Beneath the City of Dreams

Stephen justIt was Cujo that got me hooked on Stephen King, but it was the stories that ensured I stuck around for the long haul.  At the time I got into him, 1986, his bibliography was a lot less intimidating than it is now, and it represented most of the books we consider to be his classics (Carrie, Pet Sematary, The Shining, Christine, The Stand, and so on).  But alongside those canonical horror novels were four collections of absolutely first-rate short fiction: Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Different Seasons, and The Bachman Books (four early novellas written under a pseudonym).  While we rightfully consider the novels to be the basis for King’s reputation, there’s just no way to discount the quality of those short stories and novellas, and if I’m going to be honest, it’s mostly those works that have stuck with me the longest.  And because I think we unavoidably associate King with the movies that have been adapted from his work, just consider this list, all of which came from those four seminal collections, as evidence of the embarrassment of riches coming in the early part of his career:

There are certainly many other stories from these collections that resonated with me, but the one that haunted me the most came from The Bachman Books.  “The Long Walk” told a horrifying story (that presaged our current reality television/elimination game show fixation, now that I think about it) about 100 boys who are selected by lottery to walk south from Maine, keeping their speed above 4 mph.  If they fall below that speed, they receive a warning.  On their third warning they’re eliminated from the walk in a way I won’t reveal here.  The last boy left in the race wins.  I read and reread “The Long Walk” many times in junior high and high school, and it’s one I can still remember vividly and which I still hold out hope will one day be adapted into a film.

All of which is to say I have a long, pleasurable history with King’s short fiction, and I always look forward to cracking open a new collection of his stories.  Just After Sunset is a generally high-quality collection, although the opener –Willa,” a story of the afterlife – is the weakest of the bunch, which made me a little nervous as I considered the 500 pages still to go.  Props to King who, in his liner notes at the end of the book, as much as admits that it’s not very good but says he gave it pride of place because it’s the first short story he wrote after a fallow period.  After that rough start, it’s pretty smooth sailing the rest of the way.  As I’ve done with previous reviews of collections, what follows are some mini reviews of a few standouts.

“The Gingerbread Girl.” I’ve always found King to be at his best when he doesn’t overcomplicate things.  He can be his own worst enemy sometimes, turning a relatively straightforward tale of horror into a convoluted web of occult and/or extraterrestrial silliness.  There’s none of that here.  It’s a lean and mean tale of survival, with the title character (a woman whose child has died and whose marriage is falling apart) struggling to escape from a killer.  Bare bones, and all the better for it.

Rest Stop.” One of King’s long-standing fascinations is the duality between author and pseudonym (most famously explored in his novel The Dark Half), and he explores it again here in another brutal, no-nonsense thriller.  John Dykstra, a successful crime author who writes under the pen name Rich Hardin, makes a late-night stop at a rest area where he overhears a man abusing his wife in the restroom.  Feeling impotent as himself, Dykstra decides he can use his alter ego for purposes other than publishing books.  King at his darkly funny best.

“The Things They Left Behind.” A melancholy story wherein King struggles to come to grips with 9/11.  Scott Staley worked in an office in the Twin Towers, but decided to call in sick on that horrifying day.  A year later, knickknacks from his co-workers’ cubicles start showing up in his home.  It’s a story about survivor’s guilt and respecting the memory of the departed, and it uses the supernatural to tell us necessary things about living in the here and now.

The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates.” An ineffably sad little story about a woman who periodically receives phone calls from her recently deceased husband.

“Mute.” Maybe the darkest story of the bunch, a salesman named Monette picks up a deaf-mute hitchhiker and proceeds to while away the long drive by telling the man (whom he thinks is sleeping and couldn’t hear him even if he was awake) about his cheating, embezzling wife.  King being King, this encounter has bloody consequences, and it’s framed in a clever way, with Monette relating the encounter to a priest in a confession booth, then periodically flashing back to the drive itself.

“A Very Tight Place.” I’d actually read this story years before when it first appeared in a volume of McSweeney’s.  It’s a scatological, excretory hoot, and not for anyone suffering from squeamishness about bodily functions and/or Port-O-Potties and/or claustrophobia.  What lengths would you go to to escape from one of those cubicles after it’s fallen over and the door blocked?  Reading this story will tell you what one man does.  It’s not for the faint of heart, which means it’s awesome.

This collection doesn’t scale the same heights as Night Shift or Skeleton Crew, but the degree to which King can still crank this stuff out and have it be any good is, at the risk of hyperbole, awe-inspiring.  Most of us would be lucky to see one story through to fruition, where King makes it seem as easy as breathing.  The guy continues to be a treasure.

*****

Current listening:

Dead beelzebubba

The Dead Milkmen – Beelzebubba (1988)

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