It’s a given that I’m going to read anything by Stephen King. I’m not the fanboy that I used to be, but he was the writer who got me most interested i...moreIt’s a given that I’m going to read anything by Stephen King. I’m not the fanboy that I used to be, but he was the writer who got me most interested in doing some writing of my own, and I still think he has an extraordinary knack for characterization and raw storytelling. Even when his stories don’t go very far (The Colorado Kid), or are otherwise insubstantial (Lisey’s Story), I’m still very much wrapped up in his style, and find myself compelled to read the stories.
Like most short story collections, Just After Sunset is a mixed bag. There are some good stories (”N.”), some great stories, (”The Things They Left Behind”), some predictable stories (”Willa”), some experimental stories (”Harvey’s Dream”), a few weird stories (”Stationary Bike”), and some flat-out terrible stories (”A Very Tight Space”). The good news is that the good stories are a reminder that King still hasn’t lost that knack for good storytelling.
If I had to pick a favorite out of the bunch, it would have to be “N.”, since it hearkens back to when King was such a great horror writer. He captures atmosphere very well in this story, and the Lovecraftian overtones in the story are perfect. The setting, the characters, and the depiction of the slow decline of the main character are all perfect. Good horror fiction is still a guilty pleasure of mine, and I would love it if he could return to writing it consistently. Even “The Cat from Hell,” the collection’s “hidden bonus track” (according to the author, since it’s the one story that was written back when he was still making ends meet writing for men’s magazines), can’t compare with “N.”
“The Things They Left Behind” is a more personal story, about the aftereffects of 9/11. It’s a story of tragedy and redemption, of the haunted and the haunter, and the personal effects a disaster can have on so many people. That he taps in to that shared memory of such a terrible event cements the story as much more “real” than the others in the collection, and thus it will probably have a profound effect on readers who were “there” (either in person or via the news) when it happened. The personal touches of the story are effective and powerful. The only reason I didn’t pick this story as my favorite is because the sense of horror and dread in this story were very real, to the point of making me uncomfortable; in “N.”, it was more a case of how reading a good story can make me a little giddy with excitement. While “The Things They Left Behind” is more literary, “N.” reminds me of those days when I was first discovering King as a writer.
For the most part, the stories in the collection aren’t outstanding, but those two stories are certainly worth reading. I’m a completist when it comes to authors, though, and there was never a question as to whether I would read the whole thing. In this case, my perseverance paid off.(less)
Joe King Hill is a pretty good writer. I mean, he should be, given his lineage. If he didn’t pick anything up from a lifetime of being around his fath...moreJoe King Hill is a pretty good writer. I mean, he should be, given his lineage. If he didn’t pick anything up from a lifetime of being around his father, then he would deserve to be nothing more than a name-dropper. That he’s not a name-dropper, and that he has enjoyed some deserved success over the years is an indication that he did, in fact, pick up and/or inherit the skillz necessary to be a successful horror writer. A lot of people will probably pick up his fiction out of curiosity, and I expect that a good many of them will be surprised by what they find. Many of them will come back for more, though, I would expect.
Heart-Shaped Box was a pretty good read, though a bit clunky. A first novel typically is, because writers find that sustaining a plot for longer than their accustomed 10,000 words is trickier than expected. What was impressive about the novel was that his narrative flew, and captured you even when the events it described were a little hard to believe. I won’t belabor the point, since you can read that review here on my blog, but let’s just say that I was apprehensive, knowing who the author was, but was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
20th Century Ghosts is a collection of Hill’s short stories, most of them published before the novel. (This is actually a trade release of a previously limited edition of the book, with a couple of extra stories included.) Some are weird, others made me wonder what the heck was going on, but most of them were rather impressive. It opens with a story that won’t mean much to you unless you follow some of the smaller horror fiction magazines, or have at least tried to break into that market in the past. It’s titled “Best New Horror,” and is a rather formulaic story about an editor who’s tired of formulaic stories. By itself, it’s not really that impressive (and it opens with some brutal, misogynistic imagery that might turn many people off of the entire collection), but that second layer of irony makes it a little more interesting. And it’s this sense of style, I think, that makes Hill successful.
“You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is Hill’s take on Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”; “The Cape” is a revenge story taken above and beyond what you would expect; “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead” is a touching story of past loves set on the film set of a George Romero zombie movie; “The Black Phone” is that sort of horror story that uses a cliche in a new fashion, and that maintains the right amount of dread and suspense. In short, the stories work, and will surprise you, but the one story that makes this book necessary reading, to me, is “Pop Art.”
You have never read anything like “Pop Art.” It has a Kafka-esque beginning, where you’re introduced to a boy who is an inflatable doll, but like “The Metamorphosis,” once you accept that one, incredible point, the rest of the story falls into place. The story is told by Art’s best friend, and describes some of the trials and tribulations that go along with being an inflatable boy. It’s so much more than that, though. The story is about friendship, growing up, making sacrifices, love, and so much more, and it’s all conveyed in the span of 22 pages. I will concede that not all of the stories in this collection will be for everyone, but “Pop Art” is one of those stories that I expect to show up in literature collections in the next 20 years. It’s just that distinctive, and just that good.
I would only recommend Heart-Shaped Box to people who can stay with a book despite some issues with the core plot, and I would only recommend 20th Century Ghosts to those who can withstand some gruesome imagery. For anyone who reads for imagery, for prose, and for sheer effect, though, either book is worth reading. Come for the curiosity, but stay for the talent.(less)
Ever have those days where you put on an old jacket from last winter, and find a $20 bill in the pocket? That’s how I felt when I first heard about M...moreEver have those days where you put on an old jacket from last winter, and find a $20 bill in the pocket? That’s how I felt when I first heard about M Is for Magic. I didn’t know that Neil Gaiman had a new book coming out, much less that he had pulled a Ray Bradbury by picking some of his stories appropriate for younger audiences, and packaging them together under a new title. Shoot, he even acknowledges Bradbury in the introduction and in “October in the Chair,” so it’s no surprise that he even adopted Bradbury’s old title format for the collection. Bradbury had R Is for Rocket and S Is for Space, and now we’ve covered the Ms, as well.
So, the reality is that if you’re a hardcore Gaiman fanboy, then you’ve read most all of these stories. There’s only one story here that’s an “exclusive” (”The Witch’s Headstone,” a wonderful romp that’s reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll’s early stuff), but I believe it’s going to see print in a future publication, anyway. The good news is that this is a lot like a “greatest hits” for Gaiman. “Chivalry,” possibly the best short work of fiction published last century, is there, as is “Troll Bridge” (which shows the darker side of growing up) and “The Price” (an even darker look at our pets and what they do for us), along with a newer “classic,” “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (an odd science fiction story that probably owes a small debt to Harlan Ellison).
Like any short story collection, there are a few misses here, including “The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” but the premises and ideas behind the stories make up for what they lack in punch. Even Neil Gaiman can’t be on all the time, but even when he’s just puttering along, there’s much more going on to keep your interest than just the presentation. The story itself should keep you reading. Besides, as I’ve mentioned before, mediocre Neil Gaiman is definitely better than the best of some other authors I’ve read.
So, there may not be anything new here, and it may not all represent the best stuff that Gaiman has written, but M Is for Magic is a great introduction to a wonderful author. That it’s been released just in time for you to pick the collection up for the young reader in your family for Christmas isn’t, I doubt, a coincidence. Besides, if you haven’t read “Chivalry” yet, then your life isn’t quite yet complete.(less)
Ms. Willis has done a lot of research into the bombings of London during World War II. This is evident through her inclusion of three (three!) differe...moreMs. Willis has done a lot of research into the bombings of London during World War II. This is evident through her inclusion of three (three!) different stories in this collection that have some connection to that theme. “The Winds of Marble Arch” is one; “Night Watch” is another; and “Jack” rounds out that triptych of stories.
Now, am I complaining? Heck no! Ms. Willis is a fine, extraordinary writer, and she has a knack for writing stories that are a lot like those zany romantic comedies from the 1950s. But she really shines and shows her talents when she tackles serious subjects, like war, sexuality, humanity, and religion. And the fact that these three stories all center on the same central theme, yet still manage to be very different stories with very different tones, just goes to show that when you’re reading a Connie Willis book, you’re sure to be impressed.
It is impossible for me to give this collection of her short stories an objective review, because Ms. Willis is one of my favorite authors. It’s very, very difficult to pick a favorite story from the collection, because they’re all so very, very good. I love her screwball romantic comedy stories, and I love that she manages to incorporate hard science into those stories, sometimes even going so far as to incorporate that science into the characters of those stories (you’ll just have to read “At the Rialto” and “Blued Moon” to understand what I mean). I also love her heavier stories, especially “Night Watch,” which I really think should be made into a movie (and considering how aggravated I get with Hollywood’s habit of adapting something that is already a success instead of creating something original, that’s saying something). “All His Darling Daughters” is just about the darkest, most disturbing story I’ve read, but I still find something very significant in the story to tell people, “You have to read this!” She has some gentler stories in there, as well, including her Christmas stories (”Epiphany” and “Inn” are touching stories of faith and perseverance), a tribute to a fellow science-fiction author who inspired her (”Nonstop to Portales”), a back-handed tribute to Emily Dickinson (”The Soul Selects Her Own Society…”), and a satirical, clever story of aliens, romance, and holiday newsletters (”Newsletter”). Really, I can’t think of a single dud story in the collection. Some had more of an impact than others, but none are bad, and each one of them had something important to say.
If you’ve already experienced Doomsday Book, Bellwether, To Say Nothing of the Dog, or Lincoln’s Dreams, then it won’t take any more prodding from me to get you to read this book (be forewarned, though, that you’ll see a lot of reprinted stories here, but they’re all worth re-reading, that’s for certain). If you haven’t discovered the wonder that is Connie Willis, though, I could think of no other better place to start than with The Winds of Marble Arch.(less)