Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Stories from Stephen King's Just After Sunset

Collection: Just After Sunset
Author: Stephen King

When King finds the emotional center of a story, shows us the hearts of his characters, it makes all the difference. There are stories in this collection that have an interesting premise but don't develop. Sometimes there's too much straining for effect. But here are three stories I like because they're gripping and for the most part are told with heart. Each has its own unique atmosphere of horror.

Title: The Gingerbread Girl
Emily is running from the horrors in her life. She takes up running after her baby dies from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Separating from her husband, she moves to a family property in Florida where she'll need to use her running abilities, along with her ingenuity and will to survive, in order to escape from a psychotic neighbor. (There's a painfully suspenseful scene where the main character tries to break free from a chair she's tied to before the homicidal neighbor returns to torture her and finish her off.) At its heart the story is about someone striving for life. Emily fights to live and outpace the terrors the world holds for her.

Title: N.
Told in a collection of case notes, letters, and newspaper clippings, the story is a horrifying mystery centered on a psychiatrist and a patient, referred to as N. in the case notes, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). N. has many of the usual compulsions of people with OCD, such as the need to count things a certain number of times, arrange things in certain ways and perform other rituals. But he tells his psychiatrist he's doing this for a very real reason: to prevent the reentry of a demonic entity into the world.

Given that people with OCD believe that their rituals and compulsions stave off disasters, the psychiatrist at first thinks that his patient is merely imagining this Lovecraftian entity. But when he visits the site that his patient tells him about, a remote field in rural Maine with a grouping of rocks where the creature might break through, he begins to have second thoughts. He develops his own compulsions. But is this terrifying creature of darkness real? Or has the psychiatrist merely taken on the symptoms of his patient, which does happen sometimes?

Title: Willa
The story sort of crumbles into bittersweet goo as it goes on, while still remaining sad and chilling. It starts with a group of passengers waiting in a remote Wyoming train station. The train is set to come at any moment, but David can't find his fiancée, Willa. The other passengers tell him not to go looking for her; many of them don't like her. David doesn't even realize how long she's been missing, and he remembers how she's sometimes chided him for not being able to see what's right in front of his eyes; like most people, his capacity for denial is strong. When he finds her, he discovers that some things, like their love for each other, haven't changed and that "perception and expectation together" really are powerful.