I read the bulk of my Stephen King in those wonder years before my teens, the same period during which I collected comic books and gorged on horror movies that approximately 70% sucked. I was attracted, like most people I suppose, to the promise of something morbid, traumatic or fantastic, maybe all three. But, surprisingly, I stayed for the realism. So often with those King novels, once the mechanics of their supernatural conceits began to fully reveal themselves in all their half-baked stratagems, my interest in the undead pets or the car from hell or the apocalyptic battle royale would rapidly begin to drain away. King seemed to be this knack for taking something that seemed best shrouded in mystery and dragging it out into the light where he could overwork it at length. Yet there was something in King’s portraits of lower to middle class life in small to medium sized communities, of ordinary disappointments and frustrations with marriage and kids, health problems or booze problems, with jobs or school, that kept me caring, wondering, reading. They probably taught me something. They were greasy kid’s stuff, but they were about real adults.
I’ve rarely returned to King since. I got rid of a lot of them. My tastes just went in a very, very different direction. But every once in a while, like a whisper from some unseen entity, they call me back. I saw King give a speech last year at a festival in Toronto where he was warmly introduced by no less a heavyweight than Margaret Atwood. King was lively, bright, articulate, unpretentious as always, and totally hilarious. I forgot how funny he could be. He told a story about AC/DC and hip-hop I still repeat to friends, though without the same finesse. And I forgot how frequently he was still cranking out books, some of which were actually supposed to be good, maybe even his best. So I finally got around to it, not to revisiting King, but rather catching up with him.
Just After Sunset (Scribner, $32) is King’s latest collection of stories. Seemed like a good place to get reacquainted. I remembered how much I once loved some of the stories in Skeleton Crew, ‘Nona’ and ‘The Mist,’ or in Night Shift, ‘Grey Matter’ and ‘I Know What you Need.’ What the man could do with forbidding weather and stale beer! But I forgot however how wildly King can over-write. It all came hurtling back to me with brain-piercing clarity as I trudged through ‘The Gingerbread Girl,’ the first, soppier half of which reads like late Michener, the last half of which finds our heroine duct-taped to a chair and being chased by a one-dimensional psycho killer for what feels like an eternity. “You’re making me mad, Lady Jane!” says psycho. “No, you were already mad. As in hatter,” parries woman-in-peril, if only in her mind. At least she knows when a line stinks too bad to be spoken aloud.
Thing is, when you’re Stephen King, you pretty much publish whatever the hell you want, and if you squeezed it out on a whim but still deem it fit for print it’s hardly like some idiot editor’s going to suggest you do some trimming or even, you know, reject the story. What, do they not like money? Or readers? (‘The Gingerbread Girl’ was first published in Esquire, if you were curious.) Fortunately, for those readers patiently working through Just After Sunset, the lesser tales are fairly easy to identify in the first pages, and the better ones, it turns out, occur with greater frequency.
Logorrhea’s a funny thing. It can make fiction an endless plod through a blizzard in a T-shirt or a warm bath after a glass of wine, depending on what lies beneath the flow of words. So while I’d argue that one of Just After Sunset’s briefest stories is in fact one of its finest and most eloquent—the seven-page, crisply rendered and richly imagistic ‘Graduation Afternoon,’ in which a young woman on the cusp of adulthood finds the fleeting nature of youth reflected in an actual apocalypse—I’d still have to concede that some of the longer, more rambling stories possess an immersive quality that can arise only when the author’s allowed to luxuriate a while in his creation. I think especially of ‘N.’ In this longer story, composed of letters and transcripts, we’re gradually ushered into the apparent psychosis of an accountant suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder after visiting a hidden field that, by his own accounts, refuses to be photographed. The layering of and emphasis on counting works wonders—the accountant counts compulsively, he carefully recounts his story—while the sense of voice lulls us as it chills us, drawing us in in the tradition of some of the best 19th century tales of psychological collapse.
There’s also ‘Stationary Bike,’ another excellent description of the strange, troubling little items that can manifest and accumulate in private. After visiting a doctor who warns against obesity, a commercial artist buys a stationary bike that he rides in the basement of his apartment building while staring at a mural of a landscape he’s painted on the wall. He feels as though he's literally riding into the landscape. He buys maps... What’s most compelling is the way King makes his protagonist so down to earth and unreflective. He starts to work on strange paintings in his spare time without knowing why, and before we know it King himself is engaging in a process that’s probably hard for reader or writer to be entirely aware of as it unfolds. He’s making life on the page feel comfortably everyday before slowly allowing some corner of the frame to reveal a flaw and infect the story’s life-image as a whole. It’s a considerable gift for any author to possess, and for all his occasional indulgences, sentimentalizing or unwillingness to accept a dumb, sub-pulpy idea as just dumb sub-pulp, King seems to have this gift locked into his DNA. And I’d wager a guess that it’s this very quality that bridges the gaps between so many readers of all walks of life, and keeps calling us back.