brutally metallic former pack animals.
“Trucks” is at its most brutal when it dives into the existential terror of the machines fighting back. In the 1970’s, “Trucks” must have seemed a horrific lark, but as Silicon Valley firms pound the drumbeat of autonomous vehicles, eyeing America’s commercial fleet first, one gets an uncanny shiver up their spine as the narrator finds himself standing for hours in the hot sun, breathing in gasoline fumes, and pumping diesel for an endless line of vehicles, the webbing between his pointer finger and thumb blistering. He realizes how fragile he is compared to these monsters, and how brutal the new regime is likely to be. After-all, when the vehicles can drive themselves, what good are we?