Review: “Just After Sunset” by Stephen King

If you know me, I love Stephen King, and if you’ve read this post, then you realize I want to dedicate a lot of my time as a scholar to him. Fortunately, my views on King are not as fanboyish as they once could have been; I do not think he is infallible as a writer. He sometimes does write garbage (I hated Gerald’s Game), and sometimes his stuff is a mixed bag of awesome, good, and meh. Admittedly, however, the second half of the collection is a lot better than the first, so trudge through the beginning and if you’re not hooked by then, you very well could get that way by the time all stories are read. Just After Sunset comes in as just this sort of a mixed bag. The stories are generally well written, and some of them are actually good enough that I’d like to work them into a syllabus eventually, but some of them are just kind of there, and for a guy whose newest stuff has generally been better than top-notch (especially Lisey’s Story and Duma Key), I cannot help but be a little disappointed by what Just After Sunset offers.

On the up side, there is a tie for my favorite story: either “N.” or “Graduation Afternoon.”

N.”: Readers are given one of King’s most psychologically memorable stories in a long time. He ties it back to H.P. Lovecraft in many ways (specifically dealing with elder evils), and the reader is really apt to see the mental breakdown of the characters, which is why I truly love an epistolary story. It was adapted for an internet webseries at N. Is Here before Just After Sunset was released, and it really had me hungering for the collection. “N.” was placed at roughly the halfway mark in the collection, which is fine, but it (and “Graduation Afternoon,” too, since they’re adjacent) clearly demarcates the better half of the book from the lackluster beginning. “N.” really made me think about what exactly OCD is and how it can affect people’s lives and those of the people around them. Even though I knew what was coming thanks to N. Is Here, I was still shocked and creeped out as the story drew to its climax. The story had a very old school feel without feeling pulpy, and it hit on my favorite horror raw nerve: mental breakdown.

“Graduation Afternoon”: For being, as King calls it in the “Sunset Notes” section of the book, clichéd, “Graduation Afternoon” struck me as probably the most memorable story in the book. Why? It’s completely ordinary, and that is what Stephen King excels at—making the ordinary special, or at least interesting. He is able to take a normal situation that we have all heard about over and over again (townie dating a wealthy boy who is going to an Ivy League college while she goes to a state school) and melds it with another image that has become ingrained in our social consciousness over the last few decades. It is a deceptively simple way to hit the kind societal pressure points he mentions in Danse Macabre. The simplicity and the cliché to some extent is why I feel this story works so well; I don’t remember the characters names, but I remember the feeling I had when I saw what happened to them. My gut sank as my mind’s eye saw what they saw. It was good storytelling, which is what I read for.

The main story I just could not care about was “Willa.”

“Willa”: The first piece in a collection should be one to grab the reader and take off running and not let go. Unfortunately, “Willa” is slow-paced and thoughtful, which really needs to be placed in the middle of a collection like this. I think it was this slow start that made me unable to really find a stride in the book. I do think there is some merit, however, in the story in how it deals with perspective. The idea that perspective and expectation are the main influences on reality is really one to make the reader think. The idea of perspective is played with throughout the story, and by the end, it is interesting to see the afterlife from a perspective a little different than what is normally written. It reminds me of a story Kathryn Tucker Windham told last Halloween in Athens, AL at the storytelling festival. I never got the name of the story, but it was told from the same perspective “Willa” takes, which turns preconceived notions about the afterlife and turns them upside down. For a story, it’s okay; for the beginning of the first Stephen King short story collection in years, it’s not so good.

The rest of the collection is just kind of there, neither exceptionally memorable nor entirely forgettable. I have no doubt that Stephen King fans will find something to latch onto in this collection, as it has a little of all of King’s styles in it. There are the hard paranormal stories like “Willa” and “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates,” there is the Lovecraft inspired “N.”, there are the stories which could have easily been a Richard Bachman collection “The Gingerbread Girl” and “Mute,” and there were the stories which don’t necessarily fit into any category other than “Stephen King.” Constant Readers know what I am talking about. All in all, I don’t feel as though my time were wasted reading Just After Sunset. There were enough ups in the book to warrant the downs when they came. I would like to see the stories arranged differently for a slightly better flow of ideas and themes; I would start with “Graduation Afternoon” and then move into “Mute” into “N.” and eventually end the collection with “The Things They Left Behind” to really have a sense of closure that looks into the future, but that’s just me. As it stands, Just After Sunset was worth reading, and has really whet my appetite for Under the Dome’s release this fall.