Stephen King’s latest collection of short stories shows the master of horror on strong, if not his most terrifying, form. While there are stories that go for the jugular, the mood here is slightly more meditative. Regret, guilty memories, bad bargains and the creeping spectre of death loom over
The short story format has always suited King, and he shows that his gift for quickly establishing atmosphere has not dissipated, nor has his judgement for knowing when to twist the knife, or to deliver a short, sharp shock.
That being said, the first story, ‘Mile 81’, feels like something out of the Stephen King Horror Handbook, with an evil force masquerading as a car pulling in well-intentioned but definitely doomed passers by and devouring them. The sense of classic King is enhanced by the children’s perspective, who are the only ones sensible enough to see the car for what it really is.
Children are few and far between in the rest of the collection, with the exception of ‘Bad Little Kid’. This tale, told by a man awaiting execution, is one of the highlights, with a vicious little boy tormenting everyone in the narrator’s life to the point of their suicide or accidental death. It’s also got the classic King hallmarks of the outwardly ridiculous quickly becoming sinister due to the absolute maliciousness of its intent.
The idea of evil is addressed in the excellent ‘Morality’, another of the collection’s standouts, in which a broke young couple is given an offer they can’t refuse by a wickedly playful wealthy codger. Difficult decisions are made in ‘Obit’, about an ambitious young writer who discovers that the pre-emptive obituaries he writes for the seedy gossip site he works for have surprising consequences, and ‘Ur’, the story King wrote for Amazon, about a Kindle that offers the user fiction from other dimensions, which isn’t nearly as dangerous as the non-fiction.
Some of the most affecting stories in this collection are about the difficulties we find ourselves in as we approach old age. The question of pain and our attitude towards those who suffer from it is raised in ‘The Little Green God Of Agony’, while ‘Batman And Robin Have An Altercation’ finds a man and his Alzheimer’s-suffering father on a spectacularly difficult day. It’s the more mournful stories in this collection, like ‘Under The Weather’, in which a husband frets about his sickly wife and which packs a nasty twist, ‘Mister Yummy’, in which the residents of a care home receive a special visit towards their ends, and the apocalyptic closer ‘Summer Thunder’, that linger.
Those looking for a book full of scares should perhaps look at his earlier collections like ‘Night Shift’, but for the King faithful this is a welcome batch of mostly excellent stories (there are a couple of duds, but only a couple), and an interesting snapshot of the author’s interests at this point. Indeed, as he mentions in his opening thanks, “Something else I want you to know: how glad I am, Constant Reader, that we’re both still here. Cool, isn’t it?” Indeed it is, and we’re lucky to have him.