Bev Vincent explores You Like it Darker by Stephen King

Stephen King News From the Dead Zone

“Lack of belief is the curse of intelligence”

It’s a short story collection. No, it’s a novella collection. No, it’s two…two…two things in one! OK, you have to be really old to get that reference to an old Certs commercial. They don’t even make Certs anymore, I’m displeased to discover.

Anyhow, You Like It Darker is a hybrid of two types of books we’ve come to expect from Stephen King. It’s a collection of the seven short stories published since The Bazaar of Bad Dreams but it also contains five brand-new long works ranging from a novelette (“The Dreamers”) to novellas (“The Answer Man,” “Two Talented Bastids” and “Rattlesnakes”) to a story long enough to be considered a novel by the SFWA and other awards criteria (“Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream”).

The Scribner wraparound cover for this book is delightful. At first glance, it appears to feature a rocky island with a couple of palm trees but, when you look at the whole image, you realize it is an alligator’s head. The back cover has the rest of its body, tail curled into the foreground, with an ominous bolt of lightning emerging from the sky. (See below)

The book’s title is inspired by the Leonard Cohen song “You Want it Darker,” found on the album of the same name, released less than three weeks before Cohen died. Let’s take a closer look at each story in the order they’re presented in the book.

The opening story, “Two Talented Bastids,” is about two friends who came from a small town, Harlow, both of whom became famous in their respective artistic fields, an unlikely eventuality no one can explain, and Laird Carmody has refused all interviews requests for years.

After Laird dies, his son Mark inherits a document that supposedly recounts something that happened when Laird and his artist friend Butch Laverdiere were on their annual hunting trip to the back woods of Maine—a place that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Dreamcatcher. Before that trip, the two men had talent, but not quite enough to make it over the hump to the big time. Something transpired that turned them into rock stars of their respective crafts. Mark at first refuses to believe that the typescript is anything more than a metafictional story. When he investigates, he learns the truth.

It’s a fascinating take on the source of creative talent, and the ending (no spoilers here) will resonate with people who’ve always wanted to succeed at something on a larger scale. I’ve played the piano all my life, but I’m only a dabbler, like Mark. Even so, I’ve fantasized about playing on stage in front of a large audience. Once would be enough, except “it would not be; it never is.”

“Two Talented Bastids” also reveals that, due to development around Dark Score Lake, Mike Noonan’s cabin is gone, as is TR-90, having been incorporated into a town named Pritchard.

Jamieson, the main character of “The Fifth Step,” a widower (there are several of those in this collection) in his late sixties, is out for a stroll one morning when he’s joined on a park bench by a man who’s working the twelve steps of the AA ladder. The stranger asks Jamieson to listen to his moral inventory as part of his fifth step. Jamieson reluctantly agrees. He shouldn’t have! (Harper’s Magazine, March 2020)

“Willie the Weirdo” reminded me a bit of “Gramma” crossed with “Apt Pupil.” It’s about an unpopular and unpleasant young boy who likes to spend time talking to his grandfather, who has a long, strange history. Very strange. Very, very long. (McSweeney’s 66, June 2022, although first published in French as “Willie Le Zinzin” in Bifrost n° 104, October 2021)

In the book’s longest story, Danny Coughlin, a high school janitor, has a terrifying dream about a derelict gas station that’s so vivid it persists after he wakes up. The image of a dog digging a human hand from the earth compels him to investigate. There are enough clues in the dream that he’s able to pinpoint the location. When he goes there he discovers his dream was real. He calls the police anonymously to tell them where they can find the body, but he isn’t careful enough to hide his identity.

Readers of King’s work will have no problem believing Danny had a supernatural vision, but in the real world he’d look as guilty as hell. Maybe he doesn’t remember doing so, but he definitely killed her, a rational person might say. Even Danny wonders if he ever visited the location from his dream before. Javert, a cop with a peculiar obsession whose name echoes the relentless Jalbert from Les Miserables, cannot accept Danny’s version of events. He pursues Danny, destroying the janitor’s life and reputation with his campaign to prove he’s correct. Not even a mountain of evidence will force him to believe the incredible.

Belief is hard.

“Finn” is about a young Irishman whose recent run of bad luck culminates in a kidnapping and a case of mistaken identity in a tale inspired by an Ambrose Bierce classic. (Scribd, May 2022)

When a carload of people is headed to Derry to visit relatives, you know something bad’s likely to happen, especially when there’s a shortcut involved. In “On Slide Inn Road,” a story inspired by Flannery O’Conner, a family has an unpleasant encounter with a couple of hardcases at the ruins of the Slide Inn. This one feels like one of King’s early crime stories, and features a grandpop who knows what’s what. (Esquire, October-November 2020)

Most of “Red Screen” takes place in an interrogation room where a man confesses to killing the entity who has replaced his wife. Her body was taken over by outsiders, he claims, either aliens or someone from a parallel universe. The notion he plants in his interrogator’s mind takes root. (Humble Bundle, September 2021)

In an interview with Dennis Miller in 1998, King discussed near-misses he’s experienced on airplanes. He told Miller he would be happy to be on a flight with him because they were both afraid of flying. “The flight you have to be afraid of is the flight where there’s nobody on who’s afraid of flying. Those are the flights that crash. Trust me on this. You have three or four people who are terrified right out of their minds…we hold it up.” Twenty years later, King revisited that idea for this story. The turbulence expert is the guy who uses psychic energy to keep planes airborne. You should also check out King’s introduction to the anthology where it first appeared for another harrowing tale about flying. (Flight or Fright, September 2018)

In “Laurie,” the oldest story in the collection, the main character has been gifted a puppy by his older sister, hoping it will pull him out of his depression after his wife died. The story chronicles how he grows to bond with and love the dog, named Laurie. But living on a Florida key, even temporarily, has unexpected hazards, as we will see in a bit. (, May 2018)

“Rattlesnakes” also features a widower seeking refuge from grief in the northern Florida Keys. This time it’s 72-year-old Vic Trenton, who’s staying at a McMansion on Rattlesnake Key after the death of his wife Donna. Yes, that Vic Trenton, father to Tad, the little boy who perished at the end of Cujo. He and Donna divorced in the aftermath of their son’s death but reconnected by chance ten years ago and remarried a few months later.

After Donna died from cancer, one of Vic’s friends set him up for the summer in his estate, from which Duma Key would be visible if global warming hadn’t submerged that island, which the locals claim was haunted. The novella takes place in 2020, a few months into the pandemic. The island is a good place to isolate as the disease spreads. It also means Vic can’t easily leave when things start to get complicated and strange.

And they do get strange. Alita “Allie” Bell, the only other person currently living on Rattlesnake Key, is somewhat out of touch with reality. She wanders the island pushing a double-wide stroller that she believes contains her twins, who died decades ago. Other than this “quirk,” she seems mostly okay, and even confesses to Vic on one occasion that the boys aren’t really in her pram…except sometimes they are.

The strangeness boils to the surface when Vic finds Allie dead during one of his morning walks. While awaiting the police, he has to fend off the vultures that had been dining on her remains. (“Laurie” and this story don’t sell the idea of taking a casual morning stroll in Florida.)

Afterward, he is visited by the accursed stroller with its squeaky wheel and falls under suspicion from a tenacious semi-retired detective. Again, a character finds himself in trouble with the law for something he didn’t do, having to rely on an unconvincing supernatural explanation.

The fact that it’s Vic Trenton featured in this story isn’t simply a gratuitous callback. Vic had a quasi-supernatural experience after his son died—at around the same time as the Bell twins died, in fact. He heard Tad’s voice coming from the boy’s bedroom closet. The monster words come into play again, too, as Vic comes to understand that “if onlies” are like rattlesnakes—they’re full of poison—and ghosts can age, if they want to.

“The Dreamers” was the first story King talked about when he mentioned this collection during an interview on the Talking Scared podcast. It is dedicated to the late Cormac McCarthy and Evangeline Walton, who published under the name Evangeline Wilna Ensley. King said the story was so creepy he couldn’t think about it at night, even though he didn’t usually get scared by his own tales. He gave a sneak peek at what we could expect from the story, describing an unsettling image of a man on some kind of drug who “opens his eyes and they turn black, and these tendrils start to come out of his eyeballs.”

“The Dreamers” is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran who knows shorthand and has mad typing skills. He takes a job at a temp agency, where he gets to wear a stenomask, like the court reporter in Bag of Bones. He responds to an ad for a short-term, high-paying position with a “gentleman scientist” who needs someone to transcribe his experiments while they are taking place.

Unlike Reverend Jacobs from Revival, the scientist, Elgin, isn’t trying to solve the puzzle of death. Instead, Elgin’s experiments are an attempt to understand existence by seeing what lies beneath dreams. In a forthcoming interview, King told me he believes that “if there is another world, dreams are where the barrier between our world and that other one are thinnest.” One common theme in King’s stories is that the other universes that abut against ours are not nice places. Not in the least.

On the other hand, not every man who sets up a table on the roadside offering something incredible is the devil. Or George Elvid, like in “Fair Extension.”

“The Answer Man” has an interesting history. King began the story around 1977 but completed only the first half-dozen pages. His nephew found the typescript among his old papers (there’s no record that it was ever in his archives, and it isn’t mentioned in books about King’s unpublished works) and passed it on to King, saying it deserved to be finished. So, forty-plus years later, he did.

The main character, Phil, a freshly minted Harvard Law grad is, as he says, on the horns of a dilemma. It’s 1937, and everyone wants him to join the family law firm, whereas Phil wants to start the first legal practice in a small New Hampshire town he thinks will blossom in the coming years, especially if there’s a war. If he chooses option B, though, the woman he wants to marry may have second thoughts and his prospective father-in-law will certainly disown him.

While taking a short trip away to contemplate the question, he passes a man who has set up a stall on the side of the road, with billboards advertising him as “The Answer Man.” For a fee (variable, depending on the client), he will answer questions for a fixed amount of time. Phil decides to give it a whirl. Is he convinced that the answers he receives about his future are reliable? Not at first but he gradually starts to think there might be something to it.

The story reminds me a little of “Life of Chuck,” although it is told in a linear fashion, narrating Phil’s life after he makes his decision, gets married, starts a family, goes to war, and his two subsequent meetings with the Answer Man.

It’s a beautiful and poignant story that shows how a skilled writer can encapsulate a rich life in a mere fifty pages.

So there you have it, a dozen new or nearly new tales to keep you up late at night. Some of them are very dark indeed, if you like it that way, but not all of them. There are some nightmare-inducing scenes and images, to be certain, but also a thread of optimism in some of the stories, too.

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