Review by Jeremy Taylor
In his first short-story collection in six years, mega-best-selling author Stephen King presents thirteen tales on a variety of topics from exercise to OCD. As King states in the introduction, these stories are mostly recent—written in the last seven or eight years—with one or two older ones tucked in for good measure. He says that writing short stories is not like riding a bike, because an author can lose the knack. Well, Stephen King has not forgotten how to write short stories, but his style and themes have changed somewhat since the “old days” of collections like Skeleton Crew and Nightmares & Dreamscapes.
These newer stories are mostly pretty good, though few of them are likely to make much headway into the annals of great short fiction. Still, the impression one walks away with is one of a veteran writer still very much on top of his game and not hesitant to share with his readers some of his literary fluctuations.
Without giving away any important information, here is a brief synopsis and evaluation of each of the thirteen stories.
Willa is an initially confusing and ultimately rather unsettling story about a group of travelers stranded at a remote railway station. Reminiscent of the television series Lost, the story takes a while to get into the flow of the narrative—which can be fatal for a short story but somehow isn’t in this case. Eventually two main characters and a plot emerge, and once the reader figures out what is happening, the story ends up delivering a pretty effective chill factor.
The Gingerbread Girl is structured more like a short novel than a short story. It consists of twelve sections, like chapters, and the plot seems to contain certain elements borrowed from other King books like Gerald’s Game and Duma Key. The first two or three sections are occupied by a subplot that is largely unrelated to the rest of the story—another way in which the structure seems more novel-like than short story. Eventually the plot evolves into a fairly straightforward and fast-paced aggressor-and-victim crime story.
Harvey’s Dream is a more traditional short story—short, to-the-point, and, in typical Stephen King fashion, with a supernatural (or at least psychic) theme.
Rest Stop details a scenario that many travelers have considered—what would you do if you witnessed an act of violence (or threatened violenece) in a secluded place with no one around to assist you? The story’s protagonist is an author who, like King himself has done (and has written about in several stories and novels) writes under a pseudonym that is also something of an alter-ego.
Stationary Bike is a six-part story about what happens to a middle-aged graphic artist when he embarks on a mission to get in shape. The story is an effective combination of supernatural unlikelihood with universal human experience.
The Things They Left Behind describes the misadventures of a office worker who, having stayed home on 9/11, has to deal with the fact that all his former colleagues have died in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. As he fights his survivor’s guilt, he also struggles to find a way to live with the strange mementoes of his dead friends that keep popping up in unexpected places. King writes in his notes that writing this story was his way of processing the events of 9/11.
Graduation Afternoon is a short, brutal tale about a nuclear strike on New York City. If it ever happens, this story may be viewed as prophetic. Until then, it comes across simply as pessimistic.
N., one of the longest stories in the book, is presented as the journal of a psychologist dealing with the obsessive-compulsive tendencies of a new client. As the psychologist’s interviews with his patient continue, it becomes clear that the patient, referred to as “N,” is in the grip of a paranoid delusion about his role in preventing the end of the world as we know it. Clearly “N” is out of his gourd. Or is he?
The Cat from Hell is an older story, first published in a men’s magazine in the 1970s, and it’s vintage Stephen King. A hit man hired for a most unusual assignment meets a most unusual (though not entirely unexpected) end.
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates is another very short tale, told in the present tense. It explores a widow’s grief in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death in a plane crash.
Mute starts out confusing, as the story segments jump around out of chronological order. But once everything gets sorted out, it’s the tale of a traveling salesman who picks up a hitchhiker who is ostensibly deaf and mute. Alone in the car with an unhearing confessor, the salesman begins unfolding his life’s woes, only to discover that words can have unintended effects.
Ayana is a rather familiar-feeling story about a mysterious death-bed visitor whose presence ends up having miraculous ramifications. Not the best story in the collection, it nevertheless poses some interesting questions about the nature of God and the afterlife.
A Very Tight Place is the uncomfortable story of a man who gets trapped in an upended Porta-potty. This is one of the more enjoyable stories in the book, but it is also without question the most disgusting.
As I mentioned, Just after Sunset will likely not be remembered as one of Stephen King’s more masterful contributions to American literature. Still, reading these stories is an avid reminder that King is still, after all these years and all those best-sellers, a very good storyteller. The objectionable content is mostly language, though there are some rather grotesque descriptions here and there. Sexual content is minimal. Readers who are accustomed to Stephen King’s writing won’t find too much to be offended by, but fans won’t find too much to jump for joy over either. All in all, it’s a solid but unexceptional collection of stories by a quite exceptional author.