Monday, December 1, 2008

Just After Sunset by Stephen King
New York: Scribner and Sons - 2008
$28.00 – 367 pages

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents.
- The Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft

Unlike the majority of his peers, Stephen King, keeps expanding his territory. Certainly, he could have put down roots in any of a dozen horror genres ranging from
the paranormal (Carrie) and alien invaders (The Tommy knockers) to vampire gothic (Salem’s Lot) and he would have prospered effortlessly. Instead, he continues to explore new territories. For King, “new territories” are of two types: (a) the deceptively commonplace topics that dominate the media (and our lives); and (b) ideas that pay homage to revered storytellers of the past (H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen). I also detected a trace of Poe here and there.

Consider some of the settings and/or characters that exist in the thirteen short stories that comprise Just After Sunset: A hitchhiker who appears to be a deaf mute, but may actually be an avenging angel; a woman who turns to running on a remote beach as a means of dealing with her grief for a dead child only to discover that suddenly her life depends on her ability to run; an elderly man trapped in an overturned Porta-John in an abandoned housing project in Florida, and there is only one way out; a high school graduation party in which the future is rendered meaningless by an apocalyptic light, a mushroom cloud, and a vaporized New York skyline; a train station somewhere in Wyoming filled with commuters who are just beginning to realize that they are dead; a phone call that was made from an office in the Twin Towers – a call that arrives three days after 9/ll - on the day of the caller’s funeral. “Time is unstable where I’m calling from,” says the apologetic caller.

King’s characters do not come face to face with horror in a decaying Victorian mansion, but in abandoned housing projects in Florida, psychiatrist’s offices and rest stops on the interstate. Their demons are not from hell, but often originated in their own deranged minds – a fact that does not make them any less real. The narrator of “The Things They Left Behind,” finds himself delivering mementos to grieving relatives – souvenirs from the desks of his co-workers who died in 9/ll … items that he finds each morning on his desk in his new office and which he dutifully delivers, because he survived … and he is guilt-ridden about it.

As chilling as these “current events” tales are, King is at his best when he takes up the themes of H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, two venerable masters of the “unspeakable” terrors that lurk behind and/or beneath our world. This is the “world of Cthulhu” – an evil so immense, it defies our ability to define it. In the story, “N,” a psychiatrist attempts to treat a patient with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) only to discover that the patient’s obsession with numbers and his compulsion to arrange objects in patterns is a strategy to keep the malign powers of Cthulhu at bay. Gradually, the psychiatrist discovers that the world is covered with ancient sites (like Stonehenge) that were designed to resist Cthulhu’s relentless striving to enter our world. The patient N’s barrier requires constant vigilance at a location called
Ackerman’s Field – a place in which seven (or is it eight? Eight is good, seven is bad!) stones stand in a lonely field. When the psychiatrist visits the field, he belatedly learns that he has now become the sole defense against Cthulhu.

Especially noteworthy in this collection (and his recent novels) is the fact that Just After Sunset introduces a new theme or motif in King’s growing compendium of things to fear. His characters are aging. Some of his protagonists are elderly, in poor health and worried about the unstable economy, medical expenses and Alzheimers. As a consequence, much of the descriptive details in this collection stress mortality and a preoccupation with its harbingers, such as the smell of aging flesh and the dread of failing kidneys – very real fears!

Although the growing number of senior citizens (and their accompanying problems) in King’s novels and stories may offend many readers, others will find the addition gratifying. King himself is aging and has been plagued by a variety of medical issues. I find his willingness to explore this “new territory” admirable. It comforting to discover that King’s characters will be joining me in my routine trips to the doctor’s office, the druggists and my cautious drive to the grocery store. I wonder if this means that we may soon see the author on the cover of AARP?