Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stephen King: Four Past Midnight (1990)

Four Past Midnight is Stephen King's second collection of novellas, and it is a much weaker collection than the quartet of tales published in 1981's Different Seasons.

The stories in this volume are far less engaging. Only one of them really works as a novella; the other three might have been stronger as short stories.


King frames his introduction around a televised baseball game from late July 1989 between the Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox. Milwaukee's Robin Yount struck out against pitcher Roger Clemens in his first plate appearance, but then smacked a two-run double off Boston's left field wall his second time up. Yount made his debut in 1974, the same year King published his first novel, and King points out that despite their advancing ages - the announcers joke about how ancient Yount is (he was 33 at the time - both the player and writer still have what it takes.

The sentiment is nice, but the Clemens/Yount scenario never happened. Clemens pitched against the Brewers twice in 1989: June 27 in Milwaukee and September 30 in Boston. I looked at a game in late July 1988, and while Yount struck out against Clemens in his first at-bat, he ended the day 0-for-4. In fact, Yount drove in zero runs against Clemens in Boston in the four seasons from 1986-89.

The Langoliers

On a cross-country red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston, ten passengers wake up to find that everyone else on the once-crowded plane has disappeared (including the pilots and flight crew). One of the survivors is Brian Engle, a pilot for the airline, who was travelling to Boston for the funeral of his ex-wife. He lands the plane in Bangor, Maine, where the passengers try to make sense of the empty, dead-quiet surroundings. It turns out the plane travelled through a wrinkle in time and travelled back into the very recent past, where the empty world has been abandoned by the present. The passengers have to re-fuel the plane and retrace their flight pattern, going east to west, and hope to find that split in the space-time and return to the present day. The science fiction idea is not a bad one, and this tale feels a bit like a old Twilight Zone episode.

King is at his best, of course, when detailing the interactions between the passengers. This is another of King's novel(la)s in which he places a group of people in a confined space and sees how they interact (e.g., The Mist, Under The Dome).

Secret Window, Secret Garden

Continuing the theme of fiction's power of both Misery and The Dark Half, King asks: "What happens to the wide-eyed observer [i.e., a writer] when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?"

One autumn day, Mort Rainey answers the door of his upstate New York cottage and is confronted by John Shooter, a writer from Mississippi who claims Mort has plagiarized his work. "You stole my story ... and something has to be done." Shooter's story is nearly identical to one of Mort's, but Mort believes he can prove that his story was published before Shooter says he wrote his. However, that proof turns out to be far more elusive than expected. Meanwhile, Shooter begins terrorizing Mort, killing his cat and then (quite possibly) burning down the house Mort shared with his wife, from whom he has recently divorced. Mort makes a number of small decisions that end up leaving him no choice but to deal with Shooter by himself, without the help of the police, and as Shooter's reign of terror continues, Mort finds himself possibly framed for murder - and questioning his own sanity. King expertly charts Mort's psychological disintegration, keeping the reader slightly off balance as well.

The Library Policeman

Sam Peebles borrows two books from the local library in preparation for a public speaking appearance. Librarian Ardelia Lortz reminds him to return the books on time or face the wrath of the Library Policeman. Of course, Sam misplaces the books! He also learns that Ardelia actually died many years ago. The evil being masquerading as Ardelia is a shape-shifting being that feeds on the fear of children, much like the creature in It. This novella is really about overcoming adolescent fears and becoming a complete and whole adult. Sam must confront the repressed memory of sexual abuse outside the library when he was a young boy. Sam's story was compelling, but the story's framework was a little too silly to work as horror.

The Sun Dog

Kevin Delevan receives a Polaroid Sun 660 camera for his 15th birthday. However, no matter what Kevin tries to take a picture of, the photo that comes out is of a mangy black dog in front of a white picket fence. With the help of Pop Merrill, the owner of the junk/antique Emporium Glamorum, Kevin realizes that in each successive picture, the dog is turning and advancing angrily towards the camera. Kevin wants to destroy the camera, but Pop hopes to sell it. The camera begins to exert control over Pop, forcing him to continue taking pictures and bring the snarling beast closer and closer to breaking through the two-dimensional world of the photos and into the real world. This story is far too long, with several digressions that have nothing to do with the main plot.

Next: Needful Things.


Zenslinger said...

Yeah, this one doesn't really stick in the craw much.

laura k said...

The sentiment is nice, but the Clemens/Yount scenario never happened.

It's fiction.

laura k said...

Evil in the library, and a wrinkle in time! These all sound Twilight Zone-esque to me.

allan said...

The introduction should not be fiction!!

laura k said...

The introduction should not be fiction!!

Tell that to Philip Roth. I get your point, but everything between the covers can be fiction.