The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
Hodder & Stoughton
2015, pp 496, Rs 799
Stephen King has been called a master of the Horror genre, and justified it, for over 30 years. However, it’s the writing and characterisation that counts more than the theme alone, just like any other genre of storytelling. In The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, his newest collection of short stories, King shows off his skill without resorting to horror tropes.
Well, in some of them, at least. We still have monstrous cars, and apocalypse, and Fate Police. But even these stories are made readable due to King’s writing, and ability to bring readers into characters’ minds. For the rest, King manages to bring to life a wide variety of worlds, in his characters, settings and language.
In fact, the different kinds of voices he brings in are one of the highlights of the book. So we have, for example, White American Trash Come Into Money, in Drunken Fireworks. We have Professors of English, and poets, in Ur, and Herman Wouk is Alive. We have (and this is a King staple), monsters seen through the eyes of kids, in Mile 81. We have a 1950s baseball coach, in Blockade Billy. We even have King channeling Raymond Carver-style characters in Premium Harmony.
Some of the above stories may seem familiar to long-time King readers. That’s because most of them have been published standalone before. Blockade Billy, for example, was published as a slim hardcover volume, and Ur was released as a Kindle Single as part of Amazon’s Kindle promotions. Even so, this collection has a couple of new stories, and for the not-so-hardcore reader, it’s good to get all the scattered stuff in one place.
If I had to choose a favourite here, I’d have to choose the stories that show off characters more than the nasty events. ‘Batman and Robin Have an Altercation’ is about an aged father suffering from Alzheimer’s, and his son who visits him periodically. The son contrasts the current state of his father with the long-ago day when the two dressed up as superheroes for Halloween, but then the story takes a sudden turn. Another favourite is ‘Morality’, in which a sick priest asks his caretaker to commit a sin and record it, just so he can experience the feeling. The act has long-reaching consequences, though not in the way you expect.
‘Drunken Fireworks’ is a story about how a nouveau rich white-trash family takes on old money in a fireworks competition across a lake. You can just imagine King grinning as he wrote this one, leading inexorably to the only ending that makes sense — but you’re having too much fun reading about the characters to care. And in ‘A Death’, King is writing a crime thriller with the background of the Wild West. The style of this one is reminiscent of a 60s pulp fiction collection.
For a Stephen King collection, it’s unexpected that all these favourites are “normal” stories, not “horror” stories. It doesn’t immediately follow that his “normal” stories are always better — there are a couple of “normal” stories that didn’t work for me, either. And at least one “horror” story — ‘Under the Weather’ — has no supernatural elements, but amps up the creep factor purely because of the atmosphere.
Probably the biggest disappointments for me were the most popular stories that had been published before. ‘Mile 81’, for example, has a wimp-out, improbable, ending. ‘Ur’ features the horror equivalent of “it was all a dream, there are no consequences for anyone”. Some others are way too predictable, or too arbitrary, to really leave an impact. But here’s the thing: when asked to choose which stories they don’t like, people tend to choose different King stories from the same collection. And when a story works, it just works, beautifully.
An additional feature of this book is the introduction that King adds to each story, explaining how he got the inspiration for it. These introductions are just as interesting as the stories themselves, since they give us an insight into a writer’s mind. In one introduction, he mentions that one half of the following story sat in his mental attic like a “cup without a handle”. It was only recently that the rest of the story came to him — the handle, so to speak, that made the cup usable. What an excellent metaphor for an author’s stock of ideas! Some of the stories are directly inspired by other authors or styles, and he mentions this, too, in the introduction.
The subtitle for this book: Thrilling Stories, is the right one. Whether “horror” or “normal”, King goes for the eventful, the life-changing (or life-ending), the twist, all the stuff that raises the pulse of the reader without resorting to pure action. Would this collection work as an introduction to King? Actually, yes. Whether new or old, every reader is likely to enjoy this book.