"Just After Sunset" Review by Tate Dixon
“The important things that affects the stories that follow is that I got excited all over again, and I started writing stories again in the old way. I had hoped for that, but had hardly dared believe it would happen.” ~Stephen King, Just After Sunset
I recently decided to start reading short story collections after picking up “Just After Sunset” from my local bookstore. Originally published in 2008, “Just After Sunset” has reminded me why I’ve always had such a love-hate relationship with short story anthologies. The fast-paced, quick to the climax structure is something I’ve always enjoyed about short stories. However, when putting a bunch of stories into one collection you’re bound to get a few that leave you feeling “meh”( the exception being “Night Shift”, that collection is filled with nothing but 5 star reads).
Major Spoilers Ahead!
Willa- This story was kind of a rough start to the collection. In this story, a man leaves a train station against the advice of his fellow passengers to find his fiancée, Willa. After having a seemingly close encounter with a wolf while walking, the man finds a local honky-tonk and sees Willa sitting alone in a booth in the corner. The man tries to convince Willa to come back to the train station with him, but Willa refuses to go and finally convinces the man what they’ve both known all along, that they are ghosts who died in a train wreck with the other passengers almost 20 years ago. The man is now able to see a sign at the train station that says the building that the rest of the ghosts are is going to be demolished. Now, I feel like them all being ghosts should’ve been a major plot twist but to me it just felt “meh”. I think it was a challenging twist to bring to such a short story and it just didn’t work for me. However, I did enjoy when they walked back to the station and the man started to see everything for how it was and remembered what happened to all the passengers.
The Gingerbread Girl- This was one of the longer stories in the book and it really felt like it drug on. After experiencing the loss of a child, Emily takes up running. She pushes her body and mind to the limits, excessive sweating and vomiting, to the point where her husband begins to get angry at how she grieves. Hurt by this, Emily runs to a local hotel and calls her father and decides to stay at his summer house in Florida. Emily’s day consists of eating simple meals and running. One day she meets the man who runs the drawbridge, Deke Hollis. While talking, Jim Pickering drives by, heading back to his estate with a young woman he claims is his “niece”. While out on a run, Emily notices something in the trunk of Pickering’s car. Upon approaching the trunk, Emily finds a woman whose throat is slashed. Emily is then knocked unconscious and later wakes up in Pickering’s house. Pickering leaves the house to murder the old man, the only person he thinks knows Emily is on the island. Emily rushes to escape from being bound to a chair. The rest of the story is chase between Emily and Pickering. Emily ultimately running down to the beach into the water until Pickering drowns because he can’t swim. I know there is a lot of love for this story but honestly, I just couldn’t get into it. The pace and tension I felt was lagging and the ending felt almost like a cop out to me, like really, all that running along the beach just to find out the man couldn’t swim?
Harvey’s Dream- Harvey wakes up one morning and discusses a disturbing dream he had with his wife Janet. During this story we discover that Harvey’s dream was that one of their daughters was killed by a truck. Janet realizes the dream’s details eerily parallel details she’s noticed about the morning, including the bloody dent in their neighbor’s truck. Janet’s fears of Harvey’s dream are confirmed when he answers a phone call, like he did in his dream. This story is the posterchild for quick and unsettling short stories. This story caught me off guard with the turn it started to take once you got into it and by the end I was left pleasantly creeped out because the story was just not what I expected. I did some further research into this story and I found out that the events of his dream were actual events of the morning, but Harvey saw it as a dream out of denial and the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Rest Stop- John Dykstra, who writes under the pen name Rick Hardin, gets out of his writer’s group meeting and is desperately searching for a rest stop on his return trip. At the rest stop, Dykstra notes there is only one other car at the stop. While in the bathroom he overhears a situation from the ladies’ restroom that he thinks is domestic abuse. He is too timid to act, but his alter-ego, Hardin, seems to take over and decides to attack the man with a tire iron. After a while he reverts to his normal state as Dykstra and becomes sick after the adrenaline rush. King plays with pseudonyms in a way that reminded me of the explorations of Horselover Fat’s psyche in Phillip K. Dicks’ “VALIS” trilogy. It’s dark, raw, and sort of comedic in a disturbing kind of way. The power struggle between a real man and his fictious persona is one of my favorites in literature. This story shows us how our constant inner battle of who we want to be and the person we really are can lead to violent ends.
Stationary Bike- Richard Sifkitz, a commercial artist, visits his doctor to find out his cholesterol levels are extremely high due to this unhealthy eating habits. His doctor uses an interesting metaphor of our metabolism being tiny workman to try to convince Richard to take his health seriously. This metaphor strikes Richard hard and he soon becomes obsessed. Richard sets up a stationary bike in his basement and lets his imagination create a storyline that includes the workers from the doctor’s metaphor. Each passing day his rides become more nightmarish as one of the imaginary workmen commits suicide and Richard is fearful that the others will blame him for this due to his lifestyle change. Richard eventually comes around and finds a balance between maintaining a healthy lifestyle and not overworking his body. I thought this was a unique concept and I really enjoyed the fuzziness between his basement and the landscape he created.
The Things They Left Behind- This story was probably one of my favorites and took on the topic of survivor’s guilt of an office worker after 9/11. Scott Staley is employed at an insurance firm at the World Trade Center. He comes home to his apartment and finds objects he recognizes as his employees’ possessions. Scott tries to get rid of the possessions, but they mysteriously keep returning to his apartment. He explains to Paula, his neighbor, about the objects that have appeared, and she offers to take one of them. That night Paula has the worst nightmare of her life, a recreation of the last minute of the item owner’s life. Paula returns the object, but by this point Scott understand what he must do. Scott begins to return the objects to the victim’s families, which alleviates some of his guilt.
Graduation Afternoon- Honestly, I don’t even know what this story was supposed to be. Some girl goes to a rich boy’s graduation party and feels out of place. While everyone is standing around, the girl and the boy’s family notice a bomb go off in the middle of the city and realize it will kill them. This story was so boring and confusing and left me thinking “What the hell did I just waste my time reading?”
N.- I know there is a lot of love for this story throughout the King community and I have to say I did really enjoy it, but it took me a little bit to get into it. This novella explored a patient who is struggling with OCD after he comes across a place where reality felt a bit thin. This patient becomes convinced that he is responsible for keeping evil out of our world by making sure the rocks at this location always equal eight, not seven (seven is a bad number) Eventually, the weight of this responsibility is too much for the patient and he commits suicide. He left the gate key to the therapist, passing on the cycle of this descent into madness to someone else. This was a brilliant story. At first, I thought it was a little slow and I struggled with the repetitiveness, but it really did add to the build of the story. I really enjoyed this story being told through a manuscript, as it broke up the events well and left me unsettled by the end.
The Cat from Hell- This was such a weird story and I still don’t know how I feel about it. A hitman is offered $12,000 to kill a man’s cat. Both the cat and its owner have some weird facts about them. The cat is accused of the murders of three people in the house and the owner has tortured thousands of cats in the name of research. While the hitman is driving towards a field to kill the cat, the cat escapes his confinement and attacks him, making the man crash his car. After the crash, the man is temporarily paralyzed and the cat enters the man’s body through his mouth in order to kill him. The cat then flees the scene to finish off his owner. This story left me nauseous, but I’m always a fan of the animal triumphing over people, especially when those people are terrible.
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates- This was another post 9/11 story where a widow gets a call from her husband from the afterlife after he was killed in a plane crash. The husband predicts two tragedies which later come true, including one that saves his wife. This story won’t stick with me in the long run, but I really enjoyed reading it. The only thing I wish it had more of was her internal conflict of hiding the phone calls from her family and struggle to keep everything to herself.
Mute- Monette, a traveling book salesman, goes to a priest for a confession. Monette tells the priest a series of events, from his wife having an affair to him picking up a seemingly mute hitchhiker and venting all his marital problems to him. Unbeknownst to him, the hitchhiker was actually a very good listener, and after disappearing at a rest stop, we find out the hitchhiker found the wife and her lover and murdered them. The priest asks him if he internally he knew the man wasn’t completely deaf and if he’s happy that the hitchhiker did what he did. This was a fun story and the ending was very satisfying for me. A stranger moving to seek revenge on an unfaithful person made for an interesting plot!
Ayana- Someone please make this into a movie! A man recounts his father’s battle with cancer and the mysterious mother and daughter who show up at the father’s bedroom. The blind seven-year-old daughter, Ayana kisses the father and he makes a miraculous recovery. The man begins to understand his own part in the miracle, and over the following decades is lead by a man and plays the part of a miracle maker in many people’s lives. This was such a wholesome, feelgood story and was the uplifting break needed in this collection.
A Very Tight Place- A man is trapped in a porta-potty by his neighbor…. This was the most disgusting, unsettling story I have ever read. I made the mistake of reading this on a plane and have never felt sicker in my life! Tight places already make me uncomfortable but adding in the element of being trapped in a box of human crap really took it to another level. Choosing this as the last story in the collection made the piece stronger and more unsettling. I will definitely not be going near porta-potties anytime soon.
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. It contains a lot of classic King elements mixed with the various ways people deal with loss and endings in their lives. Many times, a story just has an ending and we follow along until the climax is resolved. In this collection, the endings are just the beginning, and I think that is always the scariest part, realizing the world moves on when we thought it was coming to an end.
My favorite quote:
“You see, I may be trying to forget, but I remember quite a lot.”