MOST people think of the roadside rest area as a functional place at which to stop during a long drive. Not Stephen King. He sees potential nightmares in even the most mundane experiences. And his new collection of short stories mines the rest-stop idea to the max. Of the 13 stories in Just After Sunset, one entirely revolves around a 'bathroom break'. One uses a rest stop as a crucial turning point in its suspense plot. And one is the retch-worthy tale of a man locked inside a tipped-over, heavily used Portosan.
"I even grossed myself out," King says of that last one in his notes about the book. Quite a feat. His gross-out threshold is a whole lot higher than yours.
There are specific fears that haunt this succinct, fast-moving collection. Two stories find King trying to convey the terrors of 9/11, one in a stark visual evocation (a sight that is "in very poor taste", according to a Connecticut matron who witnesses it), and the other in a ghostly exploration of the event's aftermath. Two others expand on the possibilities of obsessive-compulsive disorder by summoning it viscerally. You'll know this book is having the desired effect when you can't write down the numbers that the number-obsessed main character in 'N.' deems terribly unlucky.
After all, Just After Sunset also features an action story that includes the following exchange of dialogue: "Don't." "Yes." "Stop." "No." Not to mention: "I'll lift your eye right out of its socket and flip it into the sink."
In Just After Sunset King must work more quickly and efficiently than he has in recent sprawling novels. And the mechanics of his methods are illuminatingly exposed.
It is a testament to King's fear-soaked psyche that the least interesting thing his characters can do is be dead. Sure, he does a few obligatory Twilight Zone-style tricks of this sort: one person gets wind of his own demise when he figures out that he can't buy cigarettes, and one tale centres on a dead person's ability to use the telephone. But those aren't the good parts. King can pull such stunts in his sleep. Speaking of the somnolent: this book also includes a nightmare story that delivers a double-whammy. It describes a frightful dream that reveals someone's death.
This collection's most successful stories start unprepossessingly but then head for unknown territory, off in the far reaches of King's imagination. The escalation of these narratives is carefully calibrated. Take 'Stationary Bike', which originated in what King calls "my hate/hate relationship not just with stationary bikes but with every treadmill I ever trudged and every Stairmaster I ever climbed". The bike may have been his enemy, but tedium is his friend.
So he writes of how a man named Richard Sifkitz visits his doctor. And the doctor gives Sifkitz a baby-talk version of a medical prognosis. High cholesterol is straining his patient's body, the doctor says. He adds: "It helps at this point to think of the metabolic process as a work crew. Men in chinos and Doc Martens." This may sound silly to Sifkitz, but it's an idea that soon takes over his imagination.
So he pedals away, conjuring a full cast of little men who work in the blood-vessel maintenance business. Soon he is hooked on strenuous exercise and is pedalling past vivid roadside scenery, even though the bike is in a basement. As in his most recent novel, Duma Key, King also lets a mysteriously changeable picture tell his story, and Sifkitz's vision becomes more and more elaborate as he rides along. The denouement takes a turn away from horror to arrive at Sifkitz's happy compromise about what he has to do to stay alive.
The stories in Just After Sunset are varied in ways that reflect the publications in which they first appeared. 'Harvey's Dream', from the New Yorker magazine, is unusually polished. And it is quietly eloquent about a glum, middle-age marriage. 'Willa', which has the most heavy-handed final twist, appeared in Playboy. And 'N.' is the text of an original graphic video series, which means you can watch parts of it on the internet. It will eventually become a comic book. You can watch it or you can read it on a dark and stormy night and shiver. Regardless of format, that's the effect.