I make no secret of that fact that Stephen King is my favorite modern writer. His short stories thrill me, on the whole. None of them are mediocre and of course I have my personal beloved. This new collection of stories, some fresh off the presses, some previously published, has not disappointed. Not all are in your face horror. In fact many are more like cautionary tales; be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.
King’s ease of using colloquialisms and not sounding corny or disparaging is part of what makes his stories so believable. Even the most insane and diabolical becomes possible when written in King’s original styles. Yes, I said styles. Because he fits the style of his stories to the moods, the characters, and the settings, without blinking an eye. From college professors to a wealthy bedridden man to the average Joe, King rolls them all out for our inspection.
I have my favorites in this collection as well. But to be fair I’ll take them one by one and not jump ahead.
Mile 81: I like to think of this as Christine meets From a Buick 8. King writes kids dialogue better than almost anyone I can think of. He seems to understand the workings of a child’s mind with an infinite insight any parent would envy. I can only imagine how much fun it would have been growing up in the King household. In Mile 81 King understands and relates the motivations behind a young boy’s adventure that takes him close to the edge of danger. As with many of the children in King’s stories, the children in this story are a lot smarter than their adult counterparts. Suffice it to say, if you see a car broken down at an abandoned rest area, keep driving. Call the highway patrol but don’t be a Good Samaritan. This isn’t the Bible and no good deed goes unpunished here.
Premium Harmony: This story disturbed me on a couple of levels. Without giving too much away let’s just say I related to it. If you live in my neck of the woods, the Southern United States, you see a lot of these characters daily. Dealing with the unexpected demise of a loved one is painful. It can be exacerbated by the simplest of occurrences. This story seems to say, treasure what you have even when you don’t think it’s worth a heck of a lot.
Batman and Robin Have an Altercation: My mother Alzheimer’s. Unless you have had a parent who suffered with this disease you might not appreciate how it affects the entire family. It is a loathsome illness that steals the precious pasts of our loved ones. Sometimes the lost memories are reborn and relived at the oddest moments. Sometimes those memories have never been shared before but rise from some secret buried spot to enlighten listeners. If you listen carefully you just might find there’s a lot more to your parents than you ever suspected.
The Dune: I love stories with a twist at the end that makes me gasp. The Dune does that. It led me along a path of mystery and suspense, knowing there was something dark coming. It reminds me of the old saying “The writing is on the wall”. Only this time the writing is in the sand. I wouldn’t want to see my name written in this sand.
Bad Little Kid: Recently bullying has become a much talked about issue in the news. What if you were a little kid who saw a bully, a bully who picked on someone you cared about; a friend who was innocent and even a little helpless? They say kids who are bullies grow up to be big adult bullies. In King’s Bad Little Kid the bully doesn’t grow up. And the bullying results in a lot more than hurt feelings. With the flavor of Insomnia, this is a story that gave me the creeps from the start.
A Death: King captured the feel of the old West in this short story. He has created a character that elicits sympathy almost immediately. Slow, sad, and helpless he is arrested for the murder of a little girl. Although he is convicted, the one piece of evidence that would convince the sheriff of his guilt remains missing. Did Trusdale kill little Rebecca Cline and steal her birthday silver dollar? His hat was found beneath her dead body but Trusdale claims he lost it and can’t recall where. If Sheriff Barclay could just find the silver dollar he would know that Trusdale was definitely guilty. If not, he will forever wonder if he has captured the real killer. Sometimes you have to dig through a lot of crap to find the truth.
The Bone Church: I never suspected Stephen King wrote poetry. As poetry goes, this isn’t bad. If you enjoy poetry, read it. If it isn’t your thing skip it. The flavor of madness is rife in this work. What drives one man to insanity may not even graze the surface of another man’s conscience. Some choose to drown the horrors of their pasts in drink. But more often than not the reality of evil and ugliness seeps through.
Morality: Desperation can cause a person to do the most unlikely thing. And sometimes the wealthy will take advantage of the desperation of the poor. But when you sell your soul to the devil you usually don’t get it back. What price would you put on your morality? And if you sold your soul to the devil would you be able to bargain it back? King gets down and dirty in this morality tale. Holding a microscope up to the human condition he reveals the disease that can grow in anyone’s soul once the seed of desperation has been fed.
Afterlife: Stephen King, like many horror writer’s, seems to have a fascination with what happens after we leave this mortal coil. When we die, do our bodies just go into the ground (or the oven) to waste away and be forgotten? Or does some ethereal part of us go on to a higher (or lower) plane depending on how good or bad we’ve been? So far no one can prove that there is an afterlife. But King likes to suppose what happens. In Afterlife he outlines the path of Bill Andrews and invites us to follow. King gives us his version on St. Peter, sitting behind a desk and giving Bill some interesting options. Which road will Bill choose to follow? Which one would you choose?
Ur: I actually read this as a Kindle single. I could have skipped past it but I liked it too much to miss the chance to read it again. When Amazon first came out with the Kindle I resisted getting one. I am avid reader and back then I was an avid book reader. I had no argument with technology. I was more than a little computer literate. But books were the sacred printed links between my past and my present. I can relate to Wesley Smith the primary character in Ur. King presents a new kind of Kindle, pink and magical. This is another tale of choices. With the delightful flavor of 11/22/63 and the Dark Tower series, Wesley has to accept “there are other worlds than these”. In those worlds things can be very different. That’s alright when he’s talking about literature but when those other worlds collide with his personal life he has to make some hard decisions. As any reader of King’s can attest, there are consequences to any decision and some are pretty scary. This is my favorite story in the collection.
Herman Wouk Is Still Alive: This story hit me hard because I can put faces on the characters. I’ve known women like Brenda and Jasmine; women who started out as girls with big dreams. Then the dreams became soiled memories of what might have been leaving them questioning how they ended up in the dreary lives they are living. On the other side of the coin there sits the old poet couple. I have a fondness for stories about elderly lovers, no doubt because I am moving up on elderly and married my second husband when I was fifty. The lives of these characters, along with the children of the young women, intersect in a most unexpected way. Dante stated quite nicely in his epic poem Inferno, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here”. Hell is hopeless and Brenda and Jasmine are most definitely in hell.
Under the Weather: One of King’s most relatable stories. When you read it, you may question that comment. If you dig deep enough into your heart and soul I think you might just agree. How many times have you said to a loved one, “I don’t know how I would live without you”? Suppose you didn’t have to. King investigates our deepest fear of loss of a loved one. His solution is not your typical King; there is no reanimation. Instead it is a painful examination that will undoubtedly touch your heart just before flipping it over. Definitely my second favorite story in the collection!
Blockade Billy: This is another one of the stories I’d previously read. It is unquestioningly a bizarre baseball tale. Nothing is more exciting than being the fan of a losing team that has a turn around and becomes a winning team. This is especially true if it is because of one new player. William Blakely (aka “Blockade Billy”) is a dream come true for the Titans. When the team loses two catchers in the pre-season things look grim for them. But along comes Billy, like manna from heaven. However sometimes what looks like a golden gift turns out to be fool’s gold in the light of day. Even if baseball is not your thing, you will find the tale of Blockade Billy and the Titans compelling in a delightfully dark way.
Mister Yummy: There is nothing like a dark tale with a sweet title. It leads you into a false sense of safety before hitting you over the head with a harsh reality. I can’t say this is a horror story. In fact I rather liked the gentleness of its implications. Although I suspect most people would not be thrilled to have a forewarning of their deaths.
Tommy: Another rather epic poem that reflects on the sixties. Recalling my own experiences in those halcyon days of my teenaged youth, I found this somewhat charming. As King says, “Drink to the” (em-effer).
The Little Green God of Agony: I wondered where this was going when I started reading it. About halfway through I got the idea it was going somewhere unpleasant. I thought it was a critique of religious healers. It was so much more. This is almost a treatise on pain management. But it is so much more. It has the flavor of Lovecraft and Barker. It is so much more. I suspect much of the story is based on King’s own painful experience after his accident. The best part is the sweet twist at the end. I do love those unexpected “gotchas”. If you love them as well, you will love this tale.
That Bus IS Another World: I love it when a writer supposes the existence of other worlds. King has honed the skill to perfection with the Dark Tower series. The glimpse here isn’t exactly a glimpse into that kind of other world. It is a dead stare into the worlds of two other people. It brings to mind the witness to a car accident who can testify who was at fault. Some people are happy to step up and share what they saw out of a sense of justice. Other people choose to scoot away, refusing to get involved. What kind of observer are you; a step up and share what you saw or a duck and run, I have other things to do kind of viewer? More importantly, what kind of person is Wilson, whose career depends on the next few minutes? A neat and compact tale that says a lot in few words.
Obits: A bizarre story of a hidden talent that would best be left undiscovered. I liked it to waking up one morning to find you could paint masterpieces and you had only been coloring in coloring books the day before. Then lo! And behold the horse in your masterpiece gallops off the canvas and out your front door. Of course this is much more serious. There are some truly good twists and turns in this story that raised my level of interest several notches. The resolution could be a little stronger; I have my own idea on how I would have closed it. All in all, it is a good story and well worth reading.
Drunken Fireworks: I loved this story! The dialogue is great, the pacing is perfect, and the end has enough of a jolt to make me smile. It’s a true American tale where we envy our neighbor’s car, house, spouse, and even lives. In America we compete. Our children compete. I have been to Little League games where parents have gotten into brawls over umpire calls! This story comes as no surprise and is an amusing peek into our culture.
“The End of the World” by Christophe Dessaigne
Summer Thunder: Here we have the heartbreaker of the collection. In a post apocalyptic world every relationship becomes crucial. This story of Robinson, his new found friend Gandalf, and his old friend Timlin is a touching if fatalistic look at life after the big boom, or in this case the big booms. King’s observations of how things could go down if the fools in charge ever hit the big red button are realistic, if tragic. Then again, the end of the world would be tragic, particularly for the few who might linger longer than their loved ones. When it comes to exposing his character’s emotions Stephen King can get into our heads to draw out what will tug at our heartstrings and lay it all out. He does this effectively in this final offering of the collection.
To sum it all up, this is a profoundly diverse collection of stories that once again showcases Stephen King’s skill at entertaining his readers. I can highly recommend it without reservation.