Synopsis: A master storyteller at his best—the O. Henry Prize winner Stephen King delivers a generous collection of stories, several of them brand-new, featuring revelatory autobiographical comments on when, why, and how he came to write (or rewrite) each story.
Since his first collection, Nightshift, published thirty-five years ago, Stephen King has dazzled readers with his genius as a writer of short fiction. In this new collection he assembles, for the first time, recent stories that have never been published in a book. He introduces each with a passage about its origins or his motivations for writing it. There are thrilling connections between stories; themes of morality, the afterlife, guilt, what we would do differently if we could see into the future or correct the mistakes of the past.
“Afterlife” is about a man who died of colon cancer and keeps reliving the same life, repeating his mistakes over and over again. Several stories feature characters at the end of life, revisiting their crimes and misdemeanors. Other stories address what happens when someone discovers that he has supernatural powers—the columnist who kills people by writing their obituaries in “Obits;” the old judge in “The Dune” who, as a boy, canoed to a deserted island and saw names written in the sand, the names of people who then died in freak accidents. In “Morality,” King looks at how a marriage and two lives fall apart after the wife and husband enter into what seems, at first, a devil’s pact they can win. Magnificent, eerie, utterly compelling, these stories comprise one of King’s finest gifts to his constant reader—“I made them especially for you,” says King. “Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.
In addition to writing novels, novellas, comic adaptations, and screenplays, Stephen King often tries his hand at the short story. His latest collection of short tales -- the sixth in his long and illustrious career -- dropped this week and I finished reading it last night. I'm quite happy to say this is (in my humble opinion, of course) his best collection of short stories since 1985's Skeleton Crew and, arguably, his most consistent collection yet. Clocking in at almost 500 pages and chocked full of works -- eighteen stories and two poems -- there isn't a word out of place here. Each story deserves to be here, improving on the one before it.
Before I go any further, yes, I realize this all sounds like the rabid love of a fanboy. And, yes, I am a Stephen King fanboy. He's my favorite author. However, I do pride myself on being able to call out bad work from him when I see it. I don't think Firestarter is so grand, and The Dark Half seems clunky. And if we're talking short stories, I don't like some of the tales to be found in Everything's Eventual and Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Those are still good collections, mind, but they're not for me. That's the thing about King -- his writing is so varied that there's something for everyone (and that, inadvertently, means no one is going to like everything he releases), and no where has that ever been more apparent than in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, an eclectic buffet of everything King does well.
Stories like opener "Mile 81" and "Bad Little Kid" show the King of Horror is unafraid to still stick his claws in his Constant Readers every now and then, even after all these years. These stories bring to mind vintage King stories while still feeling fresh and invigorating. However, horror stories are not all this collection has to offer. Almost every story within these pages does have an edge, but most are so much more than simple genre stories. (And that's not to say "Mile 81" or "Bad Little Kid" don't compare to the other works to be found here -- quite the opposite. Those were two of my favorites in the book, and they're not just genre stories either. And the titular bad little kid will haunt my dreams for quite some time...)
The theme of this book seems to be death, but not just the scary aspects of it. The stories -- "Afterlife", "Mister Yummy", "Batman and Robin Have An Altercation", "Premium Harmony", and "Summer Thunder" chief among them -- are among King's most literary works yet. They show an author with more years behind than in front ruminating on the aging process and what comes after we pass away, something also explored in King's recent novel, Revival. The author is now sixty-eight, and it's only natural to assume these stories are, at least in some way, autobiographical. I know it's hubris to read into the stories like that and try to connect them to the author's personal life, but I couldn't help think about it during the reading. These stories show more mature and nuanced looks at death and dying than we've ever seen from King before. The fiction shows that death can, in fact, be a comfort -- as seen in "Mister Yummy". And while it might not be a comfort for some like it is others, the afterlife maybe isn't so bad, as seen in "Afterlife" (my favorite story in the collection, by the way). Eventually, the process of dying becomes the running thread of the collection -- from the grisly murders via possessed alien car in the first story to the apocalypse in "Summer Thunder". And what happens between birth and death -- what happens on that strange highway we call life -- is the real terror. Sometimes real life is scary enough, or so these stories show. There's no need for vampires or clowns when dementia and nuclear bombs alike exist in the real world and are, therefore, much more frightening.
If I'm completely honest, I'm finding myself at a loss of what to say. This collection is so good that it has turned my thoughts to mush. As I said before, this book has it all. King's humorous side is on display in "Drunken Fireworks" -- a story reminiscent of a (much) lighter Dolores Claiborne. "A Death" is a wonderful historical piece that took a reread to fully appreciate, but once I got it, I really got it. "The Dune", another personal favorite of mine, and one that that would have fit in well in Skeleton Crew, is one of the only supernatural outings here. It's a corker. In it, a man has lived his life with a private addiction that has been a driving force for eighty years. The story's end is one of King's best, causing me to gasp and then chuckle. And, of course, there are two poems that ain't so bad. Stephen King will never be a renowned poet, but these two -- especially "Tommy" -- are just fine.
"Herman Wouk is Still Alive" is shockingly gritty and real, and the decision made by two of the main characters is among the darkest in all of King's oeuvre. "Under the Weather", another horror story...kind of...supplies the gross-out necessary in any good King book, and the narrator's gradual descent into denial and insanity brings to mind Louis Creed from Pet Sematary. "Ur", a story I didn't think I'd like much, ended up being another favorite. With alternative universes to explore and copious Dark Tower references, this story is a definite winner. "The Little Green God Of Agony" brings to mind Revival, and what is most shocking is the twist to be found within. No, not the fact there is an actual little God of agony within someone, but how wrong our assumptions can be about people, no matter how sure we think we are.
What I'd really love to do is review every story in detail, dedicating an entire blog post to each one. They deserve that much attention, but... then again, all of King's short fiction does. Maybe one day that'll happen, but for now this review will have to do.
In case you haven't already picked up on it, I really, really dug this book. Just After Sunset was a phenomenal collection, but The Bazaar of Bad Dreams beats it simply for its length, scope, and variety. Every story packs a punch, and King's precision in writing memorable short stories is nothing but astounding, especially at this late date. It brings to mind Skeleton Crew and Night Shift, and that makes this fanboy quite happy. Buy it as soon as possible.