King is spot on with new short story collection

bookBeing a lifelong Stephen King fan, I have always been pleased to note that King is always keenly aware of the world around him. By that, I mean that he reads, watches the news every day and seems to be genuinely distressed by what he finds there. He still has that gift of understanding teenagers as is evident in his “spot on” dialogue in “Mile 81” (which also turns out to be a tribute to his over-the-top novel, Christine).

Fifty years has darkened his outlook, but it is the same darkness that I hear echoed in the conversations at breakfast at Sylva’s Coffee Shop or in Jill’s barbershop in Dillsboro. Each morning brings news of another shooting at a school or theater; another terrorist threat or the death of a revered celebrity. Current affairs always provide additional evidence that our planet is self-destructing ... which will provides this acclaimed author with yet another plot for a sharp-edged tale.

There are 20 stories in this collection, and the majority are “memorable.” Oh, yes, there is a clinker or two. (I’m sorry Steve, but I really think you should avoid poetry. The examples here confused me.)

However, I was delighted to find such prose gems as “Premium Harmony” and “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation.” Both are examples of tales that are drawn from the lives and hardships of the elderly ... those grumpy souls that now live in retirement communities or will soon be there.  

The protagonist in “Premium Harmony” still bickers with his wife about buying groceries at Walmart, feeding the dog and his failure to stop smoking. The dark humor of the ending — when Ray finds all of his problems abruptly resolved — is perfectly rendered. 

Then, there is Sanderson, who like thousands of dutiful sons, takes his senile father out for lunch at Applebee’s every Sunday. Since his father has failing kidneys and has become a kleptomaniac (he steals silverware), Sanderson has to watch his him closely. Today, his father asks him what is the bright side of Alzhimers. “Answer: You meet new people every day.” Then, comes a marvelous Sunday trek when the old man’s theft of an Applebee’s knife ends up being the means of solving an altercation with an unstable motorist ....

It is also evident that King knows something about pain as is evident in his personal battle following a hit-and-run accident that left him broken and hospitalized for months. Like a true writer, he used his own experience in a series of short stories that contain graphic evidence of his own travail. As a reader, it is wonderful to read a “vintage King” piece, “The Little Green God of Agony,” in which Andrew Newsome, the sixth richest man in the world, bargains for an end to his suffering. Newsome has survived the crash of an airliner, the sole survivor. 

However he had suffered chipped bones, crushed ribs and excessive injuries to his body. Now, he lies in the most expensive hospital bed in the world, where he has spent 24 months of unrelieved suffering and he is ready to bargain with the Arkansas-based Reverend Rideout (The Church of Holy Faith) who tells Newsome that his pain is caused by a demon that lives in Newsome’s throat. Rideout will remove the demon if Newsome will restore Rideout’s church ... recently destroyed by a wildfire started by drunken campers. Ah, kind hearts, this tale will make a hell of a movie.

King also pays tribute to the Kindle by both admitting that he owns one and then creating a tribute to the device by developing a memorable story entitled “Ur,” about an English teacher who ordered one of the first (it was pink) and accidentally discovers that the archives have titles by his favorite authors that he had never heard of.  

For example, when he looks up Ernest Hemingway on his pink Kindle, he finds mistakes in the information about the author. The birth and death dates are wrong, and beneath The Old Man and the Sea there is a novel entitled Courtland’s Dogs. There is a bit of red tape involving his credit card, but ... he can order it. He finds similar “mistakes” in the listings for Shakespeare, who seems to have written a famous play, “A Black Fellow in London.” When he shares his discovery with a fellow teacher, they decide to investigate what could be done with such information. Edgar A. Poe, Raymond Carver, James Dickey, on and on.  

When our English teacher discovers that his Kindle publishes reprints of newspapers, he discovers that a number of political assassinations, plane crashes, and terrorist attacks did not happen. Then, there is a bus wreck that will kill dozens of athlete’s returning home.  I think that I will leave the readers to find out what happens next when the teachers with the pink Kindle decide to interfere .... 

Speaking of tributes, King has a reputation for praising his fellow authors, and he goes one step further in this collection. Each story is dedicated to a writer that King admires.  For example, the short story, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” is dedicated to the American novelist John Irving who is a personal friend. “Premium Harmony” is dedicated to Raymond Carver who has a reputation for creating short stories that often have a harsh aftertaste. The nasty tale, “Bad Little Kid,” is dedicated to Russ Dorr, who has a penchant of creating nasty little demons of his own. King’s grim little western tale, “A Death” is dedicated to Elmore Leonard, who, in addition to writing fast-paced detective thrillers, has created a number of dark, “hanging day” westerns, including 3:10 to Yuma. Readers can find out a great deal about King by checking out this list of writers that he admires.

I especially admire tales that give me a bit of adrenaline pumping tension, and “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” certainly fills the bill. The crux of this tale is an interstate wreck that takes the lives of two adults and seven children and it is a one-vehicle accident. Brenda is an alcoholic who has just won the lottery and after cashing in, she is on her way to “a fun-filled holiday” which is doomed because Brenda is drunk, angry and filled with self-destructive urges. In accordance to the ancient tale of a traveler who has an “appointment in Sammara,” Brenda is on her way.

This is an excellent collection that touches on King’s favorite themes: aliens, psychic people who bargain with dark powers, Omar’s “moving finger,” untested morality, AIDs and Godfather Death  They may have clever disguises, but they are all here.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Jackson County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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