Just After Sunset
Scribner • 2008 • 400 pages
A Collection Critique
Just After Sunset marks a welcome return to form for Stephen King. Though his previous two short story collections each featured several terrific stories, neither held together as collections as cohesively as either Night Shift or (especially) Skeleton Crew. The sheer length of Nightmares & Dreamscapes worked against it, as did the fact that it contained some of King's worst fiction to date. Everything's Eventual felt disjointed, its stories arranged by chance, never allowing the collection to feel thematically cohesive. Further, King admits in his introduction that he doesn't care for writing short stories any longer; some of the fiction, as a consequence, feels forced and effortful.
In Just After Sunset, King sets the stage at once, discussing how he came to edit the Best American Short Stories anthology in 2006, and how his immersion in the world of short stories seemed to energize him. This introduction is relaxed, chatty (reminding readers of the funny foreword to Skeleton Crew), ushering us directly into one of King's strongest and most cohesive collections to date.
At once, we notice that Just After Sunset is not structured the way Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, or Nightmares & Dreamscapes were; while those collections begin with a long, bombastic tale of horror, King begins quietly here, with the calmly unsettling "Willa," setting the mood perfectly for the volume that follows. That the structure is different than those earlier collections doesn't matter - it is enough that a structure exists. Similarly, there's not as much visceral horror here as in King's earlier collections, with some exceptions. Perhaps more unsettlingly, many of these tales rely on the inevitability of dread ... and the dread of inevitability.
Following "Willa" comes the type of story that would have opened one of King's successful earlier collections. "The Gingerbread Girl" is relentless, its pace matching that of its main character, Emily, who chooses to start running as a way of coping with her infant daughter's death. It's at once an action story and a character study, allowing us to know just enough about Emily to care about her. Her resourcefulness at the hands of a serial killer recalls that of Jessie Burlingame (Gerald's Game), without the distracting soapboxing. Even more, Emily anticipates the character Tess in King's later novella "Big Driver" (Full Dark, No Stars), as a woman who decides to fight back against a dangerous man (it is interesting to note that King provides neither of these women last names).
"The Gingerbread Girl" is an important entry in King's larger body of work, as well; as his first story set primarily in Florida, it not only points the way toward other short stories here ("Rest Stop" and "A Very Tight Place"), but also to Duma Key, which came after the "Gingerbread"'s initial publication. It seems as if Stephen King's move to Florida, both in reality and in his fiction, has had a revitalizing effect as profound as his editorship.
Initially, a story like "Harvey's Dream" appears to be a return to King's existential experimentation, as in the Everything's Eventual stories "Luckey Quarter," or "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French." In the context of this collection, though, it is more closely related to "Sorry, Right Number" (from Nightmares & Dreamscapes), a tale of ordinary people in ordinary lives, suddenly struck by the extraordinary. Though the story is told in present tense, this does not feel like gimmickry - King chose to tell the story in this way because it seems to be what the story demands. Indeed, all the stories in Just After Sunset perfectly fit their demands, especially in terms of length. Whereas some stories from Nightmares & Dreamscapes seemed to overstay their welcome (such as "Chattery Teeth"), every tale here is just long enough; each selection is satisfying.
Driving a spike between two more quietly supernatural stories, "Rest Stop" continues King's ruminations on pseudonyms and how they affect the people who create them. Not a riff on The Dark Half as much as a deeper exploration into the psyche of Richard Bachman, "Rest Stop" is one of King's more violent stories to date, preparing for stories like "The Cat From Hell" and "A Very Tight Place" later in the book.
"Stationary Bike," on the other hand, is one of King's somewhat experimental stories. Taking on Rose Madder's magic realism and its concept of a painting being a portal to a supernatural (and metaphorical) place, "Stationary Bike" feels otherwise grounded in reality. Inside the weird off-kilter reality of metabolic workmen who work for the Lipid Company, King manages to make it Richard Sifkitz's journeys seem perfectly normal. While King has tackled the subject of weight loss before, in Thinner, "Stationary Bike" has none of that novel's dark, foreboding feel. Instead of a treatise against greed, this story is more a metaphorical argument for moderation - both in eating and in dieting. In this sense, "Stationary Bike" is tied to "The Gingerbread Girl," as stories about - among other things - the sometimes-harmful effects of too much exercise. It's one of King's most optimistic tales.
Following "Stationary Bike" is a duo of stories that directly tackle the subject of September 11th, and it is here that Just After Sunset finds its core themes. "The Things They Left Behind" tackles survivor guilt; "Graduation Afternoon" takes on the horror of watching tragedy from afar. While King's latter two Dark Tower books attempted to address 9/11, they did it with an odd glibness that unsettles for the wrong reasons. King's Cell worked with these themes better, imagining a different type of terrorist attack. Here, however, King truly finds interesting ways to talk about the tragedy that strike a balance between compelling and shocking. A later story in the volume, "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," also works with these themes, recalling King's earlier teleplay "Sorry, Right Number" (Nightmares & Dreamscapes) while fitting in with the larger motifs of this volume. These three stories form the core of Just After Sunset, binding many of the others together to form a cohesive whole, either thematically (the quiet, Green Mile-esque "Ayana") or by reference (the New York-set "Stationary Bike" references the attacks). Interestingly, though 9/11 seems to be King's most crucial reference point, the stories here don't seem exploitative or dismissive; as with King's best supernatural fiction, he is finding fictional ways to deal with real-life horrors.
In each of his short collections (excepting Everything's Eventual), King has dipped into the deep well of H.P. Lovecraft, borrowing motifs and monsters from Lovecraft's tales of the Great Old Ones and reshaping them into his own universe. Where "Jerusalem's Lot," from Night Shift, functioned as a pastiche, "The Mist" and "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" from Skeleton Crew and "Crouch End" from Nightmares & Dreamscapesbrought these old horrors into the modern age. Both The Dark Tower and From a Buick 8 touched on Lovecraftian concepts, with Buick 8 actually exploring Lovecraft's deeper themes of "cosmicism," beyond the actual monsters.
None of these stories is as terrifying as "N." While King retains the epistolary nature of "Jerusalem's Lot," this tale explores the very modern concept of obsessive-compulsive disorder. In Lisey's Story, King asks whether insanity is communicable. Those questions recur here, the answers woven into the greater otherworldly horrors King has never explored as convincingly. Rarely before, if ever, has King so well balanced psychological and supernatural terror.
Though King had stated in the foreword to Nightmares & Dreamscapes that he would no longer be publishing "old" stories, King's infamous "The Cat From Hell" appears here. While tonally it has a different feel than most of the other stories here (and its genre - crime, albeit with a pseudo-supernatural twist - fits in more with early stories like "The Ledge" or "The Fifth Quarter"), it works in the context of Just After Sunset as sort of a palate-cleanser. With its borderline-ridiculous dénouement (can a man swallow a cat whole? you'll see), it balances out the weightier stories at the center of the collection. It also serves as preparation for what might be King's most disgusting story to date, "A Very Tight Place."
In the afterword, King admits to grossing himself out with this story, another of King's multiple-meaning titles. The majority of the story concerns a man named Curtis Johnson trapped inside a portable toilet by his lunatic (and somewhat homophobic) neighbor, Tim Grunwald. The means and method of his escape are among King's most stomach-turning ... but, interestingly, also among his most page-turning. Though the story is one of the longest in Just After Sunset, it's still a short story (as opposed to a novella). The sustained gross-outs in a novel like Dreamcatcher don't have room to breathe here, and so achieve greater impact while paradoxically being less nauseating.
Curtis being gay seems almost beside the point (although, like Tom McCourt in Cell, his primary emotional relationship is with a pet instead of a person), signaling another advance in King's treatment of gay characters. The oddest thing about Curtis isn't his sexuality, but his addiction to gagging himself by shoving his fingers down his throat. It's easy enough to see this as a metaphor for bulimia, tying it directly to "The Gingerbread Girl" and "Stationary Bike," both dealing with the harmful effects of fitness taken to extremes. Beyond any underlying meaning, Curtis's gagging is an odd idiosyncrasy, giving texture to his character and allowing us to care more about his plight. As with nearly every other story in Just After Sunset, "A Very Tight Place" is a character-driven tale about normal people in bizarre circumstances - as always, the type of story Stephen King writes best.
Many of the stories in Just After Sunset coalesce around the aftermath of tragedy, and how people cope with it. We begin with "Willa," in which the characters refuse to believe tragedy has occurred; we end with "A Very Tight Place," in which Curtis Johnson is unable to deal with the death of a loved one - also the driving motif of "The Gingerbread Girl." "N." attempts to rationalize suicide, "Mute" attempts to rationalize murder, and "Harvey's Dream" attempts to make sense of sudden accidents (a theme that King has explored in larger contexts with the recent novels Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8, and Duma Key). While the specter of 9/11 looms over several of these tales, King focuses on individuals' reactions in lieu of sociopolitical statements, bringing a surprising intimacy to stories dealing with a national disaster.
Beyond the larger themes of tragedy and loss, Just After Sunset works as well as it does because the stories are exceptionally well written, and play off one another's textures in exciting and sometimes startling ways. Stephen King's first two short story collections (Night Shift, Skeleton Crew) and all three of his novella collections (Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, and Full Dark, No Stars) transcend their status as anthologies, holding together with the cohesiveness and sweep of a novel. Just After Sunset easily achieves the same. It is gratifying that at this stage in his career, King has once again assembled a collection that can stand with the best of his works.