Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
I have decided that going through an entire book of them is the wrong way to enjoy short stories. Just in terms of the reading process, there are too many stopping points, hard breaks where giving a story the proper matting makes the book take a very long time. More importantly, it is like taking one scoop of everything from a buffet and then eating spoonfuls blindfolded: lots of different flavors at random, with only a guess when the change is coming. King's metaphor for a short story is a kiss in the dark from a stranger; you can decide for yourself whether you would want to kiss a series of unknown strangers, once each, unseen before or after.
This is a collection of short stories from Stephen King, published between 1968 and 1983. Stephen King, you may know, mostly writes horror stories.
I might have gone with a 2.5, since I can recommend only about 60% of the book, and as they are short stories, the various parts are severable. I will rule, however, that personal taste may play a part in which ones you enjoy, so find your own 60%. I would advise that, if a story does not seem appealing at the beginning, it will probably not be appealing by the end. They are internally consistent, rather than having great swings in quality. I will talk about the ones I would recommend.
The first recommendation must be "The Raft." This is a great story, doing in 30 pages what The Ruins did in 600. It is the same core story, with even some of the same details, only on a raft instead of in ruins. It has 95+% of the good from The Ruins and none of the bad. On our value per unit time scale, this is Stargirl quality or better. Successful short stories are like that.
"The Raft" and "The Mist" share with The Ruins a good approach to character introduction. Set up several characters and relationships before the problems happen. Build in some conflicts, then throw something overwhelming at them to see who overcomes and what shatters. (These being that kind of story, there is more shattering.) It is important to want our characters to succeed or suffer, and it certainly does not work when we are supposed to root for the survival of unlikeable characters (I'm looking at you, "Ruins" movie).
"The Raft," "The Mist," and "Word Processor of the Gods" also succeed where others fail by not trying to explain it. You have an unimaginable horror, just run with it. "The Mist" takes a few guesses at what might have happened out there, but ultimately never tries to resolve it and bring logic to the insanity. If you try to establish internal logic, you are responsible for making it good and thinking through the implications. Doing that well boosts the quality significantly, but doing it badly can drop it further. Mr. King declines to explain, and that works.
"The Jaunt" is mostly explaining, and it works. Seriously, almost the entire story is exposition, building up to a big finish. The strength of the underlying concept and the quote at the end were what made me read the book. High Octane Nightmare Fuel indeed.
Another way in which Mr. King succeeds is in having nothing to explain. Some people are insane or evil. Let them loose and see what happens. He might play with mysterious questions, as in "Nona," but "Cain Rose Up" is just a straightforward story with one dangerous person. "Cain Rose Up" competes strongly with "The Raft" in value per page, a 7-page story with good foreshadowing that delivers strongly at its climax. "The Raft" still wins, because its 30 pages allow for a more satisfying whole, but this is a great brief kiss.
Mr. King does not always succeed in mixing the banal and the surreal. That will include several stories not worth mentioning, such as the two milkman stories that fail where "Cain Rose Up" succeeded. "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" does add the surreal successfully, a non-horror story that dips slowly dips into the fantastic. It is not the best story in the collection, but it builds up slowly and delivers the appropriate conclusion. Twice as long, "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" also does a great job of mixing banality, insanity (alcoholism in this case), and an uncertain dose of magic. Mr. King has a way with somewhat unreliable narrators.
Continuing the non-horror trend (the random spoonfuls on the buffet), "Word Processor of the Gods" is on the edge of horror. Things can go very badly when you play with the monkey's paw. Tipping entirely out of horror and magic, "The Wedding Gig" is the last story I will recommend. I kept expecting the magic and horror, but no, this is an entirely straightforward story involving unfortunate events. It is low key but effective, not as high-reaching as the other stories but successful within its reach.
I notice that I keep using the words "success" and "delivers" in this review. It is the clearest way I have of describing Stephen King's writing style when it works. I have a long list of 2's that are not worth reading because the author tried something he could not pull off. Stephen King writes effectively, delivering on his premises and seeing them through with sufficient thoughtfulness and well-structured storytelling. Some of these stories are very good. Several of the stories that I recommend above, I would not recommend picking up the book just for them, but if you are there, they do everything the author asks them to. That is our other judging criterion: not asking the book to be something else, but seeing whether it succeeds on its own terms. Stephen King is the archetypal novelist of his genre in our time, and he owns his space well.