It’s a given that I’m going to read anything by Stephen King. I’m not the fanboy that I used to be, but he was the writer who got me most interested in doing some writing of my own, and I still think he has an extraordinary knack for characterization and raw storytelling. Even when his stories don’t go very far (The Colorado Kid), or are otherwise insubstantial (Lisey’s Story), I’m still very much wrapped up in his style, and find myself compelled to read the stories.
Like most short story collections, Just After Sunset is a mixed bag. There are some good stories (”N.”), some great stories, (”The Things They Left Behind”), some predictable stories (”Willa”), some experimental stories (”Harvey’s Dream”), a few weird stories (”Stationary Bike”), and some flat-out terrible stories (”A Very Tight Space”). The good news is that the good stories are a reminder that King still hasn’t lost that knack for good storytelling.
If I had to pick a favorite out of the bunch, it would have to be “N.”, since it hearkens back to when King was such a great horror writer. He captures atmosphere very well in this story, and the Lovecraftian overtones in the story are perfect. The setting, the characters, and the depiction of the slow decline of the main character are all perfect. Good horror fiction is still a guilty pleasure of mine, and I would love it if he could return to writing it consistently. Even “The Cat from Hell,” the collection’s “hidden bonus track” (according to the author, since it’s the one story that was written back when he was still making ends meet writing for men’s magazines), can’t compare with “N.”
“The Things They Left Behind” is a more personal story, about the aftereffects of 9/11. It’s a story of tragedy and redemption, of the haunted and the haunter, and the personal effects a disaster can have on so many people. That he taps in to that shared memory of such a terrible event cements the story as much more “real” than the others in the collection, and thus it will probably have a profound effect on readers who were “there” (either in person or via the news) when it happened. The personal touches of the story are effective and powerful. The only reason I didn’t pick this story as my favorite is because the sense of horror and dread in this story were very real, to the point of making me uncomfortable; in “N.”, it was more a case of how reading a good story can make me a little giddy with excitement. While “The Things They Left Behind” is more literary, “N.” reminds me of those days when I was first discovering King as a writer.
For the most part, the stories in the collection aren’t outstanding, but those two stories are certainly worth reading. I’m a completist when it comes to authors, though, and there was never a question as to whether I would read the whole thing. In this case, my perseverance paid off.