by Stephen King
547 pages, Hodder Headline
Review by Pat Black
Here at Booksquawk, we like to give a bit of space to the young Turks of the writing scene. A little helping hand to those just starting out in their literary careers, in an increasingly tough marketplace.
Our latest up n’ comer is Stephen King, a fella who lives in Maine, USA. His debut fiction work is a book of short stories, all with nasty little barbs and twists – sometimes descending into outright horror. It’s about ordinary people living their ordinary lives, until something out of the ordinary comes around and messes with them.
Well, okay, much of what you read above is made up. I did the maths – on my fingers as usual – and was astonished to discover that this is the first stand-alone Stephen King work of fiction I’ve bought and read since I was eighteen. And that was a... Jeezo, a long time ago now. Since then, I’ve been through On Writing and Black House, his last collaboration with Peter Straub, but this felt more like the real deal. Kind of like I’d come home.
I’ve heard it said that when it comes to art, you have it for a while, and then you lose it. Rock bands slow down when the members get married and have kids; writers turn into drunks and go over the hump or kill themselves. The tools get blunted, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway.
But not this guy. I can’t answer for the later novels, but these stories are right up there with the best of King’s stuff (they would appear in Night Shift and Skeleton Key, I am sure). He is in his sixties now, but you’d never really know it. The voice is the same as it was when he was thirty years younger. If there’s a difference to be found, it is in the tone – and we’ll come to that later.
What surprised me about Just After Sunset was that King has lost absolutely no powers in making you turn the pages. When I was at school, there was a cruel little riff we used to use in class when someone clever put their hand up or read something out. My friends and I would pick up dictionaries then flick the pages open and closed at lightning speed, before looking dazed afterwards – like we’d read the book in two seconds, and were exhausted by the process. (The poor girl I’m thinking about who was the target of this playful abuse is now doing well for herself in psychology. And that’s a very firm two fingers to us, from karma.) I felt like I’d done the same with this collection. In these days of increasingly constrained reading time, it’s a marvel to not only enjoy a long book in a couple of sittings, but to want to completely finish it long after it’s time for cocoa and pyjamas.
King also retains his ability to take the mundane and the prosaic and turn it into something of dread and horror. This was sent up beautifully in the past couple of years on a Family Guy skit, where the animated Stephen King is talking to his agent about new ideas – and he clearly does not have any. “Um, well, my new book is about, um, this couple, and they go out into the woods, and... They are attacked by a... By a...” Sweating, King sees a lamp on the agent’s desk. He snatches it up. “A lamp!” He clicks it on and off. “See! Whooo. Lamp... Laaaaamp.”
“You’re not even trying any more, are you?” the agent says.
I snickered at this... but you know, I bet you Stephen King actually would write a story about an evil lamp. A damned good one. And although there’d be humour in it – there always is with King – you wouldn’t laugh, outright. It could be a night light, which turns into an evil eye when mum and dad put their baby into the cot. Perhaps it can focus its heat into a death ray. Maybe it was made by Old Herb the electrician with a strange metal that fell from the sky on the night the meteors passed overhead Springsley Falls, Maine... What do you say, Uncle Stevie, are you up for it?
The stories, then. Well, the best of them was “N.” An epistolary piece charting a psychiatrist’s treatment of the eponymous patient. This man has very pronounced obsessive-compulsive disorder, but there is very much a method to his madness. It’s all to do with incantations and charms to ward off a Lovecraftian evil that lurks in a remote field, with its eight... or is it seven?... ancient standing stones. Simply classic King, recalling “Children of the Corn”. I think I broke my speed-reading record.
“The Gingerbread Girl” is a locked-in-a-room suspense thriller involving a bereaved woman who likes to run out on the beach as a form of therapy as much as exercise. This being Stephen King, though, she hasn’t quite suffered enough, and so she encounters a serial killer who is the only other person on a remote peninsula one morning. This is more of a novella, I’d say – easily breaking 20,000 words, possibly more (those numbers again; I’m so poor with them, not much chance of me turning OCD or A Beautiful Mind, there). With my editor’s hat on – one of those funky see-through wraparound green plastic ones – I’d say that you could have chopped an awful lot of it. Thinking back to Gerald’s Game and even Cujo, King does have a habit of keeping his stories going far longer than other writers. But they don’t outstay their welcome. In Gingerbread Girl, you’re so wrapped in this girl’s story, her family, where she’s going, that you don’t mind that the tale is taking its time in unfolding. And when the villain appears – and what a creepy, horrible bugger of a villain – there’s a feeling of changing gear smoothly as you go turn onto the motorway. The girl is firmly trussed up in a psycho’s kitchen while he goes out on an errand; what can she do before he comes back and butchers her, just like all the others?
This how-do-I-get-out locked room suspense story is one of King’s specialties, and he repeats the trick in another novella, “A Tight Spot”. The spot in question is a portable toilet, in which the protagonist is trapped after his nemesis puts him in there at gunpoint... before pushing it over, blocking the door against the ground. This isn’t one to read on your lunch break. One endearing thing about Uncle Stevie is that in his occasionally homespun, folksy, ordinary-Joe way, he quite likes to play “pull my finger” now and again. Some kids giggle, some get grossed out, some are offended. It reminds me of another King story I read in an anthology one time, about a pregnant hotel maid who gets a very strange food craving while she cleans up the rooms. It’s not for everybody.
But what’s most curious about this book is the tone. I want to say it is elegiac, but it’s got a more upbeat quality to it than that. It’s not quite valedictory either – although I do sense that these stories were written by a man not entirely comfortable with each passing birthday. This book deals with death, but not in the traditional, gleeful way of the King of old. Cancer is referenced several times – the sickness, the yellowness of it. The death that doesn’t come spectacularly and bloodily, but slow, slow and horrible.
“Graduation Day” takes a beautiful young girl – not a nice one, it has to be said – right at the crossroads of adolescence and adulthood, and obliterated along with everything else by an almost-forgotten horror. “Harvey’s Dream”, in which a bumptious father’s strange premonitions of something bad happening to his family start to come true with ugly precision, has similar things on its mind.
The events of September 11, 2001 haunt this collection. The sense that what you have can get ripped away from you all of a sudden... and the hope that when it does, that this is not the end. This is made clear in “The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates”, where a man whose plane has crashed into a building in the Big Apple makes a call to his wife from the afterlife. Similar in tone is the opener, “Willa”, which concerns a group of stranded travellers waiting at a station in the middle of nowhere suddenly realising that not all is what it seems.
And finally and obviously, there’s “The Things They Left Behind”, a quite masterful treatment of the incident itself. Although some might find that the horror of 9/11 is more than enough to consider on its own without any supernatural elements, King handles it brilliantly and without hysteria or bombast. It is the story of a man who decided to call in sick one fine late summer’s day, only to watch his place of work and everyone in it destroyed on television later. The part I remember most vividly is where King focuses on one thing – a falling body – and both chills and reassures us in the same sentence. It’s a breathtaking image in a tale that deals with survivor guilt, hope, and the connections that the living can make to get themselves through their moments of grief and pain. It’s a magisterial performance. And to think that there are some who would sniff at Stephen King. I sometimes think the worst thing he ever wrote was when he said he was “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”.
Similarly, there is “Stationary Bike”, in which an artist gets addicted to exercise on what I like to call an adult hamster wheel. In order to stave off boredom during his workouts, he paints a mural of a road in which he can immerse himself as he cycles. But soon, he begins to be haunted by his own daydreamings and delusions. I’m not sure I agree with King’s conclusions in this story, but it adds in to the conciliatory nature of the collection as a whole. “Mute”, which features confessions of two very different sorts, and “Ayana”, where miracles can and do happen, continue the theme. Reflective, like if you’re ever in a church before a service, and the old biddies light their candles and say their prayers.
Perhaps this stems from the moment when King almost became a personalised bumper sticker for some guy’s van back in 1999. Or perhaps he’s just getting that wee bit older, more aware of the ticking clock... (Aren’t we all?) I’m not sure. He’s still Uncle Stevie, all the same. Just as good as he ever was.
And for anyone wishing for a burst of that old-time cynicism – some ghoulish laughter, a dash of bloodthirsty glee – then check out “The Cat From Hell”. He wrote it before he was famous, and apparently it’s been a collector’s item for King fans for a long time. You won’t find much comfort and joy in that tale; nor will you look the same way again at Tiddles when you put him out.
In your dark doorway.
In your dark house.
In the dark night.
Whooo! It’s a.... a cat, you see? A cat! See? Whooooo!