Forget about evil clowns and possessed daddies, vampires and vengeful ghosts. • Stephen King's new short story collection, Just After Sunset, finds him contemplating even scarier things: old age, survivor guilt and real estate deals gone fatally sour. • The countless fans of King's forays into the supernatural will still find satisfaction here — the collection includes several fine ghost tales and a chilling salute to horror master Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan.
But King has always rooted his most hair-raising fiction firmly in the everyday, and the most disturbing tales in Just After Sunset take their darkness directly from the human condition.
A recurring theme for King, from Pet Semetary to Lisey's Story, has been how we process the deaths of loved ones, dancing along the line where grief blurs into madness.
He traces it in many of the ghost stories here. Scott, the narrator of The Things They Carried, is haunted not by people but by objects. He is, purely by chance, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks; most of his officemates on the 110th floor rode one of the falling towers to their deaths.
Almost a year later, he thinks he's coping with the aftershock — until the day he comes home and finds a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses in his apartment. With them appear a baseball bat, a conch shell, a whoopee cushion — all the silly detritus we keep in our cubicles at work, to mark our spot. But Scott knows these gewgaws. They belonged to the dead, and now he has to figure out whether they're real and what to do about them.
In The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates, a new widow whose husband has died in a plane crash gets an impossible — but immensely comforting — phone call a few days after his death.
A very different phone call is at the center of a quietly alarming little story called Harvey's Dream. As her recently retired husband relates a vivid dream, Janet Stevens begins to wonder whether it really happened, if he's showing early signs of Alzheimer's — or he has had a premonition. And she's not sure which one fills her with more dread.
Reality is also in question in Stationary Bike when an artist with health problems finds his paintings coming to life, bringing with them a whole new definition for "listening to your body."
N., King's nod to Machen's influential 1894 novella, is a gripping story about a psychiatrist infected by a patient's obsession with the idea that what we call reality is but a thin scrim over a much darker world.
An animated graphic version of N. was released online in 25 episodes this summer; a special edition of Just After Sunset includes it on DVD, or you can find it at www.stephenking.com/n. The video is creepily effective, although the story plays just as well on the page.
But King doesn't really need the supernatural to scare us. He's confident enough to play with the idea in The Gingerbread Girl, a harrowing story about a young woman who stumbles upon the handiwork of a serial killer and must escape him herself: "In a horror movie, Pickering would make one last stand: either come roaring out of the surf or be waiting for her, dripping but still his old lively self, in the bedroom closet when she got back. But this wasn't a horror movie, it was her life."
In Rest Stop, a mild-mannered college professor overhears a man savagely beating a woman late one night beside a Florida highway. The professor isn't the kind of guy to intervene, but he writes bold books under a nom de plume, and his alter ego is ready to step in and kick butt.
Perhaps the most memorable — and gruesome — story is the scatological A Very Tight Place; King writes in his afterword that "I even grossed myself out." Like the main character in The Gingerbread Girl, Curtis Johnson lives on a Florida barrier island that's something like Casey Key, south of Sarasota, where King has a home. Curtis is entangled in a bitter dispute with his neighbor, Tim Grunwald, over the sale of a nearby beachfront lot (this being back in the days when real estate was worth something).
Grunwald has already killed Curtis' dog, but he's not done. He lures Curtis to a remote failed subdivision with an offer to settle their dispute, then locks him inside a metal-clad portable toilet — and tips it over and drives away.
You can't get much further from the supernatural than that, and it's every bit as disgusting as it sounds, but King won't let you turn away.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.