Stephen King’s You Like It Darker Stories – Book Spotlight

Stephen King’s You Like it Darker – Book Spotlight

Welcome back, Readers! This month we’re checking in on the newest published work by my favorite, Stephen King.

Now, those who are regulars to this column might remember I was a little underwhelmed by his prior novel, Holly. (Spotlighted Here, if you missed it.) I went into this one with a little trepidation as a result; it wasn’t that I actively disliked Holly. Don’t get that idea. It was just a very political book, a lot of it was focused on Covid 19 and George Floyd and these things had little to do with the story being told. They were something of an unwelcome intrusion – and this is coming from someone who almost 100% agrees with the author politically. You Like it Darker released a bare 7 or 8 months after Holly and I was worried there might be some of that left over. Plus, I tend to enjoy King’s novels more than his short stories. That’s just my preference – I go for his big, long novels where getting to know the characters and the settings takes a while and the anticipation for all the horrible things yet to come has time to fester and ramp up at a leisurely pace.

So, let’s start this Spotlight out by saying that while, yes, there is some mention of the pandemic, masking, the new breed of flu etc, it’s not as belabored a point as it was in Holly. Also? You have some absolute gems in here. Some have been published before

So, let’s grab up a cup of tea and this book and take a trip through the mind of Mr. King!

Book Stats

    Author: Stephen King.
    Formats: Paperback, Hardcover, Kindle, and Audible.
    Price: $26.90 for Paperback, $18.90 for Hardcover, $14.99 for Kindle, and $22.96 for Audible.
    Length: 510 pages or 20 hours 21 minutes in audio format.
    Narrator: Will Patton
    Number of books in the series: _

Basic Premise
So, being as this is a collection of stories and not a novel, I’ll give you the basic premise of each story in turn.

Two Talented Bastids

Told from the point of view of the son of one of the titular Bastids. Mark Carmody is his name and his father, Laird, is a bestselling author of fiction. Laird’s best friend, Butch, is an incredible and wealthy artist. Whenever asked questions by the press about how he honed his craft or how he became so good at writing, Laird would always reply that he was just a talented Bastid. Butch would say much the same when questioned about his art.

Mark, going through Laird’s things after he’d passed away, found a journal detailing a hunting trip he and Butch had taken back when mark was just a small boy. This trip was far from ordinary and might go some way towards explaining how he became so talented. Unless, of course, it’s just another fanciful tale whipped up by an outstanding author of fiction… who’s to say?

The Fifth Step

Harold is retired and it suits him fairly well. One of his favorite things to do is to grab a copy of the newspaper (Harold still likes the feel of print media in his hands.) and walk down to Central park. There’s a bench there that he enjoys and he’ll sit there reading through the paper. Today is fairly cold, but that’s okay. He dressed warm enough.

Someone sits down at the other end of the bench… annoying, because there are plenty of completely free and available benches nearby. The park is fairly empty. But what happens next is strange enough that his annoyance soon become curiosity. The person who sat down next to him is a younger man who offers Harold money to listen to a confession, of sorts. Jack is the man’s name and he has to talk to a total stranger about his alcoholism… it’s part of the 12 steps steps jack’s AA sponsor has given him to complete. This step is the fifth. He’s been sober for a bit now and working through the steps given to him diligently.

Harold agrees to listen. But maybe he shouldn’t have…

Willie the Weirdo

Willie is, indeed, a weirdo. At 10 years old, he’s obsessed with death. This allows for him to have some strange hobbies; staring off into the clouds for hours, watching dead moles wash down into the storm drain after a heavy rain, collecting dead birds and bugs including capturing fireflies in a jar with no air holes because he thinks it’s fun to watch them dim slowly while suffocating. Even his parents think he’s an odd kid and his sister can barely stand him.

One person who he seems to be in pretty good with though is his grandfather, James. James tells him all kinds of good stories. Like when he saw a flag boy get shot in the throat at the battle of Gettysburg. Now, keep in mind that this story takes place in 2020, during the pandemic. James can’t possibly be a hundred and seventy or more years old… right?

Well. However old he is, his days are numbered when, after a doctor’s visit, it’s revealed that he’s got pancreatic and lung cancer both. It won’t be long before he’s dead and Willie the weirdo is all in. He wants to watch Grandpa pass away. James is more than happy for Willie to be the last thing he sees in this life…

Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream

Danny is a custodian at the local high school. He’s divorced, but has a kinda-sorta girlfriend at the trailer park where he lives, and is in the process of deep cleaning the school over the summer break, getting it ready for a new year’s worth of students. He’s training two students to do this as well. All pretty ordinary stuff.

One night, though, Danny has a horrendous dream. Detailed as if he was living through it while awake. He remembers details – the street where the dream takes place, the abandoned gas station where he finds the body. The charm bracelet around he slender wrist and the limp the dog has when he shoos it away from chewing on the dead girl’s exposed flesh… all real enough that it would stay with him without fading, as most dreams do.

He looks it up online. The road exists. The gas station exists. He’s never been there before so how on earth could he have dreamed it?

He should just leave it alone. He knows this. But that dog eating that poor girl’s body…

He drives out there and, surprising no-one, everything is just as he found it in his dream. He scares off the stray and covers the girl’s body with a big, rusted iron tub. Then, he drives to an electronics store and buys a burner phone, cash, so he can report the body to the local police. He’d seen stuff like this on TV, after all, and he doesn’t want that damned dog to come back, knock over the tub and resume its grisly meal…

Of course, he’s found out. A recording of his 911 call is played on local news as the authorities want to chat with their anonymous tipster. The cell tower he called from was close enough to the electronics store that it was no big thing to get security cam footage showing him buying the phone, plus his vehicle and license plate. He’s found at work by two KBI agents. Frank Jalbert and Ella Davis.

He looks pretty guilty, alright. Almost like he wanted to be caught. Wanted to confess. Jalbert is sure of it. A psychic premonition? Not a chance in hell that this story is true… just some janitor looking for fifteen minutes of fame.

Thus begins one heck of a game of cat and mouse.

Finn

Finn Murrie is a 19 year old Irish lad who’s had an incredible run of bad luck. Lost his toe to a firework, broke his arm falling off the monkey bars after insisting he didn’t want to play on them as a youngster and concussed by lightning striking the pavement a short distance behind him. He’s been through it, has poor Fin Murrie, but his Nan says that for every stroke of bad luck God gives you, he’ll give you two good ones to make up for it.

Finn believes this. And as he’s running home from his girlfriends place where they’d spent some time getting handsy, you could almost believe it for him. Till he collides with another young man, dressed very much like he is who then gets up and sprints off. A little bit of bad luck, once more.

It then becomes an entirely different sort of bad luck as an unmarked black van pulls up near him and he’s grabbed and shoved inside to be whisked away to a place of deprivation and torture.

Mistaken identity. And the man who has mistaken his identity? He’s a complete and total nutjob…

God owes Finn a stack of good luck for this little adventure, should the poor soul survive.

On Slide Inn Road

Family road trips are often frustrating. The Brown family knows this all too well – there’s three generations of them in this car. Donald, or Grandpop to his grandkids, needs to visit with his sister who’s dying of cancer. He’s gathered up some of her favorite things to make her last days more pleasurable and he just hopes they’re going to make it before she passes. She was absolutely nuts about baseball and has a lot of memorabilia, including signed baseball cards and a Louisville slugger. These treasures are in a bag in the trunk and the kids, Billy and Mary, are happy with some comic books and a tablet.

Donald insisted they take his old car for the trip and his son Frank is driving. He hates this old thing as it’s a gas guzzler, handles like a boat and they decided to take a shortcut. What started as a paved road went to gravel, then dirt and by the time they get to a place where they might be able to turn around, it’s twin ruts through the undergrowth. The car struggles with this terrain and even moreso when a chunk of the road slips away under a wheel, causing the car to lean dangerously into a ditch.

There’s an abandoned building nearby – the Slide Inn. It used to be a pretty bustling stop at one point in time but as this road was traveled less and less and eventually not at all, it fell out of repair and eventually got burned out. Still, while Frank tries to figure out what to do about the car, Billy and Mary decide to run up to take a look.

The first thing that gets noticed is the dead body floating in murky water in what was once the Inn’s cellar. The second thing? A beat-up old white van with a flat tire and the two greasy looking guys that circle around from behind it…

They offer to help get the car back up on solid ground though Billy fears they know that he had seen the body and he’d bet you just about anything that they had something to do with that poor girl’s fate. Will the Brown family join her in that dark water under the burned-out Inn…?

Red Screen

Frank is kind of over his wife nagging constantly. It’s like every little thing he does, he does wrong and she just won’t let up about it. It’s been especially bad recently and as if that’s not enough, he needs to get to an interrogation room to talk to some absolute charmer who just stabbed his own wife to death.

Frank arrives and of course, there’s a story. There always is with murderers. This tall tale though? Entirely off the rails. Alien invasion, body-snatcher style. Projected extraterrestrial consciousness taking over the bodies of human hosts. Detectable, though… see, if one is in your home? The nearest screen will flash red for a second. Just a blip, hardly noticeable unless you’re looking for it. Smartphone, computer, tablet, anything like that. It will blip red for just a moment if you have a body-snatched person in your presence.

The guy who invented this technological detection method will eventually, the murderer assures Frank, be recognized as the hero of Earth.

Oh, there’s one other tell. These aliens? They tend to inhabit women. And those women… well. They tend to nag…

The Turbulence Expert

Craig is just settling into his hotel room; he’s dead tired. The phone rings and it’s his handler, informing him that he’s about to board a flight to Sarasota.

He really doesn’t want to. Again, he’s tired right out of his mind. But… this is the job. This is what he does. He heads to the airport, boards the plane and sandwiches himself in between Mary, a pleasant, widowed Librarian and Frank, a gruff, grunting businessmen. (Lots of people named Frank in this book. Just realizing that as I’m writing these. And a couple of Mary’s, too.)

The plane takes off and, after a little conversation with his new friends (Frank has loosened up with a liberal application of gin. Absolutely understandable, I’m the exact same way.) the plane hits a pocket of clear-air turbulence and drops like a rock. People are flung every which way and Craig knows – he just knows – they’re all going to die. He can see it clear as day in his mind’s eye; carnage and fire after a 30,000 foot plummet….

But the plane rights itself. We have to wonder, though, if this was always going to hapopen or if something else is going on here…. Craig knows.

Laurie

Lloyd is still in mourning. His wife passed only six months ago so that’s fair. He is retired, in his sixties and without her around, he’s finding less and less to do.

His sister Beth, though, has other ideas. She gifts him with a border collie/mudi mix puppy. He doesn’t want it but she insists. He, extremely reluctantly, says he’ll hold on to her for a few days then maybe take her to a shelter or something.

Some weeks later, in mid-October, he begrudgingly admits to Beth that Laurie (he name he gave the pup.) is no longer just a visitor. She’s a permanent resident in his Florida home. He’s begun a more healthy lifestyle since getting her, eating more regularly, sleeping well and getting more exercise. Every day he walks her down Six Mile Path. Which is only actually a mile long. But who’s counting?

Lloyd’s neighbors, Don and Evelyn, are also on the older side. Despite this, Don insists every year on making the house as decorated as possible for Christmas. He was in the middle of doing so when he went for a walk. Evelyn has no idea where he may have gone and asks Lloyd to go out looking for him so he can get back to work decorating! Lloyd agrees and takes Laurie with him.

What they find… well. Let’s just say that something bit off more than it could chew…

Rattlenakes

This story is a sequel to Cujo as well as a roundabout sequel to Duma Key! (And I do so love Duma Key.) It also features characters from Laurie, the story described above.

Vic Trenton’s son Tad died at the age of four. He was trapped in a sweltering hot car with his mother as a rabid St. Bernard hammered itself against the windows and doors, trying to get at them and rip them apart. The summer sun beat down on the car turning it into an oven and poor Tad, dehydrated and overheated, passed away either right after or right before the danger was no longer present. Donna, Tad’s Mom and Vic’s Wife survived.

Their marriage didn’t, though. The pain of losing a child must be absolutely unimaginable, unbearable and sharing that pain with one another didn’t help either one of them. Donna left and Vic remained in the advertising biz.

In his 70s, now, he’s encouraged by his friend Greg to move out to Florida and stay in Greg’s big house on Rattlesnake Key. Why’s it called Rattlesnake Key, you might ask? Turns out there was a massive population of the venomous vipers on this little island at one point. They killed a pair of four year old twins, in fact – Jacob and Joeseph. After that, a posse was rounded up and the snakes were herded by volunteers who either speared, smashed or stomped them to death. Those who weren’t killed outright were herded into a kill-box, doused in kerosene and set ablaze.

The one caveat to living in this, otherwise lovely, place was this; Greg has a neighbor. Her name is Alita Bell. She’s a wonderful, warm, smart and funny woman who makes beautiful raisn oatmeal cookies. A perfect neighbor in almost every regard. The one thing wrong is that she pushes a stroller everywhere. The stroller is a double and it’s empty almost entirely… she does have a double set of clothes in there, though. Laid out perfectly. Usually tshirts and shorts and always twin sets – Thing 1 and Thing 2, Heckle and Jekyll. That kind of thing. She talks to these sets as if the boys were still in them. She’s the mother of the bitten twins, Jake and Joe.

Vic, despite his general misgivings about the stroller, comes to quite like Ally. The cookies were every bit as good as Greg had described and she was pleasant company.

Then, one morning on his walk… he finds her dead.

He’s a suspect, of course. But the real problems start when that stroller starts showing up at his house… he locked it back up in her garage so how did it make its way here…?

The Dreamers

William is a Vietnam veteran who has learned to shut off his emotions. He had to learn or he’d be in a bad way by now. After the war he moves in with his Mom and then moves out to Portland where he gets work as a stenographer through a temp agency. Eventually he responds to a print ad wherein a scientist is advertising for an assistant.

The experiments? Administering a highly experimental drug to patients then have them go to sleep. The drug is Flurazepam, which is hypnotic in nature. The subject is then shown a picture of a house in a forest and asked to go to sleep and dream of the house. Once in this dream state, the subject is instructed to lift up the floor and see what’s underneath.

Nothing good, I can tell you that much for free.

This, by the way, is a story that Stephen King himself admits scares him. He couldn’t work on it or think about it after dark. So. Just throwing that in there!

The Answer Man

Things are going pretty well for Phil Parker. A recent Harvard grad, the whole world is open to him. Most likely he’ll join the law firm where his father and his fiancee’s father work but, honestly, that idea doesn’t exactly spark joy. What he really wants to do is start his own practice in the nearby town of Curry. It’s 1937 and the Great Depression is in full swing but considering the number of land-owners foreclosed upon by big banks? Once the Depression is over, Phil believes he can make a good amount of money by representing those folks done dirty by the bankers.

Weighing his options, he encounters a roadside stall. The Answer Man.

$25 gets you five minutes with this guy… and keep in mind that these are 1937 dollars and scaled against the poverty of the Great Depression, that’s a small fortune. Phil pays, though, and gets his five minutes.

The Answer Man manages to prove he’s not a charlatan by correctly stating Phil’s mom’s maiden name. He also says that Phil will open his firm in Curry and it will do very well, and Phil will also fight in World War II but survive it.

All of this comes to pass, including some heroics by Phil himself.

After the war, in the 50s, Phil comes across The Answer Man again. His price has doubled and it’s STILL a small fortune… but the last set of answers Phil got were just so on the money (Pun intended.) he can’t resist paying up for the three minutes offered…

Will these predictions be as great as the prior set? You gotta read it to find out!

My Take

So, a lot of these stories I absolutely loved. I think Laurie was my favorite – I really do believe the right pet at the right time can heal a broken, busted and otherwise battered heart. Seeing that journey explored was wonderful.

I also really loved Rattlesnakes. Stephen King doesn’t remember writing Cujo, or so he’s stated. He liked the book though and has said if he’d been a bit more in charge of himself (I’m paraphrasing.) he probably wouldn’t have killed Tad. He wrote Cujo while severely addicted to several things and I’m pretty sure this is why addiction is such a prevalent theme in his work. (He draws a lot from his own life – many of his protagonists are authors, just to give one other example.) It always struck me as a sad thing, that he liked the book but would have written it differently given a clearer mind. Coming across Vic Trenton was a massive surprise for me; I had no idea it was coming and thought I must be mis-remembering Tad’s father’s name upon hearing it. Then Tad himself is mentioned and it was a real moment. What has Vic Trenton been up to since 1980? Why is he here, in this book? Surely not much else can be done to the poor old fellow? He’s already lost his kid and wife so let’s go easy on him, huh? This book being a semi-sequel to Duma Key was also a pleasant surprise as that place is mentioned throughout this story. (Go read Duma Key – I swear, if you’re a King fan you’re going to love this one. Everyone needs a friend like Jerome Wiremen but no-one really deserves one.) I guess this part of Florida is just a real special kind of place!

The other one that almost takes top spot is Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream. It’s one of the longer ones in this collection and it’s wonderfully paced with a main character you can’t help but love. I’ll be brutally honest… when it ended? I didn’t come back to the book for a while because I enjoyed this tale so much. Not only is Danny a great guy to read about, but the odds he’s stacked up against and his nemeis – Franklin Jalbert. Oh, this guy. Obsessive and with arithmomania (An obsession with numbers and counting.) he believes wholeheartedly that Danny killed the girl and he’ll go to literally any length, imaginable and not, to prove it. It’s a wild ride that had me guessing the entire time. I loved it and coming away from it was hard. Getting into the next story was hard. I would read an entire novel about Danny and his extremely rare dose of the shining.

Your narrators for this outing are Will Patton and Stephen King himself. Both do a great job. I always enjoy when Mr. King reads his own work; it’s a real treat. And Will Patton has been one of my favorites since Mr. Mercedes.

All in all, this is a highly recommended summer read from me!

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