The story: “Graveyard Shift,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1970. Wikipedia entry here.
Spoiler-filled synopsis: Workers at an old, run-down textile mill are tasked with cleaning out the mill’s long-unused basement level. To their disgust, it’s crawling with huge rats. In the course of their job, they discover an entrance to a sealed sub-basement. They descend to investigate, and stumble across a hideous ecosystem of giant, mutated rats and other vermin. It doesn’t end well.
My thoughts: An empire of rats living undiscovered beneath our feet. What’s more repulsive than that? “Graveyard Shift” is primarily an exercise in exploiting our general disgust with rats, bats, and other vermin, and to a lesser extent our mingled fascination and discomfort with the idea of “lost ecosystems.”
The classic “lost kingdom” inhabited by holdovers from a past age (often dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts) is fun but not especially horrifying. Creepier is the idea that deep (or worse, not so deep) beneath the Earth’s surface are inhuman beings darkly mirroring human society above (morlocks). But perhaps even worse than the latter idea is the special twist provided by Charles Darwin’s insights into evolution: the thought that the dark and harsh conditions underground might be breeding survivors—creatures much better at surviving than comparatively pampered surface-dwellers. And what type of creature would we least like to see enhanced in this way? Yeah. Stephen King thinks so too. That’s the fear that King taps into with “Graveyard Shift,” where we’re asked to imagine an ecosystem of vermin that have for years (centuries?) been evolving and mutating into monstrosities that aren’t quite so intimidated by humans.
The protagonist here is a drifter named Hall, who for the first half of the story is a reasonably relate-able character, but who slips into a strange obsession in the story’s final pages. The central tension of the story is not actually related to the rat empire; it’s the conflict between Hall and Warwick, a cruel mill foreman who’s ordered his cleanup crew into the clearly unsafe basement level. Warwick shows little sympathy for (and often mocks) men who are bitten by rats or who show signs of breaking down. When, after several days of this abuse, Hall discovers an entrance to a long-forgotten sub-basement, he and Warwick descend to investigate, neither of them willing to “chicken out” in front of the other.
It’s here that Hall’s madness begins to manifest; he has an inkling of what lies in store, but pushes on anyway so as not to lose face in front of Warwick… and when they stumble across a cow-sized rat queen attended by countless thousands of giant rats, Hall (possibly driven insane by what they’ve discovered) actually shoves Warwick into the “royal chamber” and to his death. By that point, though, it’s obvious they’re both doomed; Hall is swarmed (laughing hysterically) before he can make it back to the stairs and safety. The story ends as the rest of the cleanup crew descend into the sub-basement to find out what happened to Hall and Warwick; we’re left to imagine what will happen next.
We don’t learn much about the rat-world beyond this, although King seeds “Graveyard Shift” with some tantalizing hints at the backstory. The door into the sub-basement is actually sealed from below, and Hall and Warwick come across a human skeleton in the sub-basement—what would have led somebody to seal themselves down there with the rats? They also come across objects in the sub-basement dating into the early 1800s, and before they die they realize that the underground chambers extend far beyond the mill property.
Little details like this, and the time King spends developing the animosity between Hall and Warwick, make this story more effective than it would otherwise have been. But really, this story is mostly about the gross-out. Disgust with rats seems to be a nearly universal human characteristic, so it’s unlikely many readers won’t be at least a little creeped out by this story. That said, I’ll confess that I don’t find rats to be inherently upsetting (spiders, on the other hand…), so this story didn’t hit a nerve in me the way it might for others. It comes down to this: do rats freak you out? Then, Dear Reader, this story was written for you with love. If not… well, let’s be honest. It’s still pretty gross.
Next up: “I Am the Doorway,” also from Night Shift.by