The story of The Gingerbread Boy is one of those magnetic folk tales that uses suspense, magic and fatalism to teach a merciless truism about life. In it, an old woman makes a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a boy, but when she opens the oven, the pesky little cut-out jumps up and flees — not only from his creator but also from a cast of hungry characters along his escape route. “You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Boy!” he gloats as he zips along. Eventually, faced with the impasse of a river, he hitches a ride from a clever fox who promises to deliver him safely to the opposite shore. Which he does, and then chomps down his passenger as an afternoon snack.
The moral hovers somewhere between “ungrateful braggarts always get their comeuppance” and “don’t talk to strangers or they’ll eat you.” Although the folk tale appears to have its origin in Sweden, enough cultures have recast it, substituting gingerbread with johnnycakes, buns or pancakes, that the story is now a shared tradition. And like so many shared traditions, this one taps deeply into unspeakable fears and fantasies — about defying parents, tempting fate or wanting to gobble up the child you just baked. Yikes.
In his new collection of short stories “Just After Sunset,” Stephen King offers the most recent variation on the running-cookie motif. Emily, the protagonist of “The Gingerbread Girl,” copes with her baby’s death by taking up jogging, first to the end of the driveway, then for a couple of miles and then right out of her marriage.
She decamps to her father’s conch shack on a Florida island, where she spends her days exercising and recovering from the loss of her child and the dissolution of her marriage. It’s also where she encounters her fox, the wicked Pickering, who takes vacations on the island with his so-called nieces — of which he apparently has many.
Emily gets caught in Pickering’s lair when she notices a tuft of blond hair dangling from the open trunk of his Mercedes. Like so many King characters, she can’t simply walk on by. Her curiosity drives her right into the hands of a malicious fiend, and the combat between the two is viciously physical and bloody. As with the Gingerbread Boy, Emily faces an uncrossable body of water and a crafty opponent, and the final battle poses a modern moral that might make the original Gingerbread Boy writers cringe.
“The Gingerbread Girl” also casts King as the master storyteller whom we have entrusted with our ancient fears about dangers that lurk along the trail or within our own imagination. Although his initial success came with longer works, King has always been a serious practitioner of the short story, and, in recent years, has devoted his attention to championing the form. An apt mission given his inheritance from Poe, arguably the father of the American short story.
But Poe isn’t his only reference for this collection of — what else? — 13. “Willa,” a surreal love story, and “Harvey’s Dream,” a deja-vu time warp, have a hey-what’s-going-on-here “Twilight Zone” patina. Although a heightened uncertainty about time and place puts the reader in the zone — beware if the phone rings or your oven timer goes off while you’re reading — each of the stories has a symbolic underbelly of anxieties about the afterworld, family life or sickness. “Harvey’s Dream” is also an incisive look at the languor that can tranquilize 30 years of so-so married life, and it is one of King’s most succinct and polished works.
King himself has so entered the collective consciousness that some of the stories inevitably seem to cite his own classic material such as “Carrie” and “Misery.” In the spine-rocking tale “The Cat from Hell,” a demon feline asserts its fangs and claws in ways that make the nasty critters from “Cujo” and “Pet Sematary” look subdued. The bloodthirsty creature gives a whole new meaning to the question: “Cat got your tongue?” And while King explains that the idea for “Rest Stop” came to him when he made a midnight pit stop on the Florida Turnpike and overheard a couple bitterly fighting, the story is about a Bachmanesque author who writes under a pseudonym and can’t quite figure out his real identity.
The maneuverings of King’s imagination are back with a vengeance in “Just After Sunset,” whether the protagonists are locked in a porta-potty, drawn to a malevolent landscape, visited by mystical healers or called by phone from the great beyond. King is a keen transcriber of ways in which the everyday, the everyman and everywoman are altered by the unexpected, unknown or undead. King also joins the coterie of artists who have grappled with 9-11, and emerges as a sensitive interpreter of the loss and haunting pain in “The Things They Left Behind,” a supernatural tale of an insurance man who finds a way to compensate victims of the tragedy.
More than ever, the inconveniences of being human, fragile, old or damaged permeate King’s fiction. Middle age, death, cholesterol, cancer, divorce, body image and fractured lives are the breaking points onto which King shines the light — or darkness — of his prism. Wife abuse, as King knows, is far scarier than ghosts, and fortunately, King knows the murky line between real and imagined threat.
“Just After Sunset” takes readers back to King’s roots, back to his love of pure story told in short form. He may well be the folklorist of our time, the collector of shared traditions told with wit and weirdness. But he’s also one of the best literary-suspense-horror writers alive, and the effect is a lingering mental jumpiness. Just as The Gingerbread Girl learns when faced with peril, once you let this collection drip into your imagination, you can run but you can’t hide.