May 7, 2016


by Stephen King
496 pages, Hodder and Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

I’ve got a joke, but it doesn’t work in written form. You have to say it aloud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Like people used to do, in schools, pubs and offices, before the internet.

Excuse me? I’m not your “grandad”.

Anyway, here goes:

Two guys go into a shop. Every available space is taken up with desserts – and it seems to be the same dish. On every shelf, there are hundreds upon hundreds of glass bowls filled with a layer of red jelly, a layer of custard, and a layer of cream on top. 

Guy one: “This is a bit strange, don’t you think?”

Guy two: “It is a trifle bizarre.”

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is not trifle, but it is jam. If the first cut is the deepest then for Stephen King that opening slice was a short story. He keeps going back to them, and we keep going back with him. He is quite up-front about how much he loves them, and he is very good at them.

He is very good at many things on the page, though. Critical opinion of King has gotten a lot sweeter in recent years, as people begin to appreciate the breadth of his talent, and not just his sales figures. Sober comparisons with Dickens are apt.

He’s also shown his versatility in recent years. As he insists in this book, he’s not just a horror writer, and the stories in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams are not simply horror stories – even the ones in the business of scaring you.

Being a new collection of King short stories, it keeps some heavy company. It’s difficult to think of any anthologies that deliver as consistently and as memorably as Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. This book is no match those efforts, and its best shots can’t hope to equal “The Mangler” or “One For The Road” or “The Raft”. However, throughout The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, there is that almost unique King telepathy at play. No matter if the story’s premise isn’t great, the execution almost always is; the characters are involving, and the simple act of unwinding the yarn is deceptively well handled. It’s the singer, not the song.

In this book you’ll read a story about a mysterious Kindle, which was written to order for Amazon. Any idea you might have about scoffing at this – and I did have an idea – simply vanishes within a couple of pages. He is that good at what he does.  

Reading Stephen King reminds me of one of the best pieces of flattery I’ve ever heard. It’s like getting into a big, well-made, brand new car. It looks good, sounds great, and you know it isn’t going to give you a moment of trouble for a long time, so long as you keep feeding the beast.

Anyway, enough of me blowing smoke up his arse. To the stories:

“Mile 81”, the opener, is the closest the book comes to classic King. It sees him stretching his pulp wings to the fullest and, like any other creature on Earth, he’s thoroughly enjoying that feeling. The tale almost has the feel of pastiche, and it indulges his car-loving tendencies to the full.

It concerns a vehicle parked in a lay-by which eats people. Seth McFarlane’s mockery of King’s habit of turning ordinary objects into scary things comes to mind here, but, again, when the innocents approach his monster, the tension is irresistible.

Unfortunately, like many of the tales in this book, the conclusion isn’t the best. There’s a kid in the story who figures everything out in the contrived style of the hammiest 1950s B-movie. This story feels like an indulgence, but, like so many journeys, to travel is better than to arrive.

“Premium Harmony” was a bit of a clunker and a strange choice for track 2. It’s a tale of domestic horror, and seems to have been an experiment with a more stripped-down, hard-boiled style, as King freely admits in the short preface (every story has these; I think I preferred the “constant reader” chapters he included at the end of his previous collections).

“Batman and Robin Have An Altercation” was more the real deal. It sees a man heading out for dinner with his father, who has dementia. This is a weekly liberation from a nursing home for the old boy. Part of this routine involves the son charting how far the man who taught him how to tie his shoes is degenerating, almost by the minute.

Like much of King’s recent work, this tale is focused on mortality, sickness, vulnerability and a general dying of the light. One would expect a horror writer to be morbid, and King has always had a fascination with ageing, degeneration and disease (perhaps we can trace that all the way back to “The Woman In The Room”). But he seems particularly preoccupied these days with the Great Big Full Stop.

He is in his late sixties, I suppose, but hey, Steve – you could have another 30 years of this game left. Some glasses are emptier than others.

That isn’t the real punch of this story, so to speak. What I found most scrotum-crawlingly unnerving was the altercation in the title. That moment – thankfully there’s fewer of them, the older one gets – when you realise you have Messed With The Wrong Person and will actually have to Put Your Dukes Up.

“The Dune” sees an old judge finding the names of people who are soon to die written on the sands near his beach house. It had a delicious Rod Serling feel to it, and a doubly delicious Rod Serling ending.

Out of all the stories in this book, “Bad Little Kid” is the one that could easily prowl the same feral playground as King’s classic short stories. There’s a yellowy-black aura of malice about it, as it details that one child we all remember: the horrible little bastard who knew exactly which buttons to press on people, and precisely when to press them.

The main character is haunted by a demonic presence in the shape of a little boy with a propeller on his cap, and hair “that colour of ginger no-one loves”. This kid causes disaster whenever he appears, utterly unchanged, at various points in the man’s life. Is the child simply the narrator’s guilt personified, or even worse – a delusion masking some seriously aberrant behaviour? There is an answer…

“A Death” was set in the old west, with a man accused of murder about to face the long drop at the end of a rope. The campfire-tale style suits King very well, and it’s a pleasant ride – but this disguises the story’s jarring conclusion: a bleak, cynical and all-too-true interpretation of human nature.

“The Bone Church” was a poem. I’m not sure I can face addressing the reasons why poetry of any shape or form leaves me cold; it’s definitely not Stephen King’s fault, though, so we shall nod graciously and pass through.

“Morality” fizzes and pops away in your head like a two-day hangover. It sees a woman offered a Mephistophelean deal by a seemingly angelic old pastor who is at death’s door: to do something truly wicked for a life-changing amount of money.

This one was quite interesting, as King appeared to get cold feet. It shied away from the obvious sexual connotations of the transaction… before veering right back onto the path. A brutal read, and one that could have taken its place in Full Dark, No Stars.

“Afterlife” looks at What Might Happen When We Go. A man who dies arrives in the hereafter, only to meet a guy stationed at a desk. This secretary seems to have been placed there as a punishment of some kind. He offers the Newly Dead character a choice…

There was a tiny bit of detail that flicked my switches, as the dead guy recalls one truly, appallingly bad thing he did in his life. It’s not central to the story or how it pans out, but I was intrigued by this idea. Does everyone have that One Really Bad Thing in their life? Have you already done it… or is it in the post?

“Ur” should have been all wrong. King wrote this to help push Kindles, and it centres on one of these devices. This story could have ventured into queasy waters, but it ends up being one of the strongest in the book. Ever wondered what that “experimental” option on your Kindle menu was? So did Stephen King. He reckons tapping it gives you access to parallel worlds…

Anyone with a low Dark Tower threshold should beware this story, but again, it’s so brilliantly executed even the biggest Crimson King detractor shouldn’t care a whit.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” was straight-up social commentary, similar to the opening of Mr Mercedes. It stems from one of those depressingly prosaic news reports you might read – no more than a few paragraphs, sticking closely to a tired old formula – which detail the final moments of someone’s life, experienced from behind the wheel of a car. Even in seemingly open-and-shut cases like these, King reminds us, there’s always a background story, and perhaps even some sympathy.

“Under The Weather” sees the Reaper taking our hand for another wee dance, as an advertising executive builds a wall around himself, ignoring what is plainly obvious from the first few sentences. Perhaps all life lived in the moment is an act of delusion – a rebellion, perhaps, against the one inalienable fact of life. Sadly, there can only ever be one winner in that dance-off.

“Blockade Billy” was a baseball story written by a baseball fan. For “American sports”, see “poetry”. I did stick with this one right to the end, though, and was surprised by how nasty – one might say, how cut-throat – it turned out to be.

“Mister Yummy” leads us back into that old last waltz thing again. Our stage is another nursing home, and our partners are yet more coffin dodgers. Here, we look at an interesting phenomenon which many people – including me – have experienced: seeing people actually die, and hearing them speak about the strange special effects their vainly firing neurons have in store as a last call for boarders.

The foreword to this one also caught my eye, as it seems King felt he had to justify writing a story about a gay man, and invoking the spectre of Aids haunting the gay clubs of the 1980s. I’m puzzled; I truly didn’t see anything contentious or controversial about anything King writes, here.

“Tommy” – more poetry, still elegiac, a lament for the fallen soldiers of the counterculture movement. I got more out of this than “The Bone Church”, but not much more.

“The Little Green God of Agony” had a brilliant set-up, but was wasted by a throwaway ending. It sees a billionaire wracked with constant pain after surviving an air crash. He’ll try anything to get rid of the agony – including snake oil peddled by witch doctors and cranks. The nurse looking after him bites her tongue when the next great healer is revealed… but not for long. The preacherman reckons chronic pain is a symptom of demonic possession, you see…

“That Bus Is Another World” wasn’t so much cut short as abandoned, but I think it’s a fascinating premise, one that I’ve long pondered. I remember being in a funeral car, behind a hearse, and looking out the window at people going about their daily business, head down, heedless of the personal disaster taking place inside the car. It’s just another day for them.

“Obits” – now this one got me going. It’s about an almost entirely unwholesome facet of journalism which has now come to dominate our online reading experience: trashy celebrity gossip, pervy paparazzo shots and general snark. All of these things have been present throughout the history of print journalism, granted. But it’s no longer relegated to the funny pages or crammed into a grubby wee corner. It’s starting to lead the way, and out-muscle what we imagine to be good journalism: sober, rational, courageous and morally rigorous inquiry, completely driven by facts, not conjecture.

King depicts the travails of a twenty-something wannabe journalist in the 2010s with pinpoint accuracy. The low pay; the demeaning work; the horrible bastards in charge; and the common knowledge that they are flopping around in a rapidly shrinking pond.

And there’s also the knowledge that part of this is illusion; that there’s still plenty of money about, just not for you. Some news portals are doing very well, thanks. The people churning the copy out and attaching photos and inserting hyperlinks and thinking up the appropriate you’ll never guess! headlines aren’t seeing it, though. The inevitable passage to an all-digital future needn’t be all bad, and certainly not impoverished. You just have to somehow make morality and truth sexy in order to compete. Persuading people holding the purse-strings to hire more staff and pay a bit more would also help.

Yeah, I am whistling Dixie. God gave me this big gap in my teeth for a reason.

That’s the bodywork of the story, but not its engine, which is pure King. The journalist finds he is able to kill people he hates by writing their obituaries while they are still breathing. This seems like a handy skill to have when it comes to some irredeemable scumbags. Until the inevitable twist arrives.

One thing you did get wrong in this story, Steve (and prepare yourself for some heavy irony): journalists can and do write obituaries about the living, often years in advance. How else would we have these detailed pieces up and running within moments of the confirmation of a famous person’s passing? All you have to fill in is the age, cause of death, and maybe update the vanilla headline and the odd couple of pars if there was something particularly interesting about their manner of leaving the stage.

Here’s the kicker, Steve: I think I’ve worked on yours.

“Drunken Fireworks” was a bit like the barfing contest in Stand By Me – a barstool/campfire tale, told with great glee and in fine style. It sees a drunken mother-and-son team take on an Italian-American family every Fourth of July in an arms race of sorts as they strive to outdo each other’s incrementally bigger and better fireworks. The consequences might, or might not, be tragic. I shan’t spoil it.

The consequences of the final story, “Summer Thunder” are almost certainly tragic, and it returns to the themes of The Stand as well as Night Shift’s “Night Surf” – the end of the world as we know it, and how one might prepare for the curtain coming down. Beautifully, as this story turns out.

I’ve got nothing to add, save that I hope Stephen King keeps pumping this stuff out, keeps the fires well stoked and burning hot… and that when he goes to his next birthday party or barbecue, or even if he just stops out for some burger and fries, he remembers that while all of these experiences are strictly limited edition, this is true of everyone from the moment they’re born.

None of us knows the day. Even guys on death row who actually do have something pencilled in the diary sometimes delay it, or dodge it altogether.

Dodge the bullet they were meant to take, that is. Not the one they’ll catch eventually.

We can’t help thinking of the Great Big Full Stop, but it’s best not to do so too much. We’ve all gotta go, but not right away, hopefully.

Despite… oh, everything, it can be a great life. One of the enduring pleasures of mine since I was 11 years old has been to kick back and enjoy Stephen King stories – and to look forward to new ones. 

No comments:

Post a Comment