Monday, 21 December 2015

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, reviewed by Steve Shaw

Much as I love King’s novels, it’s with his shorter writings that my heart lies. Maybe it’s because my first experience of SK was his 1982 novella collection "Different Seasons", which I read in my early teens. Maybe it’s because my favourite of all King’s work is a short story (‘All That You Love Will Be Carried Away’). Maybe it’s because I have a short attention span. Whatever the reason, my preference has certainly been indulged over the years, with nine collections of short stories and/or novellas to date (ten if you count "Hearts in Atlantis", but I don’t), comprising 85 short stories, 20 novellas, 3 poems and one essay.

"The Bazaar of Bad Dreams", then, represents King’s tenth collection in 40 years – a pretty prolific output in anyone’s book – and adds another 16 shorts, 2 novellas and 2 poems to the tally. The book is presented as (from the dust jacket) “a generous collection of stories – some brand new, all assembled together for the first time,” and whilst this is technically true, it should be noted that only two of the 20 pieces are previously unpublished, with one further receiving its first English language publication and one which has previously only been released in audio format. That said, the majority of the remainder were published in magazines – most of which are not readily available in this country – so for UK readers at least this is a (mostly) new read.

On that note, to the tales themselves…

Mile 81 (first published as a Kindle exclusive ebook, September 2011)
In which an abandoned rest stop provides the backdrop for an unlikely monster.
Mile 81 returns to one of King’s favourite themes: the openness of a child’s mind to accept things which older heads would be unable to grasp. On this occasion, it falls to pre-teen Pete Simmons – abandoned by his brother for being too young to play with the elder sibling and his friends – to deal with events at a broken-down rest stop near the titular Interstate marker. A reasonably good example of King’s monster stories, it suffers slightly from an ending which feels almost throw-away, as if the author thought “I have to finish this somehow… well, this’ll do.” Aside from the last few pages, a strong, well-written piece reminiscent of "Nightmares & Dreamscapes"-era King, and a decent opener.

Premium Harmony (first published in The New Yorker, November 2009)
In which nothing really happens.
In his introduction to ‘Premium Harmony’, King references reading a lot of Raymond Carver while he was writing this story. It certainly has that sort of feel to it – a window opens on everyday life, events occur, then the window closes again – but with an added touch of King’s black humour. Ray and Mary Burkett, along with their Jack Russell, pull into the parking lot of a convenience store, so that Mary can buy a particular ball. Events unfold from there, but there really isn’t much more to say about this one.

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation (first published in Harper’s Magazine, September 2012)
In which Dougie takes his Dad to lunch.
Another ‘slice-of-life’ piece, and one of a number in this collection which show King contemplating his own mortality more than ever before. Dougie’s father lives in a care home, and once a week his son takes him out to lunch. The rest of the tale unfolds from there, as Dougie deals with his father’s Alzheimer’s and confused memories. Ultimately a more successful story than its predecessor, with a conclusion that should bring emotion to the stoniest of faces.

The Dune (first published in Granta, Autumn 2011)
In which the Judge goes kayaking.
Retired Judge Beecher relates his experiences kayaking to a deserted island, where he finds names written on the beach; names whose owners subsequently die. Although thematically completely different, for some reason this piece reminds me of ‘The Jaunt’ (collected in Skeleton Crew). A return to early, Night Shift-era King, for a tale of the inexplicable with a satisfyingly wry ending.

Bad Little Kid (previously unpublished in the English language)
In which George ages, but the kid doesn’t.
One of King’s favourite frameworks is to place his protagonist in a given situation and have them recount key events, either to the reader or a third party, leading to an explanation of their current circumstances (see The Green Mile, amongst many, many others). Such is the case here, where George Hallam explains to his death row lawyer the events that led to his incarceration for murdering the titular Kid. One of the stand-out stories in this collection.

A Death (first published in The New Yorker, March 2015)
In which justice is served.
A slight tale of Western justice, as Jim is arrested and judged for the murder of a young girl in the late 19th Century. This is a piece that is less about the story and more about the telling and the language used, and one that provoked no response in me whatsoever.

The Bone Church (first published in Playboy, November 2009)
In which a jungle expedition goes badly.
I have never been a big reader of poetry, and King’s poems in particular have always left me flat, so I won’t have much to say about the two included here. ‘The Bone Church’ concerns a group of explorers in an unnamed jungle, who meet their end one-by-one due to snakes, spiders, leeches and, eventually, mammoths. Another piece which said nothing at all to me.

Morality (first published in Esquire, July 2009. Subsequently as a bonus story in Blockade Billy, April 2010)
In which Nora has a decision to make.
I first encountered ‘Morality’ at the same time as ‘Blockade Billy’, as a bonus story in the latter’s eponymous hardback in 2010. I recall preferring this to the main feature at the time, and revisiting it my position hasn’t changed. Nora works as a carer for an elderly man who has led an exemplary life with one thing missing – he has never committed a major sin. Now, in his final years, he hits upon an idea: if he can persuade Nora to sin for him by proxy, he can vicariously experience not only the sin itself, but also the corruption of the previously (relatively) innocent. An interesting idea leads to a thoughtful piece addressing one of the oldest questions: how far would you go for the right reward?

Afterlife (first published in Tin House, June 2013)
In which William dies…at least once.
A more whimsical tale, as investment banker William Andrews dies and goes to bureaucratic limbo, where he is presented with a choice… A fun, if lightweight, cyclical piece, which serves as an excellent palate cleanser between the tales that bookend it.

Ur (first published as a Kindle exclusive ebook, February 2009)
In which Wesley buys a Kindle.
Ur’ is another story I was already familiar with before picking up this collection, having listened to the audiobook reading several times, and is – for me at least – the strongest story here. It concerns Wesley Smith, English teacher, whose purchase of a Kindle is prompted by a break-up, during which his girlfriend asks why he can’t “read off the computer like the rest of us?” Upon examining the device, Wesley finds that it has an unexpected menu, which allows him to read stories from other ‘Urs’ (dimensions? realities?) Of particular interest to Wesley is discovering that, in other Urs, Hemingway (among others) wrote different works, which have never been seen before. However, this discovery is tempered when Wes investigates two other functions: Ur News, which displays newspapers from other dimensions, and Ur Local, which seems to predict the future in this one… This is a well-rounded, satisfying story which, as a bonus, links back to King’s overarching Dark Tower mythos at the end, with a welcome return appearance by the Low Men in Yellow Coats.

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive (first published in The Atlantic, May 2011)
In which a picnic is rudely interrupted.
Phil and Pauline, both in their seventies, both poets, are picnicking and reading each other’s work. Meanwhile, Brenda and her friend Jaz, along with their collection of kids, are drinking and driving, wondering how fast their rented minivan will go – a question which is ultimately answered before a sudden unexpected stop. Another one of those stories where the destination is less important than the journey; unfortunately, for me, the journey was about as interesting as the interstate that features in it.

Under the Weather (first published as a bonus story in the paperback edition of Full Dark, No Stars, May 2011)
In which Ellen becomes unwell.
An unnamed narrator cares for his sickening wife, who sleeps a lot, in an apartment building which has a curious rotting smell, probably due to rats. If you’ve ever read a story before, you will already know what the ending of this one is, but that doesn’t mean that the tale isn’t worth your time. Predictable, and yet well-written and touching.

Blockade Billy (first published as a stand-alone novella, April 2010)
In which the story of a 1950s baseball player is told.
I had read ‘Blockade Billy’ on its original release in 2010, but not since, and I didn’t remember much about it, other than it had to do with baseball. Revisiting the story five years later, I can see why it wasn’t memorable. It is, of course, well-written, but baseball is such a big part of it that I think it loses something when read by non-US readers. The story itself is pretty simple – George Grantham, third base coach for the New Jersey Titans, relates the history of William Blakeley, a ball player whose major league career has been expunged from the record books. The story hangs on two things: firstly, the aforementioned love of baseball, and secondly, the reason why Billy’s career was forgotten. This last could have turned it around for me, but ultimately the ‘twist’ just didn’t hold my interest, and I was left feeling both disappointed and somewhat cheated.

Mister Yummy (previously unpublished)
In which Ollie sees a spirit which predicts death.
Yes, we’re here again. Another elderly man, close to death, in a retirement home, relates the story of how bizarre things happened to him; this time it’s a premonition whenever someone close to him is about to die. At this point, King could put together a collection solely comprised of these ‘old man flashback tales.’ That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, and this isn’t necessarily a bad story, but we’ve been here before.

Tommy (first published in Playboy, March 2010)
In which Tommy’s funeral is held.
A highly personal poem, in which King reminisces over the funeral of a friend 40+ years on.

The Little Green God of Agony (first published in A Book of Horrors (ed. Stephen Jones, Jo Fletcher Books), September 2011)
In which a healer is summoned, and summons in return.
Following a plane crash, Newsome is bed-ridden and in near constant pain. Having tried multiple different therapies, he finally seeks help from Reverend Rideout, who offers to literally, physically, remove the agony. In many ways the dark reflection of ‘Morality’ – a corrupt man instead of a virtuous one; a man who seeks to be rid of an experience, rather than have a new one – ‘The Little Green God of Agony’ is clearly inspired by King’s own recuperation after his accident in 1999. Unfortunately, whilst entertaining, it falls short of mirroring the earlier story in quality.

That Bus Is Another World (first published in Esquire, August 2014)
In which Wilson has a decision to make.
Another slight tale, this one of a man who, while riding in a cab, witnesses a murder on a bus in the next lane. The story here, however, is not the crime itself, but rather how Wilson chooses to deal with what he’s seen. Another story inspired by a true event (although not a killing), this is another mirror to ‘Morality’, thematically this time, and more successfully rendered than its predecessor.

Obits (previously unpublished)
In which a journalist discovers an unusual, and unwanted, talent.
‘Obits’ is very much a treatise on celebrity obsession; our protagonist is an online journalist for a celebrity ‘news’ site, writing acerbic obituaries for dead pseudo-celebrities, who finds that writing obits before the subject is dead becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the most literal way. One of the most accomplished stories in the collection – and also, tellingly, one of the most recent – this tale gives me hope that maybe the best of King’s short stories are not yet behind him.

Drunken Fireworks (first published as a stand-alone audiobook, June 2015)
In which a lakeside arms race is sparked off by a few firecrackers.
Alden McCausland and his mother live by Lake Abenaki, after winning big on the State Lottery. One July 4th, Alden celebrates with fireworks, resulting in an annual battle with the shady Italian family across the lake. An interesting idea which could have led to great things, but which ultimately turn out to be a damp squib.

Summer Thunder (first published in Turn Down the Lights (ed. Richard Chizmar, Cemetery Dance Publications), December 2013)
In which Robinson’s world ends, in a manner of his choosing.
As King says himself in his introduction to this piece, “What better place to end a collection than with a story about the end of the world?” Set not long after an unspecified apocalypse, it finds Robinson, his neighbour Timlin, and a stray dog named Gandalf the only survivors of a lakeside community. Another musing on mortality, choices and love for a 1986 Harley Davidson Softail, it is a pleasant, if uninspiring, closer to the collection.

A number of things are immediately obvious after finishing this collection. A lot of the characters are older, as might be expected from an author in his late 60s, and a good number of his tales are now set in Florida, where he and his wife spend half of each year. One other thing is also evident to me – this is not the same Stephen King who wrote "Night Shift", "Skeleton Crew"or even "Everything’s Eventual". This is not the King who told us of eyes growing in the palms of hands, shipwrecked surgeons turned auto-cannibals and decapitated women giving birth; this is the King who tells of old men dying peacefully in their beds, and who spins stories where, frankly, nothing happens. The stand-out stories here – ‘Obits’, ‘Ur’, ‘Bad Little Kid’ – give hope that there may be more quality to come, but ultimately "The Bazaar of Bad Dreams" is merely interesting, rather than outstanding.


Steve J Shaw is a fan who's not sure how he lucked into the business. From his draughty garret somewhere in the Kent countryside he has created the most compact of horror empires, now comprising one clothing company and two publishing imprints. As editor, his most recent books are Wild Things, from Black Shuck Books, and Play Things & Past Times, from KnightWatch Press. 

Steve can be found online in all the wrong places, one of which is his website at Great British Horror.

No comments:

Post a Comment