Ginger Nuts of Horror
I’ve got a bit of a King backlog. I’m not one of those late period naysayers, either - I adored Mr. Mercedes and Under The Dome, and flat out loved Finders Keepers. But Dr. Sleep and 11/22/63 sit on my shelf from last but one birthday, spines uncracked, and the above collection, End Of Watch, and Gwendy and Sleeping Beauties have all been added to the pile this Christmas.
2017 was not a great year for reading, for me, and I’ve resolved that 2018 will be better - largely because I’m going to read only the things I seek out, rather than ‘duty reading’, which I think slowed me down last year. It’s already working, and I’m happy with how much I’ve read in January, and how much I’ve enjoyed it. Hopefully, it’ll generate a few more of these, too :)
With all that in mind, I was long overdue a trip to the Bazaar, King’s most recent short story collection. I’m a huge fan of King’s short work. I enjoy his doorstop volumes as well, of course, but I think that his short work is never less than compulsively readable, and often outright sublime. So I was very keen to see how the latest collection panned out.
There’s a beautiful introduction, where King discusses the short form in general (and interestingly confesses he doesn’t much like to write it, as a rule). Further, in a break with prior collections, there’s a short piece at the beginning of each tale, talking a bit about the inspiration and origins, should he be able to recall them. As a long term fan I enjoy these anecdotes almost as much as the stories themselves - occasionally, if I’m honest, perhaps a little more - but I think, on reflection, that I prefer them collected at the end of the book rather than preceding each story. They gave too much away, for me, that’s all - either by preparing me for the voice or broad themes, or in some cases by basically presenting the premise of the tale. This is a classic mileage may vary thing, of course, but I found myself wishing I’d skipped the prefaces and just plunged into the stories, taking in the notes afterwards. Again, they are lovely, and often very illuminating pieces in their own right - but yeah, could have done without them as lead ins.
The collection itself I found to be a very mixed bag - more mixed than prior collections, and with a more variation of voice, style, and quality that I’m used to. Mile 81, the opener, is a good example - there’s a lot of classic King elements, especially the child characters, who are drawn note perfectly. At the same time, the central premise is… well, goofy. Not bad - just goofy. And it’s King, and he sells it as well as he can, and you know how good that is, but still… Despite some beautiful character work, this one just didn’t quite land, for me.
Premium Harmony I liked a good deal more - it’s almost a vignette rather than a narrative, but the exquisite character work is perfectly sympatico with a sparse voice, and while the whole thing is intentionally dry, I felt the story really hummed. It’s atypical King, for sure, but really well crafted.
Batman and Robin Have An Altercation is another character study, and the first of a few ruminations on the aging process. The slow fade goodbye of Alzheimer's - always far rougher on the family than on the sufferer - is unflinchingly presented, but I felt the climactic incident of the story, though well described and portrayed, felt a bit rushed and perfunctory. Or maybe it just felt to me like the heart of the piece was elsewhere. I also felt this one suffered particularly from the front note, as it not only gave away a large part of the ending, but also led to a sense of anticipation that was ultimately underwhelming - or at least, it was for me.
The Dune features another aging protagonist, this one with all his marbles, and a secret obsession. Again, the front note blunted some of the enjoyment for me, which was irritating, but the story itself is a beautiful little slice of sinister whimsy.
Bad Little Kid is a stonker - Death Row, with the condemned finally opening up about the real reason he’s there, this is a classic King short - nasty, disturbing, and with that crucial unexplained quality that I really enjoy in tales of this length. Nothing earth-shattering or life changing, but a lovely Genus of the species.
A Death is a curious story. I enjoyed the western setting, and again, there’s King’s trademark exquisite character work firmly on display - but the ending, novel as it was, didn’t quite land for me - perhaps because it didn’t feel like it had the revelatory quality a really good last page or so can have in tales like this. That said, I don’t think it’s been done before - though there may be a reason for that.
The Bone Church I flat out loved. Though it’s written clearly in an American vernacular, for me, the voice was pure Long John Silver, complete with cries for rum and wonderfully acid asides. A recreation of a long lost long form poem King wrote in college, it’s a wild ride narrative with touches of Conrad and Stephenson, with just a dash of the old Lovecraft obsession with the ancient. An unexpected treat, and all the more welcome for its incongruity in the collection as a whole.
Morality picks up another thread that runs through many of these stories - the financial pressure of not-quite-getting-by America (also featured in Premium Harmony and some of the later tales in the collection). It’s fertile ground for horror, and here King comes up with a classic hellish bargain - albeit one without any overt supernatural angle, and for my money all the more powerful as a result. King’s also not afraid to make uncomfortable observations about human sexuality, and how people sometimes respond to violence and regret. I wasn’t super bowled over by the ending, but there’s a fevered darkness at the heart of this one that whispers some very uncomfortable things. I’m glad King heard those whispers, and wrote them down for us.
Afterlife felt to me to have some echos of Everything’s Eventual’s story ‘That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French’ though it posits a different afterlife and our protagonist has more options - or at least appears to. I enjoyed this one a great deal, though it’s slight in terms of incident. It’s fun to watch one of my favourite writers gnawing on this particular bone, I suppose.
Ur just knocked my socks off. A classic, classic King premise, with an equally classic King protagonist - unworthy motivations, but not bad, let alone evil, and understandable if far from admirable - come together just how you hope they will. With tie-ins to the Dark Tower mythos that serve as a treat for fans, but I don’t think will detract from those unfamiliar, Ur felt to me like top drawer, classic King, and frankly, it made my black little heart sing.
Herman Wouk Is Still Alive is vastly different tonally, but is for my money another stone classic. The duel narrative is deftly chosen and beautifully told, and the characters! This is an aspect of King’s work that I think is often criminally underlooked. For all the talk of his (admittedly often brilliant) ideas, one of his stand out skills for me has always been the ability to see his characters so clearly that we see them too. Shorn of many of his other typical tricks of the trade, this short pushes that ability front and centre, as the entire narrative fails or succeeds on the strength of King’s ability to sell you on these people as real. For my money, it doesn't merely succeed but is in point of fact a fucking triumph. A genuinely haunting tale, with not a ghost, goblin, axe murderer or devil in sight. THIS is horror. Superb.
Under The Weather I think I’d read before, and I’m damned glad, because for my money, this one was the most damaged by the preface, which all but ruined the reading experience, for me. That said, the tale itself is lovely - melancholic, and with just a lovely sense of creeping dread - unless you read the introduction and understand the premise almost from the opening line, that is.
Blockade Billy proves a contention I’ve long held, which is that if you’re passionate enough about a subject, and a good enough writer, you can make anything interesting. There are, I am sure, topics in the world about which I know and care even less than I do baseball, but I’m honestly struggling to think what they could be. But King clearly loves the game, and that love shines out through every sentence. He cares, he is thrilled, and therefore so was I, for the duration of this tale, at least. The 1957 setting helped, also - the era of the kids sections of IT, and King’s own childhood, that he seems to be able to evoke on a whin, with the deftness of a master illusionist's favorite trick. King’s own appearance in the story likewise works flawlessly, and adds an additional light dusting of fun to proceedings.
Mister Yummy is another tale of old age and mortality, but I think both themes are handled with more sureness of purpose than in Batman and Robin… . for a story about last days in a retirement home, I found it to be both humorous and uplifting, as well as touching. It may not be the main reason we come to King, but when he does occasionally stray into this kind of territory, I think he usually acquits himself well, and this is no exception.
Tommy is the second poem of the collection - somewhere between elegy and dirge. It’s probably mainly my own over-signification with the 60’s counterculture talking, but I found this one to be extraordinarily moving and melancholy.
The Little Green God Of Agony feels like more vintage King, with a brilliant set-up, a nifty core idea, a twist i found to be genuinely surprising and wrong footing, and a killer closing line. This is the essence of what I love about short horror, and the kind of thing King does as well as anyone - and, let's face it, way better than most.
Cookie Jar - We’re back to mortality again, and childhood and parenthood, as an old man in a home tells a grandkid about the stories his mother told. Reflecting on this one at a few week’s distance, I suppose it could be accused of over sentimentality, maybe, but to me it spoke strongly of old age in conversation with youth about the power and wonder and terror of imagination and story and love. So, I mean, how am I supposed to do anything less than love it, at that point?
That Bus Is Another World - Another tale for my money weakened considerably by the preface, to the degree that it didn’t quite land, as I’d basically been prepped for the central image already. Yes, it was cool to see how King took a day to day occurence and what his imagination did with it, but I’d far rather have read that after the story, so I didn’t spend the whole thing lying in wait for that moment to come. That said, some lovely character work, as always.
Obits is another belter, and another why-didn’t-I-think-of-that premise. This one’s got it all, morally suspect but not evil protagonist, similarly ambiguous co-worker, and a brilliant central premise that provides an awful dilemma. This is what we came here for.
Drunken Fireworks - I’ve been a bit down on some of King’s experiments with voice elsewhere in this collection, but in Drunken Fireworks, he absolutely nails it - a first person narrative told in a thick country voice that ran true to this fan of Justified. I loved every damn last thing about this one, from set up to glorious conclusion and coda. It even had a sneaky thing or two to say about race relations, I thought, but please don’t let that put you off, it’s very light touch and background, and the foreground is technicolour brilliance.
Summer Thunder is a gut punch of a closer - melancholic doesn’t begin to cover it, this one’s outright miserable. An end of the world scenario that’s sadly become slightly more plausible again recently, thanks to key personnel changes in the US government, it’s a real comedown after the sugar rush of Drunken Fireworks, and a frankly devastating way to end a short story collection with so many tales of mortality. Needless to say, I thought it was brilliant.
Overall, I didn’t find Bazaar Of Bad Dreams to be a particularly brilliant King collection - it’s uneven, especially in the first half, where a few of the stories didn’t quite click for me, and as you’ll have gathered, I think the decision to put the notes on each tale’s origin before the relevant piece was a bad one. That said, there’s some absolute gems in the second half of the book, with a real gamut of ideas, styles, and moods to keep you awake nights.
And if, in a final analysis, this particular collection is no Skeleton Crew (or even no Everything’s Eventual) there's still isn’t really such a thing as a bad King collection, I don’t think. He’s just one of those writers that will always hold my attention, and who even in his weaker work will provide elements that suprise or amuse, some turn of phrase or observation that’ll leave me shaking my head in admiration.
He really is - still - one of the very best in the business, and his beloved status is well deserved and earned. And as he says in the introduction “we’re both still here. Cool, isn’t it?”
Yes, sir. It sure is.