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Book Review

In long or short form, he's King of horror

Stephen King packs a lot in his new short stories. Stephen King packs a lot in his new short stories. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / November 15, 2008
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Stephen King is way past the good old days of scaring us with something as simple as a raft on a lake, a 1958 Plymouth Fury, or a cymbal-clanging monkey toy. Or clowns. The man does some terrifying stuff with clowns.

No, those comparatively simple days are long gone for an author whose tales have expanded - at various times over the past decade - to encompass at least 600 pages ("Duma Key"), seven volumes ("The Dark Tower" series), the entire World Wide Web ("The Plant"), or, most recently, 25 animated video episodes ("N.").

Yet his latest offering, "Just After Sunset," attempts a return to his less wordy roots, where he got his start: short stories pounded out quickly. In the book's introduction, King points out that before he became a household name 30 years ago, these stories would have sold to pulpy magazines for a few hundred dollars. Back then, the stories came on like "bulldozers" and rarely got another thought "after the second rewrite," he recalls.

He long ago moved on to a better class of literary company; The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and McSweeney's now vie for just about any thought he's willing to commit to paper. Yet King harbored secret fears that he had forgotten "the fragile craft" of short story writing. The chance to try out his skills again came a few years ago, with an invitation to guest-edit "The Best American Short Stories 2007" and read hundreds of submissions for the volume. "I got excited all over again, and I started writing stories again in the old way. I had hoped for that, but had hardly dared believe it would happen," King recalled.

The good news is that King is as sharp and versatile as ever in this 13-story collection. It features the never-before-published "N.," on which the video series is based, about a psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with the same evil that claimed his patient's sanity.

Another standout is "The Gingerbread Girl," which reads like an unholy marriage of King's earlier novels "Misery" and "Duma Key," with atmospherics from the movie "Cape Fear" thrown in for good measure.

"Stationary Bike" implausibly, but successfully, gives high cholesterol a starring role - perhaps a literary first. The shortest story, at 10 pages, is "Harvey's Dream," a dream that, predictably, turns into a real-life nightmare.

And for readers who already have nightmares about getting stuck in a portable toilet in the middle of nowhere, do yourself a favor and skip the last story, "A Very Tight Place."

King tries hard to make this collection work (as does his publisher, Scribner, which in deference to this collection, won't publish any other titles for the whole month), though at times it's hard to shake the feeling that he's trying a little too hard.

It doesn't seem like the short story format is, well, long enough for him anymore. Nearly all the concepts and characters here seem to want to run wild as novels, and King too often feels like a ringmaster wielding a whip and chair - forcing the prose and people into a hasty conclusion for the sake of format, not story arc.

It's not that King's skills have waned; rather, his imagination is just too darn big.

Erica Noonan is the bureau chief of Globe West. She can be reached at enoonan@globe .com.

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BOOK REVIEW

JUST AFTER SUNSET By Stephen King

Scribner, 367 pp., $28

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