My relationship with Stephen King is limited. I've read the entire Dark Tower series, and enjoyed it very much. Back in high school I read The Green Mile and a short story collection titled Everything's Eventual. I think that's about it. I've had The Stand on my TBR for a good while, but I've never managed to crack it open. So when I received Just After Sunset from my sister last year on a loan, I placed it on my shelf and figured I'd get to it whenever I did. As it turns out, it was sooner than later.
Just After Sunset is King's fifth collection of short stories. There are thirteen stories within, which seems appropriate given the subject matter. I figured the pieces would be horror, but most of them came across as suspenseful or eerie to me, and not a one crossed the line into horror. Okay, maybe one or two, depending on what gives you the willies.
As I did in my review of Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio's Stories, I've written a brief review/preview of each story. (Actually, these are my unedited notes I took after I finished a story.) At the end of each mini-review I've given a rating based on the GoodReads scale. I've boldfaced the stories that I would recommend.
"Willa" - This is a beautiful little piece is about a man named David and his fiance Willa. David and Willa are in a group of passengers waiting for an Amtrak train to come and pick them up from a layover in a sleepy little town in Wyoming. It's late, the train should be there soon, and David notices that Willa is missing. He sets out to find her, only to discover something else entirely. 3.5-stars
"The Gingerbread Girl" - After Emily and Henry's daughter dies in her crib, the couple begins to drift apart. Emily takes up running, to an obsessive degree. Eventually the two separate, and Emily heads to the Gulf of Mexico, to stay at her dad's tiny conch shack while she clears her head. She keeps up her running, more and more each day, until one day she notices what looks like a dead body in the trunk of a neighbors car. This is a pretty standard abduction/escape story that, while exciting, was rather dull and uninspired. It was difficult to read, too, considering I currently have a daughter that's sleeping in her own crib now. 2-stars
"Harvey's Dream" - Janet and Harvey have been married for many years. She's grown rather dissatisfied with life and her husband. As she's looking at his pasty white legs at the breakfast table one morning, Harvey tells her about his strange dream from last night. What follows is uninspired and mostly boring. 2-stars
"Rest Stop" - John Dikestre is a writer working on a new story. At a rest stop late one night, he encounters a man abusing his wife/girlfriend, and John muses whether or not he should interfere. 2.5-stars
"Stationary Bike" - Richard Sifkits, widower and artist, has just been told by Dr. Brady that his cholesterol needs to go down. Dr. Brady gives Richard "the speech" about aging and fats, and eventually Richard decides to buy a stationary bike. At first, riding fifteen minutes was a chore, but as time goes by, Richard has to set alarms to remind himself to get off. For when Richard Sifkit's is on the bike, his mind takes him places that may or may not really exist. 3-stars
"Graduation Afternoon" - Very forgettable and kind of boring. Seems to be written with 9/11 in mind, possibly? About a girl getting ready for a graduation party, planning her future and that of her dull but wealthy boyfriend. 1-star
"The Things They Left Behind" - Scott survived 9/11, but he has horrible secrets, horrible memories, horrible dreams, horrible visions. He skipped out on working that day, and everyone in his company died but two. Scott Steely is a man with survivors guilt and a box full of things that were left behind by the victims: a conch shell, a lucite cube, a mushroom, a whoopee cushion, and some sunglasses. Their arrival is a mystery, and he finds that he cannot get rid of them. This story was wonderfully written and reflective, even if slightly vulgar. 4-stars
"N." - Can a story get inside your head and change you? Can you believe the words of an OCD madman? Psychiatrist Dr. John Bonsaint recounts his testimony and experience with a delusional patient referred to as N. This story is a framed story, where Sheila, John's sister, writes to a childhood friend of John's about the doctor's recent suicide. After his death, John's patient notes were discovered marked with "BURN THIS." Sheila's curiosity got the better of her, and what follows is a strange story that is gloomy and haunting. Reminiscent of House of Leaves, this tale is a great descent into madness. 4.5-stars
"The New York Times At Special Discount Rates" - While getting herself together in her bedroom, grief stricken from the death of her husband, James, Annie gets a phone call. When her husband starts speaking on the other end, life takes an upside down turn. This was a short but enjoyable piece. 3.5-stars
"Mute" - Monette recounts a mysterious confession to a priest. This is another frame story, where Monette's wife's infidelity at age 54 has been found out. Not only has she been cheating, but she's also been embezzling. So when Monette picks up a mute and deaf hitchhiker, he finds the perfect companion to vent to. This was quite an intriguing story. Fun. 3.5-stars
"The Cat from Hell" - Halston is an independent hit man. When an aged and wealthy man offers him a hit for $12k, Halston takes it. When the man says that the target is a cat, Halston shrugs, unconcerned. He's killed plenty of men before, never caring about the reasons behind the hits. He figures the cat's just another target like any other. What he finds is something else entirely. This was a short and fun story, albeit bizarre. 3.5-stars
"Ayana" - A narrator tells his story of how he watched his father's miraculous recovery from pancreatic cancer after a small girl kissed him. From then on, the narrator found that he, too, had the gift of healing, and this story recounts some of what he's done over the years. I found this piece kind of odd and out of key with the others, not really seeming to fit. Plus, there was no action, just a very passive memoir like tone of things that had been done. An interesting idea that wasn't developed enough. 2-stars
"A Very Tight Place" - Curtis Johnson has plenty of hard feelings over his neighbor, named TMF for short. TMF had an electric fence, which killed Curtis' dog. Curtis wants recompense and revenge. This story was exceptionally colorful, filled with so much profanity that my eyes bled, and enough vulgarity that I nearly quit the story several times. I wish I had. This story is absolutely disgusting and gross, and I cannot imagine what Stephen King was thinking when he wrote this. I was compelled to keep going just to see how everything would resolve, even if I felt dirty and wanted to throw up. The premise is that Curtis is lured to an abandoned construction site and left to die in a tipped-over portajohn. 1.5-stars
As you can see, for the most part, I was around the 2-3.5 range. The arithmetic mean of these stories is 2.8, which is just below the "I Like It" 3-star rating. The three bolded stories are all very good, and I can easily recommend them. In particular, "N." was a delight to read, and "The Things They Left Behind" was one of the most powerful 9/11 stories I've read. I really loved King's take on that day.
If you're looking for some short fiction, Stephen King's Just After Sunset has some gems, but it has some unpolished stones, too. There was potential in a few, and some were just flat out boring. All in all, I liked the read well enough, but I could have liked it better.