There are two "eras" of Stephen King: before and after he got clean and sober. Like quite a few of his fans, some of my favorite King novels are the ones he wrote during his coke-fiend days, when he was just writing whatever crazy shit ran amok through his booze-addled brain. Even back then, his stories were coherent and compellingly written, if sloppy at times and sometimes giving the impression of a train about to go off its rails at any moment. But I really like the old King classics.
That is not to say I don't like the "new" King. He's perfected his craft and he can write much calmer, more thoughtful stories. But he can still write some crazy shit.
So, Just After Sunset
is not Skeleton Crew
or Night Shift
. Most of the horror is not as raw in this collection, but King spends more time on characterization or just playing with scenes. However, when one story stood out to me — The Cat from Hell
— and made me think "Now that's the old King," I was gratified when he mentioned in his author's notes at the end of the book that it was one of the stories he wrote for a men's magazine 30 years ago that just hadn't happened to make it into any of his previous short story collections.
So here are the stories:Willa
is a sad, touching ghost story. That's a little bit of a spoiler, but come on, you've seen Sixth Sense
, and anyway, King doesn't make you wait until the end. Great mood, though the story was unremarkable.The Gingerbread Girl
is your basic survival thriller, a woman versus a maniac serial killer in the Florida Keys.Harvey's Dream
is a story that begins as a mundane examination of your basic unhappily married middle-aged couple, and slowly edges towards horror.Rest Stop
, about a traveler who stops at a rest stop and is unwillingly involved in a domestic dispute. King has always written with sympathy although not much finesse about women who are victims of abuse.Stationary Bike
This is reminiscent of the old "weird King," where the mundane turns bizarre. A guy trying to lose weight spends hours on a stationary bike and literally goes into another world.Graduation Afternoon
A short short, about a townie girl dating one of the wealthy summer tourists, and a King twist at the end.The Things They Left Behind
Every American writer in the 21st century has to write a 9/11 story at some point, and this is King's.N.
King always has to give a nod to Lovecraft, and this is this collection's "unspeakable horror from between worlds" story.The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates
is a brief, eerie tale about a woman who receives a phone call from her husband, who died two days ago.Mute
A man unburdens himself about his marital woes to a deaf-mute hitchhiker, with disastrous results.The Cat From Hell
A hit man accepts a contract on... a cat.Ayana
About a little girl with healing powers. This one kind of annoyed me, because King just cannot break his Magical Negro habit.
And finally, in another hat-tip to his older, grosser self, A Very Tight Place
. The "very tight place" referred to is a porta-potty. Combine "porta-potty" with "Stephen King" and a title like that, and you know it's going to go bad places. Don't read it while eating, but it's a pretty satisfying survival-and-revenge tale.
Overall, I give this collection 3.5 stars as the stories ranged from 3 to 4 stars for me — no stand-outs, but no real duds. King fans should find it perfectly satisfying, and it's pretty representative of his late-career writing style.