Here’s the thing: I’m a Stephen King fan. Maybe not his number one fan (I presume that no one who has read Misery would want to call herself that), but I am pretty sure I’ve read all his novels (including the Bachman ones), all the anthologized short stories, his screenplay, the stories he put only on audio, his online serialized story, and his nonfiction work about the horror genre, Danse Macabre. So despite the fact that I think some of his books are way better than others (It, The Stand, The Shining, Desperation, The Talisman and The Waste Lands are among his best, while Cujo, Christine, and Cell are pretty much garbage) I guess you could say I’ve got a fan thing going on.
After all this time and all those books, I’ve got theories about King. The reason I’ve stuck with him through good books, mediocre books, and real stinkers is that the man can write. His ear for dialogue of a certain kind is pitch-perfect. His characterization is deep and real. Most of all, he’s really interested in people, and one book after another proves it: his books are not so much about horror, though of course they contain all the signifiers of it, as they are about fully realized people in horrifying situations. It’s as if he says, “What would happen if a talented writer, an alcoholic who had betrayed his talent and lost everything, found himself trapped for the winter with his family? No exit. All that bitterness. How would it show itself?” And presto! You have the horror of The Shining.
His short stories, however, are different. In a short story, King doesn’t have the time and space to develop his characters or to do the world-building he’s so good at. Instead, the priorities of the story are reversed: the horrifying situation carries the punch, and the characters are merely there to see what happens next. I find his short stories (like “The Boogeyman” or “The Moving Finger”) infinitely scarier than his novels for this reason — the fear of the situation is not eased at all by the love you have for the protagonist.
After giving you all this background, though, and all my theories, I have to say that Just After Sunset surprised me. Most of the stories here have the feel of King’s novels in miniature: good guys in bad places. King takes the time, in a story like “Stationary Bike,” to sketch Sifkitz a little more carefully than some of his other short-story heroes in the past. We like him, and when things begin to be a little odd in his quest to lower his cholesterol, we feel anxious for him.
Lower his cholesterol? That doesn’t sound like horror. Well, these stories are like that. The horrors here are, for the most part, the horrors of age, of death, of illness. There is one story about September 11, and another about nuclear war; there’s a story about a premonition of the death of a loved one, and another about a wife’s betrayal. “The Gingerbread Girl,” one of the best of the collection, has more to do with escape from grief and lovelessness than it does with the escape from the bad guy on which the details of the story turn. Sure, there’s one story that skews into Lovecraftian territory, and there’s a vengeful cat, and a truly disgusting story that I have to think is King spoofing his own fantastic “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” But mostly, these stories are about men and women trying to look beyond the ills this world inevitably brings — trying, and sometimes succeeding. The stories aren’t all great. They don’t all hit them out of the park. But they’re worth a read, and for a King fan like me, they were very satisfying indeed.