Picks and Pans Review: Four Past Midnight

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Stephen King

Falling somewhere between the tidy compactness of the short story and the grander scope of a fully realized novel, the novella is the orphan child of fiction. Yet with the right parent, a novella can be a rewarding literary experience, as King himself proved in his 1982 collection, Different Seasons.

King's novels (particularly the reissued version of The Stand, at 1,153 pages and It, 1,104 pages) tend toward bloat, so the discipline that this shorter form imposes on him is welcome. Not that these novellas are all that short, mind you; the first one, which is also the best, runs close to 250 pages.

Called "The Langoliers," it tells the tale of American Pride Flight 29, a red-eye from L.A. to Boston that enters what King calls a "time rip." The crew and all but 11 passengers vanish; one of the 11 is a deadheading pilot who, like the other survivors, was asleep when the incident occurred. While it's reminiscent of other time-warp stories—King alludes to a particular Twilight Zone episode that comes to mind—the author gives the notion several intriguing twists.

Batting second is ""Secret Window, Secret Garden," a look, in King's words, at "what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly." As in many of King's stories, the main character is an author. Mort Rainey is trying to cope with a marital bust-up and a stranger who accuses him of plagiarism. As the writer's world unravels, "Secret Window" builds to a credible yet eerie conclusion.

Next up is "The Library Policeman," triggered, King says in an introductory note, by an offhand remark from his son Owen about why he was reluctant to use a local library. King started thinking about childhood fears that never go away, and the result is nearly 200 pages on what might happen if you failed to return a library book. Silly premise, tedious execution.

Last, and certainly least, comes "The Sun Dog." about a boy who gets an unusual camera for his 15th birthday. The camera, a Sun 660, takes what at first appears to be the same photo over and over, a shot of a big, nasty-looking dog. (Cujo, where are you?) This is a one-note effort, and a flat one at that. In short, "The Sun Dog" is a dog, son. (Viking, $22.95)

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