At this time of year it’s refreshing to find good quality writing high on the bestseller lists. Stephen King’s Just After Sunset is his return to the short story form, and these thirteen stories go far beyond the boundaries of simple horror fiction; the jacket blurb promises twist-in-the-tale stories of suspense, terror and dark comedy and whilst there is a fair degree of this, King is a writer who has easily outgrown any easy classification.
The stories in Just After Sunset are all very different but share a common ground in considering themes important to King. Willa, the opening tale, finds ghostly travellers stranded at a railway station. It’s an archetypal tale of a group of lost and disjointed people who eventually turn out to be ghosts. There’s nothing startlingly original about this story – it’s just a good Twilight Zone – but it’s very well written and stands to ease the reader into the mood of the collection. And that’s the best thing about this book – like listening to a favourite album, you’ll fall into a comfortable and refreshing groove.
King goes on to offer his own post-twin towers meditation in The Things They Left Behind, one of the best things I’ve read about the after affects of 9/11. Here, a man who survived the disaster because he called in sick to work that day, finds objects belonging to his dead colleagues mysteriously turning up in his apartment.
Other tales tackle the significance of dreams; Harvey’s Dream is a well executed story, as is Rest Stop, which looks at crime and justice, where a writer stops at a motorway convenience to overhear an act of aggression and has to make an important decision. Mute, a confessional story, looks at the same subject from a different perpective. King also includes a story that dates back thirty years. The Cat From Hell is worthy of inclusion, but illustrates just how much he’s matured over the years as a writer.
But the longer and more complex stories are the best. The devil is really in the detail here. The Gingerbread Girl begins slowly, where a woman takes up running as a pastime whilst also deciding to leave her husband and move away. It’s beautifully composed but also decidedly non-horror, which makes it all the more compelling when the lady is question ends up chased along a beach by a scissor wielding maniac. Although this is more than just a slasher movie put to paper; King documents the whole uncomfortable episode with detail and precision. A Very Tight Space, about what happens to a man when he is locked inside a stinking and stiflingly hot portaloo by an insane and vengeful neighbour, revels equally in the details of the plight of a man literally … knee deep.
Best of all is N. It’s a superb short story, which contains all the right macabre elements to make it brilliantly scary. It’s also extremely clever, reminding just what a craftsman Stephen King is. It concerns a psychiatrist and his patient, a man fully immersed in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His OCD stems from a discovery of a weird stone circle, and the belief that something awful will be unleashed if he doesn’t continue with his pattern of counting and rearranging. The compulsions, the precise mathematics and the latent horror, becomes addictive to all who chance across his sorry tale. In his end notes, King reveals that this story was inpired by Arthur Machen. There’s also echoes of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft. He’s carrying on the tradition: it’s easily the best thing I’ve read this year.
Just After Sunset proves it’s possible to be both successful and extremely good. King also makes it look all too easy. The struggling writer in us all can only bow in deference. God, I’d hate the man if I didn’t respect him so much.