The Bazaar of Bad Dreams might be Stephen King at his most literary. Not that the distinction should really matter. Whether its horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or he’s telling it to you straight, King is a master of the short form. And his latest collection is just the cherry on top.
King brings his entire repertoire of voices to this collection and shows why he’s become such a cross-genre success over the years. You only have to look at where these stories were published. Yes, some of these stories come from the traditional places: Esquire, Cemetery Dance, and Playboy. Yet four of the first six stories in the book come from high establishments such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Granta. Not that being published in one or the other signifies quality, but King is certainly deserving of the contemporary literary canon here. In fact, these stories may even be the high points among the creepier reads.
Academics and critics who are still wondering why this man has become such a staple of American letters should finally be put to ease after reading stories like “Premium Harmony,” “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” “The Dune,” and “A Death,” which showcase a harsh realism and induce a surprising sense of dread you would think would only come packaged with King’s horror tales. You’ll see in Bazaar of Bad Dreams that the voices can change from one story to the next, but the dread is all King. That comes naturally.
And they’re emotionally taxing, too. At several points while reading these stories, I had to put the book down. Because I was terrified, not due to the monster under the bed (although there’s still plenty of that—”Mile 81″ is particularly good!), but the very real tragedies that weave their way through the book, whether in life or death. For example, in “Premium Harmony,” which also has a bit of a funny bone, we’re forced to sit through a cruel, unhappy marriage —the oldest story in the book: two kids who were crazy about each other now grown fat and old, bickering over the cost of cigarettes. King gives us lines like:
They’ve been married for ten years and for a long time everything was okay—swell—but now they argue. Now they argue quite a lot. It’s really all the same argument. It has circularity. It is, Ray sometimes thinks, like a dog track. When they argue they’re like greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. You go past the same scenery time after time, but you don’t see the landscape. You see the rabbit.
King wrote this particular story with Raymond Carver, another master of the American short story, in mind, and that shows through with the mundane setting and minimalist detail. But as always, King bleeds through and death quickly approaches one of the characters, and it’s sad and painful. Not for the remaining character, who wonders if maybe now he/she can get “a mercy fuck” from one of the witnesses, but for you. You’ve had to sit through the whole thing.
It’s interesting, too, King’s view on death. Where in the past, deaths in his stories were always somehow special, whether because they meant something or were particularly gruesome, in these stories death is just a thing that happens. I like this approach. By giving no one anything notable in the end, the quick silence after a character’s demise holds that much more weight. Maybe this is King after years of reading Cormac McCarthy (he attributes one of his novels, Rose Madder, to McCarthy), whose own fictional universe is cruel and mundane and full of death.
But there are monster stories, too, for anyone looking for a more traditional King experience. “Mile 81” is a twist on a trick King has used plenty of times before: killer machines—not robots, but the things we use and take for granted every day. This time, it’s a muddied pick-up truck decidly broken down in front of an abandoned rest stop on a Maine highway. King takes us through the lives and ends of several characters who try to be good samaritans, only to meet cruel fates each time. And when King throws a couple of kids into the mix, your heart starts beating much faster. Surely, he wont…
More often than not, he does.
There’s plenty to dig into with this collection, but one of its most interesting aspects is how it acts as a follow-up to King’s masterful book on the craft of writing, On Writing. Each story begins with a little introduction about how King came up with the idea, the process of writing the story, and what he thinks of the finished product. These little interludes offer a unique look into the writer’s mind, but not in a pretentious way.
You’re not reading King’s journals here. He’s chatting with you over a beer, talking craft, showing you that he’s still learning, still struggles at times, and is no closer to figuring out the mystery of the creative process than the next guy. As other Constant Readers will attest to, King’s intros are always as interesting as his actual stories. He’s the Crypt Keeper that steals the show before the story actually gets going. His musings before each tale are a welcome addition.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams stands to be one of King’s best collections ever, if not one of his best books. Period. A reader will find endless entertainment, and even moments where he/she will have to put the book down out of dread. And writers will get a welcome look at how the King works, even if by the end, you regret entering the dark depths of his mind in the first place.