For starters, let’s set aside the irrelevant arguments about Stephen King’s place in the canon of American literature: i.e., what’s a nice, lowbrow hack like him doing in a swanky establishment like The Paris Review, Esquire or — gasp! — The New Yorker? Furthermore, aren’t his “literary” novels, like Lisey’s Story and Duma Key, merely transparent attempts to earn respectability among highbrow critics (who, truth be told, are probably reading Pet Semetary behind that copy of Ulysses on their subway commute)? For the moment, let’s shrug off the truly Needless Things: the natterings about the value of genre literature that have shadowed King ever since the publication of the tales in Different Seasons, his first evident steps out of the puddle of gore toward fiction that had a deeper purpose than the quick, cheap scare.
What it comes down to, Constant Reader, is this: does the fiction of Stephen King provoke, delight, transport, or enlighten? If yes to any of them (bonus points when all four qualities coalesce), then he has succeeded. To frighten readers — which he does better than any other writer in the past century — is gravy.
The majority of readers coming to his new collection, Just After Sunset, will show up just for the gravy; and, yes, King ladles large helpings of it in these 13 stories. But, to extend the analogy, there is plenty of meat here, too: longing, tenderness, regret, happiness, despair, hope — the great stew of human emotions about which writers with names like Flaubert, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and James once spilled gallons of ink. To say King is “just a horror writer” does a disservice to not only the author but the fiction itself. These are more than mere spook stories to tell around the campfire. Like the best of King’s novels, they are aiming higher and deeper than tales of demon-possessed cars or viral aliens.
In his introduction to the collection, King describes how writing these stories was a sort of renaissance for him, born out of a stint as a guest editor for The Best American Short Stories in 2006. That job required him to read hundreds of stories — “some seemed to touch greatness” while others felt “airless?and self-referring.” But binge-reading all that short fiction had a catalytic effect on King: he realized “writing short stories is a fragile craft, one that can be forgotten if it isn’t used almost constantly?.There are lots of things in life that are like riding a bike, but writing short stories isn’t one of them. You can forget how.”
And so he started flexing the muscle that once earned him rent money writing for men’s magazines like Cavalier and Gent. A full dose of that early pulp horror can be found in his first collection, Night Shift; but it’s also represented here in Just After Sunset by “The Cat from Hell,” the one selection which is gore-for-gore’s-sake scary. The story of a hit man hired to kill a cat starts as something out of Poe — an unnerving tale of paranoia and revenge — but ends in a traditional King bloodbath. While it’s queasily unforgettable, it’s not typical of the collection. Nor should it be, since it was first published in 1977 in Cavalier. By including it here, King shows just how far he’s come in the intervening years.
Most of the stories in Just After Sunsetwere written, by contrast, in the recent creative spurt King describes in his introduction. While a couple show signs of King wobbling and in need of training wheels after climbing back on the literary bike, others have the potential to move readers to tears while also scaring the bejabbers out of them.
In “Harvey’s Dream,” the titular husband relates a disturbing nightmare to his wife and says,
“And here comes the scary part. Do you want to hear the scary part?”
No, she thinks from her place by the sink. I don’t want to hear the scary part. But at the same time she does want to hear the scary part, everyone wants to hear the scary part, we’re all mad here.
Moving away from plots that feature creatures slithering beneath the bed, King homes in on the things that really scare us: divorce, wayward children, terminal illness, random violence, and being trapped in a Porta-Potty (“A Very Tight Place”). The most gut-wrenching of the stories involve ghosts who cannot bear to part with what we would call the real world. A husband and wife find eternal happiness on the dance floor of a honky-tonk in Wyoming; a widow gets a phone call from her husband, who has just been killed in a plane crash; and ordinary objects from office cubicles have a way of returning from the afterlife.
The latter story, “The Things They Left Behind,” is King’s haunting and poignant attempt to address the national grief over 9/11. A year after the attacks, a man who was playing hooky from his job in the World Trade Center that day suddenly finds tchotchkes from his dead co-workers’ desks turning up in his apartment. To exorcise the ghosts, he must return the possessions to the families of the dead.
Say what you will about King’s literary cachet, but he has undeniably worked hard at his craft, and over the years, he’s drawn ever closer to earning the title of our American Dickens. Sure, the pop-culture references eventually wear thin, and yes, some of his plots are ridiculously absurd; but on the page, he can dance with the best of them. He knows how to make our skin crawl with a simple word like “charred.” He’s got the sound of vomiting down pat (“yurp”). And, line for line, he is a master at the compact, apt sentence: “His breath was black with the perfume of decomposition;” or, describing an obsessive-compulsive patient as “a man being pecked to pieces by invisible birds.” This last line is from “N.,” the one previously unpublished story in Just After Sunset. With a breathless stream of prose, King climbs inside the maelstrom of OCD to a place where “
Behind the thin veneer we call reality — the layer with all the hurt, the anticipation, the tedium, and the joy — lies the dark unknown. This is the literary landscape where King still reigns supreme.