Stephen King has achieved what most genre writers can only dream of: breaking out into bestseller-land and achieving at least some measure of establishment-endorsed literary respectability. From being a struggling thriller writer selling short stories to the late 1960s and early 1970s equivalents of lads-mags, he has metamorphosed, thanks to relentless hard work, a string of eminently filmable novels that articulate universal fears and—above all—a willingness to experiment within those limitations, into a writer whose stature equals most other "serious" writers. (This is not the place to restart the debate about whether stories of violent death and in other ways articulating our deepest fears can be anything but serious.)
King's first collection for six-and-a-half years comprises seven short stories, three novelettes, and three novellas. Most are—with one exception—very recent, the bulk of them written in the last two or three years. The exception, "The Cat from Hell," is from King's early Cavalier career and creaks with age; it is an unlikely and somewhat ludicrous tale of a killer feline which is overblown horror and little else. It's there for the King collectors, so let's consider it mentioned and move on to more interesting works.
In "Rest Stop," a lecturer who writes bestsellers under a pseudonym and who has created a whole—and far more rugged—alternate identity to fit that pseudonym is on his way back to his university when he pulls over for a comfort break, and overhears a man beating his pregnant partner. The writer then faces the agonizing decision of whether to intervene, and equally importantly, how he should do so to escape intact. In having his protagonist allow full rein to his alternate identity, King poses an interesting question, albeit one inflated to an extreme—how much do we become the product of our own self-image?
From identity to damnation: "Mute" takes the true story of a wife who defrauded her employers for several years and used the proceeds to fund a long-term fling, and uses it as the catalyst for a salesman's revenge—his frequent and long absences are the motivation for the affair (or excuse, depending on the reader's sympathies). "Mute" is about intent, and confession as an act of expiation. Monette offers a lift to a hitch-hiker to whom—upon learning that the hiker is deaf—he pours out his story in an effort to come to terms with it. His second—formal—confession to a priest raises the question of how much Monette suspected when he talked to his deaf passenger that he might unleash an instrument of vengeance. And if he did suspect, how much has he jeopardized his immortal soul?
"Mute" is one of several stories that investigates the distance between this life and the hereafter, or the transition between the two. The book opens with "Willa," in which a group of passengers are stranded at an isolated Wyoming railway station. Most of them are content to bicker while waiting for the next train, but Willa is impatient and hitches into town rather than wait. Her fiancé sets out after her, and they gradually recognize that they have died. The waiting-room for eternity setting of "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates" echoes Connie Willis's "Death on the Nile"; but "Rates" looks at those left behind, in the form of a grieving widow phoned by her husband on the day of his funeral. "Harvey's Dream" pivots on the actual moment of transition, as Harvey recounts his nightmare premonition of their daughter's fate to his long-suffering wife.
There is only one story—the elegiac "Graduation Day"—about youth, and its unrealized potential perhaps reflects King's age. It wouldn't be surprising that a man into his seventh decade would be preoccupied—as most of the stories are—with mortality, decrepitude, and above all disappointment.
In "Ayana," King describes in microscopic detail the loss of dignity that accompanies old age:
At eighty, turned loose from the hospital, my somehow dangerously graceful father had become just another skeleton in pyjamas (his had the Pirates logo on them). His eyes lurked beneath wild and bushy brows. He sweated steadily in spite of two fans, and the smell that rose from his damp skin reminded me of old wallpaper in a deserted house. His breath was black with the perfume of decomposition.
Doc was no longer able to get to the toilet (which he invariably called 'the can'), so he wore diapers and continence pants. He was still aware enough to know, and to be ashamed. Sometimes tears rolled from the corners of his eyes, and half-formed cries of desperate, disgusted amusement came from the throat that had once sent "Hey, Good Lookin'" out into the world. (p. 281)
Doc's suffering is only relieved by the kiss of a blind girl, passing on her gift (or curse) to Doc and his son the narrator, who in turn must heal the sick. In "Harvey's Dream," the titular financier is twenty years younger, but with his "white scruff showing on his cheeks, man-tits sagging out of his T, hair standing up in back" (p. 83) he's already well along the road travelled by Doc.
But it's possible that the theme of disappointment is simply a narrative device. In many of the stories, King uses emotional conflict as a surrogate for physical (plot) conflict. These stories appeared in such venues as Esquire, Paris Review, and The New Yorker, and it's tempting to perceive them as being offered with an air of, "Look, I'm respectable now, no nasty plot tricks up my sleeve." In that sense, the themes identified above may be as much about narrative artifice as self-revelation.
For while it's easy to forget King's origins (though his sales are so gargantuan that he's now effectively sui generis), but like any good horror writer, King is never more dangerous than when he's lulled his reader into a false sense of security. It's then that he bares his teeth.
It happens with "The Gingerbread Girl," when Emily, a wife grieving for her cot-death baby, finds peace of mind at last through running, away from her husband to an isolated beach resort. And just when she seems to have found that mental equilibrium, she runs straight into a nightmare worthy of Cujo, Pet Sematary, or any other early everyman nightmare.
"The Gingerbread Girl" is the best of the collection's three novellas. Sadly the weakest is positioned as the last story in the book. King boasts in his afterword that "I even grossed myself out" (p. 353) in the writing of "A Very Tight Place." Those readers who like to be grossed out will be delighted in this too-minutely detailed story of a neighbourhood feud, and a protagonist trapped in an overturned porta-loo—complete with spilled contents.
The third novella—"N"—an homage to Arthur Machen that is for three-quarters of its length the best story in the collection, but sadly it fails at the very moment when it should triumph.
Reality is a mystery, Dr Bonsaint, and the everyday texture of things is the cloth we draw over it to mask its brightness and darkness. I think we cover the faces of corpses for the same reason.
But there are places where the cloth gets ragged and reality is thin. The face beneath peeps through ... but not the face of a corpse. It would almost be better if it was. (p. 193)
The failure of "N" is partly down to the epistolary nature of the narrative; the reader becomes increasingly distanced from the initially sympathetic protagonist. Partly it's because, in the end, homage alone is insufficient to sustain the story of a field that provides a gate from our world to other-dimensional horror. A shame, because the first part is as good as anything King has written.
The finest works are two of the novelettes, "Stationary Bike" and "The Things They Left Behind," both of which threaten to veer into standard horror territory, but which instead choose their own, far more interesting pathways to follow. It's interesting to note their central location in the collection, as traditionally that's where the weakest stories tend to gather.
But "The Things They Left Behind," with its traumatized narrator and his survivor's guilt arising from missing work one September New York morning, is a fine, elegiac story worthy of Jack Finney. King knows the danger of self-indulgence, and uses the narrator's awareness of his own mean-spiritedness in response to his neighbour's offer of help and her resultant hysteria to ensure that the story never becomes saccharine.
"Stationary Bike," with its sedentary yet happy artist is even better. When his doctor persuades Richard Sifkitz that he needs to exercise more, Sifkitz buys an exercise bike and plonks it in the basement. The trouble is that he gets bored easily, so he paints a mural of a long road on the wall. The road winds up across the border and into Canada. And it's then that the story gets really interesting. Early in the story, when the doctor's metaphor of Sifkitz's metabolism as a work-crew is made literal reality, it seems that King was revisiting tropes that he had used before, both solo and with Peter Straub. But as the journey went on, it becomes more and more interesting, perhaps the best story King's written.
It's fascinating that the best stories in Just After Sunset are of intermediate length, as if King needs space to develop his ideas, but needs confinement to prevent them losing their impact or over-spilling into grotesquerie. It may be that the best stories are in the middle not because they're the weakest, but because they're the most atypical. King is still a crowd-pleaser at heart.
Colin Harvey is straddling genres a lot lately; his new novel is Blind Faith, featuring a partially-blind PI who can "see" people's emotions. And he's edited Killers, an anthology of original stories by Bruce Holland Rogers, Eugie Foster, Lee Thomas, Paul Meloy, Sarah Singleton, and Jonathan Maberry. Both are speculative fiction/crime-thriller hybrids.