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)

We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race

Chabon werewolvesThese days I come to short story collections cautiously.

I don’t blame the stories.  It’s my own fault.

Six years ago, as I was working on my Ph.D., my advisor and I decided that in order to make myself more marketable to Departments of English in various schools I should specialize in something literature-based.  This was an intimidating thought.  My undergrad degree was in English Education, my Master’s degree was in Language, Literacy, and Composition, and even though I had ten years of teaching high school English under my belt, I didn’t feel I had anything worth saying.  The three times I attempted graduate classes in literature were unqualified failures.  The first (Literature of the Persecuted in Central America) and second (Irish Literature) ended in the class being canceled and my withdrawal, respectively.  I managed to hang with the third (20th Century Literature) for the duration of a semester, if you consider “hanging with” to involve saying as little as possible and trying desperately to blend into the wallpaper.  I sat in that class and listened to the true English graduate students offer their informed opinions on the texts we were reading and wondered what the hell I was doing, trying to pass myself off as one of them.  I enjoyed what we were reading, but I clearly didn’t have the chops to engage in the kind of discussions they were having.

So the thought of specializing in a field of literature – to the point where I would write one of my qualifying exams on that field and then, horror of horrors, speak intelligently about it in job interviews – filled me with a vague sense of panic.  In talking to my infinitely patient advisor, we came to the conclusion that I could specialize in the American short story.  It’s ground less well-traveled than, say, Shakespeare (which increased the chance that I could actually make a contribution to the field), and the acknowledged masters of the form aren’t so numerous that their work would be insurmountable.

But still.

Even choosing only six authors on which to focus meant I would still read over a hundred short stories.  In the space of two months I read the complete short fiction of Poe, Hemingway, Cheever, O’Connor, Carver, and Faulkner.  I also read selected works from more contemporary authors like Boyle, Hempel, and Saunders, and scrounged up what little theory I could find on the short story as a genre.  I was already a fan of Carver and Boyle, and many of Poe’s stories were branded on my memory from a very early age, but, six years on, I remember very little of the rest of it.   The usual suspects stand out, of course – Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”; O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; Cheever’s “The Swimmer”; Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” – but my only substantial memory of that time is of poring through story after story in my advisor’s office, pausing only to jot down brief impressions of each upon completion, ostensibly so I would never forget them.

That worked out well.

Fast forward to 2014, and I find myself (perhaps understandably) reticent to read short story collections.  In the times I’ve tried, I reach the end, flip back to the table of contents, and discover that I can’t attach a single plot to any of the titles.  My attention span for short stories was ruined in 2008.  It’s akin to someone who gets roaring, blackout drunk one night and can never drink that type of alcohol again.

I have a six-year-long short story hangover.

It’s good news, then, that the first short story collection in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is by Michael Chabon, one of my favorite authors, and a man who writes sentences so indelible that I can’t help but remember the stories from which they came.  Werewolves in Their Youth is comprised of nine stories, many of which hinge on the tenuous threads that bind family members together.  A few of my favorites:

“Werewolves in Their Youth.” Childhood friendships are odd.  Frequently born of geography as much as by shared interest, it’s worth wondering how many of those early relationships would have happened without the benefit of being next-door neighbors.  In my experience – and the experience of this story’s main character, 4th grader Paul – friends are just as often enemies, and the line separating the two is blurry at best.  I fought with my next-door neighbor as frequently as we played, and as soon as we entered high school we ceased talking altogether.  In this story, Paul – an elementary school oddball who spends his recess time in isolation, playing with ants – realizes that his next-door neighbor Timothy, the class outcast who he thinks is his enemy, is actually his only friend.  It’s a bittersweet look at the nature of friendship and how trauma (in this case, Paul’s parents’ divorce) can strengthen our bond with others.

“Son of the Wolfman.” For better or worse, one of my main goals in life is to avoid conflict.  I do what I need to do to get along, even as it gnaws at my gut.  Like Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan, I don’t get angry; I grow a tumor.  So it was with growing discomfort that I realized the degree to which I related to the character of Richard in this story.  But first, Cara.  Victim of a serial rapist, Cara is at first horrified to learn that she’s been impregnated by her attacker, even though she and Richard have tried for twelve years to have a child of their own.  She eventually decides to carry the rapist’s baby to term.  Richard, however, doesn’t act as we would expect.  As their marriage crumbles around him, he maintains his equanimity, avoiding conflict and maintaining the position that whatever Cara wants is fine, regardless of the personal cost to him.  It’s a story that challenges traditional gender roles, and it made me wonder at what point conflict avoidance does more harm than good.

“Green’s Book.” The squirmiest story of the bunch.  In this one, Marty, father to four-year-old Jocelyn, is at a neighborhood party where he encounters Ruby, a girl in her early 20s who he – there’s no polite way to put it – nearly molested when he was thirteen and she was four.  The residual guilt of this encounter, brought to the fore by Ruby’s presence at the party and her subsequent flirtation with him, has affected the way he interacts with his daughter, to the point where he’s reluctant even to bathe her.   “Green’s Book” raises all kinds of problematic issues about the power of the past to influence our relationships in the present, and to what degree we remain responsible for actions in our early years.

The remainder of the stories are as good as we would expect from Chabon, profound and very, very funny, with a knack for crafting lines that cut right to the heart of the matter.  Take this one, from “Mrs. Box,” on the demise of the protagonist’s marriage:

There had been an extramarital kiss, entrepreneurial disaster, a miscarried baby, sexual malaise, and then very soon they had been forced to confront the failure of an expedition for which they had set out remarkably ill-equipped, like a couple of trans-Arctic travelers who through lack of preparation find themselves stranded and are forced to eat their dogs.

The entertaining capper is the final story in the collection, “In the Black Mill.”  Supposedly written by August Van Zorn (an author discovered by Grady Tripp, who is himself the protagonist of Chabon’s Wonder Boys), this story is pure genre pulp, a Lovecraftian horror story about an archeology grad student exploring the likelihood that the members of an ancient Native American tribe were actually cannibals.  It’s an anomaly in a collection that otherwise deals with the profundity of minutiae, but it’s such a fun finale that it would be churlish to complain.  I love every single one of Chabon’s novels, but his short fiction is so good that I’ll be more willing in the future to overlook my resistance to the genre.

Next up in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, Book #4, the monster under my bed, the cancer diagnosis waiting to happen, the unopened letter from the I.R.S., it’s Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

*****

Current listening:

Aislers last

The Aislers Set – The Last Match (2000)