Macabre Master Stephen King Returns To Form

Stephen King's 'Just After Sunset'
Just After Sunset
By Stephen King
Hardcover, 3844 pages
Scribner
List price: $28
Author Stephen King

hide captionFamous for his horror novels, Stephen King shocked the literary world when he won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003.

Amy Gulp

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.

Excerpt: 'Just After Sunset'

Just After Sunset
By Stephen King
Hardcover, 384 pages
Scribner
List price: $28.00

Not a very nice man.

One afternoon not long after July became August, Deke Hollis told her she had company on the island. He called it the island, never the key.

Deke was a weathered fifty, or maybe seventy. He was tall and rangy and wore a battered old straw hat that looked like an inverted soup bowl. From seven in the morning until seven at night, he ran the drawbridge between Vermillion and the mainland. This was Monday to Friday. On weekends, "the kid" took over (said kid being about thirty). Some days when Em ran up to the drawbridge and saw the kid instead of Deke in the old cane chair outside the gatehouse, reading Maxim or Popular Mechanics rather than The New York Times, she was startled to realize that Saturday had come around again.

This afternoon, though, it was Deke. The channel between Vermillion and the mainland — which Deke called the thrut (throat, she assumed) — was deserted and dark under a dark sky. A heron stood on the drawbridge's Gulf-side rail, either meditating or looking for fish.

"Company?" Em said. "I don't have any company."

"I didn't mean it that way. Pickering's back. At 366? Brought one of his 'nieces.'" The punctuation for nieces was provided by a roll of Deke's eyes, of a blue so faded they were nearly colorless.

"I didn't see anyone," Em said.

"No," he agreed. "Crossed over in that big red M'cedes of his about an hour ago, while you were probably still lacin' up your tennies." He leaned forward over his newspaper; it crackled against his flat belly. She saw he had the crossword about half completed. "Different niece every summer. Always young." He paused. "Sometimes two nieces, one in August and one in September."

"I don't know him," Em said. "And I didn't see any red Mercedes." Nor did she know which house belonged to 366. She noticed the houses themselves, but rarely paid attention to the mailboxes. Except, of course, for 219. That was the one with the little line of carved birds on top of it. (The house behind it was, of course, Birdland.)

"Just as well," Deke said. This time instead of rolling his eyes, he twitched down the corners of his mouth, as if he had something bad tasting in there. "He brings 'em down in the M'cedes, then takes 'em back to St. Petersburg in his boat. Big white yacht. The Playpen. Went through this morning." The corners of his mouth did that thing again. In the far distance, thunder mumbled. "So the nieces get a tour of the house, then a nice little cruise up the coast, and we don't see Pickering again until January, when it gets cold up in Chicagoland."

Em thought she might have seen a moored white pleasure craft on her morning beach run but wasn't sure.

"Day or two from now — maybe a week — he'll send out a couple of fellas, and one will drive the M'cedes back to wherever he keeps it stored away. Near the private airport in Naples, I imagine."

"He must be very rich," Em said. This was the longest conversation she'd ever had with Deke, and it was interesting, but she started jogging in place just the same. Partly because she didn't want to stiffen up, mostly because her body was calling on her to run.

"Rich as Scrooge McDuck, but I got an idea Pickering actually spends his. Probably in ways Uncle Scrooge never imagined. Made it off some kind of computer thing, I heard." The eye roll. "Don't they all?"

"I guess," she said, still jogging in place. The thunder cleared its throat with a little more authority this time.

"I know you're anxious to be off, but I'm talking to you for a reason," Deke said. He folded up his newspaper, put it beside the old cane chair, and stuck his coffee cup on top of it as a paperweight. "I don't ordinarily talk out of school about folks on the island — a lot of 'em's rich and I wouldn't last long if I did — but I like you, Emmy. You keep yourself to yourself, but you ain't a bit snooty. Also, I like your father. Him and me's lifted a beer, time to time."

"Thanks," she said. She was touched. And as a thought occurred to her, she smiled. "Did my dad ask you to keep an eye on me?"

Deke shook his head. "Never did. Never would. Not R. J.'s style. He'd tell you the same as I am, though — Jim Pickering's not a very nice man. I'd steer clear of him. If he invites you in for a drink or even just a cup of coffee with him and his new 'niece,' I'd say no. And if he were to ask you to go cruising with him, I would definitely say no."

"I have no interest in cruising anywhere," she said. What she was interested in was finishing her work on Vermillion Key. She felt it was almost done. "And I better get back before the rain starts."

"Don't think it's coming until five, at least," Deke said. "Although if I'm wrong, I think you'll still be okay."

She smiled again. "Me too. Contrary to popular opinion, women don't melt in the rain. I'll tell my dad you said hello."

"You do that." He bent down to get his paper, then paused, looking at her from beneath that ridiculous hat. "How're you doing, anyway?"

"Better," she said. "Better every day." She turned and began her road run back to the Little Grass Shack. She raised her hand as she went, and as she did, the heron that had been perched on the drawbridge rail flapped past her with a fish in its long bill.

Three sixty-six turned out to be the Pillbox, and for the first time since she'd come to Vermillion, the gate was standing ajar. Or had it been ajar when she ran past it toward the bridge? She couldn't remember — but of course she had taken up wearing a watch, a clunky thing with a big digital readout, so she could time herself. She had probably been looking at that when she went by.

She almost passed without slowing — the thunder was closer now — but she wasn't exactly wearing a thousand-dollar suede skirt from Jill Anderson, only an ensemble from the Athletic Attic: shorts and a T-shirt with the Nike swoosh on it. Besides, what had she said to Deke? Women don't melt in the rain. So she slowed, swerved, and had a peek. It was simple curiosity.

She thought the Mercedes parked in the courtyard was a 450 SL, because her father had one like it, although his was pretty old now and this one looked brand-new. It was candy-apple red, its body brilliant even under the darkening sky. The trunk was open. A sheaf of long blond hair hung from it. There was blood in the hair.

Had Deke said the girl with Pickering was a blond? That was her first question, and she was so shocked, so fucking amazed, that there was no surprise in it. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question, and the answer was Deke hadn't said. Only that she was young. And a niece. With the eye roll.

Thunder rumbled. Almost directly overhead now. The courtyard was empty except for the car (and the blond in the trunk, there was her). The house looked deserted, too: buttoned up and more like a pillbox than ever. Even the palms swaying around it couldn't soften it. It was too big, too stark, too gray. It was an ugly house.

Em thought she heard a moan. She ran through the gate and across the yard to the open trunk without even thinking about it. She looked in. The girl in the trunk hadn't moaned. Her eyes were open, but she had been stabbed in what looked like dozens of places, and her throat was cut ear to ear.

Em stood looking in, too shocked to move, too shocked to even breathe. Then it occurred to her that this was a fake dead girl, a movie prop. Even as her rational mind was telling her that was bullshit, the part of her that specialized in rationalization was nodding frantically. Even making up a story to backstop the idea. Deke didn't like Pickering, and Pickering's choice of female companionship? Well guess what, Pickering didn't like Deke, either! This was nothing but an elaborate practical joke. Pickering would go back across the bridge with the trunk deliberately ajar, that fake blond hair fluttering, and —

But there were smells rising out of the trunk now. They were the smells of shit and blood. Em reached forward and touched the cheek below one of those staring eyes. It was cold, but it was skin. Oh God, it was human skin.

There was a sound behind her. A footstep. She started to turn, and something came down on her head. There was no pain, but brilliant white seemed to leap across the world. Then the world went dark.

Excerpted from Just After Sunset by Stephen King Copyright © 2008 by Stephen King. Excerpted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Just After Sunset
Just After Sunset

by Stephen King

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On Writing
On Writing

A Memoir of the Craft

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