The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
Scribner • 2015 • 512 pages
A Collection Critique
King’s previous short-story collection, Just After Sunset, signaled a return to the qualities that made Night Shift and Skeleton Crew so successful: short works chosen and ordered in a way that reading them as a piece approximated the feel and sweep of King’s best novels. Nightmares & Dreamscapescontained some of King’s best stories, but its overlength (both on the book and frequently on the story level) worked against it; the “mixtape” method of Everything’s Eventual’s story selection – arranged by chance rather than by methodology – weakened the effect of some of the book’s strongest stories, never allowing the book to attain a steady momentum. King’s newest collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, retains the quality of Just After Sunset, and maybe even improves upon it.
It’s hard not to compare collection to collection, especially the story in the pole position. Night Shift’s audaciously Lovecraftian “Jerusalem’s Lot” and Skeleton Crew’s ambitious “The Mist” are standards by which all other collection openers will be judged – the other three collections’ kickoff tales vary in effectiveness, the most impactful being the subversively quiet “Willa” from “Just After Sunset.” Here, we start with “Mile 81,” rife with so many classic Stephen King motifs it’s almost a distillation of the man’s content and style. It’s a claustrophobic story, depending on its twin feelings of dread and doom for much of its effectiveness, but like those first two collection starters, there are monsters at the heart of “Mile 81.” One, specifically: a nasty car whose initial presence seems to indicate that King is borrowing on his past. Though the car’s powers are quite different than that of Christine or the Roadmaster in From a Buick 8 (or the vehicles in “Trucks” or “Uncle Otto’s Truck”), King is absolutely working with the same tools. But the car isn’t really the point, but the supernatural elements never are. It all comes down to character, and beyond anything, “Mile 81” works as a prime example in how to create real, fleshed-out characters in just a few paragraphs.
Some of the people who approach the car – their mistake – are only “onscreen” for a few pages, yet we understand their motivations, their habits, their irritations, and the reasons why they stop to investigate the inexplicable. We know them so well, and they all seem like such nice people, it’s almost unbearable to watch them die. That’s part of what distinguishes “Mile 81” from Christine and From a Buick 8: Christine was fueled by rage and the Buick by the very nature of mystery. The car here plays on basic human kindness to do its dirty work; it’s the kindness of strangers (and sometimes concern for loved ones) that dooms almost everyone in this story.
From there, we wade into “Premium Harmony,” and the book’s themes begin to emerge. Quite a few of the tales in Bazaar aren’t supernatural, nor are they outright horror. “Premium Harmony” is the story of Ray and Mary Burkett, a couple whose marriage is failing in passive bursts; that passivity defines “Premium Harmony”: in the wake of their dull argument, a pair of tragedies slam into Ray Burkett’s life, tragedies that should rock him out of his stupor. That they fail to do so – indeed, that they only seem to enhance his life, however trivially – would be heartbreaking, if breaking hearts is what King had intended. There’s a similar tone to “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” which homes in on a man and his elderly father with a secret or two up his sleeve. “Altercation” also features a shocking, almost random death, and the horror comes from the necessity of everyday life to assert itself in the wake of bloodshed. There are echoes of this in “Blockade Billy,” where slaughter and bloodshed can’t derail the institution of baseball, and in “That Bus Is Another World,” where murder is just another roadblock on the way to getting to a meeting on time.
In novels, King has long enjoyed taking a single motif and exploring it at different angles – note his “wild talent” books Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter, or his “writing” books Misery, The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones – and it’s fascinating to see him doing it in the micro. “The Dune,” “Bad Little Kid,” and “Mister Yummy,” and “Ur” all focus on people who see harbingers of death, and how they react. That fact that two of these are outright horror stories (one with an absolutely chilling last line), one is gadget science fiction, and one is more an elegiac sigh of a tale along the lines of Night Shift’s “The Reach” shows the flexibility of both the concept and the author. “Morality,” “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” and “Under the Weather” all feature people trapped by circumstance making desperate choices; whether these are for the better or for the worse are up to the reader to decide.
Some of the stories seem variations on themes King has explored in the past. “Obits,” one of the best stories here, recalls the story “Everything’s Eventual” in both its main character’s ability to kill by proxy, as well as the Gen Y/Millennial milieu and language King uses to great effect. “A Death” supposes what might happen if The Green Mile’s John Coffey was not quite as saintly, subverting that book’s message. “Afterlife” forwards one of King’s main obsessions, “hell is repetition,” first explored in “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French,” and expanded in The Dark Tower. It also manages to tackle big questions for such a quiet story: whether free will is real, whether sin is ingrained, and whether people really have the ability to change their natures. “Tommy,” one of the book’s two poems, would have fit in nicely in King’s novel/collection Hearts in Atlantis (the other, a narrative poem called “The Bone Church,” is arguably the weakest selection here; it improves greatly by Cotter Smith’s narration on the audiobook version). “Drunken Fireworks” takes on the half-funny, half intense feel of “L.T.’s Theory of Pets”; though there aren’t any serial killers in evidence, the title basically underscores the inevitable trauma. And then there’s “The Little Green God of Agony,” a story of body horror along the lines of Night Shift’s “I Am the Doorway” or “Gray Matter” ... but much, much scarier.
We end in the post-apocalypse. “Summer Thunder” very much recalls King’s first closer, “The Reach,” as the story of a person nearly at the end of his life, and desire to go out with a little dignity. This isn’t The Stand or even “Night Surf” – it’s a smaller, arguably sadder work, unusually powerful in its almost unsentimental look at the end of everything. For a collection so concerned with human death, pain, and the bargains we make with ourselves to stay sane and afloat, “Summer Thunder” is the perfect finale.
King introduces each of the stories and poems here, offering tidbits about the genesis of each or why he felt compelled to write them. So many years after Skeleton Crew concluded with “Notes,” this device of King talking directly to his audience still excites, still illuminates, whether or not knowing the stories behind the stories enhances a reader’s enjoyment of them. Showcasing King’s continued mastery of and renewed enthusiasm for the short story as he continues to tackle different angles, different themes, and different types of characters nearly fifty years into his career, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is one of King’s strongest collections yet.