From the Publisher
"Wonderfully wicked." -- Carol Memmott, USA Today
"King is as sharp and versatile as ever." -- Erica Noonan, Boston Globe
"Quietly dazzling." -- Ted Anthony, Associated Press
"King continues to be dedicated to giving his readers a luxuriant experience, the basic pleasure of getting lost in a book." -- Charles Taylor, New York Times Book Review
"King lets the reader put the book down at night after one story, knowing another horrific treat awaits the next day." -- Amanda St. Amand, St. Louis Post Dispatch
"King is as sharp and disgusting as ever... Haunting." -- People magazine
"King reminds us again of his power to unhinge with a single line or image. A master of the storytelling craft, he gets his ghastly fingernails right beneath the skin." -- John Marks, Salon.com
"In these 13 newly collected stories, we see a master craftsman at the top of his game and clearly enjoying himself.... Each story is a treat not just for King fans but for any fan of good fiction." -- Salem Macknee, Charlotte Observer
"A master storyteller... Haunting." -- Karen Sandstrom, Cleveland Plain Dealer
…[a] succinct, fast-moving collection…This collection's most successful stories start unprepossessingly but then head for unknown territory, off in the far reaches of Mr. King's imagination.
The New York Times
King’s latest anthology reminds readers that while his many works contains supernatural elements, his true skill as a writer lies in his ability to tap into the minds of his characters and, more importantly, his readers. The story topics are scattered, but most have that signature King style that blurs the line between fiction and reality. His most effective story, “N,” is a tale about obsession and compulsion that will make even the mellowest listeners a bit paranoid. Part of the beauty of this tale is the use of multiple narrators for different points of view. Using a different narrator for each story works well. (Ron McLarty’s Stationary Bike and Mare Winningham’s The Gingerbread Girl were previously produced and released as solo efforts.) King reads the introduction, one story and the end notes about each story. While not necessarily of the same caliber as his co-narrators (including Jill Eikenberry, Holter Graham, George Guidall, Denis O’Hare and Karen Ziemba), his ability as a narrator has improved significantly over the years. A Scribner hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 1). (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In King's latest collection of short stories (following 2002's Everything's Eventual ), he presents 14 tales that range from the philosophically themed, to one in which the author gleefully admits to playing with the gross-out factor ("A Very Tight Place"), to "The Cat from Hell," which makes its hardcover debut some 30 years after its original publication as part of a contest in Cavalier , one of the gentleman's magazines that put food on the table in King's early years as a writer. In his introduction, King cites his recent stint as guest editor for the 2007 edition of Best American Short Stories as an impetus to return to the form in his own writing. Several of the works included here were written following that experience. Finally, as King has done previously in his collections, at the end of the volume he provides the reader with brief insights into the inspirations for each tale. Recommended for all popular fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/08.]-Nancy McNicol, Hamden P.L., CT
King (Duma Key, 2008, etc.) returns with his first volume of short stories in six years. The author explains in his introduction that the opportunity to edit the annual Best American Short Stories anthology reignited his interest in the form, which had supported him when the fledgling novelist submitted stories to men's magazines. His afterword provides contextual comment on each of the 13 selections, including the revelation that "The Cat from Hell"-about a killer feline and the hit man hired to bump it off-dates back 30 years to those pulp-fiction days. Yet most of the rest are recent, allowing King to exorcise demons (the fear of being trapped in a porta-potty in "A Very Tight Space," the ambivalence about interfering in a violent domestic quarrel in "Rest Stop") and dreams (the marital entropy of "Harvey's Dream," the mushroom cloud of "Graduation Afternoon"). Though much of this lacks the literary ambition of King's recent novels, "Stationary Bike" provides a compelling portrait of creative psychosis-how a metaphor suggested by a doctor to describe an artist's high cholesterol inspires a painting that becomes the artist's reality-while the contagious obsessive compulsive disorder in "N." ranks with King's best work (it is also the newest story here). There's also an obligatory 9/11 response ("The Things They Left Behind") and a story that blurs the distinction between the living and the dead (the opening "Willa"). Like episodes from The Twilight Zone, many of the stories hinge upon "a small but noticeable hole in the column of reality." As King writes, "[I]t's how we see the world that keeps the darkness beyond the world at bay." And he tells the reader, "I hope at least one of [thestories] keeps you awake for awhile after the lights are out."An uneven collection, but King has plainly had a ball writing these stories.
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 this 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 "[t]here is a world behind this world, filled with monsters."
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. --David Abrams
David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.
Read an Excerpt
Not a very nice man.
One afternoon not long after July became August, Deke Hollis told her she had company on the island. He called it the island, never the key.
Deke was a weathered fifty, or maybe seventy. He was tall and rangy and wore a battered old straw hat that looked like an inverted soup bowl. From seven in the morning until seven at night, he ran the drawbridge between Vermillion and the mainland. This was Monday to Friday. On weekends, "the kid" took over (said kid being about thirty). Some days when Em ran up to the drawbridge and saw the kid instead of Deke in the old cane chair outside the gatehouse, reading Maxim or Popular Mechanics rather than The New York Times, she was startled to realize that Saturday had come around again.
This afternoon, though, it was Deke. The channel between Vermillion and the mainland which Deke called the thrut (throat, she assumed) was deserted and dark under a dark sky. A heron stood on the drawbridge's Gulf-side rail, either meditating or looking for fish.
"Company?" Em said. "I don't have any company."
"I didn't mean it that way. Pickering's back. At 366? Brought one of his 'nieces.'" The punctuation for nieces was provided by a roll of Deke's eyes, of a blue so faded they were nearly colorless.
"I didn't see anyone," Em said.
"No," he agreed. "Crossed over in that big red M'cedes of his about an hour ago, while you were probably still lacin' up your tennies." He leaned forward over his newspaper; it crackled against his flat belly. She saw he had the crossword about half completed. "Different niece every summer. Always young." He paused. "Sometimes two nieces, one in August and one in September."
"I don't know him," Em said. "And I didn't see any red Mercedes." Nor did she know which house belonged to 366. She noticed the houses themselves, but rarely paid attention to the mailboxes. Except, of course, for 219. That was the one with the little line of carved birds on top of it. (The house behind it was, of course, Birdland.)
"Just as well," Deke said. This time instead of rolling his eyes, he twitched down the corners of his mouth, as if he had something bad tasting in there. "He brings 'em down in the M'cedes, then takes 'em back to St. Petersburg in his boat. Big white yacht. The Playpen. Went through this morning." The corners of his mouth did that thing again. In the far distance, thunder mumbled. "So the nieces get a tour of the house, then a nice little cruise up the coast, and we don't see Pickering again until January, when it gets cold up in Chicagoland."
Em thought she might have seen a moored white pleasure craft on her morning beach run but wasn't sure.
"Day or two from now maybe a week he'll send out a couple of fellas, and one will drive the M'cedes back to wherever he keeps it stored away. Near the private airport in Naples, I imagine."
"He must be very rich," Em said. This was the longest conversation she'd ever had with Deke, and it was interesting, but she started jogging in place just the same. Partly because she didn't want to stiffen up, mostly because her body was calling on her to run.
"Rich as Scrooge McDuck, but I got an idea Pickering actually spends his. Probably in ways Uncle Scrooge never imagined. Made it off some kind of computer thing, I heard." The eye roll. "Don't they all?"
"I guess," she said, still jogging in place. The thunder cleared its throat with a little more authority this time.
"I know you're anxious to be off, but I'm talking to you for a reason," Deke said. He folded up his newspaper, put it beside the old cane chair, and stuck his coffee cup on top of it as a paperweight. "I don't ordinarily talk out of school about folks on the island a lot of 'em's rich and I wouldn't last long if I did but I like you, Emmy. You keep yourself to yourself, but you ain't a bit snooty. Also, I like your father. Him and me's lifted a beer, time to time."
"Thanks," she said. She was touched. And as a thought occurred to her, she smiled. "Did my dad ask you to keep an eye on me?"
Deke shook his head. "Never did. Never would. Not R. J.'s style. He'd tell you the same as I am, though Jim Pickering's not a very nice man. I'd steer clear of him. If he invites you in for a drink or even just a cup of coffee with him and his new 'niece,' I'd say no. And if he were to ask you to go cruising with him, I would definitely say no."
"I have no interest in cruising anywhere," she said. What she was interested in was finishing her work on Vermillion Key. She felt it was almost done. "And I better get back before the rain starts."
"Don't think it's coming until five, at least," Deke said. "Although if I'm wrong, I think you'll still be okay."
She smiled again. "Me too. Contrary to popular opinion, women don't melt in the rain. I'll tell my dad you said hello."
"You do that." He bent down to get his paper, then paused, looking at her from beneath that ridiculous hat. "How're you doing, anyway?"
"Better," she said. "Better every day." She turned and began her road run back to the Little Grass Shack. She raised her hand as she went, and as she did, the heron that had been perched on the drawbridge rail flapped past her with a fish in its long bill.
Three sixty-six turned out to be the Pillbox, and for the first time since she'd come to Vermillion, the gate was standing ajar. Or had it been ajar when she ran past it toward the bridge? She couldn't remember but of course she had taken up wearing a watch, a clunky thing with a big digital readout, so she could time herself. She had probably been looking at that when she went by.
She almost passed without slowing the thunder was closer now but she wasn't exactly wearing a thousand-dollar suede skirt from Jill Anderson, only an ensemble from the Athletic Attic: shorts and a T-shirt with the Nike swoosh on it. Besides, what had she said to Deke? Women don't melt in the rain. So she slowed, swerved, and had a peek. It was simple curiosity.
She thought the Mercedes parked in the courtyard was a 450 SL, because her father had one like it, although his was pretty old now and this one looked brand-new. It was candy-apple red, its body brilliant even under the darkening sky. The trunk was open. A sheaf of long blond hair hung from it. There was blood in the hair.
Had Deke said the girl with Pickering was a blond? That was her first question, and she was so shocked, so fucking amazed, that there was no surprise in it. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question, and the answer was Deke hadn't said. Only that she was young. And a niece. With the eye roll.
Thunder rumbled. Almost directly overhead now. The courtyard was empty except for the car (and the blond in the trunk, there was her). The house looked deserted, too: buttoned up and more like a pillbox than ever. Even the palms swaying around it couldn't soften it. It was too big, too stark, too gray. It was an ugly house.
Em thought she heard a moan. She ran through the gate and across the yard to the open trunk without even thinking about it. She looked in. The girl in the trunk hadn't moaned. Her eyes were open, but she had been stabbed in what looked like dozens of places, and her throat was cut ear to ear.
Em stood looking in, too shocked to move, too shocked to even breathe. Then it occurred to her that this was a fake dead girl, a movie prop. Even as her rational mind was telling her that was bullshit, the part of her that specialized in rationalization was nodding frantically. Even making up a story to backstop the idea. Deke didn't like Pickering, and Pickering's choice of female companionship? Well guess what, Pickering didn't like Deke, either! This was nothing but an elaborate practical joke. Pickering would go back across the bridge with the trunk deliberately ajar, that fake blond hair fluttering, and
But there were smells rising out of the trunk now. They were the smells of shit and blood. Em reached forward and touched the cheek below one of those staring eyes. It was cold, but it was skin. Oh God, it was human skin.
There was a sound behind her. A footstep. She started to turn, and something came down on her head. There was no pain, but brilliant white seemed to leap across the world. Then the world went dark. Copyright © 2008 by Stephen King