Four Past Midnight by Stephen King was first published in 1990. It’s a collection of King’s most consistent form: the novella. King has often been criticized for having weak endings, The Stand and Under the Dome commonly assigned as exhibit A and exhibit B, which is why I believe his novellas are so good. They’re not so long as to require tidy and complete endings, but not too short as to stunt King’s excellent prose and atmosphere-building.
Following in the footsteps of Different Seasons, that glorious work that gave us Shawshank Redemption, Four Past Midnight is also a collection of four novellas, but unlike that first anthology, all four of these stories can be firmly categorized as horror. For this review we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the stories in the order they appear.
“The Langoliers” is the strongest story out of the bunch. The premise: on a nighttime flight from Los Angeles to Boston several passengers wake up to discover everyone else has disappeared; everyone that wasn’t sleeping when it happened. They explore the plane and realize that while the people have gone, their belongings have remained. Dentures, purses, earbuds, fillings, and other miscellaneous items litter the seats.
The idea behind this story is fantastic, blending horror with sci-fi while showcasing King’s unparalleled imagination. Filling this incredible plot are engaging and realistic characters, including a blind girl, a British MI5 agent, and a dude who really needs to get to a meeting. This diverse cast of characters gives King the opportunity to explore the best and worst of humanity, giving us a compact yet thrilling and emotionally draining story with a sensational and uplifting ending.
Secret Window, Secret Garden
Following the best is the worst. Frankly speaking, this story was weak, and I can’t help but suspect that’s because Fight Club is a thing. Perhaps I deserved to be slapped for saying that, since this story came out before Palahniuk’s, but that novel was just so good at what it did, it seems no other story even has the right to use that plot twist.
This story is about a writer who begins to be harassed by a stranger accusing him of plagiarism. The story is decent and holds together, but far below what King can do. It seems this story was catered for writers, as the paranoia and fears was specifically tailored to get to writers and those involved with the craft of writing. I considered this one to be a bump in the road, and thankfully the awesomeness picks up again immediately.
The Library Policeman
I was never told of the library policemen (the ones who come chasing after you for overdue books), but then again I live in Canada, where the police state is generally asked politely to stay away. Nevertheless, this story was extremely stressful.
At a certain point in your life, you think you pass the age where monsters can scare you. It’s not that we learn they’re not real, but we simply outgrow them (and yeah, I’m willing to argue those are two different things). Kids are scared by things they don’t understand or have control over, and imaginary monsters definitely falls into that category, but these types of fears never truly go away; it’s just that the monsters take on different forms. However, this story contains a pair of literal monsters that are downright horrifying.
It’s not that the Library Policeman is intimidating because of its nature, but because of what it represents for our hero. Within this story is a delicate theme that remains somewhat of a soft-spoken topic out here in real life, and King treats the subject with mature respect and fear, and a satisfying punch in the face. For the squeamish, this will easily be the most offensive story in the collection, but for those who can plow through it, this is a powerful story of facing your fears and overcoming trauma.
Interestingly, I couldn’t help but feel that Ardelia Lortz was a second prototype of Pennywise the Clown, if not a distant relative. Both antagonists have a similar gimmick, but I love It so much that I don’t mind a second helping. Oh yeah, my review might be a bit biased by the way.
The Sun Dog
Although this wasn’t the best and it wasn’t the worst, “The Sun Dog” was the story I was most looking forward to talking about. It follows a kid who receives a polaroid camera for his birthday. He soon finds out that the camera is only capable of printing the same picture over and over again: a huge black dog with its back to the camera facing a white picket fence on a sidewalk.
King once talked about three distinct types of scary: the gross-out, horror, and terror. This story has all three of them. The terror comes at the beginning, with the camera that can only take a single mysterious picture. This was my favourite part of the story; the eeriness was effective because even though we don’t use polaroids anymore, we still take pictures, and there is still something inherently mysterious about taking pictures (especially polaroid cameras and their grainy pictures) to induce a sense of unease. The horror occurs when the dog eventually jumps from the polaroid into reality, and the gross-out is the dog’s first victim, good ole’ Pop who was only trying to make an extra buck. I want to talk about the horror.
While I liked this story much more than I did “Secret Window, Secret Garden”, I actually skipped most of the ending because it was boring. Prior to that, the description of the dog busting out of the camera was amazing; I could see the camera warping and contorting with my mind’s eye, and Pop’s hands melting as he held it. Unfortunately, that was the turning point of the scene. It was obvious how the protagonist was going to prevail in that situation, and all sense of suspense (trippy phrase bro) evaporated. It was disappointing because the buildup to the horror in this one is fantastic.
There’s something to be learned here; horror can only go so far when you’re trying to immerse readers in the real world. If the monster is unstoppable, then what’s the point of the story? If the monster has an obvious Achilles’ heel, we know what the ending will be. Give us too much detail and you risk making the situation goofy. Too little and we’re not sure what to be afraid of. Different writers have solved this problem in different ways. Lovecraft had his terrible gods, eternally unknowable and incomprehensible. John Carpenter had The Thing, which was a terrifying creature with terrifying abilities placed in a terrifying situation. It’s all about balance; you gotta give a little to get a little. “The Sun Dog” tried too hard to be horrifying, and it sacrificed suspense as a result. While I praised King’s novellas as being a cure for his bad endings (from time to time), this is one story that missed its dose.
Definitely worth a read! I recommend it to all King fans and fans of horror. Those outside of these two categories will definitely want to stay away. The prose is great, the characters are good, and the ideas are wonderful, despite their goal in trying to conjure up some nasty images and dreams.
The reason I’ve been reviewing King lately is because I found something of a garage sale on kijiji; there was a lot of Stephen King hardcovers and I couldn’t resist. I’m trying not to read them all back-to-back. No matter how much you love it, repetition will make it boring, no matter what it is, so I will be putting other books in between on my reading list.
However, you can indeed look forward to more King reviews in the future.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading!