When Stephen King isn’t publishing an average of two novels a year, he writes short stories. By this, I mean, he exhales or stretches or gets a chiropractic adjustment and as his joints crackle, the words leap from his essence and onto the page.
I’d erratically read a couple of his short stories in years past, but when I saw an audio book version of Just After Sunset, I took a chance at sustained short story reading/listening. Normally, I’m not one for horror except for in small doses, so this collection ostensibly appealed to me.
The collection contains 13 offerings, most of which have at least a tinge of the supernatural/paranormal. I expected this. However, because I have great deal of respect and admiration for Stephen King as a writer, I have to articulate my partial dissatisfaction with a significant number of the stories. Because King is such a renowned novel writer, it might be my own error to assume all his shorter works should be as equally exquisite. But again, it could be that I’m simply not the person who should read and review horror. (Or it could be that no one wants to tell King his latest submissions aren’t up to snuff, and they publish them anyway, but…). Nevertheless, I will attempt to explain:
In the collection’s fifth story, “Stationary Bike,” the protagonist is an overweight painter who—at the behest of his physician—purchases a stationary bike to get exercise. In a twisting turn of events, his workouts become so vigorous that he’s putting his personified body’s lipids out of work and they subsequently rise up against him. Now, tell me that’s not a great idea? It is. But as I’ve found King occasionally has some “diarrhea of the pen,” taking a narrative beyond where it should have wrapped up. That trait seeps into this tale as after fifty-some pages, the plot is too blurry and wraps up too easily for a satisfactory conclusion. I think this is the issue I have with the other stories too. I keep waiting for something unexpected, something—different. For example, in “The Cat From Hell,” there’s an evil cat and a hitman is supposed to do it in. From the first page, I knew the cat was evil, and was going to kill people. Yet, if my subconscious is being entirely transparent, a part of me wanted to be wrong. I wanted to be surprised by the unexpected, but, when I look back, realize the clues were there all along. But that’s not what happened. The cat behaved exactly as I thought it would, culminating with exactly the conclusion I thought would happen. And so? Meh.
Even in one of the longest stories “N.,” (which to my surprise is being made into a movie), the characters continue passing on a form of OCD which is incidentally saving the world from an alien invasion of sorts—my quota of tension and eventual resolution is filling to the brim—and then, the cycle merely continues. Er. I get the never-ending cycle shtick, but why spend so much time examining one character, couching his story within a story, within a story as thought to say “this is unique!” to only say, “nope, it’s all the same.” It could be done in a lot less space.
If you’re still reading this, you probably don’t have any idea what I’m talking about because it’s difficult to give a summary of a story that is already short. On the plus side, I do recommend (it turns out), the shortest of the short stores. These include “Harvey’s Dream,”—a husband recounts his previous night’s dream while his wife begins to notice the dream is slowly happening in reality—“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates”—a wife’s dead husband calls her on the landline, but his cell phone battery is running low—and “Graduation Afternoon”—a high school teenager is consumed with all her extraneous social graces and whimsical future planning, but her life and the life of everyone she knows is about to change in a literal instant.
These three stories worked, I think, because King forced himself to be brief. In such a small space, you must be profound, must say something worthwhile because there isn’t anything else to divert a reader’s attention. I imagine this is the goal of all fiction, but here it is imperative. If King’s Just After Sunset collection has not greatly impressed me, it does leave me with this exhortation: If you’re going to say it—in any length—make it matter. 2.5/5 stars.