Stephen King makes one of his periodic excursions to the earliest form of fiction he wrote—the short story—with this collection of 13 riveting tales of the supernatural. It has been some time coming; the last short-story collection King published was Everything’s Eventual, seven years ago. Some of these stories have been published in magazines such as Playboy, Esquire and The New Yorker.
Long before he became a cult figure for fans of horror fiction, the short stories he banged out on his wife Tabitha’s Olivetti typewriter provided welcome extra cash for King who, in the early 1970s, was teaching high school English and working for an industrial laundry during the summer holidays.
Rockstar: King has returned to the short story genre after seven years. Evan Agostini / Getty Images / AFP
Those stories, some of which were published by American men’s magazines such as Cavalier, Dude and Adam, came with effortless ease. Not so later, when he didn’t need the extra cash any more. King writes in his introduction to Just After Sunset: “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.”
King took up an offer to edit the 2006 volume of Best American Short Stories to get the skill back. “I thought if I read enough short fiction, immersed myself in the best the American literary magazines had to offer, I might be able to recapture some of the effortlessness that had been slipping away,” he writes. So it wasn’t about the money.
What do we have in Just After Sunset? Here is an outline of some of the stories.
a) A town full of ghosts, including an investment banker and his wife, who are in denial of their deaths in a train accident.
b) A couple who separate because of their child’s death. The wife moves to her father’s Gulf of Mexico holiday home, starts a punishing regimen of running and falls into the hands of a man whose pastime is to kill young women.
c) A man who is narrating to his wife a bad dream he saw about one of his three daughters. Did the dream come true?
d) A book salesman with a grievance against his wife, who picks up a deaf-mute hitchhiker (who isn’t actually deaf).
e) A man who goes on an exercise regimen on a stationary bicycle to reduce bad cholesterol and confronts what his doctor tells him are the good guys in his body’s metabolism, the ones keeping him alive. The “good guys” fear they are losing their jobs.
f) A blind girl who works a miracle with a kiss and a touch.
These are themes familiar to any King fan: They explore the afterlife, the mind of the psychopath and the obsessive-compulsive disorder.
And there are at least two stories that have reference points in the 9/11 attacks.
The short stories may not be rolling off his personal computer as easily as they used to off the typewriter. Yet, some of King’s best non-horror fiction has been in the genre of the short story or the novella. The most critically acclaimed—and perhaps most successful at the box office—movie adaptation of King’s work was Shawshank Redemption, the story of a convict named Red (Morgan Freeman) and an investment banker (Tim Robbins) who is sent to an imaginary prison called Shawshank for his wife’s murder, though he didn’t commit it.
Just After Sunset isn’t in the same class as Different Seasons, in which that story was published. But it still guarantees some goosebumps, and perhaps could even produce a few nightmares.