When I first tried to read Just After Sunset by Stephen King, his latest collection of short stories, last year upon release, I almost brought the book back to the store. The introduction seemed promising in that a man who tends to over-think his stories to the point of over-complication and grotesque bloating of paper-thin plots was going back to a simpler, more visceral style. Write the story, edit the story, be done with the story. Which is why the confusing mess of the first two-thirds of opening story "Willa" led me to believe King shot out another catastrophe ala Blaze. Wisely, I put the book aside and began reading it again two weeks ago.
What a difference a year makes. While not as accomplished as 2002's Everything's Eventual (what horror collection is nowadays?), Just After Sunset is ultimately a worthy to King's uneven cannon. The prevailing theme that links all of the stories is death. More correctly: how do we perceive our own deaths and will we even know when we die?
"Willa" is sloppy for the first two-thirds. Then the story opens up to a touching vision of the afterlife far removed from anything else in the collection. This afterlife offers hope and joy if the characters realize they have passed on; those that don't are stuck waiting for the train that will never arrive. The concept is there, but like a few other stories in the collection, King is more than willing to admit the story didn't turn out great. Maybe he'll revisit it someday and produce something more polished. The emotional resonance without quirky layers (funny sayings on bathroom walls, psychotic waiters, school shootings, etc.) is refreshing from King who sometimes substitutes a gimmick for a plot.
"The Gingerbread Girl" and "Stationary Bike" may make you reconsider the necessity of your fitness regime. In one, a woman who lost a baby becomes obsessed with running, leading her right into the clutches of a dangerous man in an abandoned resort town. In the other, a man creates an exercise oasis wherein his body is manifested by a construction crew who grow to dislike his new healthy lifestyle. The stories are great novel concepts with interesting characters and high levels of tension. I'm normally leary of King's almost-novella length stories, yet these two work well.
The same cannot be said for "The Things They Left Behind" or "A Very Tight Place." I respect King for having the courage to write "The Things They Left Behind." Not many writers are willing to address the events of 9/11 for fear of upsetting people, but King admits to writing this story specifically to deal with his own feelings about the terrorist attacks that day. It's a mess of a story based on a gimmick of forgotten office items speaking to a survivor and probably could have been half as long without really losing anything. "A Very Tight Place" is the infamous port-a-potty story and actually delivers the goods when the man is locked inside. Too bad most of the story is over by the time the plot is actually set into motion. The villain is a flat foil of homophobia manifested through insanity and detracts from what could have been an interesting, albeit disgusting, escape story.
Stephen King tackles H.P. Lovecraft in "N." without ever admitting he pulled inspiration from Lovecraft. It's quite clear when the unseen monster is named "Cthun" and is a manifestation of man's insecurities, capable of manipulating physical matter and driving a man insane, that the reference is Cthulhu. Instead of admitting as much in the "Author's Notes", King babbles on about tackling OCD like any good writer should. Maybe he assumes the reference is so clear no one will mistake him. Whatever the case, "N." is an engaging story more akin to the unreliable narrators of Poe than a modern psychological exploration or Lovecraftian piece of weird fiction.
Speaking of the "Author's Notes", they're terrible. I look forward to reading King's writings on King because he normally provides an insightful look into his creative process and what drives him as an author. Instead, it seems like these were tacked on to his quickly written stories because of expectations. I would rather have had no notes than be left with these uninspired comments.
When Stephen King is stuck writing about the evils of text-messaging, crazy cars, and giant Simpsonian domes, it's nice to see the author capable of creating fright and emotional resonance without resorting to completely outrageous gimmicks. There are ghosts, there are unlucky cats, there are demons, and there are internal terrors. What more could a horror fan want?