So, the Master’s sixth volume of short fiction, which normally appear in seven-year cycles, dropped late last year to the delight of his rabid army of Constant Readers. As with previous collections, it proved a weighty tome. A total of twenty stories comprise the 495 pages, including a revised version of the recent stand-alone ebook Mile 81, the fictional baseball-based novella Blockade Billy from 2010, two previously unreleased stories, and several assorted rarities. There’s even a poem.
King has championed the novella form for most of his career, and is arguably at least partly responsible for it’s current popularity. It’s no accident that Amazon turned to him when they wanted a big-name author to write something publicizing the then-new fangled Kindle. The result, UR, is one of the highlights in Bazar of Bad Dreams. Of the rarities, the most interesting is probably Bad Little Kid, a twisted little tale about a lawyer defending a child murderer. However, the case is far from straight-forward. Originally published only in French and German, this creepfest appears here for the first time in English, and is vintage King.
In the introduction, King makes the analogy that with this book he is assuming the role of a street vendor, who only sells his wares after midnight. And it proves quite accurate. There are a few absolute gems hidden away here, some bang average items that barely hold your attention, and even a couple of stinkers. Just what you’d expect to find in a dodgy market. Several entries can barely be described as dark fiction, nevermind horror. Perfect Harmony is a study on what makes marriages work, and ‘Morality’ is about the state of affairs that could arise if someone accepts money to do something questionable, a la Indecent Proposal without the sex. But this isn’t really anything new. King has been stereotyped as the creepy bloke who wrote Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining, since the seventies. A victim of his own success. In actual fact, relatively little of his output since those heady days have contained much in the way of extreme horror as we know it today, or even many supernatural elements. Indeed, this summer’s End of Watch will be the third and final book in a series about a retired cop.
One of my personal favourite stories in this collection, The Dune (originally published in high-brow British literary magazine Granta in 2011) is, on the surface, the story of a man on a never-ending treasure hunt. On another level, however, it’s about growing old, and facing up to one’s own mortality. Understandably perhaps, given King’s advanced years (he turns 69 this year), this has been a recurring theme in much of his recent work. The story ‘Afterlife’ goes one step further, and takes us to a place where a recently deceased man is given the option to live his flawed life all over again. Reviewing Bazar of Bad Dreams for the Daily telegraph, Sarah Crown says ‘Death hangs like a dark cloud over Stephen King’s latest collection of short stories,’ and she isn’t wrong. Elsewhere she makes the observation that the book is ‘closer to philosophy than horror.’ True, as King matures, his work not only seems to be developing more layers, but is becoming more intellectually astute. There’s usually still a reasonably high body count, but these days there are less monsters and vampires, and more real-life conundrums and existential crises. Interesting times for fans of the King.