After years of advocacy from fans and critics, several appearances in the New Yorker, and the 2000 publication of his marvelous On Writing, it is now generally agreed that Stephen King is as "literary" as any moody Whiting-award nominee. If King's new short-story collection, Just After Sunset, is any indication, he too seems to consider the matter settled. Like a character in one of his own novels who has vanquished the bogeyman and emerged into daylight unharmed, the author has deemed it safe to put down his highfalutin pen and return unapologetically to his lurid, gore-spattered roots.
King has always been fond of the twilight period, when night is coming on and beleaguered innocents frantically prepare for evil incarnate's next onslaught. (Read It or the recent Duma Key for some particularly terrifying cocktail hours.) And although some of the stories in this collection do, in fact, take place just after sunset, for King, twilight is a better metaphor for an unpleasant loss of control; it's the time when the bright certainty of our waking life makes room for ghastly possibilities.
In Just After Sunset's better moments, such possibilities are truly scalp-prickling — at their best, horrifying and heartbreaking. (It's an alchemy the author could trademark.) "Willa," in which a couple rekindles their romance in a neon-lit afterlife, and "The Things They Left Behind," whose Sept. 11 survivor keeps finding his dead co-workers' possessions in his own apartment, use the supernatural as a way to movingly depict life's frailty.
Other stories are mini-thrillers, like the truly weird "Stationary Bike," in which an artist's subjects come to life and are mightily pissed. Or "Rest Stop," in which a writer channels his authorial alter-ego to deal with a bully. (Yes, it wouldn't be King if the great man didn't swan in as a character from time to time.)
For readers who like blood and plenty of it, there's the interminable fleshly desecrations of "The Gingerbread Girl," wherein a runner escapes a modern Bluebeard. And to those for whom blood is not enough, there's the frankly unreadable "A Very Tight Place," involving a portable toilet and a set of keys, which you might want to pass on to any interested 7-year-olds in the house.
King freely admits in chatty front- and back-matter that some of the stories in Just After Sunset are not top-shelf. Galled at having lost the "knack for miniaturization" — those early, one-off stories on which he built his writer's chops — he says he found himself at the height of his career like "an aging sword-maker, looking helplessly at a fine Toledo blade and musing, I used to know how to make this stuff."
True, Just After Sunset has neither the impressive narrative sprawl of his novels nor the richness of his more literary short stories. But King has done exactly what he set out to do: brought back to life a kind of pulpy work that, in his hands, is far from undead.