Friday, September 3, 2010


Without doubt the greatest popular novelist of our time, Stephen King is also one of the biggest champions and finest exponents of the short story. In an age when we are constantly being told that the short story is dead as the dodo or that short story collection simply don’t sell (but then, I’m fairly certain they never did in any real quantities) Stephen King constantly bucks the trend.

More importantly, the man has a real love for the short form, which is evident in both the introductions to his collections and the story notes which appear in them. His 1978 collection Night Shift is probably one of the best single-author collections out there (and contains such stories as Children of the Corn, The Mangler, Sometimes They Come Back, Quitters Inc and the wonderfully Lovecraftian Jerusalem’s Lot (a prequel to ‘Salem’s Lot).

1985’s Skeleton Crew doesn’t have quite the same ratio of instantly brilliant stories but does contain his wonderful novella The Mist and a clutch of SF shorts such as The Jaunt and Beachworld that are perhaps atypical of King’s work but are nonetheless entertaining reads. The real jewel in the crown however is Survivor Type, one of the finest gross-out tales ever written. Not that the story is particularly graphic or bloody (certainly not when compared to the ‘splatterpunk’ of Clive Barker or the early novels of James Herbert) but its central question – how much of himself can a man actually eat? - is a nicely shuddersome one.

Written as the diary of Richard Pine (aka Richard Pinzetti), a skilled surgeon although less than wholesome individual who finds himself marooned on a coral island with no food and only, “four gallons of water. A sewing kit. This book I’m writing in… two knives, one dull and one fairly sharp, one combination fork and spoon… two kilos of pure heroin, worth about $350,000, New York street value.”

Dr Pine, you see, has never had any qualms about selling blank prescriptions, or diet pills. Or Librium. Or in this case transporting two kilos of heroin from Thailand to the USA, a last-gasp business transaction when he finds the authorities on his trail.

But with the sinking of the liner that was taking him home and a hasty, selfish escape, Pine finds himself on a barren island “190 paces wide at its thickest point, and some 267 paces long from tip to tip.”

Starving, but savagely determined to survive, Pine kills and eats a seagull (raw) but his second attempt to catch a bird results in a broken ankle: “a compound fracture. It went like a gunshot. The pain was unbelievable.”

Unable to move and with the risk of infection setting in, Pine decides that the only course of action open to him is to amputate his own foot, using a generous amount of heroin as anesthetic. “And as wretched as I am I still want to live. I remember what Mockridge used to say in Basic Anatomy… Sooner or later, he’d say, the question comes up in every medical student’s career: How much shock trauma can the patient stand?... Cut to its base level, gentlemen, he’d say, the answer is always another question: How badly does the patient want to survive.
I think I can bring it off.
I really do.

What follows thereafter is as gruesome as it is inevitable:
“I was very careful.
I washed it thoroughly before I ate it.”

As hunger and regular snots of heroin begin to take their toll, Pine comes to accept that “…that the only help I could look to in the matter of replenishing my sapped vitality was my own body.”

Systematically, like a mechanic stripping an engine, Pine begins to literally devour himself from the feet upwards. And as the nature of the narrator changes so too does the nature of the narrative.

Initially lucid and straightforward, the diary begins to change tone as Pine records his thoughts, mixing hallucination, fever dream, pain and the rush and withdrawal of heroin addiction. “Took the other leg at the knee. Sleepy all day. “Doctor was this operation necessary?” Haha. Shaky hands, like an old man. Hate them. Blood under the fingernails. Scabs.”

“Am I insane yet? I must be. I’m a monster now, a freak. Nothing left below the groin. Just a freak. A head attached to a torso dragging itself along the sand by the elbows. A crab. A stoned crab… Hey man I’m just a poor stoned crab can you spare me a dime.

There are a number of factors that make Survivor Type a great short story. First is the sheer audacity of its central idea – that of self-cannibalism – second is the character of Richard Pine himself; despite the fact that he is utterly unlikeable, King manages to inject a certain sympathy into the character so that rather than hate we come to grudgingly admire Pine (for a while anyway). Third is King’s writing, which shifts Pine’s voice effortlessly from clarity to near-madness, to self-pity to bullish thug, to, well, the survivor type.

“Who cares, this hand or that, good food good meat good God let’s eat.”

With Stephen King as its protector the short story is in good hands.


  1. Great choice, Jim. Skeleton Crew was my first collection, and even though more uneven than Night Shift, I often think it's my favourite. And this one is a doozy. Especially that last line, which seriously creeped me out when I frist read it back in 1996 and still does now.

  2. It's probably not even remotely fair of me to compare Night Shift against Skeleton Crew (or vice versa)as both are excellent collections - Night Shift was my introduction to Stephen King's short work so I reckon that's where my bias comes from. Skeleton Crew has some wonderful stories - The Reach, The Wedding Gig, The Raft, Mrs Todd's Shortcut... I could go on.

  3. I haven't read that story...but I can see just from the excerpts you provided that it is well crafted and scary. I found you through Kate's Scribbling Sea Serpent Blog.

    N. R. Williams, fantasy author