Many writers can set up suspenseful situations as well as Stephen King; there are many whose prose and dialogue have incidental beauties that you never expect from his workmanlike approach to such things. What you go to King for is partly his capacity to create and maintain not only suspense but unpleasantness, and that fascination with what one character here calls "the dark fuckery" of the human heart: that sense of just how far people can and will go, which his situations exemplify in depth.
In his intelligent populist way, King knows some grim truths about quite ordinary people. To display these truths, his aliens, vampires and rabid dogs are primarily handy plot devices, much as he enjoys making them plausible. The three good stories in this quartet are those in which there is no supernatural element. The weakest story by far is the gimmicky deal-with-the-devil "Fair Extension" - though that does have interesting things to say about the way it is not enough to succeed or survive, but important to see others fail.
King has always had an impressive eye for detail. One of the reasons why the three long stories here work so well is that the places where Bad Things happen are solidly imagined. His near-obsessive use of brand names – what cars characters drive, what cereals they eat – is only partly a matter of social markers. They give authority – we don't need to know what it means that a character drives a Chevrolet Suburban, but King makes us trust that he does, and that trust is an important part of the texture of his work and our response.
Two of these stories – "Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage" - are about women, one who survives and avenges rape and attempted murder, and one who discovers that her husband of many years is a serial killer. The rape victim is a writer of cosy crime novels who finds herself in quite another sort of story, but copes; the wife someone who wants to keep her suburban life intact and so does what has to be done. In both stories, King's attempt to identify with female protagonists derives from that sense of managing stuff – changing in order to remain as much as possible the same.
Perhaps the most impressive story is "1922", about someone who refuses to change or bend and destroys everything he cares about. Wilfred's wife wants to sell their farm, in 1922, and move to the city where she can have a life that is not just about looking after him. Wilfred comes to hate her, and decides to kill her, and recruits their son. Before he is done, he has lost everything, including his mind. King inflicts on his anti-hero an escalating series of misfortunes that never becomes melodramatically gratuitous. This is a tour de force of one damned thing leading to another – and rats that start as real, and shade into symbolic delusion.
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