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BOOKS: Stephen King in short, still has it

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

JUST AFTER SUNSET
By Stephen King
Scribner, $28, 384 pages
REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO

The introduction to Stephen King's "Just After Sunset" describes how an editing assignment for the 2006 edition of "Best American Short Stories" inspired the author to attempt shorter fiction again.

It's a reunion that suits the horror maestro well, even if some of the tales told here only flirt with the supernatural.

The collection gives pause to the notion Mr. King's talents are ebbing, or that he needs either gory passages or a parade of pop cultural references to sustain the reader's attention.

Instead, he draws upon richly observed characters and the kind of textured prose that today's literary heavyweights might envy. It's too late to envision Mr. King as a literary force with a capital "L." He's drawn too much blood on the printed page for that. But the best passages in "Sunset" rise to the level of his august peers.

Take "Willa," a tale of a free-spirited gal and the man who can barely keep up with her. The story is set partially at a depressing train station, but the rest goes down at a honky-tonk bar Mr. King describes with clean, crisp detail.

"Willa" is more than just a flirty romance. It's a ghost story, albeit one with a kicker that causes goosebumps of a different order.

"The Gingerbread Girl" stands as the book's best no-frills horror yarn. Emily recently lost her baby girl, and the death has caused an irreparable fissure in her marriage. So she runs away, literally. Her sudden passion for jogging, which borders on mania, deposits her in Florida where she finds shelter in a home owned by her father.

She'll need her newlytoned legs when she runs into a serial killer on Florida's coastline. It's boilerplate King, but the sophisticated opening gives readers plenty of reason to root for Emily's survival.

Other stories touch on more conventional horrors.

"Harvey's Dream" lasts less than 10 pages, but Mr. King needs only a few paragraphs to evoke a wholly relatable nightmare — being stuck in an emotionless marriage. But that scare isn't the only one introduced here.

"N." carries a whiff of Mr. King's engaging novel "It," if only in the way it evokes the permanent bonds forged during childhood. A distraught woman finds a manuscript left behind by her brother, a psychiatrist who recently died under suspicious circumstances.

The manuscript reflects the brother's dealings with N, a patient with severe OCD. But the source of the man's anxiety provides the supernatural juice to this tale, one told via e-mail exchanges, transcripts and newspaper clippings. It's up to an old childhood friend to suss out the true story.

The book's most unconventional story, "Stationary Bike," takes our collective desire to stay fit in new, and utterly ingenious, directions.

"Graduation Afternoon" hits one of the book's few sour notes. The story tries to blend class snobbery with a random attack on a major city. It's the shortest story in the book, and the one in most need of fleshing out.

Another terrorist-themed story, "The Things They Left Behind," credibly imagines the guilt felt by someone who didn't show up to work the day two planes smacked into the Twin Towers. It's a fitting tribute to the regular Joes and Janes who died in the attacks. It's also a pointed example of how strangers reached out to one another in the days and months that followed.

Even the least of the stories, like the pedestrian "Ayana," feature consistently colorful imagery. One character is compared to "a sailor two drinks into a shore leave that will end badly."

Some "Sunset" tales lack ambition but remain compulsively readable. "The Cat From Hell" is as straightforward, and hokey, as the title suggests. "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates" stirs up a darkly hopeful spirit, but ultimately isn't sure what to do with such material.

These latter tales represent standard-issue King, the kind readers have gotten to know all too well in recent years.

But the best of "Just After Sunset" reveals another Mr. King, a writer not satisfied with his sales figures, someone forever searching for new ways to tell a great story.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.