It's tricky, "The Dune," Stephen King's new short story. It lulls you. 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. It never feels complacent, however, despite its deceptive leisurely pace. 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.
"The Dune" concerns ninety-year-old former judge Harvey Beecher, and the small, wild island off the Gulf Coast in Florida with which Beecher is obsessed. The opening paragraphs allow the reader to make a subconscious connection to Stella Flanders of "The Reach," only in reverse; Beecher is traveling away from the mainland. Soon enough, though, we realize this is not Stella's gentle story of benevolent ghosts … though death is at the center of "The Dune." The language of horror rises above the quiet storytelling: early on, words like "unease," "fatal," and "bad omen" resonate.
There's also the word "magic," and it's magic that drives "The Dune" – bad magic, the kind King's characters have a way of getting addicted to. We're reminded of Jack Torrance's obsession with the scrapbook in The Shining, Louis Creed's growing dependence on the Pet Sematary, and Ned Wilcox's fixation on the Buick in From a Buick 8. But it's Rhea of the Coos of Wizard & Glass, and her addiction to the dark clairvoyance in her crystal ball, that most foretells Harvey Beecher's unsettling story. We're dealing here with dark prognostication, and how the worst things are often the most appealing, and how terrible secrets are kept.
King's current string of terrific short stories continues unabated. Recently, his interest in the human drama of "Premium Harmony" and "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" has given way to more explicit horror: non-supernatural stories like "Morality" and "Under the Weather" burble with unease, while "Mile 81" and "The Little Green God of Agony" present the sort of terror associated with King's early short work collected in Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. "The Dune" falls into this latter category – frightening, convincing, and without any real explanation behind the intrusion of the uncanny. And like "The Little Green God of Agony," its most effective and visceral horror comes in the few, final, terrifying words.