"Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"

Once again, Stephen King is working with his thematic obsessions, refining as he goes. His late 90s/early 00s fascination with surrealism and absurdity has given way to bleakness of the most absorbing sort. This, along with recent stories "Morality" and "Premium Harmony," form a loose trilogy examining the darkness (or "grayness") within ordinary people. "Herman Wouk"'s Brenda brings to mind the similarly desperate (and similarly "lucky") Darlene Pullen of Everything's Eventual's "Luckey Quarter," though without Darlene's dual senses of self-awareness and doom ... until the end, that is.

Seeing inside Brenda's life is as suffocating as the lives King explored in "Premium Harmony" and "Morality" (and especially in his brilliantly unsettling Full Dark, No Stars collection), but here, that life is juxtaposed by two onlookers: two aging, romantic poets. Phil Henreid and Pauline Enslin (relations of Lloyd from The Stand and Michael from "1408"?) discuss mortality and their long pasts with sweet nostalgia. They are allowed larger thoughts than Brenda or her friend Jasmine - Pauline thinks of God as she and both are gently self-effacing about their wealth - far away from Brenda's insular life and increasing desperation. Interestingly, it is only when Brenda finally considers the future, and how her choices will have repercussions for generations, that she is finally able to drop her pseudo-cheerful facade. "Hell is repetition," King stated in "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French," a theme he extrapolated on in The Dark Tower series. Here, Brenda's growing awareness of this concept provides the story's violent denouement, which shocks but does not surprise. Cleverly, King places a newspaper clipping at the start of the story that projects the grisly finale, underlining the futility of lives having ended long before the conclusion.

"Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" is a dark, powerful story, very much in line with the fiction King has been writing lately. It's exciting to watch these short stories spool out as parts of a larger through-line, each tackling the same basic themes but from different angles, through different eyes, and with different outcomes. King's next collection of shorter tales is going to be quite strong.