I’ll come right out and say it: no, most of the stories in Stephen King’s latest collection of short stories are not particularly scary. There isn’t much in here that will keep you up long into the night from fear of falling asleep. What they will do, however, is pull you in, disgust you, excite you, make you laugh, make you sad and of course, sometimes creep you out. Almost all of the stories here have something about them to wrap you up in the characters and the storyline despite their short lengths.
But that’s exactly what has always made King such a phenomenal author. He doesn’t seem to set out to write genre tales. He simply tells stories that he feels a compelling, insatiable urge to share with the world.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams consists of 18 short stories and two poems, each forwarded with an insightful page or so about what inspired the tale. The short story is an art form much different than the novel, and King understands that fully. Through even the shortest of stories, Bad Dreams conjures up some of the most genuine and believable characters that King has cooked up to date, proving that even after all these years that he still just “gets it.”
And what he “gets” is that the readers need to have something to identify with. They need to have something to read and say, “I understand this; I am reading about an actual event. This is not a story. This is real.” Stephen King can suck readers in so far into his fictional universe that at their best are able to make you forget you are reading fiction. Even at their worst, most are still able to entertain.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams has some exceptionally gory stories and takes some ideas that simply shouldn’t work but configures them in such a way that they end up succeeding where other writers tasked with the same story would undoubtedly fail. This may never be more evident than the first story in the collection, “Mile 81”, which concerns a car that very literally eats people. I know – it sounds ridiculous. It should be utterly laughable. Somehow, it’s compelling. Through the use of visceral gore and fleshed-out characters, Stephen King is able to take a story about a car that gobbles people up and make it scary.
Not terrifying; not horrifying. Just scary.
I must stress this because there are times when King has unmercifully shaken me to my core and rattled my foundations. I do not think anything in this book will cause severe psychological trauma, so don’t go in here expecting anything of that caliber. Still, many will sufficiently disturb you. Even in old age, the master of literary horror is not afraid to break taboo and “go there,” killing the dog and even tackling the issue of homosexuality and AIDs. I’m not praising either of the two subjects, but I am praising King for playing by his rules and writing about exactly what he thinks he should be writing about. He’s still got that angst to him, and angst that I believe is essential to his career. He’s a classic rock and roller at heart, and his stories are literary rock and roll.
Further stories that stand out in Bad Dreams are “The Little Green God of Agony”, which involves exactly what the title says; “Summer Thunder”, a poignant discussion on morality during the end of days; “Under The Weather”, which is straightforwardly twisted, purposely predictable but alarming nonetheless; and “Bad Little Kid”, about a child who is simply rotten to the core. The two poems contained here are not among his best – you can tell that he isn’t as comfortable with prose as he is with his storytelling – yet they still have that distinct King charm. Many of these have been published in previous formats, be it magazines or electronic singles (one deals with a Kindle and was released upon the device’s debut), there are some brand new ones such as “Cookie Jar”. I have never read any of these before, and I am a huge fan of the writer, which leads me to believe that many of you potential readers will also find these stories fresh. I do not subscribe to any of the magazines in which these stories were first presented in, so a collection of them is perfect for someone such as myself.
King’s style is one that seems to suggest he has his hand on your shoulder the entire time, walking you through whatever situation he puts you in; when things get too gory, or scary, or sad, you see a devilish grin when you turn back at him for reassurance. It is a grin that says, “I know. That was creepy, wasn’t it? But don’t worry; I’m still here.” His stories never seem to scare maliciously, no matter how terrible the events may be. It’s extremely satisfying and it is a style that even after decades has nut been dulled by the passage of time.