King’s latest collection of short fiction, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, came out back in November, and I’ve finally pecked my way through the whole thing. The book contains twenty pieces, comprising mostly previously published work, a few brand new stories, and even a couple of poems. On the whole, I’d say it misses more than it hits, but I was entertained nevertheless. Since I’m becoming alarmingly comfortable with arranging my thoughts in list form, here’s a guide to the stories you can skip and the ones you absolutely can’t pass up.
Given the premise of the story, I was totally primed for “Stephen King does Death Note“. Unfortunately, the characters are unlikable, the reader never feels the satisfaction and thrill of the protagonist’s powers, and King is out of his element setting his story in an ersatz TMZ. For better or worse, the country and its cornpone characters and homespun aphorisms are his wheelhouse, and he works best in it.
Eulogizing the 60s is not my idea of a good time.
Read it back when it was published in Esquire. Left me cold then. Nothing has changed.
17. “Blockade Billy”
I read this one a while before this book came out. I recalled being disappointed with the story, but couldn’t remember why. When I reread it, I remembered. It’s not fair to expect King to stick to this or that style or genre, but I truly do think a supernatural element could have made this a more interesting story. The narrative voice in this one irritates me.
16. “The Bone Church”
This is a valiant effort, and I didn’t hate it, but honestly, I don’t pick up a Stephen King book to read poetry. (Unless it’s a book of Stephen King poetry. Which as of yet does not exist.)
15. “The Dune”
This story is trying way too hard. Guessable ending.
14. “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”
One thing the reader notices throughout Bazaar of Bad Dreams is that many of the protagonists are older, if not elderly. Perhaps not surprising, given that King himself is knocking boots with 70 himself.
13. “A Death”
Well outside of King’s usual style, but well executed. One of those tales that bats your mind back and forth like a ball of yarn. The “howhedunnit” is nifty.
12. “Mile 81”
The first story of the book, and one of the most interminable. The demonic car is of course well-trod ground within King’s oeuvre, but different enough to justify the exploration. Despite how long it is, the premise is too pat for a short story but doesn’t feel like it could support a whole novel. Naming each “chapter” after the car’s victim(s) therein is a cool device. “Normie Thierrault” is a first-ballot inductee to the Ray Garrity Memorial Hall of Names Stephen King Gives Teenagers That Make Them Sound Ninety Years Old.
11. “Mister Yummy”
A decent one, about what you see right before you die.
10. “Premium Harmony”
One of the few cases where the intro blurb works in the story’s favor. Since King admits up front that he’s aping Raymond Carver, it’s more forgivable than reading the story and thinking, “Hey, who does he think he is? Raymond Carver?”
I feel like I could do the desk jockey’s job in this story. Then again, forever is a long time.
8. “Under the Weather”
Guessed the ending, still enjoyed it.
7. “That Bus Is Another World”
I got a bit of an American Psycho vibe off of this one. I’ve always been intrigued by the windows into people’s lives described in this story, and would love to write something that explores that territory, but I’ve never come up with anything worth its salt.
6. “The Little Green God of Agony”
Woebetide the skeptic character in a King story. I could read a whole novel about Reverend Rideout. One of those stories that ends before it’s over, to great effect.
5. “Drunken Fireworks”
This story could work as a modest little indie film.
4. “Bad Little Kid”
Holy cow, I wanted to strangle that kid so bad. No story in the book toys with your feelings as effectively as this one. Excellent ending.
3. “Summer Thunder”
Relentlessly bleak. King’s decision to end the collection with this one was a good one, since he so often beefs the landing.
2. “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”
Not a face-value Batman tale, nor what I was hoping against hope for (a Kingian take on one of my all-time favorite short stories, Donald Barthelme’s “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph”). What it is is a charming and exciting tale about an older gentleman and his father who has dementia, with lots of excellent flavor and an intense climax.
I’m not sure whether to use “despite” or “because” in explaining why this story works. The story was heavily revised for its inclusion here, and since I haven’t read its previous incarnation, I can only assume they improved on it. King claims he was reticent to write a story centered around a brand-name product, which strikes me as odd, since he hasn’t been afraid to halt the momentum of a story for a sales pitch elsewhere (e.g. Under the Dome, where he devoted a page and a paragraph, respectively, to Apple TV and LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver). Although it’s more or less a naked shill for the then-new Kindle, there are a number of very chilling moments here, and he even manages a Dark Tower tie-in. If you read one story from Bazaar of Bad Dreams while idly browsing the bookstore, make it “Ur”.