1 Apr 2009

Book Review (part 1 of 2): Just After Sunset, Stephen King

As promised, here is the first part of my story-by-story review of Stephen King's latest collection, Just After Sunset:


While the victims of a derailment in Wyoming gather at a station to await a recovery train to take them on to their destination, David goes off in search of his fiance, the eponymous Willa, who has wandered into a nearby town. The ‘twist’ in the tale is soon revealed; King isn’t stupid, he’s seen The Sixth Sense like the rest of us. Besides, the story is really about love, how it sets us apart, how it survives everything, even death. There’s plenty of his trademark attention to detail to be found here, which can at times make his work seem bloated and gassy, but mercifully the pacing here, although a little out-of-balance, is just about right. A tale that lingered with me… 3.5/5

The Gingerbread Girl

Since losing her baby, Emily likes to run. She runs from her husband and her life all the way to a beach retreat in Vermillion Key, Florida, where she runs straight into the arms of a psychopath. Part character study, part action-suspense tale, The Gingerbread Girl is an easy if overlong read. Though the protagonist is an interesting and sympathetic character, King has given her a fairly insipid plot through which to navigate. More disappointing than that, however, is her main antagonist, a psychopathic serial killer who is pure stereotype. No surprises. 2.5/5

Harvey’s Dream

What this story lacks in action and plot, it more than makes up for in character and to a lesser degree suspense. A richly detailed portrait of a man and woman nearing their retirement years. Add to the mix a vivid and disturbing dream, and their ‘thin’ world is suddenly, irrevocably changed forever. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed the detailed writing and slow, simmering build-up, even if it was all fairly predictable in the end. 3/5

Rest Stop

A popular writer stops for a bathroom break and overhears a man beating on a woman. He has to decide if and how he will intervene. I won’t reveal what happens next, just that Rest Stop is another classic example of King’s highly readable style carrying a straightforward story. He’s truly a magician with detail. Indeed, as he did with the previous tale, he takes the simplest of situations and works his magic to somehow make it feel immediate and exciting. 3/5

Stationary Bike

The point King makes in this cautionary tale about the dangers of over-exercise could easily be made in fewer pages than the 30-plus he uses here. But when it’s delivered in such a readable style, it really is hard to complain. Freelance artist Richard Sifkitz is overweight, has high cholesterol and, after the bluntest of warnings from his doctor, buys a stationary bike. He puts the bike in his basement, paints a road on the wall, and marks off his route on various maps. Great, so far. You might think you can guess where King takes it from here, for he’s revisiting familiar ground, mixing elements from some of his other work—The Road Virus Heads North and his last novel, Duma Key, spring to mind—but he literally informs the reader that this story won’t end as they might expect. And to an extent he’s right and it doesn’t. There’s much to enjoy here, but like a lot of King’s work the payoff doesn’t quite live up to the build-up, unfortunately. Still, this is a strong if slightly overlong story. 3.5/5

The Things They Left Behind

Almost a year on from 9/11, Scott Staley, a man who should have been working in one of the Towers that day, discovers objects belonging to his deceased co-workers in his apartment. Objects with stories to tell... What follows is a journey of understanding and for me, boredom. This one didn’t connect at all. Despite my initial interest and high-hopes, it had me zoning out for pages at a time. Overwritten—even more so than the previous story—and thin on plot, this could easily stand to lose 40-50% of its length. I may revisit this to see if it engages me second time around, I’m stubborn—or stupid—that way, but after a first reading this is the most disappointing story of the collection so far. 2/5

Graduation Afternoon

Like Harvey’s Dream, Graduation Afternoon showcases King the writer more than King the storyteller. It is a simple and fairly effective literary tale, full of detail like the other stories in this collection, but ultimately lacking story. Structurally and thematically it bears some similarities to Harvey’s Dream, in that he details the lives of the players before hitting them hard at the close. Enjoyable, but I think writing this good deserves more plot. 2.5/5

Part two of my review will follow soon...


Brian G Ross said...

A nice run down of the first half of the collection and - as expected - not too much in the way of spoilers for people (like me) who have yet to read them.

It certainly does seem like King has lost a lot of his former lustre. Shame, because when he's good, he's damn good.


Steven J. Dines said...

The second half of the collection is better than the first, it should be said. Besides, even a below-par King is worth your attention.