Palaver's Stephen King blog

Category: King collections

If it Bleeds (2020)

Named after a saying about gory news, this collection contains four longer stories. There is a pattern of this, going all the way back to Different Seasons. Every other collection, roughly, contains novellas. This one, perhaps even more than King’s later work in general, has a theme of ageing and death. Perhaps not as the main subject of each tale but it keeps recurring. 

The first tale, Mr Harrigan’s phone, is about a rich man in a small town and a boy who reads to him. It’s reminiscent in tone of other latter-day King tales of youth, with its straightforward prose and nuanced characters. The old businessman gets an iPhone and immediately sees problems and possibilities his young friend hasn’t even thought about. When he dies, the story takes a turn from the mundane towards the spooky and the coming-of-age-y, not unlike the short novel “Later”. With this perfect summation of profound relief.  

“I let out a breath it felt I’d been holding for two months.”

The Life of Chuck starts with a strikingly casual description of a world falling apart. Most are in a state of laconic acceptance. In the midst of it all someone is publicly celebrating someone named Charles for “39 great years”. 

“Death brings philosophy to ruin,” someone puts it, but there is also a sense of mystery here, of awe at the relevance of a single life. Told in chronological reverse, this is a story where every sentence seems to matter. Of little moments of perfection and the inevitability of an end. Perhaps one of my favourites among all of King’s short stories of recent years. 

The titular and longest story begins with a message from Holly Gibney from the Bill Hodges books to Ralph Anderson, whom she met in The Outsider. According to the message, her life is at risk and she warns him about picking up where she left off. Like Mr Mercedes, the actual story starts with a seemingly random act of violence; a bomb in a school. Holly finds herself pondering an unlikely suspect. An elderly uncle and her troubled mother (whom she loves but does not like) provide more down to earth subject matter. Like a visit to a nursing home which I find more interesting than the murders. I must be getting old. 

Like the last Hodges book in particular, there is patient attention to details, trivial as well as more interesting. Like The Outsider, it posits the existence of impossible things. I like the characters but I didn’t fully buy The Outsider and when the links start to appear, a sense of detachment  from the story sets in. Which is ironic, since this is what King usually triumphs at. As Holly puts it: 

“Because I can believe the unbelievable.”

Sometimes I can’t. But with writing like this, it’s hard to complain:

“He holds out a hand which arthritis has turned into a driftwood sculpture.”

It is of course well written, with the solid research King always devotes to his detective-ish stories but I don’t fully buy it. But that confrontation at the restaurant is wonderfully tense. And, above all, the story is mostly about Holly.

Rat, the final tale, starts in equally familiar King territory: with a writer. Drew Larson has a few short stories, one of them celebrated, under his belt when the building blocks of a whole novel jump into his head. It needs to be written in his dad’s deserted cabin in “TR-90”, another familiar spot for King fans. 

King skilfully brings the simple cabin life to … life, in its depressing but cozy lack of glory, and even manages to add some new thoughts on writing, impressive regarding the number of stories he has already dedicated to the topic. 

“Reality was deep, and it was far. It held many secrets and went on forever.”

An oncoming flu and a ditto storm breaks his flow after a few days of great writing and a recurring problem of his returns: having too many words to choose from, the self-doubt and the gnawing questioning of each choice until “every word seemed to have a better one hiding behind it, just out of sight”. In the midst of misery, Drew gets advice from the unlikeliest of places. And is offered a deal. It does not quite turn into Fair Extension, but I could have done without this addition to what is otherwise an engaging story. 

Gripes like this aside, all in all a solid collection. 

Full Dark, No Stars (2010)

”The stories in this book are harsh,” King says in the afterward. And they are. Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, this is a collection of four novellas – or rather three of them with a shorter story included as a bonus – all of which represent the darker side of King. That is, they don’t just tackle horrific subjects – which is, admittedly, pretty typical for King – but they do so mainly without the consolation of hope, friendship or bravery he just as often will add. They are also, with one exception, thrillers without any supernatural elements. 

(For some reason, I tend to read King’s collections over time, making sure to finish the novels while they are reasonably new. In this case, I managed to take ten years to read through all four.)

“I remember thinking: This night will never end. And that was right.”

1922 is a first-person account of a horrendous crime, told by a man who wants the reader’s sympathy but doesn’t hold back. It’s a rural noir full of deep insight and keen darkness. It’s not a fun read, but superbly written. It’s a story you finish out of a sense of duty rather than suspense and one of King’s very darkest. 

“Most were ladies of the sort who do not attend public occasions without first donning hats.”

Big Driver is certainly no children’s story, but starts off brighter, with a generous dose of humorous observations about life as a semi-famous writer, with a main character fond of talking to her TomTom navigator and her cat and regularly doing speaking engagements. Reading it a decade after publication, I’m struck by how quaint the parts about her GPS feel. The harmless introduction makes the horrors to come (realistic but extreme) doubly shocking. At first not unlike The Gingerbread Girl but ultimately very different, it takes a thinking man’s Death Wish turn. Vivid, thrilling and with a streak of dark humour that almost makes it a relief to read after 1922. 

“What could I wish for? I have everything I want.”

Fair Extension is a wicked, short tale of making the wrong choice and happily seeing someone else pay the price. It’s a story about good fortune vs bad one, and the evil little person that may live in all of us. I don’t like it much and I don’t think I’m supposed to. 

“Tonight the dark was populated by Bob’s harem.”

A Good Marriage, finally, tells of how Darcy Anderson’s orderly but somewhat dull life instantly falls apart at the discovery of a horrible secret. The explanation that follows is presented in a jocular and almost nostalgic fashion, a man gently trying to convince and seemingly earnest, making it no less horrifying. And then she has a choice to make. This is noir of a different brand than 1922, and in some ways even darker. In other ways not. 

The afterword is, as always, well worth reading. One of those fascinating reminders of how seriously King takes his craft. 

Just after sunset (2008)

It took me an inexplicably long time to finish this collection of short stories, but looking back I realise that most of them left an impression.

Like The Gingerbread Girl, a short, effective thriller about grief and a serial killer. Or Harvey’s Dream, both mundane and shiver-inducing. Graduation afternoon is a short, brilliant gem about how everything can change in an instant. The Things They Left Behind is a strange but pretty moving take on 9/11.

There are a couple of low-key guesses on what the afterlife might have in store (muted but optimistic compared to Revival) and a confessional tale about telling the wrong story to a hitchhiker. N., related to but not as devastating as the aforementioned Revival, combines Lovecraft and Machen with a fantastic (and possibly dangerously contagious) evocation of OCD. Atmospheric to say the least.

The Cat from Hell is apparently a golden oldie, finally collected. A trifle, but captivating while it lasts.

Ayana recounts a tale long untold, because it is ’unbelievable’, and its opening description alone of seeing a once vital father diminished by illness makes it memorable. It’s about miracles or, as doctors call them, ‘misdiagnosis’. It’s a short story in length as well as in how it foregoes explanation in favour of mystifying ‘anecdote’.

The last story is set in Florida, like the contemporary Duma Key, and also sports a well-off but troubled protagonist. It turns out to be a sibling of sorts to The Gingerbread Girl, but more disgusting. But engaging. But very disgusting …

Through all if it, King’s ear for dialogue and eye for detail brings the characters and settings to life. Bitter people, happy people, highways and highrises. Even if King didn’t have any stories to tell here, the writing would make it worthwhile. But he does. With the possible exception of Stationary bike.

In true King fashion, the collection ends with some enlightening, personal notes on the origin and meaning of the stories. His generosity in inviting the readers into the creative process has always been part of his appeal.

Everything’s Eventual (2002)

As with almost all of King’s later work, obvious ties to the Dark Tower can be found here, but the short stories collected here also remind me of Night Shift in their often simple greatness. This is uncomplicated storytelling by a master craftsman, ranging from the darkly comical to the melancholy.

Nightmares and dreamscapes (1993)

The third collection of short stories is, perhaps, the weakest. These tales are often from the numerous horror collections that King has contributed to, and though entertaining and well written they rarely approach the brillance of Sceleton Crew and Night Shift. Personally, I would recommend mainly The Ten o’clock People, My Pretty Pony and It Grows on You.

Four Past Midnight (1990)

Four more novellas, collected in one volume. These are generally longer than the ones in Different Seasons, and closer to horror. The Langoliers is an absorbing tale in the Twilight Zone vein. Secret Window, Secret Garden is another look at writing, focusing on plagiarism. The Library Policeman is a small gem, very King and very good. The Sun Dog is probably the weakest of the bunch, leaving no greater impression.

Sceleton Crew (1985)

“Do you love?”

More short stories, very varied in theme and length. From the epic novella The Mist to the short poem Paranoid: a chant, it spans every aspect of human emotion, focusing, of course, on fear. My favourites include Nona, The Raft and Survivor Type, and the non-horror The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet.

Different Seasons (1982)

“Are there many more rooms upstairs?”

Novellas. What are those? Well, according to the afterword they’re stories of 25000 to 35000 words. These do not snugly fit into any category, and are difficult to publish, being neither short stories nor novels. So they collected four works into one volume, that shows a side of King that not everybody is aware of. Although there are elements of horror these are more “normal” stories, staying pretty much in the world of established fact. What makes them King are, of course, the sheer quality of the stories, their ability to grab the reader’s attention and keep it till the final sentence. Some very good films have come from these tales.

One of my favourite places in King’s world, the club at 249B EastThirty-fifth Street, is introduced here. Here, stories will always be told, and it is the tale that matters, “not he who tells it”.

Night Shift (1978)

“I came to you because I want to tell my story” (The Boogeyman)

The first collection of King short stories, previously published in magazines of very varied style and quality. Here are some genuine classics, such as Quitters Inc, Children of the Corn, The Boogeyman and Strawberry Spring. And let’s not forget one of his most beautiful stories, The Last Rung on the Ladder, which is very far from horror. Several of the stories here have been turned into bad films.

The forewords by King and John D. MacDonald are both wonderful.

Copyright © 2023 Palaver's Stephen King blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑