Monday, February 9, 2015

Just After Sunset by Stephen King -- A Book Review

Photo: Hardcover edition (and the one I read) from its Wikipedia page.

Very entertaining collection of short stories, which I apparently bought, put on the shelf with my collection of all his books, and then completely forgot about and never read.  A recent article in Entertainment Weekly informed me that a movie (or show, I forget) would be made of one of them, "The Things They Left Behind."  (It's an okay story about objects left behind by those who died on 9/11.  They create psychic damage to those who own them--and they suddenly turn up out of nowhere.  He did what he could with this one.  Nice little story.)  This story sounded unfamiliar. I can't say that I can recall the plot of all of King's 200+ short stories, but I'll at least remember the title.  Not this time.  Turns out, never read the book.  Just a little blip to remind me of my old age...

Anyway, this book of short stories is best remembered for the ideas behind the stories, rather than for the awesomeness of the stories themselves.  I don't mean this as a slight, but there's nothing in here that rivals "Jerusalem's Lot," or any of the truly good and freaky short stories from Night Shift or Skeleton Crew.  But there are some good ones here; just not great ones.

I've already written a blog entry about "Willa," which is maybe my favorite here.  He does everything with it that he could, which I can't say for some of the other good ones.  Anyway, this one is more about happy resignation in the...waystation between here and there, I guess.  I think an entire novel could be written about this waystation, where time is elastic, and the people are in denial.  But there's a really good honkytonk bar nearby, and you can dance all night if you let yourself...Great idea, fully realized.

"Stationary Bike" is another good one, but I don't feel he did everything with this he could have.  (So much so that I've written some notes for what I think will be a good short story of my own.  There won't be a stationary bike in it, and...Well, hopefully, you'll see.  In a magazine someday.)  A man needs to lose weight and is a bit lonely after a loved one dies.  He buys (see title) and, because those things really are as boring as hell, imagines himself on a road to a little town he used to love.  This being a Stephen King story, you know his imagination gets away from him, and weird things happen.  This could go in a million directions (a la Duma Key, or a story about a traveling guy in a painting that I hated...the story, I mean), but it ends with...well, I won't ruin it for you.  But for me it was a letdown.  A metaphorical letdown, no less.  But some great ideas and images.

"N." is a very good story that could have been so much more.  A psychiatrist gets rained in by his suicidal / OCD patient who kills himself in defense of a Lovecraftian horror that's got a Lovecraftian name--and a field named after early schlock writer Forrest Ackerman.  The psychiatrist then descends into "Sole Survivor" mode.  He doesn't eat his own foot, but...essentially the same.  This one could easily be made into an episode of some series, or maybe a really bad movie.  But good story.

"The Cat from Hell" is a short story you might remember from 1990's Tales from the Darkside: The Movie.  An evil cat kills those who live with a guy who owned a company that tested its meds on thousands of cats, killing them all.  He hires a hitman to kill it, but he fails.  In a rather gruesome way, a la the old guy with the cockroaches in the last segment of Creepshow.  This is a story from King's early days, and it shows.  It's amusingly gross, but...(nitpick alert!) there's a sentence towards the end that begins: "And the last thing he heard was..." and then a paragraph later, he sees and hears a great many things until the end.  Oh, well.  Early shock stuff, with badguys twirling their mustaches and reaching appropriate ends.

"Ayana" is a very good story with nostalgic sadness, like the last third of Insomnia.  This is probably the best-written story here, and a very good premise.  This is immediately followed by a story of an old guy who gets trapped inside a Port-A-Potty, and is covered in what you might expect.
Opposite ends of the King spectrum.  But you like that, or you wouldn't consider reading his stuff in the first place.

Lastly, a little nod to Stephen King, who gets paid at least $10 million per novel.  Or, maybe, per novel manuscript.  As you know, he turns those out like I get sinus infections.  It takes a lot of short stories to equal one novel manuscript, but he turns them out by the hundreds anyway, though in terms of time taken, it's undoubtedly not worth his time, financially, to do so.  But he does anyway, because he likes them.  Short stories are making a little bit of a comeback these days.  This is due in a small way to writers like King and Joyce Carol Oates (though she's more known for her short stories than for her novels, I think) who have kept the flame alive and passed the torch.


  1. This is probably one of my fave short story collections from Stephen King. The reigning champ is still Skelelton Crew which I don't think could ever be topped... if for no other reason than it was my first King book. Sunset has some memorable tales, though its been a while since I've read it. The Cat From Hell is very basic straight forward horror, but it's also very entertaining. And it's certainly better than the God awful Tales From the Darkside version. As much as I love the Creepshow stories, this one didn't translate well onto the big screen for some reason. Maybe because it's about a killer cat? I just couldn't believe a well trained hitman was unable to kill it. Anyway--my other favorites included The Gingerbread Girl and A Very Tight Place. Maybe those were generic to the some readers, but they stood out for me. Again, if I'm entertained and it holds my interest then it succeeded.

    Do you have an all time favorite King short story?

    1. Sure! I like a lot of them, but probably the one that sticks in my memory the most is "The Last Rung of the Ladder." It's a rare emotional, non-horror story from his short story heyday, about a boy who saves his sister from a fall from a ladder. But life doesn't treat her well, and she makes many mistakes (like we all do), and she commits suicide. Her note to him said (almost blamed, but not quite) that she wished he had caught her in her later falls, and that perhaps things would've been better had he never caught her that time at all. Very meaningful, very depressing...and, to me, more horrifying than cats or rats because that's real life, and but for the grace of God it could've been any of us. What's more terrifying than life itself?