Review: Stephen King knows 'You Like It Darker' and obliges with sensational new tales

After 50 years, Stephen King knows his Constant Readers all too well. In fact, it’s right there in the title of the legendary master of horror’s latest collection of stories: “You Like It Darker.”

Heck yeah, Uncle Stevie, we do like it darker. Obviously so does King, who’s crafted an iconic career of keeping folks up at night either turning pages and/or trying to hide from their own creeped-out imagination. The 12 tales of “Darker” (Scribner, 512 pp., ★★★½ out of four) are an assortment of tried-and-true King staples, with stories that revisit the author’s old haunts – one being a clever continuation of an old novel – and a mix of genres from survival frights to crime drama (a favorite of King’s in recent years). It’s like a big bag of Skittles: Each one goes down different but they’re all pretty tasty.

And thoughtful as well. King writes in “You Like It Darker” – a play on a Leonard Cohen song – that with the supernatural and paranormal yarns he spins, “I have tried especially hard to show the real world as it is." With the opener “Two Talented Bastids,” King takes on an intriguing, grounded tale of celebrity: A son of a famous writer finally digs into the real reason behind how his father and his dad’s best friend suddenly went from landfill owners to renowned artists overnight.

"You Like It Darker" is horror master Stephen King's latest collection of stories.
"You Like It Darker" is horror master Stephen King's latest collection of stories.

That story’s bookended by “The Answer Man,” which weaves together Americana and the otherwordly. Over the course of several decades, a lawyer finds himself at major turning points, and the same strange guy shows up to answer his big questions (needing payment, of course), in a surprisingly emotional telling full of small-town retro charm and palpable dread.

With some stories, King mines sinister aspects in life’s more mundane corners. “The Fifth Step” centers on a sanitation engineer has a random and fateful meeting on a park bench with an addict working his way through sobriety, with one heck of a slowburn reveal. A family dinner is the seemingly quaint setting for twisty “Willie the Weirdo,” about a 10-year-old misfit who only confides in his dying grandpa. And in the playfully quirky mistaken-identity piece “Finn,” a truly unlucky teenager is simply walking home alone when wrong place and wrong time lead to a harrowing journey.

A couple entries lean more sci-fi: “Red Screen” features a cop investigating a wife’s murder, with her husband claiming she was possessed; while in “The Turbulence Expert,” a man named Craig Dixon gets called into work, his office is an airplane and his job is far from easy. There’s also some good old-fashioned cosmic terror with “The Dreamers,” starring a Vietnam vet and his scientist boss' experiments that go terrifyingly awry. The 76-year-old King notably offers up some spry elderly heroes, too. One finds himself in harm’s way during a family road trip in “On Slide Inn Road,” where a signed Ted Williams bat takes center stage, and “Laurie” chronicles an aging widower and his new canine companion running afoul of a ticked-off alligator.

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Stephen King's written epic tomes but also has a long history of exceptional short fiction.
Stephen King's written epic tomes but also has a long history of exceptional short fiction.

King epics like “It” and “The Stand” are so huge the books double as doorstops, yet the author has a long history of exceptional short fiction, including the likes of “The Body,” “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Life of Chuck” (from the stellar 2020 collection “If It Bleeds”). And with “Darker,” it’s actually the two lengthier entries that are the greatest hits.

“Rattlesnakes” is a sequel of sorts to King’s 1981 novel "Cujo," where reptiles are more central to what happens than an unhinged dog. Decades after his son’s death and a divorce results from an incident involving a rabid Saint Bernard, Vic Trenton is retired and living at a friend’s mansion in the Florida Keys when a meeting with a neighbor leads to unwanted visits from youthful specters. It both brings a little healing catharsis to a traumatizing read ("Cujo" definitely sticks with you) and opens up a new wound with unnerving bite.

Then there’s the 152-page “Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream,” which leans more into King’s recent noir detective/procedural era. School janitor Danny gets a psychic vision of a girl who’s been murdered and he tries to do the right thing by informing the police. But that’s when the nightmare really begins, as he becomes a prime suspect and has his life torn asunder by the most obsessed cop this side of Javert. Danny’s all too ready to be his Valjean, a compelling sturdy personality who fights back hard – and the best King character since fan-favorite private eye Holly Gibney.

“Horror stories are best appreciated by those who are compassionate and empathetic,” King writes in his afterword. And with “You Like It Darker,” he proves once more that his smaller-sized tales pack as powerful a wallop as the big boys.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stephen King knows 'You Like It Darker' and delivers new scares