Stephen King’s just published (okay, just about a month ago) another one of his short story anthologies, if you didn’t already know. It’s called Bazaar of Bad Dreams. Not all the stories are brand-new; you may have seen some of them elsewhere—for example, I’ve seen “Ur” and “Blockade Billy” someplace. And I see, checking on his bibliography, that “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” was published in 2011 (and won the Bram Stoker Short Story award!). That doesn’t necessarily mean every reader will have read every story, however, that has already been published.
I can name offhand several King anthologies that, because he’s such a stellar short-story writer, stick in my mind, like Different Seasons and Skeleton Crew, for example, or Four Past Midnight (okay, novellas as well as shorts). In some ways, his real forté is the less-than-novel-length story. Some novels seem a bit bloated, as if maybe he has unconsciously padded them a bit—but when he’s “on,” you just don’t want a great novel to end! (Of course the corollary there is that not every ending to every great novel satisfies: I didn’t particularly care for the ending of the Dark Tower series, myself.)
But because King is, when he puts his mind to it, such a great short story writer, he can even include non-supernatural or non-horror fiction in an anthology—like this one—that’s made up of mostly horror fiction. Or maybe you’re one of those people who has never read King; I know several people who dismiss him as “just a horror writer” (although they’ve never taken the opportunity to read one of his many novels) and thereby miss out on a chance to read one of the U.S.’s best short fiction writers.
The book comprises some 20 short stories; culminating in one of my all-time favourite genres: “end of the world” stories. One of the first things you’ll notice about this book (that is, if you have the physical book instead of the e-book) is that the cover is not glossy; it’s matte and has a very velvety feel. The matte black makes the lettering (red, sans serif) and the illustration (b/w with blue overlay and silver highlights) stand out. The illustration is a head, missing the face; where the face should be is a scene possibly in a forest, with a “grim reaper” holding a big scythe back by some trees, plus a couple of deer, a pool with a half-sunken boat, a bat… and the whole thing is slightly “framed” by a number of silver, skeletal-looking butterflies. And there’s a crow, perched on the hair of the faceless head. It’s a striking image altogether.
The first story in this book, “Mile 81,” gives a definite Stephen King feel right off the bat; you’ll probably like this one quite a bit. As he says in his intro (King has provided intros and outros for all the stories in the anthology; I suggest you don’t skip these.), shades of Christine. It’s a story about a station wagon that… well, I guess you’ll have to read it. One of the things I like about King is that he grounds his shock stories so well in reality before he pulls the rug out from under the reader.
There are a number, as I’ve said, of non-horror/supernatural stories, but all of them, whether they’re “mainstream” or not, have that King “kick” to them. This is true of the stories “Premium Harmony,” about a couple and their dog; about “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” which tells a tale of a sixty-one-year-old man and his aged father, who has Alzheimer’s, who get in an automobile accident on their way back to the home after their regular weekly outing. Regular people in innocuous, yet stressful, situations, who suddenly learn that when you’re a Stephen King character even the ordinary can suddenly become jolting, and that anything and everything can change in a minute.
I’m not going to comment on every story in this anthology, because I believe in my very heart that the job of a reviewer is not to spoil every surprise in a book, but to either make you want to read the book or to steer you away from a very bad one. But I will touch on stories that I feel are highlights (or possibly not-so-high-lights; we’ll see) and tell you what I think about them without spoiling your enjoyment of either the story or the book (I hope). I think I mentioned before that I’ve seen the story “Ur” somewhere, though for the life of me I can’t remember where. But I enjoyed the story when I read it, and now that I’ve reread it, I enjoyed it again—and for those of you who followed The Dark Tower series, or have read Hearts In Atlantis, there are some echoes here. I can tell you that the story is about new technology—have you embraced the ebook yet?—and a very special Kindle is involved. And maybe some “low men in yellow coats”?
By the way, Amazon’s got a Kindle for around $80 these days—not the paperwhite one, which is still going for around $110, at least in Canada—and this might be a good time for you to check out the technology if you haven’t already. (I might say that I have Kindle software on both my PC and my Asus Android tablet, and I find it very easy to use; I can stop reading a book on one, and pick up the other and start reading exactly where I left off. And if you subscribe to the right email lists, there are plenty of free and cheap Kindle ebooks out there in just about every genre. (The Kindle link above is for the Canadian version of Amazon; you can look it up yourself in whatever country you’re reading from.)
“Under the Weather” is a sad story, which reminds me of a certain William Faulkner story, and that’s all I’m gonna tell you—you’ll probably get it yourself about halfway through reading it. But again, it’s King’s grounding of the story, his depiction of the characters and their day-to-day struggles with life, that give this a poignancy all its own.
“The Bad Little Kid” is the only story in this book that disappointed me; and it’s not because it’s badly written. Again, King has grounded his characters, grounded his setting, thrown in an element of the unnormal, but I found this one kind of predictable. And maybe that’s my own fault, for having read too many short stories, both genre and not. I love a good anthology with all kinds of short stories; I suggest that if you do too, you could do worse than to look up The Best American Short Stories (BASS for short), a series that has been published annually for about—believe it or not—a hundred years. In fact, King himself was a guest editor (the editor changes yearly these days) in 2007.
“Blockade Billy” is a baseball story with a twist. And even if you think you know what’s coming, I’d be willing to bet that King surprises you in the end. No, there’s nothing supernatural about this one; but it’s got a twist, and a good one. It’s about a kid named William Blakely, a catcher, who comes to the major leagues—the New Jersey Titans—and makes a splash. Nobody gets past him to the plate; the newspapers start calling him “Blockade Billy”—and the Titans are on the rise. And they almost make it, to the top, except… well, I’ll let you read it.
“Drunken Fireworks” is kind of a fun read—probably more so for those who actually have had a “cabin on the lake” to go to in the summers; we never did. But I’m sure there are places where one side of the lake has the rich people and the other has the middle-class or lower-middle who can just afford to keep their cabins; the disparity has, I’m sure, given rise to certain rivalries like the one recounted in this story. It’s all about the Benjamins, even when it comes to fireworks on the Fourth (in Canada, it’s the First—although Canadians use any excuse to shoot off fireworks: the First of July, Canada Day; Halloween; Thanksgiving; whenever) of July. So remember, if you get in what my dad used to call a “pissing contest” (I won’t apologize for the language; we’re all adults here, I hope), sometimes you get pissed off, and sometimes you get pissed on. Fair warning.
And now we come to my absolute favourite story of the book, and the one that left an impression that didn’t go away for several days. One of my favourite kinds of story is the “end of the world” story. Back in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, when I was quite young, I got hold of the book in Figure 3, from Ace Books—with a great Ed Emshwiller cover—and have never quite been able to shake it. From Robert A. Heinlein’s “Year of the Jackpot” to Philip K. Dick’s “Impostor” to Edmond Hamilton’s “In the World’s Dusk,” and including Alfred Coppel’s wonderful “Last Night of Summer,” this book has stuck with me. Well, this story is all that, and then some, in my opinion. “Summer Thunder” is a striking tale of two men and a dog and the last days of planet Earth. Just writing about it, I’m experiencing it all over again.
All in all, this is—in my opinion, of course—another home run for Stephen King, just to continue his baseball metaphor. I recommend this one highly.
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