Hell is repetition.
This refrain, from King’s surrealist slice of late-90s horror, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French,” has become something of a thematic sticking point for Stephen King. Not that that’s a bad thing; King has long been interested in exploring motifs from every possible angle in subsequent stories until he’s exhausted them. See his series of “children with wild talents” novels, starting with Carrie and ending (for the most part) with Firestarter, or his exegeses on the process of writing, bookended (largely) by Misery and Bag of Bones.
Recently, especially in his short stories, King has been concerned with mortality, repetition, and penance. The end of the Dark Tower series proper coalesced around these concerns, and King further explored them in the recent “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” and “The Dune.” “Afterlife,” however, seems to burble more directly out of the stew King first tasted in “Fair Extension,” from 2010’s Full Dark, No Stars, and especially the more recent “A Face in the Crowd,” which King co-authored with Stewart O’Nan. In that story, we were presented with a man named Dean Evers, haunted by the sins of his past and the inability to repent or even acknowledge them as sins. In “Afterlife,” we discover a similar man, William Andrews, who has his own stockpile of misdeeds buried in his past. Unlike Dean Evers, William Andrews is given a choice about how to react to the bad things he’s done in his life, and to the people he’s hurt. Whether or not he makes the right choice is up for the reader to decide.
Where “A Face in the Crowd” is a nasty little story, one that starts off with a sympathetic character who reveals himself as repugnant, “Afterlife” is somewhat gentler, somewhat subtler. It takes the same basic core of a story and twists our perception of it, challenging the reader with the same choice Andrews makes. The immediacy of the present tense serves “Afterlife” very well, making readers bear witness to the confessions and decisions of now rather than then. Though it’s a small, whispering tale, “Afterlife” manages to ask some of the big questions King has been asking throughout his career: whether free will is real, whether sin is ingrained, and whether people really have the ability to change their natures.
“Afterlife” appears in issue #56 of Tin House, a literary magazine that had initially published the Duma Key preview, “Memory.” While the issue is so far unavailable for online purchase, readers can find it at Barnes & Noble, and other brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.