Even though I’m a Stephen King fan, I don’t make a point of reading all of his books. And I’ve hardly read any of his short stories. But The Guardian review of his new collection piqued my interest, and short stories seemed like a good choice for the Thanksgiving holiday, when there are so many distractions and limited time to immerse myself in a novel.
Most of these stories and novellas had been previously published in magazines like The New Yorker or Esquire or as standalone e-books, audio stories, or, in the case of “Blockade Billy,” a standalone novella. They’re varied in style and tone, giving readers a pretty good sense of King’s range. All of them are dark, but some are black comedy (“Premium Harmony” and “Drunken Fireworks”), while others are supernatural horror (“Ur” and “Mile 81”) and others are more realistic psychological horror (“That Bus Is Another World” and “Morality”). There are even a couple of poems (although I didn’t particularly care for them). At any rate, the collection shows how many different ways King is able to shock and entertain his readers.
I think my favorite story was “Under the Weather,” which is one of the (sort of) more realistic stories. It’s one of those stories where you notice something odd early on but shake it off as a quirk before realizing that it’s a clue. Once you know it’s a clue, the secret behind the story is obvious, but that doesn’t make one of the story’s final moments any less stomach-churning.
A lot of the stories share a common interest in the human capacity for evil. That’s a major theme of “Morality,” in which a dying man offers to pay a woman to do something immoral on his behalf. This story gets into the question of when a sin is really a sin and seems to come down on the side of saying that evil, once awakened, is hard to put back to rest. “Obits” addresses a similar theme but with a supernatural twist, as a man discovers that he has the power to kill through writing. This story, however, takes a more optimistic position, even though the ending is not exactly happy.
The story “Ur” is something of a curiosity. King wrote it as an e-book to promote the launch of a version of the Kindle. He writes in the story’s introduction that he had no intention of writing for this promotion, but not long after the offer reached him, he had an idea that seemed just right. The trouble is, however, that the story starts out feeling like a Kindle commercial. There’s a curmudgeonly old anti-tech guy who finally gets a Kindle to show his girlfriend he can adapt, and as soon as he gets it, he’s astonished by the ease of set-up and the array of books available. This feels suspiciously like selling out, but I have to admit that the story is pretty entertaining. And there are some low men in mustard-colored coats worried about a tower. I can’t help but enjoy a reference to Mid-World and its tower.
King introduces each story with a little anecdote or reflection about the inspiration for the story. It’s clear from these notes that he is thoughtful about his craft, and he tries some new things in these stories. He plays around with dialect a lot, although I happened to find the stories with strong dialect (“Blockade Billy” and “Drunken Fireworks”) to be among the least satisfying in the collection. The first was just too full of baseball dialect for me to settle into and enjoy. King notes in the introduction that the story can be enjoyed by non-baseball fans, just as non-sailors might enjoy Patrick O’Brian. Fair enough, but an O’Brian short story wouldn’t captivate me the way the series of full-length novels has. And “Drunken Fireworks” was just silly. King can do dialect well. The Dark Tower books are particularly strong in the judicious use of largely made-up dialect. But here, in these stories, it was a distraction, and the story wasn’t good enough for me to get past it.
A more successful experiment is “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” in which a pair of blue-collar friends and a pair of poets cross paths disastrously. The story seemss a little goofy at first, particularly in the character names, which struck me as over-the-top, but I was impressed at how he varied the writing styles for the two pairs. And the ending is devastating and beautiful, honoring people that King seemed to be mocking at the start.
These were good stories, entertaining ones. I’m not sure I would recommend them to readers new to King (but maybe—I’ve linked to the ones I could find online so you can check them out). As a long-time fan of King, I enjoyed them. They felt like solid King, and to me, that’s solid storytelling.