Fresh from the stellar return-to-form novel, Duma Key, Stephen King is back with his latest collection of short stories, Just After Sunset (not to be confused with Four Past Midnight). It’s an apt title. These are not the standard King horror stories of the darkest nights. These are twilight tales. Horror is present, but it exists on the edges, lurking in the lengthy shadows of sunset.
What you get with Just After Sunset is standard King. All of the conventions of his style are present, and it is (in King’s own words) the "literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." I think King sells himself short with that facile quip. At his best, King has written tales of horror that rank with the very best. The Shining can sit proudly on the bookshelf next to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting Of Hill House, and ‘Salem’s Lot (despite a few "young author" missteps) is a worthy addition to vampire literature. At his worst, King can be terrible (The Tommyknockers, Needful Things).
The stories in Just After Sunset range in between. Only one story, the cryptically titled "N." really rises to the highest standards of King’s earlier short fiction. The story, as King admits in his notes, owes a great debt to Arthur Machen’s "The Great God Pan," but also at least a passing shout out to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu myth. This tale of obsession and the fabric of reality stretched thin is the high-water mark of the book. The rest of the tales fall below that standard.
The oddest story, from a stylistic perspective, is "The Cat From Hell." This is the closest story in the book to the ones you will find in King’s earliest collection, Night Shift. The reason is that this is the oldest story in the book, written when King was an unproven author selling stories to men’s magazines for money to pay the phone bill. As such, the story has a kind of heat and intensity that most of the other tales lack. King may be a better writer today, but he was a far more intense writer back then. To make a musical analogy, Eric Clapton may be a better guitar player than he was in 1965, but the young buck’s recordings with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers have a heat and intensity that the elder statesman is missing.
Most of the other stories are creepy, though none are really scary. "Willa" is a nice, but forgettable, tale of true love in a dive bar; "Ayana" posits a miracle worker who passes her gift on, but with a price; "Mute" is a tale of guilt with a Strangers On A Train-type setup; "The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates" bears a resemblance to a story King wrote many years ago for the television show Tales From the Dark Side; "The Things They Left Behind" is a touching story of trying to come to grips with life in a post-9/11 world. On this last story, King strikes all the right notes.
Perhaps most notable is "A Very Tight Place." The final story in the book is not a great tale but it does give King the one opportunity in the book to really go for the gross-out: in this case a man trapped in a Port-A-John that has been tipped over onto its door. The gross-out here is not one of dismembered bodies or strewn viscera, but more natural bodily functions. There’s nothing supernatural or even horrific in this story (well…the poor guy getting covered in human waste is pretty horrible, but you know what I mean), and the conclusion is pretty limp, but there’s no question that the story is memorable. The problem is that it is memorable for the setup, whereas a story like "N." is memorable because it is a great story written well.
Most of the rest aren’t all that memorable. There’s nothing that compares to Skeleton Crew‘s "The Mist" and "The Raft," or Night Shift‘s "Strawberry Spring" and "I Am The Doorway." But there’s also nothing here that is a complete waste of time, either. The stories are good. Nothing more (except, again, for "N."), nothing less. Here’s hoping his next novel picks up with the same focus on character and story that made Duma Key so surprisingly refreshing, and not where "A Very Tight Place" leaves off.