Thirteen. That’s the number of yarns featured in Just After Sunset, Stephen King’s first book of short stories since 2002’s Everything’s Eventual.
Thirteen the unlucky number, the numeral for losers, the digit for all the poor saps out there who never seem to be getting an even break or a fair shake. Just After Sunset is populated by such people, and by the requisite share of villains and monsters, too. Hey, if destiny won’t inflict bad things on you, there’s always some creep out there who will, right?
I’ve always enjoyed King’s short stories and novellas; I think some of his best work lies between the covers of Skeleton Crew, Four Past Midnight, Different Seasons and the aforementioned Everything’s Eventual. Just After Sunset is a marvelous addition to the library of King’s more concise fictions.
Never, in fact, has King seemed more mature (well, he is 61) or more sure of himself as a writer. His work here still has the power to freak you out, but for the most part the horrors he has invented for these pages are far more sophisticated than the machinations of his youth.
“Harvey’s Dream” finds a couple dealing with the early onset of dementia, or at least in the man’s case it is so. King’s portrait of Janet and Harvey is succinct; the piece runs fewer than 10 pages. But in that space he manages to pack all the fears and cares of a marriage that has changed forever—and then some. Harvey has indeed had a dream, you see, and that dream—well! We all know that in Stephen King’s universe, so many dreams turn out to be nightmares. And rarely has King’s phrasing been more elegant, as when he writes, “Dreams are poems from the subconscious.”
“Graduation Afternoon”, another of the shorter stories here, is more than memorable; this one will sear its way into your circuits and stay there. King gets great mileage in this one out of the situation: A young woman named Janice is dating a boy named Buddy, and the latter is from a well-to-do family while the former certainly is not. Janice feels the sting of attitudes from Buddy’s social set and family, especially from a comment made by Buddy’s oh-so-snobby grandmother.
After setting us up with the social warfare, though, King absolutely turns this story on its ear, to great and very startling effect. I won’t spoil it for you, except to say I think the piece really is a bomb, and that is not a criticism. Basically, what King manages to do here is to dynamite the pretensions of the rich, except that dynamite isn’t a strong-enough word. Here’s a hint for you, but you’ll get it only if you’re a fan of the English rock group Pink Floyd and a song of theirs from about a quarter-century ago called “Two Suns in the Sunset”: “We were all equal in the end.”
Other stories in the book are longer, including “Willa”, the opener, and two pieces that flirt with novella territory, “The Gingerbread Girl” and “A Very Tight Place”. Even when he’s stretching out here, though, King has it all under control. In his novels he has a tendency to let the word processor overheat, but “Girl” and “Place” are two of the strongest pieces in this book.
The latter closes out Just After Sunset in grand style—if your idea of grand involves a Florida real-estate deal gone sour, two men who used to be friendly but now despise each other, and a portable toilet that may or may not serve as a tomb. Note to the squeamish: “A Very Tight Place” is not for you.
I was laughing out loud at parts of this tale. Not because King made mistakes, but because he did something he likes to do and did it well: He took a situation so outlandish that it would be impossible for most writers to handle, and made that situation a preposterous but believable strength. Admirable, too, is the way he draws the characters here. Think Grumpy Old Men taken to a viciously absurd (or absurdly vicious) degree.
Thirteen. In truth, some people and cultures regard 13 as a lucky number, or, in the case of Sikhism, even holy. With these 13 stories, Stephen King’s luck certainly is in.