Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stephen King Short Stories of 2011

With the Master's newest novel still burning up the bestseller charts, an impending new volume in the Dark Tower series, and persistent rumors of multiple big-budget Hollywood adaptations which may or may not ever actually be produced, the end of 2011 marks a pretty fine time to be a Stephen King fan.

For this Stephen King fan, it was an interesting year.  The highlight of it was unquestionably the release of 11/22/63, but there were also fun times to be had in the ongoing Marvel comic books (The Dark Tower and The Stand), and the Turner Classic Movies documentary The Horrors of Stephen King made for a delightful Halloween treat.  The lowpoint...?  The release of YET ANOTHER Children of the Corn movie; this one is not only completely unrelated to the short story upon which it is "based," it's also got almost nothing to do with either children or corn!

For me, though, I suppose I ought to hold a bit of fondness in my heart for 2011 simply because it's the year I started blogging.  It's been fun.  It's also been frustrating, because I keep running into cases of my ambitions outstripping my reach.  Hopefully, 2012 is going to be a bit of an improvement in terms of time-management considerations.

Before 2011 scoots out the door, though, I wanted to call some attention to the the short stories King published during the year.  His longer fiction is always going to overshadow his shorter work, and perhaps that's as it should be.  However, the short fiction is almost always worth shining light upon, and King's short-form output was quite good this year.

I'd like to talk about the stories in some depth, and in order to do that, I have to venture into spoilery territory.  However, since most of these stories were available only in somewhat specialized formats, I assume that a great many King fans probably will not read them until they make an appearance in his next story collection.  Therefore, it would be poor form on my part to simply dive right in and ruin the plot details of these stories.  I won't do that.  Instead, I'll first offer up some general thoughts on each story, and save the more in-depth analyses for separate posts on each story, all of which I hope to produce within the next couple of weeks.

First out of the gate (in the May issue of The Atlantic) was "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," a story of a low-income mother who wins the lottery one day and decides what to do with the money.  The results may surprise you!

I thought this was a pretty fine story, personally.  It's one of King's occasional stories which has absolutely nothing to do with horror, the supernatural, the fantastic, or the otherworldly.  That's not to say that the macabre never creeps in, because it certainly does.  On the whole, though, this is King working with character, tone, and perspective to create a portrait of what receiving a ray of light can mean to someone who is poor.

I'd compare the story a bit to King's similarly-themed "Premium Harmony," which appeared in The New Yorker in 2009.  In fact, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" reads -- not in its specifics, but in terms of its tone -- a bit like a stronger attempt at crafting a story that lives a bit outside the bounds of what most people think of as "a Stephen King story."

Next up: "Under the Weather," which was published as a bonus story in the trade paperback edition of Full Dark, No Stars.

This is a fine story about which I can say virtually nothing without spoiling it.  I'll say this: a man goes to work...and the results may surprise you!

This was probably my second-favorite of the five short stories King published in 2011.  It is easily obtainable, so go get yoself a copy.

Published exclusively as a download for Kindle, "Mile 81" is the longest of King's 2011 short stories.  It's also the least satisfying, at least as far as I'm concerned.

And yet, I feel certain that it probably hews the closest to what most King fans would consider to be prime King story material.  It's about a car...a hungry car, and some people who maybe stray a little to close to it.  The results?  They may, in fact, NOT surprise you.

If that summons up images of Christine and/or From a Buick 8, well, it's not entirely without cause.  However, this feels to me like a story that ought to have gone through a few more rounds of revision before being released: it simply doesn't have the polish that I expect from King.

Maybe I can do a better job of explicating that once I get into my spoilery discussions.  For now, maybe it's enough to say that if you've got a Kindle -- or a computer which has an internet connection (you can get Kindle for your PC, which is how I was able to read "Mile 81") -- the story is so affordably priced that you're well-advised to simply download a copy of it and read it for yourself.

Speaking of Kindle for the PC, that's also how I was able to purchase a copy of the Stephen Jones-edited anthology A Book of Horrors, which included the King story "The Little Green God of Agony."

This particular story is a little gem of horror, one which could fit comfortably alongside classic King stories of the sort you might find in Night Shift or Skeleton Crew.  It's the story of a bedridden wealthy man and his rehab nurse, and let's leave it at that, except to say, of course, that the results ... may surprise you.

Finally, there's "The Dune."

No, this has nothing to do with Fremen, Bene Gesserit, or the Kwisatz Haderach ... although if I found out that King was writing a novel set in Frank Herbert's Duneiverse, I'd be kinda giddy with anticipation.

Instead, this is -- like "The Little Green God of Agony" -- another gem of a horror story.  Like that one, it would not feel the slightest bit out of place in one of King's first two story collections, and believe me when I say that I mean that as a compliment.

I can't say much about "The Dune."  It's my favorite of the five 2011 short stories; I can say that.  I can also say that it reminds me a wee bit of "The Cat From Hell": both stories are about younger men visiting old wealthy men, and coming into contact with the secrets they have been keeping.  The secret this particular old man has been keeping may -- yep -- surprise you, possibly even moreso than did the one in "The Cat From Hell."

"The Dune" is the better of the two stories, though, methinks.

Also worth mentioning:

"On Cooking," a short nonfiction piece King wrote for the cooking book Man with a Pan.  It's a delightful little essay in which King talks about what he whoops up when he's left to his own devices cooking-wise.  It fairly boils over with King's wit and charm, and -- amazingly enough -- actually makes me wish Stephen King would write an entire book about cooking.  It's one of the better nonfiction pieces he's written in the past few years.  I have not read the rest of the book, but it's well worth picking up for King fans based just on his contribution (which is four pages in length, plus a one-page recipe).

And, finally, King also wrote an introduction for a new Centenary edition of Lord of the Flies this year.  His introduction runs seven pages, and is -- like many of his introductions -- a fine balance between literary criticism and autobiography.  At some point in time, somebody really needs to release a collection of his nonfiction of this type.

I'll be back soon -- possibly as soon as tomorrow -- with an in-depth look at "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive."  Until then, just remember: if you're going to be an abusive father, it pays to make sure your child isn't into voodoo.

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