Wednesday, October 14, 2009

King of the Big What If

For years, whenever people would ask for a good teenage introduction to Stephen King I would suggest Different Seasons without hesitation. The collection of four novellas includes "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil," "The Body," and "Breathing Lessons" which is a great way to experience the breadth of King's ability to tell a story. Or it used to be until I read his recent collection of short stories entitled Just After Sunset.

For many, King is one of the modern masters of horror and suspense, but beneath the genre is solid storytelling that rests heavily on explorations of The Big What If. Every Stephen King story is built on one idea and explored down the avenues he chooses to travel.

In Just After Sunset The Big What If could be what goes through the mind of a recent graduate in the moments leading up to a major American city being engulfed in a mushroom cloud. Or What If, at a roadside rest stop, you heard a domestic dispute nearby and had an alter ego that could possibly intervene, what would you do? And What If miscellaneous items appeared in your home and seemed to be transmitting images of their former owners in their final moments? Would you keep those items or try to find a way to return them?

In the introduction, Stephen King talks about how he'd been writing fewer and fewer short stories in the 80s and 90s. When asked to edit The Best American Short Stories a few years back King suddenly got the bug to write stories again and this collection is the result. Some of these stories are shorter than others – a few pages versus dozens of pages – all of them packed enough with solid storytelling to be a book in themselves.

As a warning, these stories do carry with them some adult themes, occasional language, and violence. Nothing any teen whose seen his share of movies would find too shocking, and certainly nothing they should be kept from reading, but I sometimes find people want to know these things in advance. What Stephen King does well is get under a reader's skin and he does this by understanding what and how things get under our skins. As a chronicler of our modern psyche he sometimes unearths some pretty dark aspects of humanity, but he wraps it up in some sturdy writing that gives readers a chance to really think about and feel these things.

I still like the Different Seasons collection, but I think Just After Sunset is my new go-to introduction for teens looking for an entry into the world of Stephen King.

Just After Sunset
by Stephen King
Scribner 2009

Different Seasons
by Stephen King


Becker said...

Ok, I've been wondering about this one. Think I'll try the audio, hopefully the stories will translate well to that format. Thanks!

Ryan Potter said...

Man, I'm so glad you reviewed this book and take the time to recommend King to teens, whether it be DIFFERENT SEASONS or this new collection (which I can't wait to read, by the way).

I discovered King when I was in ninth grade (1985-86) and his BAG OF BONES collection still "gets under my skin" today. The guy blew me away from page one and made me want to be a writer.

I worry that teens today, especially guys, are losing touch with King because of the age gap. Hopefully, reviews on a site like this will allow younger readers to enter the world of a true master.

Colleen said...

It remains one of the seminal books of my teen years and I return to it often just to be reminded of how good King is. (Although I still wish the ending had been a bit different.)

I've been avoiding storm drains and clowns since I was in high school - good advice for any kid to learn!

david elzey said...

My wife saw my review and decided to bump it to the top of her pile. "Even his introduction is great reading," she said.

I think King suffers from his own exposure. Many people *think* they know what he's all about – maybe based on the movie adaptations of his books, or by reputation – and so people tend to assume they've seen it all before, or at least think they have.

As for the "age gap" you're talking about Ryan, yeah, probably. But I also suspect that many adults (teachers, librarians, parents) either don't take King seriously as "good writing" or they think the subject matter inappropriate.