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Warning! This review will be incredibly long because I find it impossible to review a collection of short stories without reviewing each story. Feel free to move along.
Overall, this was not a typical Stephen King short story collection. His short stories generally give me nightmares. There were a few horror stories in here, but really he was exploring the post-9/11 world, grief, loss, and the afterlife. Some of his efforts were more successful than others, but the ones that worked really worked for me.
“Willa”–3 stars–A young couple on their way to San Francisco are waiting at a train depot for another train after theirs derails. This story was just sort of eerie. King is so great at setting a mood that you realize right away that something’s not quite right, but mostly this story just felt like page filler.
“The Gingerbread Girl”–5 stars–A young woman runs to escape her grief, and then a nightmare. This one was straight-up suspense. I found my shoulders tensed and my body hunched over as I read this one. It’s amazing to me that an author can do that in so few pages.
“Harvey’s Dream”–3 stars–A man on the brink of retirement tells his wife about a terrible dream he had the night before. It was well-written, but I just didn’t care.
“Rest Stop”–4 stars–A mild mystery writer overhears a disturbing argument at a rest stop late one night and must decide what to do about it. This one left me wondering what I would do in his shoes. There’s some exploration of the hidden depths we carry around inside that we hope we never tap into. A good “makes-you-think” story.
“Stationary Bike”–A man creates more than he thinks when he paints himself a picture to help pass the time as he rides his stationary bike. I had no idea where this was going. And who can’t relate to the mind-numbing boredom of an exercise machine?
“The Things They Left Behind”–5 stars–My favorite story from this book. A man who should have died along with the rest of his office on 9/11 suddenly finds objects in his apartment that he associates with his co-workers. This was a quietly powerful story that had much more going on than meets the eye. It read like a good exploration of survivor’s guilt. Don’t dismiss this one as “just another Stephen King story.” This one’s Literature. I actually pulled some good quotes out of this one: “Obliqueness is the curse of the reading class.” “They did it in the name of God, but there is no God. If there was a God, Mr. Staley, He would have struck them dead in their boarding lounges with their boarding passes in their hand, but no God did. They called for passengers to get on and those fucks just got on.” If we’re being honest, who among us didn’t feel that, at least for a second, on that day?
“Graduation Afternoon”–4 stars–The unthinkable happens in New York City. This was probably one of the most truly scary stories in the book. Before 9/11, this would have just been a fantasty/horror story. Post-9/11, I think deep down we’re all waiting for this to actually happen, at least in our darkest, most pessimistic hours.
“N.”–4 stars–A psychiatrist leaves behind notes on a delusional patient. King mentions the story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this story. That “descending-into-madness-with-the-character” feeling seems to be what he was going for, but he didn’t accomplish it like Charlotte Perkins Gilman did. This was supposed to be a horror tale, but I somehow never quite got there. The fantasy world was never very real to me. I don’t know if that’s because King’s writing fell short or because my imagination is not the equal of his.
“The Cat From Hell”–4 stars–The title describes the plot. This was an absurd, but at the same time scary, story. It reminded me of that Chattering Teeth story he wrote in an earlier collection in that I wanted to laugh at the same time that I was freaked out.
“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates”–3 stars–A woman receives a phone call from her husband–as she’s dressing for his funeral. This was another one where all I have to say is that I really didn’t care.
“Mute”–3 stars–A man whose life has just fallen apart picks up a deaf/mute hitchhiker and feels safe confessing all his troubles. I found this one pretty predictable. But here’s a quote that made me giggle: “He pointed toward the silhouettes on the side of the [bathrooms] instead–black cutout man, black cutout woman. The man had his legs apart, the woman had hers together. Pretty much the story of the human race in sign language.”
“Ayana”–3 stars–All I’m going to say about this one is “The Green Mile revisited.” It might have been more interesting if I hadn’t read the novel first. There was a good quote in here too though: “The medical definition of miracle is misdiagnosis.”
“A Very Tight Place”–4 stars–Two neighbors are feuding over a piece of land in the Florida Keys. One of them decides to end the feud once and for all. This one was a good, old-fashioned, Stephen King gross-out. Don’t read it if you have a weak stomach.
Reviewed January 5, 2009
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Friday Flashback Reviews are a weekly feature here on The Introverted Reader. These are old reviews I wrote on GoodReads. Thanks to Angieville and her Retro Friday Reviews for the inspiration and encouragement!
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