“I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction,” confesses Stephen King in the introduction to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams—an unusually introspective yet no less effective collection of eighteen variously terrifying tales, plus a few pieces of poetry, from the affable author of last year’s similarly reflective Revival.
This is far from the first time King has discussed his “struggle to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realisation of that idea’s potential,” and although, as readers, we only have the end product to parse, the ideas the Edgar Award winner explores here—and the characters, and the narratives—are not at all inadequate. If anything, in dispensing with the hallmarks of Halloweeny horror to which his bibliography is so bound in order to investigate a goody bag of markedly more grounded goings-on, the stories brought together in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams number among King’s most thoughtful and evocative.
Which isn’t to say they ain’t scary. They absolutely are! ‘Premium Harmony,’ ‘Batman and Robin Have an Altercation’ and ‘Herman Wouk is Still Alive,’ for instance, are still seething somewhere under this critic’s skin, but said tales are scary in a more mundane way than you might imagine. Respectively, they address the mindless last fight between a man and his wife, the hellish senselessness of senility and suicide as a means of finally achieving freedom.
If the components of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams have a common denominator, and I dare say they do, it’s death… but death by misadventure, or as a direct result of dubious decisions, or as something that simply comes, like the setting of the sun, as opposed to death by killer car, or wicked witch, or eldritch mist. According to Dave Calhoun, the elderly subject of ‘Mr Yummy,’ a bittersweet story set in an Assisted Living facility, “death personified isn’t a skeleton riding on a pale horse with a scythe over his shoulder, but a hot dancehall kid with glitter on his cheeks.”
Death is depicted in countless other, equally ordinary ways over the course of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: as a name sketched in the sand in ‘The Dune,’ an unpleasant smell in ‘Under the Weather’ and an increasingly meek mutt in ‘Summer Thunder.’ King hasn’t suddenly come over all subtle, but this collection clearly chronicles a gentler, more contemplative author than the purveyor of penny dreadfuls whose part he has played with such panache in the past.
As a matter of fact, the majority of these shorts are hardly horror. There are “no vampires […] but when the wind blew hard enough to make the big house shivers in its bones, such ideas seemed almost plausible.” Taken together, to wit, the pieces presented here fail to fit into any particular pigeonhole—as the author argues in the introduction to ‘Drunken Fireworks,’ an accidentally explosive affair about booze and bad decisions:
You can call me anything, as the saying goes, just so long as you don’t call me late for dinner. But the term genre holds very little interest for me. Yes, I like horror stories. I also love mysteries, tales of suspense, sea stories, straight literary novels, and poetry… just to mention a few. I also like to read and write stories that strike me funny, and that should surprise nobody, because humour and horror are Siamese twins.
To his credit, King is not above throwing the odd bone to that segment of his readership who come to his collections expecting something speculative. There may be precious few proper monsters in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, but ‘Bad Little Kid’ documents a sort of haunting, ‘Ur’ is straight-up science fiction and ‘Obits’ is about a journalist who wields his words like a deadly weapon. That said, there’s more to even those stories with what we’ll call unlikely leanings.
“Like several other stories in this book, ‘The Little Green God of Agony’ is a search for closure,” King writes, referencing the consequences of the catastrophic car crash that came this close to killing him in 1999. “But, like all the stories in this book, its principal purpose is to entertain. Although life experiences are the basis of all stories, I’m not in the business of confessional fiction.”
That’s as may be, but there’s quite a bit of confessional—and fascinating—non-fiction in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to boot. In addition to the aforementioned introduction and an Author’s Note in which King admits his work will never be finished, not until he “either retires or dies,” appended to each of the subsequent shorts—some of which, such as ‘Mile 81’ and ‘Blockade Billy,’ aren’t very short at all—are pages of pointed preamble reminiscent of On Writing.
Occasionally, these insights into the great writer’s life spoil some of the fun to come, but to be frank, though they are as exceptional and affectionate as ever, I found myself as fascinated by the stories about the stories as the stories themselves. These autobiographical interludes also allow the author to directly address the themes of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:
I think that most people tend to meditate more on What Comes Next as they get older, and since I’m now in my late sixties, I qualify in that regard. Several of my short stories and at least one novel (Revival) have approached this question. I can’t say ‘have dealt with it,’ because that implies some conclusion, and none of us can really draw one, can we? […] The reason fantasy fiction remains such a vital and necessary genre is that it lets us talk about such things in a way realistic fiction cannot.
Hear, hear, huh?
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is available now from Scribner.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.