Sunday, July 27, 2008

King’s Short Treats

As someone who is surrounded by books, I have to prioritize my reading carefully. Unfortunately some books get left behind on my To-Be-Read pile when a favorite author’s work arrives on my doorstep.

One writer whose new releases automatically leap to the top of my TBR pile as soon as the postman calls is Stephen King. I have collected his work since I was an adolescent and was amused to see how much his older works are worth because, according to Books and Magazine Collector, he is the third most collectable author in the United Kingdom. The new issue Books and Magazine Collector devotes a lengthy section to collecting Stephen King first editions.

While at the Harrogate crime fiction festival earlier this month, I was graciously invited to celebrate Peter Robinson’s 21 years of Inspector Banks at a cocktail party hosted by Hodder and Stoughton, Robinson’s British publisher. While sipping chilled chardonnay with Robinson, we remarked at how fortunate we had both been when at a party specially organized by the same publisher to celebrate Stephen King’s release of Lisey’s Story back in 2006, King himself had come over to talk to us. It had been a very special moment, during which we discovered that King is a fan of Robinson’s Alan Banks series. I also discovered that I lost the ability to speak coherently in the presence of King.

I have been recently enjoying more from King than I had expected; after Lisey’s Story we had the “lost” Bachman book Blaze. Earlier this year we had the wonderfully creepy Duma Key. This fall we can expect another King work, a collection of short stories called Just After Sunset. The Hodder and Stoughton team know of my fascination for all things King and were kind enough to send me a proof volume of his new collection containing four of the stories as well as a new introduction and afterword from King himself. Just After Sunset is the fifth collection of short stories from King. It collects work that has been published at various publications in the past.

The sampler sent to me contained four stories that I hadn’t read, so to celebrate this treat considering that the weather was so good this weekend, I took out a bucket of ice into my garden and filled it with bottles of beer, and put on my reading glasses, seated myself on a reclining chair and read through the samples. These are my thoughts:

“Willa” is a creepy little story about the victims of an Amtrack rail crash in a small town in Wyoming. While the passengers wait for a recovery train to take them away from the station that they appear stranded upon, David searches for his fiancé, Willa, who has left the station and gone to a bar in town. The premise of this story is signposted early on, but this doesn’t detract from the tale because it really is an examination as to the continuity of life after death. Willa is an interesting tale of love, and how it may remain alive after death.

“The Gingerbread Girl”
is a full blown Stephen King horror novella and one that makes the pages fly by as it is a tense tale of survival and madness. Emily and Henry are a loving couple whose relationship disintegrates after their infant child dies. To cope, Emily takes up running, not just jogging, but serious running at every possible opportunity. She leaves her husband and moves into her Father’s beachside holiday home, where she encounters a serial sex-killer and finds that perhaps her running has got her into deep trouble; trouble that could cost her life. However, Emily is not a quitter and perhaps something in her ability to run may save her life. Part horror, part chase thriller, and part a peak at how people cope with grief, this little tale packs a satisfying punch. Reminiscent of
Gerald’s Game in terms of style and motivations.

“Mute” was my favorite story from this samplerr. A morality tale about a traveling salesman who picks up a mute and deaf hitchhiker and passes the time by telling him about how his wife left him for an older man, and how she left him in debt and with a compulsion to buy underwear and lottery tickets. This is a throwback to King’s early style, more pulp than literary, and bloody great fun with a killer ending -- literarily.

“Ayana” is somewhat like “Willa” in that it is also an examination of what may happen between the transition between life and death. When a young girl passes a healing touch to an old man dieing of pancreatic cancer, a chain of events occurs that may indicate that life is far more mysterious than the death that awaits us all. A haunting tale that lingers in the mind.

I would add that I enjoyed previously “Stationary Bike” which was released as an audio novella as well as the post 9/11 novella “The Things They Left Behind.” But as for the others, I’ll have to wait for November to read them all. However from reading this quartet of samples, I know the wait will be well worth it.

But if waiting until November for these stories seems unbearable, why not read one of them online at The New Yorker. The publication here offers up “Harvey’s Dream” from 2003.

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