Stephen King’s latest is his first collection of short stories in five years (“Full Dark, No Stars” was published in 2010). It’s full of some of King’s favorite tales — some never have been in print before — and themes familiar to his “constant readers”: the importance of literature, questions of morality, evil beings and death. Lots of death.
What else would you expect from this prolific purveyor of nightmares?
The collection is preceded by a typical introduction by the author, but then each of the 20 stories features another introduction from King, who informs the reader of the origins of that story.
Things begin with “Mile 81,” a sort of mash-up of two of King’s earlier works (to name them here might reveal too much). In it, a young boy is abandoned by his brother and decides to ride his Huffy bike to an old rest stop on the Interstate, where the initial thrill at prowling through an abandoned building gives way to a standoff with an evil that this reader never saw coming.
Some stories are based on real-life events King read about or witnessed himself. “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” sprung from seeing a son helping his elderly father eat in a restaurant. “That Bus is Another World” was inspired by an experience King had while stopped in traffic in Paris (it reminded me of the set up for a classic Hitchcock story). And the devastating “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” was written after the author read the story of a horrific car accident.
In the middle of the collection is the great tale “Ur,” originally published in 2009 as a single for the Kindle e-reader. It concerns a small-town college professor who decides to give in to technological peer pressure and order the device. The tale then takes off as the professor discovers unknown works by literary greats (Hemingway, Shakespeare) and then shifts to a race against time as he tries to save the woman he loves.
Two tales feature tough decisions. “Afterlife” is King’s surprisingly humorous take on what happens to one older man after he crosses over into that “great white light,” and then is faced with the decision either to head off to oblivion or relive his life again. The unsettling “Morality” centers on a young couple’s deal with the devil that the two are sure they can win. Good luck trying to shake this one, I still haven’t.
“Premium History” revolves around a bickering couple and their dog in a car on their way to Wal-Mart. Fate plays cruel tricks here on all three characters, while “The Dune” tells the tale of an old man who confesses to his younger lawyer that he knows of a sand dune on a small island where the names of people who are about to die appear.
The closing story, “Summer Thunder,” set in a post-apocalyptic Vermont, features another canine — this one named Gandalf — who will more than likely haunt your dreams for a very, very long time.
King’s constant readers will devour this new collection — the author is in rare form, not only talking to the reader directly in each introduction, but in making his characters fully human. Their hopes and their dreams are all on display. King says himself in the opening pages, “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.” Indeed.