There is an old Family Guy cutaway which depicts Stephen King meeting with his publisher to pitch his next novel. Obviously desperate for an idea, King quickly looks around the office and grabs the publisher's desk lamp. "So this family gets attacked by . . . a lamp monster! Ooooh!" he waves his hands, trying to convey the scariness and shock of his laughably bad offering. Of course the skit is satirizing King's prolificacy. The publisher sighs, defeated, and asks when he can have the manuscript.
Four Past Midnight feels a little like that. None of these stories quite plummet to the lows of an evil, murderous lamp come to life . . . but this is not King on his A-game. These stories were written in the late '80s, when SK was getting off alcohol and drugs; that can have a huge impact on a person's life — especially a person who has to live up to the expectations of millions. King once said of this time period that everything he wrote "fell apart like wet tissue paper," and that self-consciousness and unease is very evident here. The writing is clunky and oft-uninspired; few of the characters come alive. The excellent characterization is why I pay the price of admission. Even if the story gets bloated and the ending disappoints, King's characters are typically reliable. Not so here.
In essence, it feels like King studied what worked best earlier in his career and incorporated those elements into the novellas, with diminished results. We have the small band of survivors fighting for life against an apocalyptic setting a'la The Stand and The Mist (The Langoliers), a psychic child (again, The Langoliers), the tortured writer (Secret Window, Secret Garden), repressed childhood memories/using the innocence of childhood to fight a shape-shifting monster (The Library Policeman) and a boring-as-shit Castle Rock tale about a murderous dog (The Sun Dog). All of these stories feel like they're stuck in tired, been-there-done-that territory; I almost never accuse King of repeating himself, but this collection is nothing but reheated leftovers of plot points from earlier, better novels and novellas.
My ratings for each story are as follows:
The Langoliers: 3
Secret Window, Secret Garden: 4
The Library Policeman: 3
The Sun Dog: 1
That puts the average at 2.75, which rounds up to 3. This is a totally average book. <i>Secret Window, Secret Garden</i> is easily the best of the lot; I don't care to ever reread the others.
The Langoliers features a shout-out to The Shop.
Secret Window, Secret Garden partially takes place in Derry; The Sun Dog takes place in Castle Rock. Both towns are, of course, very important to the King universe.
“'I'm not taking that,' Mort said, and part of him was marvelling at what a really accommodating beast a man was: when someone held something out to you, your first instinct was to take it. No matter if it was a check for a thousand dollars or a stick of dynamite with a lit and fizzing fuse, your first instinct was to take it.”