Just After Sunset

By Stephen King

Though no friend to reviewers, Stephen King honours the prickly tribe with a special treat in the author’s notes appearing at the back of this new collection of stories. Though deprecating their importance (“random thoughts that may or may not be of interest”), he is no doubt aware that they are catnip to critics – those same perverse people compelled to listen to both the feature-length commentaries on the Day of the Dead DVD (and they are both terrible, by the way). The reason King knows this is because he is a critic himself, a writer with a self-interested, and sometimes self-regarding, curiosity about the nature of his trade. He is one of only a few major contemporary authors to regularly take a hand in critical writing. He recently wrote a book on the craft (On Writing), and in 2007 served as editor of the annual Best American Short Stories – an experience that gave him the itch he scratches here. And of course within his fiction he frequently has his characters (often writers or artists of another stripe) engage in the same kind of self-reflexive explorations. So, in the story “Rest Stop,” a writer of mystery-thrillers finds himself involved in a moment where his life has begun to painfully imitate his art.

Dykstra’s rapidly beating heart seemed to sink an inch in his chest. It felt as if he had been standing here in this little cinder-block notch between the men’s room and the women’s for at least twenty minutes, but when he looked at his watch, he wasn’t surprised to see that not even forty seconds had passed since the first slap. It was the subjective nature of time and the eerie speed of thought when the mind was suddenly put under pressure. He had written about both many times.

As has Stephen King? Dykstra, by the way, begins the story wondering who he is: A mild-mannered professor at a Florida college, or the hard-boiled author “Rick Hardin” he has invented as an alter ego. There are games within games being played here.

A favourite way for recreating the subjective experience of time that King/Dykstra/Hardin describes is through an enlargement of detail, stretching readers on the rack of a character’s consciousness of trivial matters that in turn gradually swell to enormous consequence. “I like suspense stories that turn on crucial little details,” our author (King, that is) explains in his notes on “The Gingerbread Girl.” “This one has a lot of them.” And indeed it does, like the ice cubes that fall out of the fridge and go scattering across the floor, sure to come in useful later on. Perhaps the best example of this technique, however, comes in the final story: “A Very Tight Place.” Has a portable toilet (and its contents) ever been so closely, painstakingly observed? Not only the sloshing contents of the bin, the solid waste in various states of liquefaction, but the very design of the booth’s construction – the sheet-metal siding used to armour them on construction sites (who knew?), and the placement and setting of their tiny screws.

This psychological extension is one reason King needs a bit of room to develop his effects. Think only of the grave-robbing scene in Pet Sematary, dragging on for over fifty pages. His weakest efforts here are his squibs, the stories he tossed off in single sittings. But in the best, a list which includes “The Gingerbread Girl,” “N.,” “Mute,” and “A Very Tight Place,” we see the classic King: a grounding of the terrifying and supernatural in those finely observed details of everyday life already mentioned, the related penchant for unsettling quotidian imagery, like the alternate cosmos in “N.” that threatens to spill through into ours “like vomit through the bottom of a wet paper bag,” and a willingness to strike notes that, while not threatening in themselves, let us know that nothing is out of bounds (“I was reclining naked on my bed with a pair of my sister’s underpants wrapped around my cock”). None of this is scary, but it has a disturbing effect. We have the sense that it’s striking too close to home.

King’s weaknesses are also on display. In particular, the sentimental side of him that continues to assert a sort of benevolent providence. There is a superficial sweetness here that in at least one case, “Ayana,” turns into syrup. And if you are one of those waiting for the great fictional response to 9/11, you might want to skip “The Things They Left Behind.” Still, I suspect this demotic, optimistic spirituality is as much the source of King’s popularity as his darker imaginings. And by now it’s clear we can’t have the best of him without taking the rest.

Review first published online April 6, 2009.

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