Stephen King, Just After Sunset (Pocket Books, 2009)
This collection of shorter works is bracketed by an intro from King himself and his author's notes (so placed as to avoid spoilers). In between are thirteen imaginative and suspenseful tales. While most of the stories veer away from out and out horror, they still elicit a delicious frisson of danger or fear, even while they dig deep for other emotions like sadness, pity and longing.
It's hard to say too much about the opening story "Willa," without giving away the key plot point. However, it's is safe to say "Willa" is sweet and poignant, laced with humor. "The Gingerbread Girl," by contrast, is grim, terrifying and likely to eradicate any desire to live on an isolated Florida island (unless you're a top-notch runner). And speaking of exercise, anyone who has dreaded climbing aboard an exercise bike -- and has a vivid imagination -- will appreciate "Stationary Bike," in which an artist told to shape up gets a bit too gung ho with the titular bike. It's amusing, sad and just a litlte bit scary -- an excellent mix!
"The Things They Left Behind," while touching on horror of a supernatural kind, is more about coping with real world horror -- 9/11, in this case. It's about remembering, and healing, and ultimately is more uplifting than scary. King mentions in his notes that he was hesitant to tackle such a momentous occasion still so fresh in everyone's memory, but he handles it deftly and respectfully. "Graduation Afternoon," while not directly about 9/11 (the inspiration came from a dream, King states), is much colder and unfeeling in its depiction of mass destruction and the reactions of a few.
"The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates" is similar in ways to "Willa" and "The Things They Left Behind," but is perhaps the gentlest of the three. With a few twists, it could have been dark or depressing, but as it is, this story about loss and hope and moving on is poignant and positive. " By contrast, "Harvey's Dream," though low-key for most of its pages, carries with it a sense of impending dread at the fear of personal loss. "Ayana" is another tale that shows the gentler side of King, delving into the wonder of miracles and miracle workers.
Although King does not mention H.P. Lovecraft in his notes for "N.," there's little doubt this story, told primarily through the case notes of a psychiatrist, is very much Lovecraftian. Fans of Lovecraft pastiches will find familiarity in the framing device, patient N.'s slow descent into madness and the lurking, otherworldly evil in the stones that so haunt N. King carefully avoids the purple prose that can go hand-in-hand with such tales, making the story very much his own and quite the page-turner.
"The Cat from Hell" comes closest to the type of classic horror story readers associate with King. It's an older story, from his days of selling to men's magazines. Hell-spawn or otherwise, the feline in question certainly does seem to have fiendish origins and schemes and woe to anyone on its bad side. "Mute" is another entry that seems classic King. Was the mute hitchhiker of the title sent from God to enact revenge for the narrator, or . . . ? Readers will have to decide for themselves! Meanwhile, "Rest Stop" revists a familiar King theme regarding authors and their pseudonymous alter-egos, and just begs the question "What would Richard Bachman do?"
Just After Sunset closes out with a creepy and disgusting (in the best possible way, really) vignette, "A Very Tight Place." The horrors humans can inflict on the people they know is invariably worse than any supernatural terror, and the tipping point to such madness is different for everyone. King touches on a very specific fear most people never realized they had and will wish they'd never dwelled on! Without giving anything away, let there be no doubt, anyone who reads "A Very Tight Place" will find themselves hesitant to drink much the next time they're at an outdoor event. . . ..
Just After Sunset is a solid, entertaining collection that mixes classic King with stories that stretch beyond horror and suspense and are as genuinely touching as the scary stories are, well, scary!
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