Four Past Midnight (1990)
By: Julian on February 3, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 676
Four Past Midnight contains four original novellas, each running about 150 to 200 pages, and each preceded by one of King's conversational, endearing introductions. King has proven his worth writing in a more restrained template – The Mist, Roadwork, The Long Walk and Rage are all proof positive of this – but all of the entries in this quartet are lacklustre for one reason or another. Like the vast majority of King's inferior work, these novellas are interesting, readable failures, not without their merits but riddled with deficiencies.

The opener is probably the best known story in the collection, The Langoliers. The Langoliers opens on American Pride's Flight 7, a red-eye from LA to Boston. At some point during the flight, ten of its passengers wake to discover they are the only people on board – everyone has disappeared completely, leaving only jewellery, teeth filings and other belongings in the seats they once occupied. One of the passengers, a pilot, takes control of the plane, but a young blind girl, Dinah, begins to have some creepy premonitions when the adults decide to land the plane in Boston to see what the hell is going on.

The Langoliers' chapters are titled in the same staccato way as those in The Mist, a decision King made deliberately because both stories shared apocalyptic themes. In terms of quality and inventiveness though, the latter story blows this one out of the water. The most striking failure here are King's characters – for an author that is usually so meticulous about peopling his stories with multi-faceted, complex characters, the figures in The Langoliers are decidedly one-dimensional. There is no central protagonist, but Nick Hopewell comes close. King is particularly lazy with Hopewell, identifying him as a Brit (and referring to him in this manner throughout the story) and giving him a series of grating verbal tics (like prodigious use of the word "matey"). The Langoliers' 217 pages are poorly paced, plodding and uninteresting. It has no style, no substance and is a particularly mediocre work given its somewhat considerable reputation.

Secret Window, Secret Garden is a significantly better story which earned a film adaptation with Johnny Depp in the starring role. Secret Window's central character is Mort Rainey, a recently divorced and depressed author who has moved to his lake house to write a new novel. One day, he gets a house call by John Shooter, who alleges Mort's short story Sowing Season plagiarised his Secret Window, Secret Garden. Mort knows that's nonsense, but the similarities between the stories are striking. He reaches the conclusion that Shooter plagiarised him, but when Shooter kills Mort's cat and burns down his wife's house, Mort realises he's dealing with something more than a mild obsessive.

Secret Window is better paced than The Langoliers and the characters – particularly Mort and Shooter – are more fleshed out, but the dénouement is rushed and, as a result, lacks suspense. This issue is common to the first story and the two that follow Secret Window, The Library Policeman and The Sun Dog.

Both The Library Policeman and The Sun Dog are immensely intriguing pieces with lean and mean openers for about fifty odd pages, but they dramatically unravel as King fleshes the narrative out, and they become undone altogether as the rushed finale is thrust haphazardly at the reader. Both fall towards the lower end of King's canon and are mired in the sort of inane ridiculousness that one hoped King would have shed early in his career – I'm sure the scene in which a lisping library policeman rapes a young boy because his books are overdue was played for shocks, but the surprisingly graphic sequence is so jarringly out of place it threatens to disturb the novella's continuity. There are many such sequences throughout Library Policeman – ones that disturb the continuity of the novella, not ones that are designed to gratuitously disturb the reader – and it's a lesser work for it.

The Sun Dog is similarly outlandish and, in the thrill stakes, totally impotent. King's tale of a dog that appears in Polaroid camera shots is completely ineffectual when the originality of the intriguing premise wears off, and insulting when the conclusion is as ridiculous as the reader hoped it wouldn't be.

I've spoken in some depth about the deficiencies of Four Past Midnight, but in my opening paragraph I stated that the stories were not without their merits. The merits of all four stories are in their premise, and the first third of each of them (without exception) is intriguing, intelligently written and often powerful. The quartet housed in Four Past Midnight are no different to a large volume of King's fiction in the nineties – a strong first third; a lacklustre, muddled and uninspired second third and a hastily written, lazily thought out final third. He gets points for inventiveness (and extra points for Secret Garden), but this collection sits pretty low in Stephen King's bibliography.
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