Stephen King has really been on a roll lately when it comes to short fiction. It's debatable as to when you want to say this hot streak began, but I'm going to date it back to 2007. That year saw four memorable stories from the Master: "Graduation Afternoon," "The Gingerbread Girl," "Ayana," and "Mute."
2008 was only marginally less good: "A Very Tight Place" (a personal favorite), "The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates," and "N." (which made its debut appearance in Just After Sunset and is also a personal fave). 2009: "Ur," "Throttle" (written with Joe Hill), "Morality," and "Premium Harmony," PLUS two excellent poems ("Tommy" and "The Bone Church").
He slacked off a bit in 2010, only producing "Blockade Billy" (and "Fair Extension," if you want to count that as a short story), but was back at it in 2011, churning out five new short tales. I wrote about them here, in case you're interested.
So far, 2012 has been quite solid, too. First "In the Tall Grass" with Joe Hill and then "A Face in the Crowd" with Stewart O'Nan, and now a third short story has appeared.
It's in the September issue of Harper's, and is called "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation," and guess what?
I've read it.
And I'm here to tell you this about that: it's not actually about Batman and Robin. Damn, I'd love for Stephen King to write a Batman story one of these days, but this ain't it.
To ease the pain of that revelation, here is an amusing superhero photo culled from the interwebs:
You done chuckling yet?
Now are you done?
So, if this isn't a Batman story, what the hell is it?
I'm glad you asked.
What it is is outstanding. If I had to compare it to another Stephen King story, I suppose the one I'd compare it to is "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive." (Here's a review I wrote of that story earlier this year, and it pleases me to no end to note that my amusing photo in that post was Batman-centric. Nice little coinkydink there...)
Like that story, "Batman and Robin Have An Altercation" is a non-fantastical tale that nevertheless manages to fit into the horror genre thanks to sheer grimness. "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" won a Stoker Award, even! I don't know that similar treatment is in store for "Batman and Robin Have An Altercation," but I wouldn't count it out.
I'm a fan of the Wouk story, but this Batman story is even better. It's got excellent detail-based character writing, and like all great short stories it manages to feel like a complete world unto itself. It goes in unexpected directions, is by turns disgusting, moving, and frightening, and (in short) is yet another example of King being a generally awesome writer. Apparently, some people still need convincing on that score; I'm happy he continues to pump out proof.
I don't want to say a whole heck of a lot about the story, because (as is frequently the case with a short story) plot synopsis runs the risk of revealing things that ought to be experienced by actually reading the story. So let's say this and no more: this is the story of Doug Sanderson, who is visiting his Alzheimer's-riddled father in the nursing home.
Stuff happens after that.
This is one of my favorite King stories in recent memory, personally. Maybe not too far behind "The Dune," which I found to be a bit of a masterpiece. And like that story (as well as "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"), it continues King's recent focus on growing old, and eventually growing elderly and infirm.
If King's writing is any indication, though, he's as strong as he's ever been.