There Was Magical Thinking; There Was Also Magical Doing

(“The Gingerbread Girl”, Just After Sunset)

I had that strange experience with Just After Sunset — the one where I know I’ve read this book, I am pretty sure that I owned a hard copy of this book at some point and read it immediately upon acquiring it, as I do with most Stephen King books (and most books, really). But for the most part, I didn’t remember the stories. Which is so strange. I guess this is just one of the short story collections I haven’t gone back to multiple times like I do with most of them. If I remember correctly, I had that book during a time period when we were moving a lot. I certainly don’t have it now. So what probably happened is that it got lost somewhere between moves and I just never replaced it until I bought the e-book for this project.

I also don’t think that this is King’s strongest short story collection — which didn’t stop it from being a good read. I’ll go through some of the highlights.

“Willa”. Where do you go after you die? What do you do? And do you know that you’re dead and doing dead people things? That’s what this story is about. It’s an interesting question — especially since it’s one that can’t really be answered, none of us knows. My personal feeling is that nothing happens after death, which is maybe why stories like this one don’t hit me so hard or stick in my brain. Still, it’s a fun exploration of a difficult idea.

“The Gingerbread Girl”. This one I did recognize, only because I’ve seen it mentioned or quoted over the years and had to look it up, thinking I missed one. I know it when I see it, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t stick in my brain. It’s more thriller than horror, I guess — what it really comes down to is “bad guy chases woman”. And woman triumphs in the end, largely because of her single-minded focus on running. It isn’t bad — it will definitely keep you on the edge of your seat while you’re reading. But like I said, it doesn’t stick with me.

“Stationary Bike”. I like this one a lot. I’ve been working on trying to get back in shape myself over the past few years, which is maybe why it grabs me. I have the same issue with a lot of exercises that the main character has — it’s boring. There’s no point to it. I mean, yes, I guess getting in shape or healthier is a larger goal, but that doesn’t happen at the end of any one given treadmill or stationary bike or elliptical session. It’s a long, slow process that mostly feels like you’re going nowhere for no reason. If I could paint (and fit an exercise machine in my house) I might also choose to paint myself actually going somewhere — I can see how that would help. I probably wouldn’t dream up a bunch of lipid workmen — but that’s why I read this stuff. Now that the idea is in my head, I might use that too. Anyway, I think this story comes down to “everything in moderation”. Getting in shape is good, sure, but becoming a gym rat who does nothing but count macros and lift weight is not ideal. Do the exercise… but also have seconds or a piece of cake now and then. I like that.

“The Things They Left Behind”. This is King’s attempt to tackle 9/11. If you’re old enough to remember it, you’re old enough to know what a sore spot it is… but that’s what makes it so fascinating to explore in fiction. And I feel like that’s something that doesn’t happen a lot. This kind of makes me want to see King tackle the aftermath of COVID. I know he’s already done a pandemic book — but it’s the general messed-up-ness of the population I’m interested in thinking about. I remember how screwed up we all were after 9/11. And how long it lasted, even here where I am (not at all in close proximity to Ground Zero). We’ve lost so many more people to this stupid virus. Even more are plagued with Long Covid. Being the survivor of all that is hard on a person, especially when you’re close to people who died or were hurt. And there’s all the attendant denial/anti-vaxxers/conspiracies/craziness. I know how frustrated it makes me to listen to people still claiming it’s not real, or touting weird cures, or claiming it’s some kind of purposefully-weaponized infection, or so on. And I have neither been sick nor lost anyone to it, that I know of (possibly one family death at the beginning of the pandemic was COVID-related, but I have no proof of that and will never know for sure). How must it feel to be struggling with Long COVID and mourning one or more lost loved ones and hear all this stuff? I think there’s a story there.

“N.” Absolutely the scariest story in the book and I had nightmares after reading it. It’s an exploration of OCD, sure, but it’s also Lovecraftian-style horror. And the two things come together in a way that gave me chills and kept me up the night I finished it. If you read nothing else from this book, read “N.”

“A Very Tight Place.” This one struck me as kind of weird. Mostly the witchcraft-obsessed homophobic villain of the piece. I couldn’t decide if he read like a caricature or if hateful folks are so blatant, mean, and irrational these days that he was right on the button. Maybe it was a little of both? Because guys like these seem intent on turning themselves into caricatures of themselves anyway. It was tense and fun to read, though. And I enjoyed our main character’s job of thinking his way out of his predicament. I also liked that his revenge was mostly just letting the villain’s life suck as much as it was going to anyway.

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