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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Enjoying the Sunset

Short-story collections are inevitably hit and miss affairs.  They can't all be gems.  Stephen King's collection, Just After Sunset is no exception.

Make no mistake about it: Despite the judgments of numerous detractors (whose numbers, though, seem to have declined over the years), King can write.

(Shameless self-promotion digression: YNSHC actually wrote the entry on King for Continuum Publishing's Encyclopedia of American Literature (1999).  Look it up!  End of digression.)

He may not produce what many people consider to be capital-L Literature.  Then again, who knows?  Dickens, in his day, was a paid-by-the-word hack.  The only reason most of Shakespeare's works were even published was because a bunch of his buddies decided to bind his plays as a sort of tribute after the man's death.  Perhaps 100 years from now there will be an endowed chair of Stephen King studies at the University of Maine.  If there isn't already.

But Literature or not, the man knows how to tell a story.  He wastes no time establishing character, as the first paragraph of "A Very Tight Place," the last story in the collection makes clear:

"Curtis Johnson rode his bike five miles every morning.  He had stopped for a while after Betsy died, but found that without his morning exercise he was sadder than ever.  So he took it up again.  The only difference was that he stopped wearing his helmet.  He rode two and a half miles down Gulf Boulevard, then turned around and rode back.  He always kept to the bike lanes.  He might not care if he lived or died, but he respected the rule of law."

That last sentence, in fact--that violation of the writing-class edict to "show not tell"--is about the only thing that separates King from the realm of Literature.  But one suspects that it's not there because King lacks faith that his readers couldn't draw their own conclusions from his description; rather, King wants his stories to go down easy, like a cold beer on a hot day (about the level of sophistication of a typical King simile)--they are entertainments, and part of entertaining is making your guests as comfortable as possible while they spend time in your narrative world.

The irony, of course, is that Stephen King makes his readers comfortable while describing some highly uncomfortable predicaments.  In the story referenced above, the protagonist finds himself trapped in a none-too-clean port-a-potty.  In another story of a desperately trapped character, "The Gingerbread Girl" (the longest story in the book), a woman is bound to a kitchen chair by a serial killer, and the question that drives most of the plot is whether she'll free herself before her tormentor returns from his latest deadly mission.

The thrillers are the best stories in the collection.  In addition to "The Gingerbread Girl" and "A Very Tight Place," these include "Rest Stop," about a mild-mannered writer who has to channel his more-violent alter ego (his "inner Richard Bachman" as King describes it in the afterward) to rescue a victim of domestic violence; "N.," a sort of homage to H.P. Lovecraft; and "Mute," in which a man enters a confessional to expiate what may or may not be a mortal sin.

King's more-sentimental stories are less satisfying.  The semi-supernatural tales "Willa," "Ayana," and "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates" all suffer from the fact that there doesn't seem to be much of anything at stake.  They are "nice" stories, and Stephen King just doesn't do "nice" all that well.

This is not a condemnation--far from it.  Anyone who can grab a reader's attention and keep him compulsively turning pages to see what happens next is far ahead of most writers, including most of those writers considered "Literary."  His short stories are like so much popcorn--not especially bad for you, eminently enjoyable.  And even if you get a little tired of popcorn, you know you're going to enjoy it again the next time you're in the mood. 

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