Riding With The King: Just After Sunset (2008)

A few weeks back, I was trying to think of some Stephen King books to listen while driving out to Ohio to hang out with my friends from home for a weekend. Last year, I was elated with my choices of Joyland and Revival (a book I STILL think of several times a week) and hoped to have an equally great experience this time around.

After kicking around a few ideas, I settled on getting Desperation and Regulators because I read that they play well off of each other. Unfortunately, between then and leaving on the trip, we got two feet of snow and the requests didn’t come in. So, I went to the actual library and grabbed a pair of his short story books in audiobook form: Just After Sunset and The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams.

With all of that set-up out of the way, I really enjoyed Sunset, but turned Bazaar off for reasons I’ll get to. I’d never listened to a book of short stories before and wasn’t sure how that would work while I drove, but they recruited a fleet of people to read the tales, which added a nice bit of variety to the proceedings.

I won’t get into all of the stories, not because I didn’t like them, but I’m fairly certain that even talking briefly about “Willa,” “Harvey’s Dream” and “Graduation Afternoon” will completely ruin them. They play out like Twilight Zone episodes or Tales From The Crypt/Creepy comics and should be listened to immediately.

I will talk about one of my favorites in this collection, “The Gingerbread Girl.” This one’s about a woman named Emily who lost her baby Amy and took up running to help cope. Her husband doesn’t get it, so she leaves him, moves in to her dad’s place in Vermillion Key, Florida and continues her brand of therapy until she stumbles upon a murder victim that leads to a whole different brand of trouble for her.

In addition to being a heartbreaking story about loss and the different ways people deal with it, this one’s about forming a different relationship with your body and using that to save your own life. It’s also a full-on slasher story, which is fun to see through King’s lens.

I’m still not quite sure what to think of “The Stationary Bike.” I liked this story about a man learning to love exercise, but the supernatural-esque backlash that could reasonably come from that same body (which is also dealing with the loss of a loved one). However, the horror and fantastical elements seem to undercut the idea of health. Then again, maybe it’s an obsession with health. Like I said, I’m still chewing on this one, but I dug it.

Two that really hit me in the gut were “Rest Stop” and “The Things They Left Behind.” The former is about an author inadvertently witnessing a man beating his wife or girlfriend in the title location. He winds up letting his pen name take over because he’s too scared to do anything himself. This of course reflects King’s own relationship with Bachman, which is still one of my favorite pseudonym stories.

The second one stars a guy named Scott who didn’t go in to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 because he felt like just kicking back and relaxing. To his surprise and terror, his co-workers’ things start appearing in his apartment. Figuring out what to do with these items — which talk to him at night — play out through the rest of the tale.

One of the best surprises in the collection came when they got to “The Cat From Hell” which had been incorporated into the fantastic Tales From The Darkside: The Movie, which I just saw for the first time last year. The story goes in a lot of different directions — and doesn’t star David Johansen and William Hickey — but it’s still a very cool read/listen for fans of the film.

“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” made me sad — it was the first full one I heard after leaving for home very early on Sunday morning — “Mute” and “A Very Tight Place” made me squirm in a variety of ways and “Ayana” made me smile.

And then there’s “N.” my favorite of the batch. In this one, a psychologist tries to treat a guy with OCD who’s convinced that his repeated touching of some stones in a field in Ackerman’s Field keeps an ancient beast from invading our world. It’s told in a variety of ways, ranging from letters written by the doc’s sister to his own case files and notes.

At the end of the audio version of this book, King talked about each of the stories and I found it interesting that he wanted to marry the ideas of ancient dark forces — which reminded me of Lovecraft, but he credited Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan as a more direct influence — with the way people look at, treat and judge obsessive compulsive disorder. This is one of those great stories where you find yourself bouncing back and forth when it comes to believing or not believing and I always love that kind of thing.

I just read that there’s a video online that they made to coincide with this story as well as a Marvel comic miniseries that I just requested from the library so look for a separate post on those relatively soon (assuming we don’t get another huge snow storm).

As I said, I listened to part of The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams as well, but didn’t get very far. It’s not that the stories in this book are bad, it’s that they’re rough, bordering on mean. I fully admit that I’ve become a much bigger softy after having kids, so listening the kids’ plight in “Mile 81” really kicked me in the gut. That one’s followed by a tale about a guy whose wife dies (“Premium Harmony”) and then another where a guy and his Alzheimer’s-ridden dad get into it with one of those classic pure-evil King villains (“Batman And Robin Have An Altercation”). I really enjoyed the EC-ness of “The Dune,” but turned it off after hearing King intro “Bad Little Kid,” knowing that I didn’t have another one in me where bad things happened to kids (or because of them).

Honestly, if “Mile 81” hadn’t hit me so hard and I wasn’t so close to home, I probably would have stuck around longer. Actually, if the notes from King were at the end of the book like they were with Sunset, I might have even gotten into “Bad Little Kid.” I’m sure I’ll eventually come back around to this one, but after reading the first three Thomas Harris books in quick succession (of course there will be a post on that soon) and then getting into Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One I plan on actually diving into that Regulators/Desperation double feature I initially planned!

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