Four Past Midnight is a wonderful collection of four ‘short’ novels Stephen King wrote in the late ’80s. They include the Langoliers, a light-hearted adventure romp that revels in its own ridiculousness; Secret Window, Secret Garden, the closing of a thematic trilogy King wrote about the power of storytelling; the Library Policeman, in which a man is haunted by his childhood fears, traumas, and a monster feeding on the emotional turmoil of children; and the Sun Dog, a lead-in to Castle Rock’s final moments in Needful Things, and in which a demonic monster works its way across dimensions through a Polaroid camera.
Most of the four novels are wonderful, among my favorite work from Stephen King even under the weight of their own cheesiness and fluff, particularly…
Despite having never read this before, every beat of the Langoliers was familiar and comfortable. I grew up with the ’90s TV miniseries — awful largely from hammy acting and corny special effects — and loved it despite its faults. It’s also, despite those faults, remarkably close to the novella. Most of the dialogue and the pacing seemed unaffected by the translation between mediums.
Mr. Toomey, one of King’s strongest, most developed villains, still gives the same screaming rants, pulls the same delusional stunts; Bob Jenkins, a mystery writer, still lectures the the logic of the plot to both other characters and the readers, forcing banal exposition; the Dinah, a young blind girl, is still the same prescient and wise pre-teen (whose disability gives her magic powers) as seen in many other Stephen King stories.
The Langoliers, about a plane that flies through a thinny (a la the Dark Tower) into a frozen fragment of the past, is corny, unbelievable, and amazingly fun. Even knowing the answers to the mystery of the empty Bangor International Airport our passengers find themselves in, I wasn’t any less fascinated by the decaying world or the approaching balls of razor-teeth and hair, or in watching our passengers try to escape with their lives both from the langoliers and Mr. Toomey’s collapsing mental state.
If I have one complaint, it’s that most characters don’t speak like real people. Much of the dialogue is exposition, boring explanations and logical debates over what is going on around them. The magic of this story is in the monsters, not the people.
Secret Window, Secret Garden
Secret Window, Secret Garden is Stephen King’s final attempt at the trials and tribulations of being a writer, of the horrors that the writing process itself invokes. The Dark Half tackled the same concept just a year earlier (but in a more on-the-nose fashion, with lots of blood and guts and murder). Misery came first, and remains the most successful of the ‘trilogy.’
Author Mort Rainey (i.e., Stephen King) is struggling with his writing amidst an ugly divorce. He’s still stuck on the spite that divorce inspired in him: He lashes out at everyone, blames others for his problems, an spends a lot of his time depressed, napping, and otherwise hiding from the world. He’s not pleasant.
A stranger shows up on his doorstep with a damning accusation: Mort Rainey plagiarized a story from him years earlier. This stranger, John Shooter, never published this story, making how Mort Rainey could have plagiarized it suspect. (This is based on a real incident from Stephen King’s life.) Regardless of the proof Rainey offers for his ownership of the story, Shooter’s actions quickly escalate and he starts removing evidence and threatening the lives of Rainey’s family.
This is the closest King feels he came to telling the story right — the story of the writing process — but it’s not perfect, and still feels fairly slim. (Misery’s still the best attempt.) The ending, differing wildly from the movie, is sudden and unsatisfying, not quite living up to the atmosphere of the prior 150 pages. Still, that atmosphere was foreboding and addictive, and a step above the Dark Half, which told the same story with three times as many pages and cliches.
The Library Policeman
King states in the introduction that he started the Library Policeman as a black comedy, and it devolved into horror naturally. I wouldn’t say the transition is necessarily natural — it seems like a jarring and confusing genre switch — but it provides a unique charm to the story. Library Policeman‘s silly, at points, and moves from being a light-hearted love story wrapped in a ridiculous concept of childhood spooks (the library police of the title, coming after Sam Peebles for not returning his books on time) into some of King’s darkest and most demented horror he’s ever written.
The transition is so disturbing, this story is often regarded with loathing by Stephen King fans. Without spoilers, I thought the mystery of the library policeman unraveled exceptionally.
It was disturbing, though, particularly ‘the scene’ that makes this story so maligned. Far more-so than Pet Sematary, often regarded as one of King’s scariest and most violent.
The meat of the story follows Sam Peebles, who offers to give a speech to a drunken community gathering at the last minute. Without any experience in public speaking, he visits the local library for the first time to check out some helpful books from an eerie librarian. He loses the books, misses the return deadline, and suddenly finds himself followed the librarian and her policeman. It sounds ridiculous, but: Wow. A disturbing town history of hidden murders and monsters (and a lot of ties to King’s greater mythology around It and the Dark Tower) quickly unravels.
The Sun Dog
The Sun Dog is a wonderful idea that devolves into predictable gore and guts. The story of a cursed Polaroid camera, printing only photos in slow motion of a demonic, mangy dog (a la Cujo, also set in Castle Rock) lunging towards the photographer is deeply unsettling and mysterious — but the end result is disappointing given the setup.
Like the Library Policeman, the narrative feels uncertain of itself, and it switches perspectives and directions halfway through. We stop following the hero, Kevin, who received the camera for his 14th birthday, and instead focus on the camera’s next owner, the anti-hero Pop Merrill — a selfish but quick-witted miser and wannabe mafioso. Like many of King’s more shallow villains, he’s a misogynistic piece of dirt who, when he’s not bullying people into servitude, spends his free time thinking about sexually punishing every woman in sight or watching porn on a dirty couch in a dirty apartment.
Pop Merrill’s interesting when he’s painted as both good and bad, looking out for the people of Castle Rock by getting them to punish themselves for their own vices; but when we start peeling away his layers, when we see he’s as shallow and evil as can be, I didn’t want to read about him or his attempts to unlock the camera’s secrets. He was boring, evil, and his ultimate fate could be seen a mile away: Unlike with the Library Policeman, once the style and tone of the Sun Dog shifts focus to Pop Merrill, the story loses its mystery.
The first half was as wonderful as the prior novellas; the concluding half as disappointing as any stereotypical King ending. The events of the Sun Dog lead into Needful Things, ‘the last Castle Rock story’ published in 1991 — not the camera itself (which is alluded to), but the characters and the disasters of this book are discussed at length by surviving family.
I was sad to see this as the closing novella in an otherwise strong collection. The Sun Dog wasn’t bad, mind you, just a few steps back from the magic of the Library Policeman or the Langoliers.