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January 25, 2009 / Amy Bradney-George

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Just After Sunset

In 2008 I read a lot of short story collections – both anthologies and author collections. What draws me to author collections in particular is the way that you can tell so much about a writer from their short stories. Much more, I think, than you can from reading novels.

Some might argue that if there are a lot of novels to an author’s name, they can tell a lot about that author, but even so I think short story collections are unique in their potential insights. Where authors take us in a short story, how they compose it and how they write it with such a small number of words (compared to novels) gives us insights into how their minds work, how their stories work and how engaging they can be when it’s 20 pages instead of 400 or more.

King’s newest short story collection, Just After Sunset, is one of my favourites because it encompasses all of the skills I have come to value and respect in his work. In “The Gingerbread Girl”, for example, he explores how loss and grief can affect someone so profoundly that they are compelled to change their life in drastic and extreme ways.

Tied in with that underlying theme are twists and turns and raw human terror that I consider “classic King”. The sheer endurance of Emily, heroine in this story, brought to my mind many characters from King stories and many more stories from real life. What we will do when the stakes are high (life, for example) is, in itself, almost unbelievable.

In the past there have been looks of shock and even cringes in the past when I’ve told people I read Stephen King. True, most of those people are readers who avoid the speculative branches of fiction, and so thought that King was a legend of horror. I see him as more an explorer of the human condition in circumstances often unusual and unlikely but very, very believable. Sometimes his work isn’t that far from life as we know it, either.

One such example is “Rest Stop”, the story of an author who adopts his pseudonym’s personality to deal with a violent situation at a highway rest stop. Far from being about horror (there’s gore, yes, but that to me is secondary to the characters), it’s about knowing one’s limits. In this case, one half of the protagonist felt he couldn’t handle the situation and let the other half take over for a while. I’ve seen people do the same thing, and it’s fascinating to read about it from another perspective.

The second King novel I read, Firestarter, overwhelmed me with the strength and surety in the imagery. I found the same thing again in “Stationary Bike”. King’s imagination and attention to detail evoke a sense of reality in the reader’s mind. Imagination is a powerful thing, and the irony in this story is that it could very well be one of the most powerful – and dangerous – tools we possess.

The stand out story in this collection, for me, was “A Very Tight Place”. The story revolves around Curtis Johnson and Tim Grunwald – two rich middle-aged men vying for the same land and using as much money as possible to get it. Somehow King manages to stoke sympathy for both characters (who are not very nice men), creating a situation so horrible and so real that someone nearby asked if I was feeling OK when they saw my expression when I was reading this story.

I’d be hard-pressed to think of other stories I’ve read that so effectively explores human endurance and the will to survive. The tension in this story is woven throughout and, even though I hated Johnson, I wanted him to survive. King’s magic was at work in this one, and it’s a story that will stay with me even if I never read it again (which I no doubt will).

Just After Sunset is a collection of stories I would recommend to people not only familiar with King’s work, but also to those people who have cringed at his name in the past. It shows him to be more than a horror writer and much, much more than a speculative fiction writer. The scope of this collection shows all of his colours (and then some) and, while by no means my favourite King work (that is yet to be determined), demonstrates his skill as a storyteller. Writers and readers alike will find something interesting in Just After Sunset – an invaluable title for anyone’s book collection.

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