There are 13 stories in Stephen King's latest collection, Just After Sunset. As the title character of "N." knows, 13 is a bad number, and there's plenty of badness to go around for anyone with the misfortune to wander into King's world. The heroine of "The Gingerbread Girl" runs to escape her past, not knowing that worse horrors are waiting down the path; the hero of "Stationary Bike" learns that the road to health is paved by large men who don't take obsolescence lightly; a hitman takes on an unusual case in "The Cat From Hell"; and so on. Some escape, some don't, but even the luckiest don't get out without significant scarring.
When King announced his retirement from publishing a few years back, it was hard to take him seriously; he'd spent a good part of his writing career extolling the power of storytelling, and it's doubtful that any publisher with half a brain would let him fade into the sunset while his name still moved copies. When a new novel hit the stands, the lack of surprise was deafening, but those who mocked King for broken promises were missing the point. The intimate romance of Lisey's Story and the leisurely pacing of Duma Key show King at his most personal and playful. Both novels are the work of a writer with nothing left to prove.
The downside is that a lack of urgency can translate into self-indulgence; Lisey's Story suffered from unfocused plotting and clumsy language, and Duma spent its first two-thirds promising a climax that its final third singularly failed to deliver. Many of Sunset's stories (written between 2003 and 2008, except "Cat From Hell," a 1977 classic that's never appeared in a King collection) walk the line between experimental and underdeveloped, and too often they land on the debit side, with pieces like "Graduation Afternoon" and "The Things They Left Behind" being too slight or wandering to merit their subjects. Even worse is "Mute," a bizarre piece of wish-fulfillment that mistakes bitter contempt for black humor. Sunset's best selections favor pacing over mood, working off structures whose familiarity still leaves room for a few surprises. King hasn't forgotten how to set the hook; it's just that these days, he doesn't always take the time to reel it in.