FEBRUARY 24, 2016
IMAGINING STEPHEN KING as a doctor of dental surgery may seem strange at first, but it’s an image that is easy to conjure — King is, after all, the Master of Horror, and few things provoke more fear and anxiety than a trip to the dentist. The idea of King donning scrubs and latex gloves while fiendishly grinning at a helpless patient is perhaps a metaphorical stretch with respect to how his writing is received by his Constant Reader, but King’s latest collection of short stories, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, gives gruesome life to this illustration.
For some (Harold Bloom comes to mind), reading any Stephen King story is akin to having a tooth pulled; for others, King’s fiction is almost like a dose of nitrous oxide — a disorienting (but pleasant) escape from the real world. For this reader, King’s latest collection is like peering into the dark maw of a monster and taking inventory of the teeth contained therein. While some are worn and do not necessarily invoke fright (at least in a traditional sense), others are sharp and biting. Indeed, as King says of his own works in the introduction to this collection, “The best of them have teeth,” but some here lack the sharpness that one might expect from King. Expectation, however, is not always a useful tool; expecting fangs, so to speak, or constantly trying to craft them, can lead to disappointment. As King quips, “you write some scary stories and you’re like the girl who lives in the trailer park on the edge of town: you get a reputation.” Even though King’s reputation purposefully wavers throughout this new collection, each story makes a notable mark, and some take a larger bite out of the reader than others.
All but two of the 20 offerings in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams have been previously published, and among these King offers several tales that could be considered the flashy incisors of the collection: in “Mile 81,” (which King readily admits is reminiscent of Christine) readers are asked to once again entertain the idea of a living and malevolent vehicle. “The Dune” offers a story of a man who sees names magically appear in a sand dune, forewarning him of future deaths; when he summons his lawyer to draw up a will, however, it slowly becomes clear that the lawyer’s name is written in the sand rather than his own. Rounding out the superficial fangs of this volume are “Ur,” “Bad Little Kid,” “Blockade Billy,” “Drunken Fireworks,” and “The Little Green God of Agony,” about which King says (and which could easily be said of the other stories listed here) “its principal purpose is to entertain.” These stories are centered upon a Kindle with access to news from other worlds, an ageless redheaded youth with a penchant for destruction, a sly-but-disturbed baseball player, a fireworks show gone wrong (relayed in a narrative manner similar to the first-person account of Dolores Claiborne), and a small green demon who amplifies physical pain within its victims. All of these tracts demonstrate a particular polish that King has developed for his short writings over the years, yet the sharper stories are a bit further back in the mouth of this collection.
Regarding the stories with stronger bites, “Premium Harmony” and “Morality” are perhaps the molars of this text. I’ve written about “Premium Harmony” in an essay (published in Confronting Animal Exploitation, ed. Kim Socha and Sarahjane Blum) where I examine the story alongside other tales in which King’s treatment of non-human animals is truly horrifying. “Premium Harmony,” which was originally published in 2009 in The New Yorker, is the tale of a man, Ray Burkett, whose wife Mary dies of a heart attack while in a gas station. While Ray and emergency medical technicians sort things out inside the store, another death occurs outside — Biz, the Burketts’ dog, has been forgotten and left in the car with the windows rolled up on a hot summer day. In short, the bite that King offers is a reminder of how callous humans can be, particularly towards animals — especially when they are forgotten, cast aside, or dismissed as lesser creatures.
King scholar Philip L. Simpson also considers “Morality” to be one of King’s most distressing fictions (in Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics, ed. Philip L. Simpson and Patrick McAleer). Simpson suggests that many readers might identify with the main characters, Chad and Nora Callahan, who stand on the brink of financial collapse and find their morality challenged when they are offered $250,000 for a devilish deal: Nora is asked by a priest on the brink of death to assault a child. Indeed, the priest not only wants Nora to draw blood from the hapless victim, but he also wants a recording of the assault so he can, in essence, experience and enjoy the sin that Nora is committing on his behalf. For those who still live in the shadow of the recession that serves as the backdrop for this story, the temptation to consider such a wildly outrageous and damning offer is likely not much of a temptation at all. As Simpson says, “Under the right circumstances, any of us could be Chad or Nora […] Now that is disturbing.”
Throughout the rest of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, King bares his canines with thoughts and musings designed to provoke discomfort. Indeed, one theory that King posits in this collection is that “only through fiction can we think about the unthinkable.” The unthinkable (like a tooth) can take many forms; sometimes it will barely break skin, but at other times it can puncture deeply. As such, perhaps the most biting story in the collection is “Afterlife,” a tale in which one man, William Andrews, finds himself in a sort of purgatory where he is faced with the decision to enter one of two doors: one leads to permanent death, and the other leads back to the very moment he is born. But there is a catch: if he chooses to live his life over again, he cannot change one single event, and he will have no recollection of his previous death. For William, there will be no way to escape succumbing to cancer, and he will not be able to change the guilty moment when he turned a blind eye to the rape of a woman in a fraternity house. Despite this warning, William decides to live his life again in the vain hope that he can change, thus entering into an existence that is pre-determined to include, among other things, pain and travesty. The notion that Hell is repetition is one that King visits constantly in his canon (notably within the Dark Tower series — which, incidentally, receives a nod in “Ur”), and the suggestion that humans willfully engage in such circularity, idiocy, and indecency, is, perhaps, the deepest cut (or bite) from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.
There are certainly other ideas, images, and insights for the reader to chew on, such as the two poems King includes: “The Bone Church” and “Tommy.” Although King will likely never be confused for T.S. Eliot or Emily Dickinson, the latter of the two poems mentioned is a nostalgic piece that looks back to the 1960s and ’70s (the years of King’s youth, and the years of youth for many of King’s readers) and revisits these decades with reverence toward those who did not live beyond them. In short, as King writes about Tommy and “the silent soldiers of love who never sold out / or sold insurance,” he thinks about all the “hippies asleep under the earth” with a lamenting tone and prompts the Constant Reader to share in his pain — the pain of not just loss of life, but rather the loss of an identity of strength and possibility for the average American that (at least for King) died around the time when Reagan took office.
As far as the rest of the tales in this collection go, “That Bus Is Another World” also depicts a stark scene that is not necessarily welcoming — a man witnesses a murder on a city bus from his taxi cab, but he tells himself this must have been a prank and continues to his business meeting without another thought. King intimates that the Constant Reader may be just as detached, or could just as easily separate him or herself from the death of another human being, and the story smacks of a pessimism that is, again, difficult to confront. Moreover, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” may seem to resemble an updated version of Thelma and Louise, but any story that examines why someone might choose to commit suicide has a certain sort of teeth — we might wish to look away, yet we must nonetheless take it seriously. Other stories include elements of idealistic denial (“A Death”), the pain of isolation (“Summer Thunder”), unbelievably fortuitous survival (“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”), the notion that “Some people have remarkably sturdy illusions” (“Mister Yummy”), and a reminder that, with respect to life, “The only full stop is the obituary page” (“Obits”). In short, King puts forth a strong collection that may not always reflect King’s typical title of “Master of Horror,” but this collection does promote a new title for him: Doctor of (Literary) Dental Surgery.