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Onyx reviews: Just After Sunset
by Stephen King
Stephen King is trying to make his readers go blind. That's the only
conclusion one can draw after seeing the distorted cover of his new short story
collection, his first since 2002's Everything's Eventual. Compared to the
elegant cover of his last collection, this one belies the more literary bent to
many of the new stories.
In 2006, King edited the Best American Short Stories anthology (he
dedicates Just After Sunset to his co-editor on that project), an
experience that re-opened his eyes to the short form, which he had been largely
ignoring in favor of his long novels. Short stories, after all, don't appeal to
as large an audience as books do, often appearing in obscure magazines like Tin
House, The Paris Review, McSweeney's or PostScripts, or
in anthologies such as Transgressions and From the Borderlands.
Those are some of the places where the tales in Just After Sunset
first appeared. Others include better-known venues, such as Esquire, The
New Yorker, Playboy, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science
Fiction. The stories range in scope from brief, disturbing studies inspired
by dreams or real-world events to novellas inspired by subjects as diverse as
portable toilets and overheard arguments.
Over half the stories in the collection were first published between late
2006 and late 2008. Three are from 2003, one from 2005 and one has never been
published before. Rounding out the book is a thirty-year-old story.
The collection opens with "Willa," a Waiting for Godot-like
story that takes place after a train derailment leaves passengers stranded in a
small depot in the middle of nowhere. The existential truth behind the story
isn't hard to guess, but the execution of the story is exquisite.
"Willa" could easily be envisioned as a play with stark staging and
selective lighting to switch between the train station and the blues club in
nearby Crowheart Springs, Wyoming where the band is called, not surprisingly,
The Derailers. This is only the first of several stories in the collection that
reflect King's advancing age and the question of what comes next.
"Run, run as fast as you can . . . no one can catch the gingerbread
man!" The children's story of a cookie that evaded capture by a little old
woman, a little old man, a cow and a pig (but not from a fox) has been told for
over a century. King uses it as the inspiration for "The Gingerbread
Girl," one of his first Florida-based stories. The protagonist, Emily, runs
along the beaches of Vermillion Key, similar to the Gulf Coast island where King
now spends his winters. Like Edgar Freemantle in Duma Key, Emily has some
healing to do, though hers is psychological after the death of her baby from
SIDS. Edgar walked—Emily runs, farther and farther each day. It's a metaphor of
course—she's running away from her loss and from her husband, who no longer
knows how to react to her. Like several other characters in this collection, she
suffers obsessive-compulsive behavior in the wake of personal tragedy.
It's the off-season when she arrives at her father's place on Vermillion Key,
so she has the island to herself—until one of the rich neighbors arrives with
his latest "niece." The drawbridge operator warns Emily to steer clear
of the man, and for good reason. Like Curtis in "A Very Tight Place,"
Emily soon finds herself in a bind. After she discovers a body in the trunk of a
car at the rich neighbor's estate, Emily puts her recently acquired aptitude for
running to good use. As she tells herself, it's as if she's been training for
this day all along. "The Gingerbread Girl" demonstrates King's
aptitude for crime fiction, and the tale delivers a good dollop of suspense
without a hint of anything supernatural.
"Harvey's Dream" is the oldest of the 21st century stories in Just
After Sunset, a déjà vu story that calls to mind "That Feeling, You
Can Only Say What It Is in French." Janet and Harvey, a long-married
couple, have gotten beyond the "comfortable with each other" phase in
life to the "what's going to happen to us when he retires and is home all
the time" stage. Love has been replaced by "not wanting to hurt his
feelings." All of this insightful and acutely detailed description of a
marriage that exists on inertia is the backdrop for the core of the story,
wherein Harvey relates a nightmare that caused him to scream himself awake.
Janet isn't sure she wants to hear the dream, especially once she realizes that
details from it are true—like the new dent in the neighbor's car that she saw
earlier in the morning but Harvey couldn't have known about. His dream becomes
increasingly chilling, leading up to a parent's worst nightmare: a phone call
bringing bad news about a child. The story is a vignette, but it has profound
impact made all the more real by the dissection of this couple's sorry life.
King has often written about writers, and has even explored the frightening
possibility of a pseudonym coming to life after being retired by its creator. In
"Rest Stop," King returns to this well for a story about a writer
whose alter ego rises to the occasion during a confrontation. While traveling
along a Florida highway, a university professor who writes thrillers under a pen
name muses on the transition between his two personas. In Jacksonville, he is
suspense novelist Rick Hardin—in Sarasota, mild mannered English professor John
Dykstra. But who is he while en route between the two locations?
Full of beer, he pulls into a rest stop in the throes of his Jekyll and Hyde
transition. It's a familiar stop, where he once saw an alligator in the parking
lot. This time he encounters something far worse—a domestic dispute between two
drunks, the type of situation any seasoned police officer will identify as being
among the most dangerous calls to handle. King paints a compelling and sadly
familiar portrait of a dysfunctional relationship, where the two antagonists
suddenly unite against an outside force. Dykstra dithers over how to handle the
situation and concludes that dialing 911 isn't enough. He has to bring in the
reinforcements, and that means summoning his inner Rick Hardin. The only problem
is—once Dykstra lets Hardin out to play, there's no telling what he's capable of
In "Stationary Bike," Richard Sifkitz is a mildly overweight
freelance artist whose doctor recommends an exercise regimen to get his weight
and cholesterol level both south of 200. Like Patrick Danville in The Dark Tower
and Edgar Freemantle in Duma Key, something brings Richard's artistry
skills to life. Bored from staring at the wall as he exercises on his new
stationary bike, Richard decides to paint a country road on the wall in front of
him so he can pretend he's going somewhere as he spins the wheels. He becomes
obsessed with his exercise regimen, shedding pounds and cholesterol points as he
travels his imaginary road for hours every day. When he tries to cut himself off
from his workout regimen, he suffers withdrawal symptoms.
Like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Richard's painting begins to change
subtly. When he adds litter to the side of the road, by the next morning
imaginary workman—the metaphor his doctor used to describe his metabolic
processes—have cleaned it up. He no longer enjoys an idyllic ride through the
woods. He feels that someone is pursuing him, and his life is in danger. As the
final section heading announces, the story has "Not Quite the Ending
Everyone Expected." As he has done in several recent books, King explores
the metaphysical relationship between an artist and his creations. If Richard
created the workers in his paintings who come to life, angry that his diet is
putting them out of work (like George Stark in The Dark Half is mad over
being killed off as a pseudonym), who's to say that Richard himself isn't the
creation of some other artist?
Eventually, most authors are compelled to address 9/11. The title of King's
novella "The Things They Left Behind" brings to mind Tim O'Brien's
Vietnam collection The Things They Carried. King's story is about
survivor guilt. Scott Staley was supposed to be at work in the twin towers on
the day of the terrorist attack, but he listened to a voice in his head (one he
associates with the godfather of soul, James Brown) that told him it was a fine
day to spend in the park instead. A year later, he starts finding odd things in
his Manhattan apartment. Sunglasses, a baseball bat, a conch shell, a penny
encased in Lucite—all things he recognizes as having belonged to his coworkers,
as inexplicable as the items that rain from the sky in "Why We're in
Vietnam." Things that should have been destroyed when the towers fell. When
he tries to throw them away, they return.
Along with his job, Scott lost all of his friends on 9/11, so he has no one
to talk to about this mystery. Neither can he get an appointment with a
therapist, because the disaster proved to be a boon for counselors—they're all
booked up. He resorts to the only person available: a woman in his apartment
building he's only met in passing. Though Paula proves to be an attentive
listener, she can't accept that a "trapdoor opened between reality and the
twilight zone and these things fell out." On a whim, though, she asks him
to give her one of the objects. Like the therapist in "N." she becomes
infected with Scott's madness. The object speaks to her, recounting the final
moments of its owners life. The punch line of the story is Scott's innovative
solution to his problem, and a poignant memorial to the victims of a modern
"Graduation Afternoon" is the collection's shortest entry, a
strange little tale that takes place during a graduation party, where Janice and
her boyfriend Buddy are coming to terms with the likelihood that fate is pulling
them in different directions. Buddy (real name: Brice, which says a lot about
his family) comes from wealth, whereas Janice is a "townie." His
parents tolerate her, though his grandmother was overheard saying unkind things
about her during the party. All of this is setup for the inexplicable event that
ends the story. Like some literary tales, stories end at the point of a new
beginning for characters, and the transition King offers (possibly incited by
withdrawal from a prescribed pain killer following his 1999 accident, he admits)
is about as clean a slate as there can be.
The centerpiece of Just After Sunset is the only previously unpublished tale,
"N." This initial designation is the way a therapist identifies one of
his patients, the subject of a possible research paper. The patient had a series
of strange experiences in a remote field and believes he has acquired a
contagious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He also thinks he has become
the gatekeeper for a stone circle that is keeping demons from other worlds from
pouring across the dimensions.
Told in the form of a few letters, a newspaper clipping and Dr. Bonsaint's
case notes, "N." is a tribute to the classic Arthur Machen tale
"The Great God Pan," a predecessor to Lovecraft's stories about Elder
Gods who regularly interfered with life on earth. King uses an excerpt from the
story as the book's epigram and says in the story notes that he believes every
genre author must at some point in their careers tackle the story's theme—that
reality is thin. It's a central idea in much of King's work, most notably in his
Dark Tower series, where people cross from one reality to another, but are often
imperiled by creatures that live between the dimensions.
If there's an outsider in this collection, it is "The Cat From
Hell." This is old-era King, a story that started as a writing contest in a
men's magazine where King contributed the opening paragraphs based on a
photograph of a ferocious-looking feline. Readers were then invited to complete
the story. King was so intrigued that he finished the story, which has appeared
in several anthologies over the years. At the time of the release of Nightmares
and Dreamscapes, King said that he had collected all of the older stories he
considered worthy of republishing, but "The Cat From Hell" apparently
eluded his notice. The ending of this "killer for hire gets his due"
tale seems grotesque simply for shock value and the story fits poorly in style,
tone and quality with the rest of the collection.
Of the briefer tales in the collection, "The New York Times at
Special Bargain Rates" packs the strongest punch. While the rest of her
family is downstairs planning her husband's funeral, Annie answers the phone to
find him on the other end of the line. He's calling from a place akin to the
train station in "Willa," a Grand Central purgatory of sorts. For a
moment she entertains the thought that he somehow survived the plane crash. He
tells her he's the only victim who's been able to get through to the other side,
perhaps because he was on his phone trying to reach her at the time of the
accident. His battery is running out, though, so their time together is limited.
He offers her advice and warnings, but because time runs oddly where he is,
their place in the chronology of her life is difficult to assess.
In "Mute," a man confesses to a priest that he has committed a sin,
though he's not exactly sure what the transgression was. A traveling salesman,
he picks up a hitchhiker the day after his adulterous, larcenous wife moves into
a motel with her lover. His passenger is a deaf-mute who can neither read nor
lip-read. His silence encourages the salesman to confess the sad details of his
life. He vents and spews about his wife and the myriad ways she's offended him,
secure in the knowledge that the man can't hear him. "Mute" is
something of a shaggy dog story, little more than a setup for a twist ending.
It's full of trademark King characterization, but there's not much to the tale
by the time the last Hail Mary has been uttered.
"Ayana" is the sort of story everyone's heard before—an
inexplicable incident that took place at the time of someone's death. Awakening
in the night after dreaming about a person at that very moment he or she died. A
shadowy figure appearing at the foot of the bed to say goodbye. Comforting
stories meant to console people when someone dies. The main character in "Ayana"
tells of the time when his father seemed to be dying of cancer. A black woman
and a young blind black girl—the Ayana of the story's title—entered his room.
The narrator isn't the only one to see them—his wife, brother and sister-in-law
(all deceased by the time he tells his story) did as well. Ayana is kin to John
Coffey from The Green Mile, the clichéd "magical black" character.
The narrator admits: "Miracle stories are always interesting but rarely
satisfying because they're all the same." Suffice to say that the cancer
vanishes and the narrator's father lasts several more years until felled by a
banal accident. His doctors try to explain away the miraculous recovery by
claiming the original diagnosis was faulty. The narrator, however, acquires
Ayana's talents and performs random acts of healing over the ensuing years until
he reaches the end of a cosmic assignment he never signed up for. The story is
probably meant to be warm and fuzzy but, as King warned, isn't terribly
satisfying when all is said and done.
Robert Frost once wrote, "Good fences make good neighbors." Decent
advice, unless the fence in question happens to be electrified. An electric
fence is the proverbial straw that breaks the already fractured friendship
between Curtis Johnson and Tim Grunwald. Curtis's new nickname for his neighbor
is often heard at the end of a Bruce Willis cry that begins "Yippie-ki-yay".
Curtis, the protagonist of the novella "A Very Tight Place" that
closes the collection, made his millions on the stock market. He's a moderately
athletic fifty-something gay man who wants to acquire a vacant lot on Turtle
Island to ensure that his view of the Gulf isn't despoiled by one of Grunwald's
ugly, sprawling condo projects. Grunwald's health and finances have both been
failing lately, which gives Curtis perverse delight.
The senile owner of the contested property took earnest money from both
Curtis and Grunwald and the witnesses' signatures on the contracts are being
disputed, so the land has been tied up in the courts for two years. The
aforementioned electric fence—and the tragedy it causes—leads to another
lawsuit. The men are constantly in each other's thoughts and at each other's
Angst over the stock market and stress caused by the conflict has turned
Curtis into an obsessive compulsive with dandruff and a perverse need to make
himself gag. And gag he does when he gets trapped in a blue Port-O-Sans toilet
at an abandoned construction project in a remote part of Charlotte County on a
hot summer day. Readers aware of how Andy Dufresne escaped prison in "Rita
Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" will find themselves in familiar
territory once the, uh, crap hits the fan. What Curtis has to endure as he
struggles to free himself from his odiferous prison isn't for the faint of
Reminiscent of Poe's "A Premature Burial," the story is a mix of
classic and modern King—old, gritty terrors interpreted through experienced
eyes. When it comes time for the final showdown between these former friends and
now mortal enemies, King doesn't take the obvious route, even when he sets
circumstances up to make it look like he will. This is a dark story about the
power of humiliation and spite to get someone through dreadful circumstances and
how a symbol of grief can become an amulet of hope.
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