I've had some long nights of late, friends. Just After Sunset arrived last Saturday, and I spent all of last week motoring through the stories. All in all, the collection is a little uneven. When it shines ("Graduation," "N.," "Mute," Ayana" and "A Very Tight Place"), it really shines. We're talking polished to a sheen here, folks. The rest is a bit more pedestrian. It's another quality effort by King, but much of it feels...well, limp, for lack of a better term.
Mr. King is a master short story writer. While I feel his novels have generally improved throughout the years, I think much of his earlier short fiction was superior to the stories in this collection and in 2002's Everything's Eventual. Night Shift (1978) was excellent and Skeleton Crew (1985) was great.
But Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993) was the absolute goods when it comes to King's short fiction. His three finest short tales are found in the pages of N & D: "The End of the Whole Mess," "Crouch End" and the all-time favorite--"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band." The writing in Nightmares (and in the two collections listed above) has more teeth to it. Ever the American craftsman, King repeatedly espouses the practice of putting the story first. The tales in those first three collections illustrate that ethos to great effect. I haven't felt the same about the work in his last two collections, though. The stories just don't have as much zip.
But that's not to say there aren't some true gems in this batch. The story by the title listed above is one of these--maybe the best thing he's written in the short form in a decade or more.
Told in the third person, "The New York Times..." is a heart-wrenching story about loss and connection. It tells the story of Anne, whose husband has been in an accident. Days after the tragedy, her cell phone rings. I don't want to spoil the story, and I'm not by simply saying that it's him (James) on the other end.
But where is he calling from?
The story is about the afterlife, and the little things--those tiny nuances that dictate memory and create meaning in everyday life. In this case, it's there in the language, in the inside jokes James and Anne share, in the shared frustration of something as simple as not charging a cellular phone.
Consider this passage:
Anne goes to the extension on the bed-table, wrapping a towel around her, her wet hair thwacking unpleasantly on the back of her neck and bare shoulders. She picks it up, she says hello, and then he says her name. It's James. They had thirty years together, and one word is all she needs. He says Annie like no one else, always did.
King cranks up the pathos on this one, and the story really does (in ten quick pages) spur the reader to consider his or her life. It causes a person to roll over in bed and kiss the person sleeping there--to maybe lay closer to that person in the night, thankful for the solidity and proximity of a shared connection.
The tale is rife with concrete imagery and some very solid phrasing. It moves well and concludes in stunning, crushing fashion. It's the type of story that people learning to write in the short form should study, to be sure.
Stephen King's story appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction a few months ago. You can probably hunt it up on the internet, but I'd recommend taking out the collection. I'll be commenting on a couple of the stories here over the coming weeks and, while it's not as great as N & D, there is still much to discuss in this collection.
I did the second pass-through on a short I wrote in two sittings yesterday. I'll take one more run through and try it out soon. Book #2 is in the polishing stages. I hope to have it ready for Bernadette in the first month of the new year.
Here's hoping you're writing through the holidays, and taking care in these rough economic times.