The following review contains SPOILERS.
I would like to make a statement before starting this review. I never thought that I would compare Stephen King with Sidney Sheldon but they do match each other in one aspect. Both of them wrote their autobiographies in the writing style of their fictional pieces. King’s On Writing (2000) and Sheldon’s The Other Side of Me (2005) reflect both authors’ writing style to the extent that you sometimes think it’s part of their bibliography of fiction. On Writing was the first book by King that I’ve read, and though that was many years ago, I still remember how it inspired me to better my own writing (it was part manual) and to read a Stephen King story as soon as possible.
So when I saw this book on the bookstore shelf I was like, “Why buy a single novel when I can read more than a dozen of stories compiled in one paperback?” Thus, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015) became my second King book and my first fictional one of his. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a collection of short stories by Stephen King. This collections comprises of tales ranging from short to novella length. There are also two poems thrown in. The table of contents lists 21 works. There’s also an introduction by King to each piece.
I am going to pick out 5 of my favorite pieces and 5 that I found either average or plain bad. I’m leaving the poems out of this review as I wanted to focus entirely on the prose. Let’s begin with the latter list with works placed in the range of bad to worst.
- Ur: When Kindle had been purchased by Amazon, the company wanted King to write a story based on the e-reader. Though King originally declined the offer, as stated in the introductory note, he got an idea while walking his dog. Ur is about an English teacher who receives a pink-colored Kindle and finds stories of famous authors there that he knew were never actually written by them.
Now, the start of the story is hauntingly entertaining. But the middle and ending render it as average. Where short horror stories need to incorporate enough information as possible to keep a continuous level of suspense, Ur completely drops below that range just when the story should pick up pace.
Furthermore, I think that the writer authored this in a hurry, and this is especially relative to the abrupt ending. I felt this story took inspiration from subplots of multiple tales and movies and all of these ingredients were mixed together hastily to create this confused yarn.
Overall, the beginning of Ur was so promising that I thought this might be the best of the collection, and boy was I disappointed. This taught me a vital lesson that just like in life we should not have expectations from stories as well.
- Under the Weather: This story is comparable to Ur in the regard that both end with an equally dissatisfying conclusion. Like Ur it also began wonderfully but unlike Ur, it not only fails to build tension in the middle, but also blows out like a fuse just when we reach the midpoint. And the ending is so anti-climatic that I never thought King could write such unremarkable dark-humor.
- Mister Yummy: In the foreword to this tale, King tells us that someone told him that he could not write an authentic narrative about being gay if he weren’t homosexual himself. But then King also claimed that this was a story about the human sex drive, and not about AIDS or being gay, and it ended up being about none of those things.
The entire story is confusing. Some of the plot elements, especially the characterizations, reminded me of the third entry in this book: Batman and Robin and Robin Have an Altercation (which was a superior story). Yet, there is no viable plot and the storytelling is as dry as a person’s lips after finishing a cigarette, and just like a cig, the tale ends with us having a bad taste in our mouths.
Still, it isn’t the worst in this compilation, and the humorous dialogues and creatively-illustrated individuals might distract some from the amateurish dramatization, but not for long.
- Herman Wouk Is Still Alive: Yes, Herman Wouk is alive, but this story isn’t. The plot follows two groups. One is a pair of friends and their children who are about go for a road trip. The other is an elderly couple of poets who are about to attend a literature festival. And their lives are about to become entangled in a shocking way.
Firstly, I reckon that this story shouldn’t of had a preface, as King pretty much spoiled the ending for me. Secondly, I felt that the depressing ending did not suit the overall romantic tone of the story. Maybe if it had ended on a better note (which is unlike King but still) then it would’ve been a fantastic piece of short-fiction.
- A Death: This was first published in The New Yorker in 2015 and I read it in 2016. Thus, this became the first short-story by King that I’d read. And I thought I would never read one again. I expected to be awed by King’s prose just as I had been when I read On Writing. But the story was super predictable and finished with the most anti-climatic ending I’ve read in my over 10 years of being a reader.
In this edition, King dedicated the story to Elmore Leonard; the famed writer of Westerners. In my opinion, King imitated Leonard’s technique to such a degree that he totally forgot his own writing style in the process. A Death is not only the worst entry in this collection, but one of the worst short-stories I’ve ever read.
List of stories ranging from good to best:
- Drunken Fireworks: This is one of the most humorous tales in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. King got inspiration for this after hearing a guy talking about a fireworks arm race on a lake in Maine (King’s hometown). This story is unique as it was told in a confessional format via the perpetrator giving his statement to two officers in the interrogation room. And his incorrectly-spoken words make the tale even more funnier than if it was written in the third-person.
The story also lives up to its title as it follows the drinking pair of a mom and her son who live across a rich Italian businessman (Mr. Massimo). On the night of the Fourth of July, the mom and son light up some fireworks and the neighbors and their guests partying outside of the mansion are mesmerized. The boys of the family, along with their dad, start their own fireworks show. Soon it becomes a contest and whenever the Massimo’s launch superior fireworks into the sky, one of their boys blows his trumpet annoyingly. The sound of that trumpet motivates the mother to go for a second bout the following year.
Thus, this happens again on the next Fourth of July. At one point, things go so far that people actually start gathering to watch the two households on the lake battling it out. Near the ending, the mom and son accidentally burn down the Massimo mansion with a gigantic firework they had saved as their last resort. The story ends with the Massimo family secretly burning down the other family’s house in payback with the son too drunk to realize that his own abode had not caught fire because of his own mistakes.
The story is also unpredictable as you are never sure how it could end. I thought it might conclude with gore as in the story the mom continually stated that Mr. Massimo is connected. Still, she wasn’t wrong when payback was done in the eye-for-an-eye style. This is the second-last story and how I wish it was the first as I had read it so late into the collection.
- Blockade Billy: Now here’s a story that showcases King’s renown as a master of horror. The story is told in the first-person by a retired baseball coach about a baseball player who is no longer in the sports records. His nickname was Blockade Billy as he could get almost any runner out. He was the reason the now-defunct Titans had progressed higher up the ranks during that time.
Later on it’s found out that Billy is actually a serial killer whose real name is Eugene who killed the real Billy and his family, and took his identity to play Major League Baseball. Throughout the story, the narrator tells us that their star pitcher Danny Dusen sees Billy as his good luck charm, when in the end, it is found out that he is the direct opposite.
This is trademark King with dark humor covering the entire tone of the novella. Not once is the story too slow or too fast; it’s just so rightly paced. The three main characters: George “Granny” Grantham, Dusen and especially the titular figure are so intriguing you would, later on, be begging for a prequel or a sequel incorporating them.
And King also gave fans what they wanted; a baseball story by him. I would’ve loved if this was novel-length as the first-person narration was penned so magnificently. Some King enthusiasts might even find this to be their favorite yarn in this paperback.
- Obits: This is the 2016 winner for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story. Hence, I thought it would be my favorite one. It turns out that this wasn’t the case. Obits follows an e-journalist who writes funny obituaries of dead celebrities. Enraged, he writes the obituary of his then-alive boss who later on actually dies. Our main character finds out he has the power to kill people by writing their obituaries. Things take a turn for the worse when his crush, also an e-journalist, finds out about his uncanny ability.
She has a one-night stand with him which leads to her requesting an obituary written about a famous rapist (she got raped herself in school) who is locked up. When that’s done, Katie (the crush) invites her friend Penny so that the latter can request an obituary from Mike (the primary figure). Turns out both of the gals are members of a support group for rape victims. Mike hesitates at first but after listening to Penny’s tearjerker of her rape, he accepts the request.
Obits ends with Mike and Katie finding out that whoever shares the name of the victim, and lives in the same vicinity of the original victim, will be killed. Fast forward and Mike is living in a small town while Katie continues as the editor of their web-newspaper, Neon Circus. Mike finds that his funny obituary page has been replaced with a poll about people guessing which celebrity will be the next to die.
Obits is unpredictable, fast paced and filled with humor AKA King’s specialty. Despite King stating in the foreword that the tale was inspired by the 1958 B-movie, I Bury The Living, I found many resemblances of the plot to that of Death Note’s (the anime). Still, both stories match in only the aspect of the person wielding the power to kill off anyone by writing their name. In other regards, they are worlds apart. Overall, this short-story deserved the award that it had been given.
- Bad Little Kid: I recommend this yarn to readers who get off on being terrified out of their wits. I had trouble sleeping that night after I concluded Bad Little Kid. As the title suggests, it’s about a six or seven-year-old boy that has made the life of a happily married man a living nightmare.
The story begins with Leonard Bradley, a criminal defense lawyer, visiting his client, George Hallas, in prison. Hallas has been sentence to death via lethal injection for murdering a small boy. Hallas, who had previously not spoken about his killing intent, gives Bradley the offer to hear his reason for killing the kid, which takes on almost the entire length of the tale.
I won’t say that the main plot was scary but the way it was told made me picture the bad little kid making my life a living hell. Bad Little Kid is one of the most frightening pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Even though it was short in size, the impact of fear on me was colossal. The tale ends with Hallas executed and the lawyer becoming the next victim of the antagonist.
I hope everyone gets a good night’s sleep after finishing this one.
- Afterlife: Just like Jack Ketchum showed us his emotional side with his short-story, Returns, published in the anthology Garden of Fiends earlier this year – King shows us his spiritual persona with Afterlife. As you have already guessed, King wanted to write a story about life after death, and you won’t get a better fictional account of it than this yarn.
The story is unpredictable from start to finish. It follows our main character, William Andrews, who has finally died due to cancer and upon death finds himself in the hallway leading to a door. The door is of an office belonging to Isaac Harris who acts as intermediary to those between life and death; which is also his purgatory for allowing the death of a multitude of workers in a factory fire.
Andrews has two choices: either take the door that will lead him to the next stage of the afterlife, or take door two where he will be reborn without having any memory that he was in Harris’ office before. Harris tries his best to convince Andrews that no matter how many times he gets resurrected, the outcome of his life will end up the same. Still, Andrews takes the born-again route and the story ends with the scene of his mother delivering him at a hospital in 1956.
Afterlife is very short in length but in such a limited space is still able to ask the major questions pertaining to life and death: Would we prefer to be resurrected? Would we like to go the next stage? Is there an afterlife? And so on.
What’s unique about those questions is that King has written a life-and-death story with all the inquiries to be answered by the reader. Just like art is subjective, so does the theme of afterlife constantly take the same form in this piece of fiction.
With Afterlife, King has shown that he can write in any genre, and pen it in his signature style as well.
Thank you for reading The Best and Worst of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015). There are too many stories for me to individually analyze them. Even those that were left out in this review are still worth reading (the poems as well). If you’re a fan of short literary-fiction, you won’t get a superior compilation than King’s 10th collection of stories.