Featured Review: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
There’s something for everyone in Stephen King’s latest collection. Even the most avid fans who try to track down each short story as it is released will find several new tales in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.
Some of the stories were published in the customary places: magazines like The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Tin House, The Atlantic, and Cemetery Dance or in anthologies like Turn Down the Lights and A Book of Horrors, but others were released in less usual places. “Ur” and “Mile 81,” for example, were only released as eBooks. “Blockade Billy” was originally a limited edition novella. “Drunken Fireworks” was previously available only in audio. You’ve only read “Under the Weather” if you bought the paperback version of Full Dark, No Stars. And “Bad Little Kid” is the strangest case of all, previously available only as an eBook in French or German. Two of the stories, “Mister Yummy” and “Obits,” have never been published anywhere before, in any language or using any technology.
The stories date back to 2009, the year after King’s previous collection, Just After Sunset. However, a couple of the entries are actually far older. In the introduction to “Mile 81,” King says that he originally wrote the story while he was in college but lost the manuscript. Similarly, the poem “Tommy” was recreated from his memory of a college-era piece. The only short fiction King has published since 2009 not included in this collection are his collaborations with Joe Hill and Stewart O’Nan, and the contest story from Hard Listening.
In addition to a three-page general introduction to the collection, each story and poem has its own introduction that discusses its origins. These range from a brief five-line intro to “Tommy” to nearly two pages for some of the other stories. They provide an interesting look behind the curtain at that nebulous concept: inspiration. Five of the stories are novellas, ranging between 40 and 60 pages, with “Ur” the longest in the collection. The briefest is “That Bus is Another World,” save for the two poems. “Ur” has been extensively revised – I looked at the changes between the two versions in some detail in a recent essay.
One of the nice things about a collection of short stories is that it lets people discover all the different kinds of things King writes in a single volume. Over half of the stories in Bazaar are non-supernatural, and in some of them he is deliberately experimenting with different styles and literary influences. Some of the supernatural tales—“Afterlife,” for example—aren’t really horror stories, while non-supernatural stories contain horrific events. What could be more terrible than the decision made by two of the characters in “Herman Wouk is Still Alive”?
King has always been considered a Maine writer, but he has never let his roots show as clearly as he does in “Drunken Fireworks,” which is the funniest thing he has written since “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan.” It’s a laugh-out-loud story about two families, on opposite sides of a lake and from opposite ends of the social spectrum, who engage in a years-long arms race to outdo each other on the Fourth of July. The confessional nature of the story is reminiscent of Dolores Claiborne, though it’s far lighter in tone and subject matter. Several other stories in the collection use the same structure, that of a person recounting past events to another character. In “Blockade Billy,” the “listener” to the story is none other than Stephen King himself (and bonus points to the first person who identifies my stand-in in the story!). “Bad Little Kid” is a death row confessional, and “The Dune” might be thought of as death-bed confessional, of sorts. But not quite.
One of the stories that intrigued me when I first read it, and again on this re-read, was “A Death,” which is about a man accused of the murder of a young girl. His guilt or innocence isn’t the main focus of the story. It’s more about another man’s belief in the suspect’s guilt or innocence, and also in the way that King can sway readers to believe one way and then another, too. “Morality” made me think of that Woody Harrelson/Demi Moore movie Indecent Proposal. You just know that if they accept the bargain—with a minister, no less, not the devil—that nothing can ever be the same again.
Many of the tales are set in familiar King territory: New England (Maine and Vermont) or Florida, with a couple of New York City stories. You’ll find familiar names like Andy Clutterbuck, McCausland, Toomey, and places like Harlow, Castle Rock, TR-90 and Chester’s Mill. Hemingford Home, Nebraska pops up a couple of times. There are direct Dark Tower references (“Ur”) and indirect ones (“Mile 81”). I found one overt 19, but there are doubtless others. There is a cameo appearance by a library policeman, and the main character’s concerns about government interest in his ability is reminiscent of Firestarter.
“Obits” reminded me of “Everything’s Eventual,” and the minister who appears in “The Little Green God of Agony” made me think of Reverand Jacobs from Revival. “Afterlife” is a significantly different take on a recurring theme in King’s work: the chance to do it all over, as seen in the “Butterfingers” episode of Kingdom Hospital, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and, of course, the Dark Tower series. One reviewer this week pointed out that all the dogs in this collection fare poorly, and I noticed that two people commit suicide in different stories using the same, highly unusual method.
Several of the stories deal with aging and dying. “Mister Yummy” takes place in an upscale senior citizen’s complex, where the grim reaper comes in many disguises. “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” is about a son and his senile father. “The Dune” features a man who has had an inside connection to death all his life, while “Obits” is about a guy who discovers he can send people to the great beyond by writing their obituaries; however, it’s never quite that simple, is it? The main character in “Under the Weather” goes to great extremes to deny the inevitable, and the one in “Afterlife” finds out he’s done it all before—and might again. And it all comes down to this: the apocalypse and what happens thereafter, as seen in the poignant story that closes the collection, “Summer Thunder.”
When it comes to the supernatural, you get a Kindle that is a doorway to alternate realities, and the men who come to retrieve it may have abandoned their car at the rest stop at Mile 81. Did the man who is on death row for killing an unidentified child have a series of encounters with a demon during his lifetime? And does chronic, idiopathic pain, the kind that some healthcare providers deny, have sinister origins?
Not every story will be for every reader. People who don’t understand baseball will probably skim “Blockade Billy,” which would be a shame because though the sport is the vector, the story is about something far different. King admits that poetry isn’t his strong suit, and I’d have to agree with that assessment. Bill Thompson talked King out of including poetry in Night Shift, and I didn’t think “Bone Church” and “Tommy” contributed much to this collection. Readers looking for “typical” King will possibly shake their heads at the philosophical ruminations of “That Bus is Another World.”
At nearly 500 pages, this collection will keep readers entertained, amused and disturbed for many hours. I look forward to the audio version with its diverse cast of readers. You can listen to King reading his introduction to the collection here.