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Collection Time for Stephen King: An Observation

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In the introduction to his 2002 collection, Everything's Eventual, Stephen King admits that writing the stories within it was "not so pleasurable."  He goes on to say that most of the stories in that book had taken considerable effort, and that he wrote not for love or money, but "as a kind of dues-paying."  Though Everything's Eventual yielded some exciting results – particularly the title story, "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away," and "Autopsy Room 4" – as a collection, the book felt a little soft, not as cohesive as earlier efforts like Night Shift and Skeleton Crew.

In 2006, King took on the role of editor for the Best American Short Stories anthology, and for a year, he devoured short fiction.  He emerged revitalized, his passion and talent for the short story born again.  The resulting collection of this new fervor, 2008's Just After Sunset, crackled with the energy and hunger of his earlier anthologies, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew.  "I got excited all over again, and I started writing stories in the old way again," King says in the book's forward.  "I loved writing these."  It shows. 

King's excitement for the short story hasn't abated one bit, and in the years since Just After Sunset, his short work is stronger than ever.  In fact, he's been writing and publishing so much short work lately that he just might have enough material for a new collection, one as good (if not better) than Sunset.  Let's take a look:

 

"Morality" would almost have to be in there, even though it was included with the Scribner's mass market edition of Blockade Billy.  It's a shocking little story, utilizing King's rediscovered compact storytelling voice that made tales like "The Gingerbread Girl" so successful.  "Morality" forms a loose trilogy with "Mute" (from Just After Sunset) and Full Dark, No Stars' "Fair Extension" as stories that explore the concept of sin and how it affects regular people.  At its heart, "Morality" is also a story of a marriage, and the darkness sometimes drives a wedge between people who love each other.  One of the most fascinating facets of King's career is how he fixates on themes and concepts, exploring them from every angle before exhausting them and moving on.  Nora and Chad's initially desperate – then unsettling – marriage reminds readers of Scott and Lisey Landon's intense sexual episodes in Lisey's Story and the sudden rage following Edgar Freemantle's accident in Duma Key

The unease that develops at the heart of Nora and Chad's marriage is in full bloom at the start of King's 2009 story, "Premium Harmony."  When we first see Ray and Mary Burkett, they are arguing aimlessly: about birthday presents, about each other's vices, about the correct way to drive to certain stores.  Their arguing has a tired quality about it, as if it's being done by rote, not with any real passion or anger behind it.  That passivity defines "Premium Harmony": in the wake of their dull argument, a pair of tragedies slam into Ray Burkett's life, tragedies that should rock him out of his stupor.  That they fail to do so – indeed, that they only seem to enhance his life, however trivially – would be heartbreaking, if breaking hearts is what King had intended.  We find King here returning to a storytelling style that defined Just After Sunset's story, "Harvey's Dream," and one of the best stories in Everything's Eventual, "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away": a murmuring voice that speaks directly about disaster without being affected by it at all.

There's some of that numbness in King's more recent "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive."  By now, we see that King isn't simply exploring themes of his earlier stories and concurrent novels: these new stories are making their own cohesion.  His late 1990s/early 2000s fascination with surrealism and absurdity has given way to bleakness of the most absorbing sort.  Here, King continues to examine the darkness (or "grayness") within ordinary people.  Brenda in "Herman Wouk" brings to mind the similarly desperate (and similarly "lucky") Darlene Pullen of Everything's Eventual's "Luckey Quarter," though without Darlene's dual senses of self-awareness and doom ... until the end, that is.

Seeing inside Brenda's life is as suffocating as the lives King explored in "Premium Harmony" and "Morality" but here, that life is juxtaposed by two onlookers: two aging, romantic poets.  Phil Henreid and Pauline Enslin (relations of Lloyd from The Stand and Michael from "1408"?) discuss mortality and their long pasts with sweet nostalgia.  They are allowed loftier thoughts than Brenda or her friend Jasmine – both are gently self-effacing about their wealth, and Pauline thinks of God as a "she" – far away from Brenda's insular life and increasing desperation. Interestingly, it is only when Brenda finally considers the future, and how her choices will have repercussions for generations, that she is finally able to drop her pseudo-cheerful façade.  "Hell is repetition," King stated in his earlier story "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French," a theme he extrapolated on in The Dark Tower series.  Here, Brenda's growing awareness of this concept provides the story's violent denouement, which shocks but does not surprise.  Cleverly, King places a newspaper clipping at the start of the story that projects the grisly finale, underlining the futility of lives having ended long before the conclusion.

These strong stories could anchor a new King collection, but what to do for his opening act?  In each of the collections Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King started things off with a long, bombastic, scary story, setting the stage for what was to come (in Everything's Eventual, he arranged the tales at random, undercutting the flow of the volume; Just After Sunset's "Willa" took a different tack, whispering the collection into life).  If King wanted to replicate the intense openings of "Jerusalem's Lot," "The Mist," and "Dolan's Cadillac," he could do a lot worse than with "Ur."  One of King's most absorbing science-fiction stories, "Ur" – which was not only originally available exclusively for the Amazon Kindle, but that also features a Kindle at its center – attains a creepy and exciting Twilight Zone feel for a modern age. 

Wesley Smith, who has decided to "experiment with new technology" to impress his estranged girlfriend, discovers his pink Kindle's bizarre capabilities early; without giving too much away, "Ur" recalls King's early novella "The Breathing Method" in all the best ways.  Over the course of this long short story (not quite a novella), King touches on some of his best tropes: the Big Picture versus personal gain (as in Desperation); the dangers of obsession (Christine, "Hearts in Atlantis," Wizard and Glass); and adult male friendships (Pet Sematary, Duma Key). He also writes about books, and that's never a bad thing.  Like "The House On Maple Street," "Ur" is one of those tales of weirdness and wonder that recall vintage Bradbury (and maybe Orwell – Wesley Smith's name can't be a coincidence, especially in a story dealing so specifically with ubiquitous technology).  The fact that "Ur" makes several connections to King's Dark Tower opus works against it a little; a work this strong can stand on its own, and the Tower connections only diminish it.  A very light rewrite could make "Ur" the jumping-off point for a major collection, as opposed to a small cog in a massive machine. 

If "Ur" could begin a new collection, King's eBook "Mile 81" could be its slam-bang finale.  Published in the fall of 2011, it anticipated a change in King's short fiction writing.  Eschewing the dark realities of stories like "Morality" and "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," "Mile 81" signaled a return to traditional supernatural horror.  There's a mysterious car at the heart of the story, and while it's as menacing as either Christine or the Roadmaster in From a Buick 8, its properties are far different. Where Christine was fueled by rage and the Buick by the nature of mystery, the car here plays on basic human kindness to do its dirty work; it's the kindness of strangers (and sometimes concern for loved ones) that dooms almost everyone in this story.  That sounds as bleak as something like "Premium Harmony," but it really isn't; instead, it reads like something from Night Shift, where the supernatural is inexplicable and aggressive. 

"Mile 81" might have been a turning point.  Two stories that followed shortly after, "The Little Green God of Agony" and "The Dune," are both classic horror stories whose final lines push the tales out of scary territory and straight into terrifying.  "Agony" finds King very much in the realm of the Gothic story for the first time in awhile.  All the "Fall of the House of Usher" indications are here: there's a big, rambling mansion; a thunderstorm powerful enough to knock all the lights out; a wise older character who knows things in direct opposition to our rational, modern character who trusts science and the things she can see.  There's also a monster.  While it is introduced symbolically, the titular Little Green God of Agony is very much a real thing, plunging into King's spooky-cozy Gothic story and transforming it into a creature feature.  It is to King's immense credit that this shift in tone and intent is just gradual enough that the changes feel organic.  And that last line – oh, God!  It's not that we don't expect scary from Stephen King, but moments like this remind us just how scary he can be when he wants to be.

Same goes for "The Dune," though it's a deceptive story; its horrors are, for the most part, told instead of shown – a storytelling technique that could hurt a compact tale like this, but instead works in its favor.  There's an urgency just under the surface – aided by the fact that it's told in the present tense – that draws readers implacably through to the end, where the real chill of the tale slams home.  This return to explicit supernatural horror is exciting, and proves that Just After Sunset's terrifying "N." wasn't a one-off.  We haven't gotten an out-and-out horror novel from King since 2006's Cell, but these stories seem to indicate that King's upcoming sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep, will be in line with its predecessor.

Rounding out the new stories are "Under the Weather," which was included in the paperback edition of Full Dark, No Stars, and "Throttle," King's collaboration with his son, the novelist Joe Hill, inspired by Richard Matheson's seminal man vs. machine story, "Duel."  While "Weather" (a dark story whose terror isn't in the reveal at the end but in the terrible hell of denial throughout) appeared in the paperback version of King's novella collection, Full Dark, No Stars, it's not really thematically bound to those stories and feels more like a bonus incentive there.  "Throttle" is a terrifically edgy story – King's and Hill's writing styles play off each other well – and deserves a wider audience for fans of both authors. 

Now things get interesting.  King hasn't included poetry in one of his collections since he placed "Brooklyn August" at the end of Nightmares & Dreamscapes, but recently he's published three poems that could likely surface in a new anthology.  "Tommy," published in Playboy, is an elegy for a friend of King's who died in 1969.  Thematically, it ties in with King's book Hearts in Atlantis; that Tommy was gay also connects with King's more recent interest in gay characters and issues in his work (as in Cell and "Mile 81").  "Mostly Old Men" is a melancholy look at aging, and could work as a less-terrifying companion piece to "The Dune." "The Bone Church" marks King's first foray into epic poetry and may have Dark Tower connections. 

What of older work?  In Nightmares & Dreamscapes, King said he wouldn't include any early stories in his collections … but he went back on his word in Just After Sunset, which featured "The Cat From Hell," originally published in 1977.  How about something like "The Night of the Tiger," which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1978 and keeps appearing in multiple-author anthologies, as recently as 2010.  How this story has resisted an official King collection for so long is baffling.  Ditto King's unpublished story "Squad D," a Viet Nam story originally intended for Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions III, which was never published.  In addition to commenting on themes King explored in Hearts in Atlantis, it would pair excellently with the poem "Tommy." 

Then there are stories King hasn't even written yet, as well as work he's holding back.  With the exception of Everything's Eventual, each Stephen King anthology has included at least one brand-new story, and the track record has been mostly excellent: Night Shift's "Quitters, Inc" and "The Woman in the Room," Skeleton Crew's "Paranoid: A Chant," Nightmares & Dreamscapes' "Umney's Last Case" and "The House on Maple Street," and Just After Sunset's "N."  These are exciting precedents. 

"I loved writing these," King said of the short stories in Just After Sunset, and it seems that love has carried on.  Who knows when King will release his next short story collection, or what it will comprise.  But based on King's output over the last few years – both the quantity and the quality – it seems likely that we won't have to wait long … and that the results will be terrific.

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