Stephen King’s 2015 collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ is a mixed bag

October 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 14, 2019

It was with no small interest that I began reading The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King’s 2015 short story collection. His 1978 anthology, Night Shift, gave me chills when I first read it back in the… well, a long time ago. And I found that it held up just fine when I reread the volume earlier this year.

Unfortunately, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a bit of a mixed bag when compared with its predecessor. There are some definite hits here, but also some big whiffs.

King is not just one of the most successful authors alive today; he’s one of the most successful in the history of the world. He’s also a vital presence on social media, especially if you enjoy reading sassy left-wing commentary.

But he often gets in his own way in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. His introduction struck me as rather silly:

[W]hen my stories are collected, I always feel like a street vendor, one who sells only at midnight. I spread my assortment out, inviting the reader — that’s you — to come and take your pick. But I always add the proper caveat: be careful, my dear, because some of these items are dangerous. 

Each piece comes with a preface as well, varying in length from a few sentences to a few pages; too many of these are either dull or frivolous. For example, prior to the amusing vignette “Afterlife” — its topic should be no mystery — King notes that many of his works “have approached the question” of what happens after death:

I can’t say “have dealt with it,” because that implies some conclusion, and none of us can really draw one, can we? Nobody has sent back any cell phone video from the land of death. There’s faith, of course (and a veritable deluge of “heaven is real” books), but faith is, by its very definition, belief without proof. 

Illuminating this is not.

I also — and this may be the tiniest of quibbles — felt that the conclusions of many of the stories were undermined by the individual dedication the author makes after the text. For instance, “For John Irving” appears below the end of “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” which ends with police cars pulling up to the roadside location of a life-and-death struggle. I didn’t really see the connection between the tale and the subject or style of Irving’s writing, but the more important thing here is that those three words took me out of the story and seemed to blunt the effect of King’s own fiction.

By comparison, the pieces in Night Shift appear on their own — no preface, no postscript — and seemed to me more powerful as a result. The reader is forced to grapple with the text, not the accessories surrounding it.

On to the meat, as it were, of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. Some of the pieces here are trifles. There are two free-verse entries, “The Bone Church,” a recreated version of a poem King in his college days in the late ’60s, and “Tommy,” in which a sardonic narrator describes the aftermath of the ’60s–era funeral of a young hippie felled by leukemia. There are fleeting effects here and there, as when a young woman is described as

…there one day, then gone down that lost
I associate her with melting snow. 
Main Street in Orono would gleam so wet and
       bright it hurt your eyes. 

But ultimately, both poems did little to move me.

I was also nonplussed by “Mister Yummy,” the story of residents of an assisted living center who are visited by visions of death. In the preface, King says that prior to the story’s being written, a friend opined that he didn’t think the author had anything new to say about AIDS. I think King’s pal spoke truthfully; the tale, while competently written, bored me.

“Drunken Fireworks,” which is largely narrated by a New England hick, tells of the Independence Day rivalry between the story-teller and his lakeside neighbors, a wealthy Rhode Island family of Italian extraction. This was mildly enjoyable, no more; it might work better as a segment in a television anthology show.

“Bad Little Kid” makes for a better read. King here conjures some nastiness involving an obnoxious supernatural youngster who causes a man’s family and friends to experience deep suffering. The ending left me unsatisfied, however; in my eyes, this seemed to be not so much a novelette that stands on its own two feet as it did part of a novel that King got bored with and abandoned.

‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ by Stephen King.

I found more to like in everything else in the collection. The opening novella, “Mile 81,” is a minor gem about a deadly car (or perhaps I should say carlike object). Unfortunately, the very last paragraphs, in which the 10-year-old protagonist’s insecurities are directly addressed by kids who are even younger than him, and who have just seen their parents killed in gruesome fashion, were entirely risible.

King is best known as a horror writer, of course, but he explores a variety of styles and genres in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. “Premium Harmony,” which King consciously styled after Raymond Carver, is a story about an off-putting working-class cad who has a sort of reverse Midas touch on the afternoon the tale depicts; reading it wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but I think that King accomplished exactly what he set out to do. “A Death,” a story about the aftermath of a crime in a remote 19th-century frontier town, convincingly evokes the spirit of the American West of that era; I found it more to my taste, perhaps because the protagonist, a sheriff, is a decent sort.

“Cookie Jar” is a literary mélange framed by a contemporary narrative in which 13-year-old Dale interviews Rhett, his 90-year-old great-grandfather. The senior relates some of his childhood, which was marred by his parents’ separation, caused by his mother’s mental illness, and contemplates (without telling Dale) his experiences in World War II. The story is tied together by the eponymous object, once owned by Rhett’s mother, which may be a magical portal to a fantasy world that is threatened by dark forces.

The remaining entries fit more or less comfortably into either the horror or suspense genres, if one allows for a dash of speculative fiction. “The Dune,” wherein a 90-year-old retired Florida state supreme court justice considers the supernatural writing he has found over the course of his life on a small island near his family estate, is pleasantly chilling. “Obits,” in which King strives to portray the free-wheeling newsroom of a gossipy Gawker-style website, sees a young Brooklyn writer learn that he can wield a very unusual power.

Three stories made me squirm and move on to different reading matter (although I ultimately finished everything in the book). “Morality” involves an indecent proposal that a retired New York City pastor puts to his caretaker, the young wife of a struggling writer and substitute teacher. King’s main concern here isn’t so much what the nurse does, which the author strategically obscures, but the subsequent effects of that action on all three characters.

“Under the Weather” is narrated by a Manhattan advertising man whose apartment building has been plagued by an extremely unpleasant smell, the source of which is subject to some extreme denial. (It’s not just a river in Egypt.) “Herman Wouk is Still Alive,” which was true until this spring, is based on a real-life tragedy, as the (this time useful!) preface explains. It depicts a highway tragedy involving a pair of working-class women, their young children, and two elderly poets whose on-and-off love affair once more appears to be on the upswing.

The clunkily titled “That Bus is Another World” is one of the strongest entries; it starts with a dreary taxi trip into the heart of Manhattan on a rainy day and ends with a mixture of the banal and the horrific. “Summer Thunder,” also one of the book’s best stories and the concluding piece, is a modest narrative about two men and a dog in a remote New England lakeside community who have survived nuclear apocalypse. I confess that King brought tears to my eyes as the story unwound.

Two of the most enjoyable pieces were “Blockade Billy” and “Ur.” The first of these is the only piece of King fiction I’ve read that incorporates baseball. That’s a shame, because he’s got a knack for writing about the sport, as he showed in “Head Down,” a 1990 essay chronicling the run that his son’s Little League team made at the Maine championship the previous year. “Blockade Billy,” related by a nursing home resident (are you sensing a theme?), details the short professional career of William Blakely, a player who made his Major League debut in 1952 on a New Jersey team called the Titans.

“Ur,” probably the longest entry in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is told from the point of view of an English professor at a small-town Kentucky college. The unremarkable Wesley Smith somehow comes to possess a very remarkable pink Amazon Kindle e-reader that… Well, take a peek at what happens when the protagonist shows the device a colleague and a student:

Robbie Henderson, it turned out, had read almost all of John D. MacDonald’s mystery and suspense novels. In the Ur 2171753 listing of MacDonald’s works, he found seventeen novels in what was called “the Dave Higgins series.” All the titles had colors in them. 

“That part’s right,” Robbie said, “but the titles are all wrong. And John D.’s series character was named Travis McGee, not Dave Higgins.” 

Wesley downloaded one called The Blue Lament, hitting his credit card with another $4.50 charge, and pushed the Kindle over to Robbie once the book had been downloaded to the ever-growing library that was Wesley’s Kidle. While Robbie read, at first from the beginning and then skipping around, Don went down to the main office and brought back three coffees. Before settling in behind his desk, he hung the little-used CONFERENCE IN PROGRESS DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door. 

Robbie looked up, nearly as pale as Don had been after dipping into the never-written Shakespeare play about the African prince who is brought to London in chains. 

“This is a lot like a Travis McGee novel called Pale Gray for Guilt,” he said. “Only Travis McGee lives in Fort Lauderdale, and this guy Higgins lives in Sarasota. McGee has a friend named Meyer — a guy — and Higgins has a friend named Sarah…” He bent over the Kindle for a moment. “Sarah Mayer.” He looked at Wesley, his eyes showing too much white around the irises. “Jesus Christ, and there’s ten million of these…these other worlds?” 

“Ten million, four hundred thousand and some, according to the UR BOOKS menu,” Wesley said. “I think exploring even one author fully would take more years than you have left in your life, Robbie.” 

“I might die today,” Robbie Henderson said in a low voice. “That thing could give me a freaking heart attack.” He abruptly seized his Styrofoam cup of coffee and swallowed most of the contents, although the coffee was still steaming. 

The gadget ultimately leads Smith and Henderson into a life-and-death quandary that they have mere hours to resolve. Their actions attract the attention of some unsavory characters who are evidently part of King’s genre-straddling Dark Tower series.

“Ur” shows off King’s inventiveness as its rather ordinary characters are pushed beyond their comfort zone. I thought the ending struck a false note — as in “Mile 81,” a protagonist receives an unseemly amount of ego fortification. But as a whole, the tale is fairly entertaining.

And that’s the lot. If you’re looking for chills, I would recommend Night Shift instead. If you’ve already read that volume and want to see King try his hand at a variety of subjects and styles, however, you could do worse than The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

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