Scribner • 2002 • 464 pages
A Collection Critique
Collections of Stephen King short stories have, since the beginning, followed certain conventions. Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes are structured similarly: a grand opening piece, a quiet closing selection, and similar works paired throughout the volume. Whether a particular structure is vital to a short story collection's success may be debatable; readers may, for whatever reason, read them in any order they choose. However, the deliberate placement of the works within seems to have benefitted these previous collections to varying degrees, particularly with Skeleton Crew, which also used the opening epigraph "Do you love?" as a connective thread throughout, giving the book the feel and intensity of a novel. The long, idiosyncratic title piece (or the surreal "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe'," which kicks off Six Stories) feels like the start of a collection, just as the hushed suicide story "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" seems to echo "The Woman in the Room," "The Reach," and "Brooklyn August" as a fitting, elegiac finale. The "14 Dark Tales" in Everything's Eventual were, according to King's foreword, arranged by chance. This, among other factors, seems to damage the collection, even though several individual works are among King's best.
Beyond their arrangement, none of the stories in Everything's Eventual are new, at least to dedicated Stephen King readers. A handful of stories had actually been published twice before appearing here: "The Man in the Black Suit" appeared in The New Yorker, as well as King's limited edition title Six Stories; "In the Deathroom" was featured on the audio-only collection Blood & Smoke, as well as in the collection Secret Windows; "L.T.'s Theory of Pets" had appeared in Six Stories and on its own live-recording audiobook; "Luckey Quarter" showed up in USA Weekend as well as Six Stories; and both Blood & Smoke and Six Stories featured "1408". "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe'" actually had appeared three times previously, in Blood & Smoke, Six Stories, and the multiple-author anthology Dark Love.
Though Six Stories was a limited edition and Blood & Smoke was a unique presentation, the fact that several of these stories had been published in actual King collections before is interesting. That none of them are brand new to this collection is also unusual; in comparison, Night Shift featured four new stories, Skeleton Crew offered three new works, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes had a whopping five new selections. However, it should be stated that while some of the stories here had shown up in mainstream publications like The New Yorker (not to mention a story like "Riding the Bullet," whose distinction as the first e-book bestseller carried its own fame), the majority of the King-reading public had likely never heard of most of these stories. Additionally, owning these stories in a single, accessible volume is worth the price of Everything's Eventual; most readers who enjoy King enough to have bought all the magazine appearances and limited editions will likely want to reread them. A mainstream collection is a cheap and easy way to do that.
Rereads are certainly warranted here, and as with any examination of a cross-section of King's varied career, themes begin to emerge. The religious imagery King explored in longer works like The Green Mile, Desperation, and Storm of the Century make a reappearance here, in concurrent stories like "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French," and the Dark Tower prequel "The Little Sisters of Eluria." Several of these tales deal with death, and it's interesting to see the way that the subject is dealt with, depending on when King wrote it. "Autopsy Room Four" and "L.T.'s Theory of Pets" are shocking, sometimes funny stories, but King takes a more serious look at the consequences of death in "Riding the Bullet" and "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away". Written after King's near-death experience, these latter stories take a harder look at morality in both tone and the choices of their characters, pointing toward larger, later works like Lisey's Story and Duma Key.
"Everything's Eventual," though it connects to King's ongoing Dark Tower saga, is one of King's most unique stories. Dinky Earnshaw is a GenXer who has the ability to make people (and animals) kill themselves by drawing certain symbols. While thematically connected to other "wild talent" stories and novels like Carrie, The Shining, Firestarter, and nearly countless others, "Everything's Eventual" sets up a further fantastical situation for Dinky. Hired by the Trans Corporation to draw symbols for them, Dinky is provided anything he asks for – anything at all. In a way, it is the promise of the Prize in King's early Bachman work The Long Walk, only ongoing and with even more dire consequences. As Dinky finally allows himself awareness into his situation, he is forced to weigh the same choices as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, including how to utilize his powers for the good of the world.
In a way, "Everything's Eventual" is the polar opposite of "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away," both stories focusing on suicide (also a main concern in Dreamcatcher). Both stories center on idiosyncratic lead characters, Dinky with his occasionally hilarious speech patterns and pop-culture obsessions, and Alfie Zimmer with his hobby of recording odd bathroom graffiti. But while "Everything's Eventual" is a fun (and ultimately chilling) supernatural tale, "All That You Love" is a somber story focusing on a solitary man's pain (incidentally fitting in with King's then-current interest in ambiguous endings, as in novels such as From a Buick 8, The Colorado Kid, and The Dark Tower). Comparing and contrasting these two stories lends even more credence to the suggestion that they should have bookended the collection.
With the exception of "Blind Willie" (which later appeared, heavily edited, as a segment in Hearts In Atlantis), the selections from Six Stories return. While taken individually, none of the stories are better or worse by inclusion in Everything's Eventual, strange tales like "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe'" and "Luckey Quarter" seem more of a larger thematic concept when collected with the odd yet accessible "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What it Is In French." A strong traditional horror story like "The Man in the Black Suit" benefits even more from the appearance of a classic ghost story like "1408," and the theme of spirits portending death (and the fact that those portents are misrepresented) echoes into "Riding the Bullet". Even the medical horrors in "Autopsy Room Four" are amplified through the strong Dark Tower piece, "Little Sisters of Eluria," which can almost be read without being aware of the larger Dark Tower milieu.
Unlike Skeleton Crew or Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King opted to include the notes on each story with the stories themselves, as opposed to in an afterword. Each tale comes complete with either a forenote or an endnote by King, discussing the story in greater depth. Knowing that King himself didn't care much for the popular and award-winning "The Man in the Black Suit" is quite revealing, and getting King's take on a complex story such as "That Feeling" sheds new light on the puzzling tale.
Unfortunately, not everything in this collection works. Nothing in Everything's Eventual is as bad as, say, "The Ten O'Clock People" from Nightmares & Dreamscapes, but there are some stories that seem rough, almost unfinished. In particular, "The Death of Jack Hamilton" and "The Road Virus Heads North" don't seem to fit in with the collection, even as disjointed a collection as this. "Jack Hamilton" recounts the legend of the infamous Dillinger gang, and the death of one of their own, following a shootout at the Biograph Theater. Not narrative nonfiction so much as a fictional re-creation of historical events, "Jack Hamilton" seems to revel in the excruciating, long death of the title character, attempting to debunk parts of the Dillinger legend along the way. For those not as fascinated with the actual history, though, the story lacks urgency and even importance. Though the story dwells on Hamilton's painful deterioration, not even the gory details unsettle or grip the reader. King seems compelled by these outlaws, but he never gives readers a reason to be.
As for "Road Virus," King seems to be deliberately heading into self-parody. Reading the short story (featuring yet another bestselling writer from Maine), one becomes convinced that King is simply picking up bits of past stories and tossing them in the blender and seeing what comes out of it all. While King has frequently re-examined and refined themes throughout his career (Firestarter as a follow-up to Carrie, for example, or Bag of Bones revisiting themes King first tackled in The Shining), here, the recycling seems blatant and threadbare. "Road Virus" seems no more than Rose Madder crossed with Christine, and its execution is unsuccessful. "Luckey Quarter," perhaps the weakest effort in Six Stories, suffers even more here, carrying the burden of being Everything's Eventual's puzzling finale.
King states in his introduction that he doesn't necessarily like writing short stories anymore, but he does at least one or two a year to keep the short-story muscles flexed. While his novels remain wildly popular, it is often in King's shorter works that he shines most brightly. Though Everything's Eventual is uneven, stories like "1408," "The Man in the Black Suit," the title story, and especially "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" are instant classics, pointing the way toward the far stronger and more cohesive Just After Sunset and Bazaar of Bad Dreams.