Nightmares & Dreamscapes
Viking • 1993 • 816 pages
A Collection Critique
Stephen King's third true short story collection (excepting the novella anthologies Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight and the collection/novel The Gunslinger), Nightmares & Dreamscapes is longer than either Night Shift or Skeleton Crew (approaching their combined page count), and features the same basic structure as those earlier collections: a strong, fast-paced opening selection, a reflective final selection, with like pieces paired throughout. However, while this collection features some of King's strongest work - short or otherwise - it also features some of the weakest fiction he has ever written. Cohesion, then, suffers: the unevenness of the selections forces readers to view Nightmares & Dreamscapes as simply a collection of works, rather than as a single unified work, unlike Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, and the later Just After Sunset.
The variety of the work showcased in Nightmares & Dreamscapes works both for and against the collection. The breadth of material included is interesting and exciting - in addition to short stories, King also includes a teleplay, a poem, and a long nonfiction piece, as well as a short parable that functions as an epilogue. Additionally, Nightmares & Dreamscapes incorporates a number of pastiches - some more successful than others - showing King experimenting and trying his hand at fiction beyond his comfort zone. While it is refreshing to witness King trying new types of writing, both in content and in style, these elements reinforce the off-kilter nature of Nightmares & Dreamscapes.
The opening story, the brilliant "Dolan's Cadillac," is a tale of revenge inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Robinson, King's avenging main character, is drawn well -- the reasoning behind his anger, and, eventually his madness, is understandable (if horrifying), bringing to mind Louis Creed's descent into insanity in Pet Sematary. King takes great pains to make the story feasible, infusing the somewhat fantastic tale with facts and rudimentary mathematics: without belaboring the point, King reveals in detail how and when trapping a Cadillac underground would be possible. The final confrontation between Robinson and Dolan is chilling, one of the scariest sequences in the collection. While Poe sets the parameters, "Dolan's Cadillac" is very much King's own story. If it is not as impressive an opener as Skeleton Crew's "The Mist," it is certainly more approachable an homage than "Jerusalem's Lot," the Lovecraftian tale with which King opens Night Shift.
As before, the selections are arranged for effect rather than chronology, chosen from King's vast backlog of uncollected pieces. "The End of the Whole Mess" is perhaps King's most successful venture into science fiction (rivaling "I Am the Doorway" and "The Jaunt), and "Suffer the Little Children" is a chillingly devious update of James's The Turn of the Screw, forcing the reader to question whether the horror is supernatural or psychological. Both "The Night Flier" and "Popsy" are thrilling new takes on vampires. "Popsy" in particular is one of the more unsettling tales in this volume, a disturbing glimpse into a kidnapper's mind and the way he rationalizes his actions. In both tales, the protagonists are so unlikable that the reader is forced to sympathize with the monster.
These fine initial stories, however, give way to some of Nightmares & Dreamscapes' less successful attempts. "It Grows On You," radically changed from its original story, tries too hard to connect to King's Castle Rock mythos and subjugates the more interesting supernatural elements to the background. Unfortunately, this revision comes across as dull, and the twist at the end is both unsurprising and uninspired. Similarly frustrating is "My Pretty Pony," originally intended as a Richard Bachman/George Stark novel. The basic thrust of the story - a grandfather relaying gentle, adult wisdom to his grandson - intends to come across as endearing and sweet, but the story drags, and certain details (allusions to incest among them) undercut the mood King tries to achieve.
Several tales here come across as overlong, a problem afflicting some of his novels, but rarely his shorter works (with the exception of "The Sun Dog," from Four Past Midnight). "Chattery Teeth" is one of King's stories that might have been better served without a supernatural element (as in Cujo or The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). The main character, Bill Hogan, and his situation with a violent hitchhiker is far more interesting than the eponymous teeth, which seem a distraction from the story rather than the center. "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" is cast in the "Children of the Corn" mold, in which a young couple drive into a town where Things Are Wrong; the concept of a town populated by dead rock stars is interesting, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.
"The Ten O'Clock People" is arguably the worst piece of fiction King has ever published. Thoroughly tedious and relentlessly directionless, the story attempts to comment metaphorically on the struggles of quitting smoking, in ways similar to the far better "Stationary Bike" and its take on weight loss. But while the latter features a unique if simple narrative, utilizing (and in some ways improving on) the magic realism upon which the novel Rose Madder depends, the former falls flat as routine monster story that offers no new insights or angles. Even the somewhat interesting concept of certain people able to see/sense the vampire-creatures is executed far better in Wolves of the Calla. On every level, "The Ten O'Clock People" is a failure, reading like a bad parody of a Stephen King story.
Fortunately, the collection improves radically from here. "Crouch End" continues a trend of Lovecraft-inspired stories like "Jerusalem's Lot" and "The Mist" (not to mention King's later story, "N."), at once exciting and unsettling, with a truly frightening finale. While "Rainy Season" follows the same archetypes as "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," it's far more strange and fun, as must any story be involving toads with razor-sharp teeth falling from the sky. "The Moving Finger" is similarly bizarre (and hilarious), an off-the-wall example of the supernatural intruding abruptly into the mundane world of ordinary people. King's first published teleplay, "Sorry, Right Number" is ghoulish and creepy, reading as easily as Silver Bullet and the later Storm of the Century, proving that King's work is accessible in a variety of mediums. "Home Delivery," King's first take on zombie mythology, features one of King's best female characters, Maddie Pace. Though she bears some similarities to Frannie Goldsmith in The Stand - both women are determined to give birth despite the apocalypse - King infuses Maddie with her own life. Over the course of this short story, we watch her grow from an indecisive wallflower to a strong, independent woman, all against the backdrop of the zombie invasion. Unlike "Chattery Teeth," the supernatural here is woven intimately into the lives of the characters, making it seem both necessary and organic.
King's first collected nonfiction piece, "Head Down," may not work for every reader. First published in The New Yorker, "Head Down" chronicles King's son Owen's 1989 Little League season. While it is clear that King has a passion for baseball, this piece (like his later contributions to Faithful) is largely inaccessible for readers who are not fans of the sport. Conversely, King's fiction writing on baseball - especially The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Blockade Billy - manages to convey the excitement King feels for baseball without alienating non-fans. If "Brooklyn August," Nightmares & Dreamcapes' closing piece, is any indication, this same holds true for poetry: written in evocative free verse, "Brooklyn August" is a terrific finale to this volume, as quiet and moving in its way as "The Woman In the Room" and "The Reach."
The two best stories in the volume are among King's most successful pieces of fiction. In "Umney's Last Case," King invokes Raymond Chandler - in tone, setting, and even characters - in this dark examination of a writer's relationship and responsibility to his characters. Continuing motifs King has broached in Misery, The Dark Half, and "Secret Window, Secret Garden," "Umney's Last Case" wonders what happens when a character's life is better than that of the author writing him, and how the author might go about switching roles. Even more so than King's Sherlock Holmes story ("The Doctor's Case," actually set in the universe of Holmes and Watson), "Umney's Last Case" is a tour de force of detective fiction, with a fascinating supernatural twist and a dark, just ending.
On the other hand, "The House On Maple Street" (the only illustrated story in the book, inspired as it was by a picture and title from the Chris Van Allsburg book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick), this is scary science fiction story with one of King's most optimistic endings. In the mode of classic Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury short stories (the children in the story are even named Bradbury), the storyline is simple and direct: the children are beset upon by their brute of a stepfather, a brute of a man who yells, bullies, and frightens. One day, the youngest Bradbury child discovers that something is growing within the structure of the house. What it is and how it does its job complete this finely told, brilliantly crafted story of hope and redemption.
As with some of King's needlessly long novels, one is forced to wonder how much more compelling and vital this book would seem with further editing, and excision of selections that simply don't work. Not quite on par with Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, or Just After Sunset, this collection nevertheless retains the structure and intent of those other volumes, and includes some of his best short fiction to date.