Anyone who regularly reads my book reviews will know I love short story collections. Anthologies by many different authors are great; collections by one of my favorite authors are even better. And there are two authors who could make me run a marathon if they told me they had a new collection waiting for me at the end. One of them is Neil Gaiman, the other is Stephen King.
Released two days after Halloween (dammit, Stephen, you had one job), The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a sampler of the weird and the dark and, strangely enough, the mundane. King paints a picture of himself in the introduction as a street vendor laying out his handcrafted wares after midnight, and finishes with the warning, “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”
Along with being one of my favorite short story authors, the other thing Stephen King has in common with Neil Gaiman is his story introductions. It’s worth your time to read each of these; King writes some of the best introductions in the industry, and he always throws in some fascinating tidbits about each story. Mostly it’s what was going on in his life when he wrote it, other times it’s about the process of writing itself. I especialnly liked his metaphor for how ideas are turned into stories: sometimes he gets a perfect cup, but then has to let it sit until he finds the perfect handle.
I was surprised to learn that only a couple of the stories here are brand new, the rest have been previously released in other publications. The only one I actually remember reading before is “Mile 81”, and I didn’t enjoy it any more the second time than I did the first. It still feels like two different stories that were stitched together when King couldn’t figure out an ending for one or a beginning for the other. I would have liked to see more of the storyline about the little kid exploring an abandoned rest-stop; it could have been much better without tacking on the supernatural hack-and-slash involving the abandoned car of DOOM that eats people.
Speaking of supernatural, less than half of the entries in this book featured anything with demons or monsters or information from other dimensions. Supernatural elements or not, the main focus of the stories is never about whatever weirdness comes into their lives, it’s about how the characters react to that weirdness. Nobody does character studies the way King can, and even the most humdrum, every day situations are fascinating when takes all the characters’ neurosis and concerns, and then splashes them all over the page.
Nothing demonstrates this quite like the stories “Premium Harmony,” “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” and “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”. All three feature characters who have about as dreary an existence as you can imagine, (unhappy marriage, advanced Alzheimers, or single mothers crushed by the reality of a horrible childhood and hopeless poverty), and yet King can tell an almost epic story about each of them as he shows how everyone rationalizes their own irrational behaviors.
No surprise here, but quite a few of these stories deal with death as Stephen King works through some ideas about how it’ll happen, what might happen afterward, and whether there’s any kind of meaning to it all. If there’s a message to “Afterlife” it’s that hope springs eternal…and that may not be a good thing . “Mister Yummy” may not address what happens after death, but it at least paints the process of dying as something we can look forward to. And “A Death” gets the award for being one of the gloomiest stories in the book. Set in the old West, it’s actually about two deaths, both of them all the more tragic because everything leading up to them is so utterly meaningless.
“The Dune” has a couple of chilling images in it, and the story comes with a sting in the tail. “Bad Little Kid” features a kind of Dennis the Menace from Hell, and parts of this story make me very uncomfortable, since it involves a child’s death that gives someone, if not enjoyment, then a lot of satisfaction.
“Morality” was another one that unsettled me, because in spite of the fact that the situation itself was unusual, the way a relationship can crumble under its own weight of insecurities and everyday betrayal felt extremely real. The confrontations are amazingly uncomfortable, and hard to look away from; King is at his best when he writes characters in the middle of a sloppy, drunken argument. When someone spits out “You poison bitch,” you can just feel how it comes from equal parts hurt and rage.
I read the intro for “Blockade Billy” and my first thought was, “Oh crap, a baseball story. This one’s gonna be boring.” But it ended up being one of the more interesting ones in the book. The baseball terminology is laid on with a trowel, but the story pulls you in. You know the entire time that something bad is going to happen, has already happened, and by the last few pages I was biting my fingernails waiting to find out just how it all came crashing down.
“The Little Green God of Agony” was written after King began to recover from the trauma of being hit by a van. This is one of those stories that drew me in and then dropped me flat at the end. I’m still not sure what King’s overall message was here; he seems to be saying one thing about pain for half the story, then something entirely different at the end.
“Obits” was the one mentioned in the book jacket, about the man who can kill people by writing their obituary. I’ll say up front that you don’t get to find out how the main character gets this talent, or anything at all about the way it works. This would normally have ticked me off, but the bulk of the story is about life working for a seedy little gossip website – always fascinating stuff – and then there’s that moment where King gives the reader one extra bit of information about the effect of this talent, and I thought “Oh. Ohhh, crap. Yeah, that’s much worse.”
The collection wraps up with “Summer Thunder,” and I’m not gonna lie here, this one was hard to read. In it, the world’s already gone out with a bang, and now we’re just seeing the last drawn-out days of the survivors as they cope with knowing that they have nothing else to live for, and no hope of living more than a few more weeks anyway.
It’s appropriate to finish up such a dark book with a tale about the end of the world, and Stephen King does an amazing job of digging through a mass of suffering to find those last few sparks of joy, but it still made me want to flip back to reread the second-to-last story “Drunken Fireworks” (a cute, gossipy little tale of a game of one-upmanship between neighbors in a Maine vacation spot). Or maybe I’ll just find some of Stephen King’s other collections and go reread stories like “1408” or “N”, both of which are just as dark, but a lot less heartbreaking.