I’m on a slow trek through Stephen King’s oeuvre, and have a friend who likes to buddy read the long volumes with me; our latest adventure featured the novella collection Four Past Midnight, which rings in at over 930 pages (in the edition I read from, at least). As always, King’s writing has some issues, but we both really liked these plots! I’ll break it down here story by story, in the order they’re printed. Several (maybe all?) are available individually bound outside of this original collection.
The Langoliers – 3 stars.
In this novella, a pilot lands after a white-knuckle flight only to be given the news that something has happened to his ex-wife; he boards another plane, this time as a passenger, to make the journey from west coast US to east. While in the air, a few passengers fall quickly asleep, only to wake over the Rocky Mountains and realize that the majority of the people on the plane have vanished, including the pilot and copilot. Luckily there’s a spare. But things get weirder as our hero tries to communicate with the ground and navigate a safe landing- to fare better than their missing counterparts, they’ll have to do a bit more than touch back down.
This story gets off to a great start as soon as the eventful flight is under way- there’s plenty of suspense and intriguing surprises as the waking passengers try to ascertain their situation. For a few chapters I was on the edge of my seat, even saying “WHAT?” aloud a few times, completely hooked and wondering what would happen next. But the pace slows down in the second half as the characters piece things together and take their sweet time explaining revelations to each other despite time being of the essence. Classic King, indulging in the details to draw the story out longer than necessary at every point. There are also too many main characters and the women, as usual, are characterized poorly (the two adult women seem to exist to provide assistance and romance for the men; the younger girl seems present only to further the plot with a sixth sense). The execution could have used a little work, but the concept is solid, the action scenes aren’t bad, and it’s fun to guess who will live or die. I expect this story would make for great visuals, and it looks like there is a mini-series from 1995, though I haven’t seen it and I’m not sure a film that old (sorry) would do it the justice I imagine a more current adaptation would be capable of.
“But grownups did not believe children, especially not blind children, even more especially not blind girl children. She wanted to tell them they couldn’t stay here, that it wasn’t safe to stay here, that they had to start the plane up and get going again. But what would they say? Okay, sure, Dinah’s right, everybody back on the plane? No way.”
Secret Window, Secret Garden – 4 stars.
In this novella, a recently divorced writer is making a permanent home out of the summer house by the lake he once shared with his ex-wife. He’s been struggling to write and spending most of his time blissfully asleep. But things get complicated when a man shows up on his doorstep with accusations of plagiarism. The two decide to handle the matter between themselves- the writer claims to have proof that he came to it first, and the accuser hangs around quietly menacing him and voicing disbelief. Chaos ensues when the proof proves hard to come by and no one can back up the writer’s tale of a loony false-accuser showing up where he doesn’t belong. (CW: pet violence)
Despite the fact that modern applications of the internet essentially make every detail of this story’s main conflict completely obsolete, it’s a great piece. Perhaps even one of my all-time Stephen King favorites. The psychological horrors always seem to work a little better for me than flashy supernatural twists. This is at heart the story of a writer having a breakdown, worrying about a threat to his career that’s out of his control and dealing with the emotional upheaval of his wife leaving him for another man. The first sentence hooks the reader in, and the tension builds at a perfect pace from start to finish (discounting the epilogue). There is some of the usual sexism/misogyny from King, but because of the story’s focus on the writer’s mental state it’s fairly easy to attribute those remarks to a questionable character rather than pinning them on King.
My only complaints are that the story feels incredibly dated (a magazine has to be mailed to prove publication, the MC has a landline with no answering machine, the accuser must drive out of state to confront the MC rather than simply finding him on the internet, etc.), and that the epilogue is comprised of one character giving a monologue to another to explain what has happened, with a small and unnecessary supernatural twist thrown in right at the end that (in my opinion) detracts slightly from the brilliant psychological conflict laid out through the rest of the story. I’d highly recommend this one, and remember enjoying the 2004 film feat. Johnny Depp, though it’s been almost that long since I’ve seen it!
The Library Policeman – 4 stars.
In this novella, an insurance businessman is wrangled into giving a speech on short notice. He knows his way around the topic, but wants to spice up the speech with some jokes, and makes a trip to the library for some tips and examples to improve his piece. He has an oddly sinister experience there, with the building itself (and its decor) seeming designed to frighten, and the librarian giving him a snappy argument when he asks about it. She warns him to return the books on time or face the “library police,” who punish late returns. Of course he misses the due date, and turns to friends who’ve been in town (and used the library) longer than he has for information on the woman who threatened him and the nature of the eerie library policeman, which leads to a little supernatural battle over the unreturned books. (CW: molestation; graphic and on-page)
I had more issues with the writing choices in this one, not the least of which was the totally unnecessary detailed account of a child molestation. Additionally, the way alcoholics are presented and addressed is unpleasant and surprisingly problematic considering King himself was battling alcoholism around this time. I was also incredibly frustrated that in a town of 35,000 people one woman with a business degree is considered “the town’s entire secretarial pool,” as though women go to business school to become secretaries for men who need someone to TYPE UP THEIR CORRESPONDENCE, and as though only one woman out of 35,000 would 1) be capable of this strenuous task or 2) go through business school. The MC also *repeatedly* calls her by a nickname she *repeatedly* asks him not to, and eventually turns her into the (again unnecessary) love interest. Then there’s the fact that this MC will not take responsibility for losing his library books- sure, that can happen accidentally, and no one should be killed for it, but instead of once acknowledging that the books were in his possession and were lost while he was responsible for keeping track of them, which indicates that the fault does lie with him, he blames the man who collected his recycling and the library (specifically the librarian) for holding him to such a “unreasonable” rule as a due date. (Rant over.)
In spite of the flaws, I did actually have a great time with this plot. This is another one that King manages to pace well, with the tension gradually building and small incidents along the way keeping the reader’s attention rapt. The villain is a delightful mashup of Pennywise from It (which was published a few years prior) and the creature from The Outsider (which was published just a few years ago); she is a unique monster, but exists/operates under very similar rules to the two mentioned. One of the things I find most fascinating about King’s work is seeing ideas recycled and repurposed throughout the years, so this was an interesting blend. There was even a great quote linking the villain here to both other books, which I’ll include below. And speaking of quotes, we also get an amusing moment in the dialogue when the librarian states that she has never and will never read a Stephen King novel. Perhaps best of all, the library policeman is actually an intersection of two horrors the MC is experiencing, one the present sci-fi element, one a past trauma. This ties the supernatural element into a psychological horror, and the dual nature of it strengthens both aspects. As an added bonus, this story takes place in my home state (Iowa), a deviation from King’s typical Maine settings. Other than the fact that most Iowans would probably laugh at King calling a 35,000 person town “small” and “unable to support two libraries,” it wasn’t a bad representation.
“There’s somethin not human, some it hidden inside her skin, and I think I always knew that. It’s inside… but it’s forever an outsider.”
The Sun Dog – 3 stars.
In this novella, a boy receives a much-anticipated Polaroid camera for his fifteenth birthday. He’s thrilled, until he realizes that no matter where he aims the lens, it only produces pictures of one thing: a mangy dog standing in front of a white fence. He recognizes neither the dog nor the fence nor the surrounding yard, and after using all of his film hoping for a different result, takes the camera to a local fix-it man with a bad reputation, as a last resort. Together they discover that the pictures of the dog are in fact slightly different, and when put together show a slow progression. The inevitable conclusion looks disastrous, but the boy and the fix-it man disagree on what should be done with the portent-of-doom camera, which will have frightening consequences. (CW: spoilers for Cujo within the text)
This one has such an eerie atmosphere that I really wanted to love it. But there are a number of bad “jokes” in the narration (involving a plane crash in Pakistan, the devastation of Hiroshima, a black woman doing yard work [she is called a “marvelous creature” for never speaking], and a set of rich old [women] twins who are shamed for expecting guests to pronounce their names properly [the narration gives them degrading nicknames used behind their backs]). As for plot, there is that annoying trope where the protagonist learns something through magical dreams, as well as several details with the supernatural element that seemed rushed or altogether unaddressed that I would’ve loved to see explored further (like who is holding the camera taking pictures of the dog, and how are the images being sent to the boy’s camera? Why him?). Furthermore, the MC makes a decision toward the end that seems illogical, and useful only in drawing the plot into a more dramatic (read: deadly) conclusion. I loved the concept of this story but was frequently frustrated.
‘The Sun Dog” is set in Castle Rock, one of the fictional Maine towns King frequently returns to in his writing. Some readers prefer to read the Castle Rock books in order, and even if you’re not planning on reading all 17 novels, novellas, and short stories set there, you may want to consider that “The Sun Dog” is the second volume in a loose Castle Rock trilogy, which starts with The Dark Half and ends with Needful Things. I’ve read neither yet, so I can say that “The Sun Dog” can be read alone just fine, but I can’t tell you based on my own experience whether it’s worth reading the trilogy together in chronological order. I’ll leave that up to you.
I expect at this point that I will always find King’s writing problematic. Tasteless and ignorant bits of characterization and narration has unfortunately become par for his course. I think it’s worth noting where King’s writing fails, if we are to go on celebrating what he does well. And he does do some things well. Even though I had complaints here, I still found each of these plots enjoyable, the concepts duly horrifying and thought-provoking, and the lengths very suitable to King’s storytelling style. The pacing is great in 3 of the 4, all are suspenseful reads, and as a collection they strike a great balance between King’s strengths with sci-fi and psychological horrors, without going overboard on either. I think all of these novellas will be memorable for me, and with the caveat of wanting readers to know what negatives to expect from these stories I would recommend them all to readers looking for shorter works of King’s to pick up.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My actual average rating was 3.5, but I’m rounding down based on how it holds up against other books I’ve rated 3 or 4 stars in the past. I’m looking forward to checking out more of King’s shorter pieces in the future. My SK buddy reading friend and I are leaning toward Different Seasons (another collection of novellas) next.
Thanks for sticking with me, if you made it this far!
The Literary Elephant