“So here are the goods, my dear Constant Reader. Tonight I’m selling a bit of everything… I like to sell this stuff when the rest of the vendors have long since gone home, when the streets are deserted and a cold rind of moon floats over the canyons of the city. That’s when I like to spread my blanket and lay out my goods.” ―Stephen King
So this year, let’s hold off just a little while longer before we trot out the holiday cheer: eggnog , tinsel, and those inescapable Trans Siberian Orchestra songs. Halloween has a special resonance with the Pop Mythology spirit – the freedom to dress up and strut around as your favorite super hero, or to get in touch with the dark side and channel the inner creepiness. Stephen King has long been unashamedly obsessed with the macabre, that primordial ooze lurking in the reptilian remnants of the human brain. And, as an extension of the Halloween spirit, he’s published a new collection of short stories guaranteed to inject a little icy pre-bedtime chill into these late fall nights.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains a spectrum of tales that incorporate a broad dose range of the supernatural. There are those with the full-on, classic Stephen King dark imagination, such as “Mile 81” with a monster car (Christine’s cousin?) that might eat you if you don’t watch your step. Then there are the tales that are more sci-fi than horror, containing just a dash of ‘space oddity’ like “Ur.” One of my favorites in the collection, this one features a Kindle that can access content from parallel universes with alternate histories. In this one, for a mere $7.50, the protagonist buys an undiscovered (in our universe) Hemingway novel entitled Cortland’s Dogs. Now parallel universes are far from a rare sci-fi story launch pad, but the application to literature is a fine and enticing twist for the book lover. But what really drives the shazam home is the wizard King pulling his writing talent out of a hat and giving us the intro to Chapter 1 of said novel:
“A man’s life was five dogs long, Cortland believed. The first was the one that taught you. The second was the one you taught. The third and fourth were the ones you worked. That last was the one that outlived you. That was the winter dog.”
Yep, that’s unmistakable Papa Hemingway, all right, even if it’s masquerading within a Stephen King short story.
For those that prefer no stretches of reality at all, there are those kinds of stories too. “Blockade Billy” is a baseball story that is told with such vivid precision that the game plays itself out on the page in front of you. There is even a humor offering – black comedy naturally, but comedy nonetheless.
The coolest thing about The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, though, is that the collection itself and every story are preceded by commentary from the author. One of the questions that King is often asked at public appearances is “Where do you get your ideas from?” It is fascinating to listen to him unpack his process and hear a little bit about how one of the mostly bizarrely creative writing minds of today runs its course. The introduction contains a self-deprecating overview of writing short fiction with the following confession:
“I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction. I have struggled with feelings of inadequacy, a soul-deep fear that I will be unable to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realization of that idea’s potential.”
The birth places of the stories are fascinatingly varied. Yes, one of two derive from the real-life experience, re-told as an extended disco version with the drama dial turned up to 11. Some, though, come from snippets of songs, movies, or other pop cultural elements that swerve off into unexpected directions. One of the most interesting story origins continues along the Hemingway imitation direction. Some writers have claimed that part of the learning process involved spending time re-typing or re-writing a favorite author verbatim, over and over, in order to deeply ingrain the style and cadence into the subconscious. King describes a similar experience, but goes one better. When he discovers an author he admires, he will obsessively read their stories, and then try to write a new one borrowing the author’s voice. For example, his novel Rose Madder smacks of Cormac McCarthy, and in this collection, there is a story written after a Raymond Carver reading binge.
Overall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a fantastic collection whether you are simply looking for a good, spooky tale to make you appreciate the fire on a cold night, or you want to take a deep dive into the subconscious swamp of a master horror writer’s mind. The raw materials are there. The choice is yours.