Just After Sunset
Stephen King prefaces his first short story collection since 2002’s Everything’s Eventual with a quote from Arthur Machen’s 1890 story “The Great God Pan.” In Machen’s story, except for a scientist who appears at the beginning and at the end, the characters are ordinary people living ordinary lives until they encounter Evil. King sees horrors in mundane items such as port-a-potties and stationary bikes and at common places such as highway rest stops. King also finds terrors in the events of a normal life, such as the deaths of close relatives and pets, and his characters suffer from high blood pressure and cholesterol, prostate cancer, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Notes at the end of the book explain the circumstances surrounding the writing of each story.
“The Things They Left Behind” (2005) concerns survival guilt in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, when hijackers crashed two passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York and a third into the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C. The main character is Scott Staley, an insurance company employee who worked on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center but heard a voice in his head early on 9/11 telling him not to go into work. He paid attention to the voice and called in sick that day. A year later, the belongings of his deceased coworkers appear at his apartment, and he can hear the bits and pieces talk about the last day in their owners’ lives. Although Staley tries to throw the items away, they keep reappearing.
In “Stationary Bike” (2003), Richard Sifkitz is a commercial artist diagnosed with high cholesterol. He buys a stationary bike, but he finds working out boring. He then paints a mural on the wall facing the bike and imagines that he is biking down a road leading through a forest to a mountain and populated by road workers that he names Berkowitz, Carlos, Freddy, and Whelan. Sifkitz then finds that he is inspired to create some pictures just for himself rather than merely executing commissions for others. Eventually, his daydreams become more and more real, and Sifkitz gets the feeling that someone is following him. He finally discovers that the road workers have unique personalities and independent lives of their own. The premise is similar to one in King’s novel Duma Key (2008), in which the process of painting gives the main character a kind of extrasensory perception.
A dream disrupts the lives of Harvey Stevens and his wife in “Harvey’s Dream” (2003). Of all the stories in this collection, it is the most literary, which is not surprising considering that it first appeared in The New Yorker. It is also the one that has had the best critical acceptance, being nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and selected for the 2003 The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. In his notes at the end of the book, King writes that it was inspired by one of his own dreams and that he wrote it in a single sitting.
“Graduation Afternoon” (2007) was inspired by another of King’s dreams in which he envisioned a nuclear mushroom cloud over New York City. The main character, Janice, is dating a boy from a family much wealthier than hers and is visiting that family on the day he graduates from prep school. They live outside the city, so the bomb does not kill them immediately.
In “Mute” (2007), Monette, a middle-aged traveling salesman and lapsed Catholic, explains to a deaf-mute hitchhiker the demise of his twenty-six-year marriage, although it turns out that the hitchhiker is really not deaf. Monette later recounts the incident while confessing to a priest. This is the kind of story that used to appear on the old television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents that King watched when he was young. The hitchhiker thinks he is helping the salesman by killing his wife and her lover.
“Ayana” (2007) is a blind miracle worker that King uses to explore the question of why some people are cured of illnesses and others die. When the title character, a young African American girl, walks into the hospital room of the father of the story’s narrator, the girl kisses the old man’s cheek, and he miraculously recovers from terminal cancer. The...
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