Tracing The Trails : Just After Sunset
Starting Just After Sunset, it was hard to not feel a certain amount of sadness. Although there would still be one more short story collection to go, The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams, this was the last collection that I had not yet read. I have stated on multiple occasions that my exposure to King’s short stories has been one of the best results of this project so I was definitely eager to get back into more of them. The collection I had read before this, Everything’s Eventual had been a step up from Nightmares & Dreamscapes so my hope would be that this trend would continue.
The first thing I noticed immediately is how much the locales of Florida seem to be present in the stories. King has made a career of placing the state of Maine in his books but at some point, he and his wife began spending their winters in Florida. Even having only a theoretical concept of what winters in Maine look like, I can’t say I blame him. I’ve seen enough of winters in Iowa, Illinois and Michigan to guess.
One thing I will point out that I found curious is that while he did a good job capturing the locale, often in the stories, whenever the characters were speaking I was still hearing the lilt and cadence of the state of Maine. This could of course just be colored by my programmed expectations from what I will find in a Stephen King book.
There is still plenty of material and books set in Maine but I would say that the modern era of King is nothing like what we saw in the seventies and eighties in the times of Castle Rock and Derry. And I think this is really another manifestation of what had to be a desire on King’s part to move on with his writing and explore new territory. No one wants to spend their career writing or being accused of writing the same book, again and again.
I’m also intrigued to know if there was any role that art was playing in Stephen King’s life that led to him including it so often during this time period. We aren’t too far removed from the character of Patrick, the artist in The Dark Tower. The book previous to this, Duma Key, featured Edgar Freemantle’s apparently psychically driven ability to paint. And now in Just After Sunset, we have the story Stationary Bike. It wasn’t necessarily my favorite from the collection but I found it interesting how many elements from the story felt familiar alongside Duma Key. I thought it was a cool mash-up (of sorts) of concepts as it seemed to combine the notion of psychically driven painting and mixed it with the supernatural aspects of King’s novel, The Sun Dog. So we have three instances of not just artists, but specifically those with the ability to influence the physical world with their art.
But beyond the generalities, there were several high points of the book for me.
It took me a little while to fully engage with this story and figure out what exactly was going on. Once I did, however, I found the concept behind the story to be a clever take on something that has definitely been done many times over. I don’t always see a lot of metaphor and symbolism in King’s stories as I don’t think he generally focuses so much on that type of writing. I don’t want to say too much about the specifics as I think it is important to stumble upon that moment of realization for yourself so I will suffice to say that King uses the idea of a train station effectively to represent the story he is going for. Once I got into it, this story definitely worked and I thought did a good job establishing the mood for the rest of the book.
The Gingerbread Girl
This was a pretty cool story. One thing I really loved was that the antagonist, while frightening is also kind of a bumbler. It’s easy to fall into the trap of having a killer or a monster that is so powerful and strong, it almost strains credibility. Sometimes it can be refreshing to see a villain who has weaknesses, although I will admit that as King’s more recent books carried on, this was a device he may have fallen too dependent on. But that is for another review.
King also seemed to be entering a time of his career where much more of his characters were strong women. I found this story coming back to me somewhat when I moved on to read Full Dark, No Stars, which also seems to predominantly feature female protagonists. I know this can be a sticky issue for some people anymore, although for the life of me I can’t really understand why. A lot of people seem to reflexively get defensive at the notion of placing a female character into the center of a story, that it smacks of the “PC Police” running rampant through our popular culture. To be clear, I don’t believe the PC Police exists, merely that our culture has finally come around to the notion that our art should be reflective of more than one kind of person. And I think it’s important to remind people that women also have it in them to kick ass and that they shouldn’t be used solely in fiction as a reason to create danger for the strong male character to save her from.
I don’t know what else I can say about this. For as short as it was, this was probably my favorite story in the entire collection. I might even go so far as to label this as one ofmy favorite King short in the modern era.
It takes place during an outdoor celebration of a high school graduation. And that is all I can say about the story without ruining anything. It’s short and to the point, incredibly effective and chilling to read. Growing up in the eighties and nineties, experiencing just the tail end of the cold war, I remember harboring fears of the kind of moment that is detailed in this story. So as I read it, I couldn’t help but feel that same thrill of fear coming back to me from my past. And frankly, with the current state of the world we live in, this story felt especially poignant and frightening.
This was one of the longer, novella-length stories from the collection and while it took me a while to engage with the format it is told in, I ended up enjoying it, quite a lot. This is a nested-doll sort of a story, essentially a narrative within a narrative. It’s entirely possible that this was a test run of sorts for what he would eventually do with Wind Through The Keyhole.
The main character in the frame story, Sheila, is writing to a childhood friend about her brother Johnny. Her brother was a psychiatrist who had recently committed suicide and Sheila is writing to her friend about a patient her brother had recently helped, one she is convinced has something to do with the death. The story at the center of the piece details Johhny’s attempts to help this patient, a man who seems to be suffering from increasingly damaging delusions surrounding a cluster of stones located in a nearby field. As this story winds down to its conclusion, we back out to the frame story to see the end of Sheila’s story and in an interesting addition,it ends with a newspaper article written by one Julia Shumway, a character who would be central in King’s next book, Under The Dome.
As I said, this was a bit of a slow starter but I found the creepy foreshadowing to be enough to carry me on and once the story picked up, I thought it was actually pretty frightening. The landing point that the story ends up on is tragic and bleak, utilizing the dark cycle I love to see in supernatural horror. Namely, you are presented with not just a powerful supernatural entity but that there will be no shortage of people willing to blunder into its path.
A Very Tight Place
Again, took me a while to get into this one but wow did this play on my issues with claustrophobia. I think that the mark of a great horror writer is when they are able to take a situation that we accept as completely benign and turn it into something frightening. You might not think much of porta-potties now but read this story and see if it changes your mind. And in addition to the panic I start to feel at the prospect of being in a situation like this, King also takes advantage of the opportunity to present some awesomely gross moments to the story. He crafts some great characters in this that provide the feel of a dark, one-act play performed over a toilet. And if that doesn’t sell the story, I don’t know what will.
In all, I would say that this was a pretty decent collection. I don’t think these are necessarily the greatest examples of his short stories and this collection is far from my favorite. Still, I found plenty in the book to engage with and found it overall to be entertaining. It’s rare for there to be a Stephen King book that I just outright don’t like. So while I don’t rank this at the top of the pile in terms of his bibliography, it’s still definitely worth checking out. As I have said previously, it’s hard to review books like this in the progression of his career because the stories are spread out over such a large patch of time. It isn’t like he sat down and wrote all of these at once for the purposes of this book. But taking it at face value, as a work of short fiction I would say thumbs up and recommend it without reservation.