You Like It Darker is a Wondrous Collage of Stephen King Storytelling

Books Reviews Stephen King
You Like It Darker is a Wondrous Collage of Stephen King Storytelling

For all his success as a novelist, Stephen King has never lost his love of short stories, or his advocacy for short-form writing as a powerful vehicle for horror fiction. It would be easy to let such a skill grow stale, or at least turn wistful with age as King remembers the early years when short story sales were often what kept his family afloat, but in collection after collection, the legendary horror master just keeps revealing that he’s in it for more than a quick jolt of nostalgia. The engine of his imagination still thrives in this space, and You Like It Darker is proof.

King’s latest collection—his twelfth over the last five decades, and third in 10 years—collects a dozen stories, many of them brand-new to King readers, which cross genres, styles, and concerns to reveal a broad and vivid tapestry of the legend’s interests. They run the gamut from novella-length supernatural fiction and Southern Gothic glimpses to high-concept ventures into the unknown. In “The Turbulence Expert,” King imagines a world in which uniquely gifted individuals keep troubled planes in the sky. In “The Red Screen,” he shows us alien conspiracies by way of marital tribulation. In “The Fifth Step,” we get a brief peek into a particularly dark addiction recovery journey, while “On Slide Inn Road” offers a nod to the fiction of Flannery O’Connor with its grotesque depiction of backroads mayhem. 

Whether he’s working over the course of just 10 pages or pushing things into novella territory (another shorter form fiction space in which he’s always prospered), King’s present-day concerns are made plain by the themes he’s mining. “Two Talented Bastids,” the collection’s opening story, is both a reflection on the mercurial nature of creativity and a depiction of the ways in which aging opens us up to new possibilities. “Willie the Weirdo” focuses, through the eyes of one very strange child, on the darkness of mortality and a pure confrontation with impending death. “The Answer Man,” the book’s closer, plays with our own attempts to lay out a clear future for the ones we love and explores how destiny warps the longer we try to stare it in the face. 

The effectiveness of these stories, of course, varies, as does King’s approach to each of their thematic concerns, sometimes horrific, sometimes fantastical. In some, he’s playing with tones that remind the reader of Ray Bradbury, in others Richard Matheson, and in still more, John Cheever, all masters of the form. King too, is a master of the short story, and the sheer variety of textures and tones he’s playing with in this book, however tentatively in some cases, is proof of that expert level of skill.

Of all the stories in You Like It Darker, though, two stand apart as centerpieces. The longest story in the collection, the 150-page “Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream,” is an ambitious balance between paranoia and wonder, following one mind’s strange journey after a psychic flash puts him at the center of a murder mystery. Like The Outsider, it is an attempt to marry the supernatural with the very real threat of false accusations, and while it doesn’t work as well as that novel, the scope of it, and the depths of tension into which King dives, make it memorable.

Then there’s “Rattlesnakes.” Teased previously in interviews as a kind of sequel to his classic novel Cujo, the story follows a character from that book as he heads out to the Florida Keys (King’s home away from home) and finds himself at the center of a ghost story built on a legendary local tragedy. Like Cujo, it’s a heady mix of emotional turmoil, vivid terror, and pure visceral power, and in a collection full of good ideas, it’s the one that stands out the most.

At an age when another author might busy himself with pushing out old stories long since locked away in a drawer or retreading his past successes, Stephen King is still writing with the giddy abandon of scribes half his age, and more than anything else, You Like It Darker is evidence of that joy. It’s at times uneven, but its highs are very high, and perhaps more importantly, it succeeds as a collage built by one of modern fiction’s greatest imaginations. King’s drive, his dynamism, and his delight in chilling us to our bones are all on display here, and that’s more than enough to make this book essential to King fans and short story lovers alike.

You Like It Darker is available now wherever books are sold.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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