Stephen King rarely disappoints. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his short stories, and in the introduction, he confesses that he’d thought he’d lost the knack for writing shorts until he edited a collection of short stories by other people and found his groove again. I find this an interesting lesson.
As for the stories themselves, I’d say I enjoyed well over half of them and even the less likeable ones kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. The best ones are very grounded and all you can do is hold on tight as the characters’ worlds slowly spin off their axis and gather speed towards the freaky and terrifying. Not everyone gets out of here alive.
Before I list each one, my favourites were: Gingerbread Girl, Stationery Bike, N. , The Cat From Hell and A Very Tight Place.
Now here’s what I felt about each story – SLIGHT SPOILERS BELOW:
Willa – A ghost story, fairly enjoyable, I didn’t feel a lot happened but I liked how the ghost of the couple found a better place to rest.
The Gingerbread Girl – One of my favourites here. King goes back to survival horror and serial killer fun. It should be a movie.
Harvey’s Dream – really short, I liked it and it ends on a doomey note.
Rest Stop – A real ‘what would you do?’ one here, which King admits was taken from a similar experience. For that, I liked it, and will also avoid scary deserted rest stops in future!
Stationery Bike – Weird. Loved it, but oh, so, very weird. Great stuff. Tripping out on your own brain while exercising certainly beats using a Wii anyway.
The Things They Left Behind – Strangely, I didn’t like this one because of its weirdness. I couldn’t get into it. It was written as a reaction to the events of 9/11 and it feels very clogged compared to most of his other work. One of the few I don’t think I would revisit. Obviously a personal work, though.
Graduation Afternoon – Hope and anticipation melts into the moments before an apocalypse. Another really short one, but great moment of character and mostly wins on atmosphere as well.
N. – The absolute standout, the H P Lovecraft elements work perfectly. Diaries which should be destroyed are of course uncovered and passed on to the next luckless soul. Throw in some OCD syndrome, a circle of eight – or is it seven – stones preventing the end of the world, and a troubling sunset, and I was very happy to get creeped out here. The references to Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen don’t hurt either, as I stumbled on that book at the library earlier this year (there was a note of recommendation by H P Lovecraft himself!) and I was pleased to see King drawing from this text too.
The Cat From Hell – A pretty strong story, silly as it is on the surface. This was made into a segment of Tales from the Darkside, one of my favourite Creepshow-esque anthology movies (Debbie Harry’s in it, check it out). Basically, an old man responsible for the deaths of a LOT of innocent kitties calls in a hitman to take out a feline with sinister markings, which he can’t get out of his house. The hitman actually likes cats, but decides to do the job anyway. Naturally, the cat has other ideas, and some unfinished business with the evil old man. As a ‘cats take revenge’ story, and as a cat lover myself, I really have to give King kudos for the plausible carnage this feline inflicts. Don’t mess with this li’l kitty!
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates – OK, I really don’t have a lot of patience with voices beyond the grave stories, and this felt like something Spielberg would have a field day with (although I think he’d staple on a slightly cheerier ending). Bittersweet, and short, it’s all right, but the title doesn’t help me to remember the story too well.
Mute – Another very strong one, where a guy picks up an apparently deaf mute hitchhiker and proceeds to rant about the crap dealt out to him by his cheating wife. The rant leads to some problems being solved, but his conscience leads him to a priest who may offer some useful advice. Worth it for the descriptions of the dreadful things the cheating wife bought, and the gradual justification of what the guy decides to do.
Ayana – A blind girls performs a miracle with a kiss, then the witnesses start to feel the same gift affecting them. It’s another one that felt like a slightly saccharine Spielberg (although King never gets that sugary, really) but didn’t say much except that miracles happen to the most random people.
A Very Tight Place – Another great one involving realism and survival. It’ll also turn your stomach in places, but this is Stephen King at his best, taking an unpleasant but possible situation and working through it until you’re with the poor bastard every step of the way. Think that ‘Buried’ movie only a great deal ickier. Highly recommended.
There’s also a short section right at the end explaining the origin of each story, which is probably best left until the very end instead of skipping ahead.
This confirmed to me that Stephen King is often at his very strongest when he’s bringing out short stories that can be devoured in one or two sittings. This is a mixed bag, and I still don’t believe they are all his very strongest works, but there’s always something compelling in a Stephen King story, and this collection is no exception.