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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 doing.

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 tragedy.

"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 throats.

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 heart.

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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