“The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” By Stephen King
Scribner, New York, 2015
512 pages, hardcover, $30
“The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror”
By George Beahm
Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2015
624 pages, trade paperback, $26.99
The problem with Stephen King’s short stories isn’t that they lack literary merit. It’s that they’re too short.
The stories in “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,” like those in previous collections, are mostly little scale models of his novels. This means they’re well-crafted works of fiction with vividly drawn characters and, above all, success living up to the high bar set by Edgar Allan Poe — the creation of “a certain unique or single effect.” King’s stories do that, and more.
“The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” provides several glimpses of his stylistic mastery, for example. If you still think Stephen King is a pulp hack, read “Premium Harmony,” an 11-page story about a down-and-out couple’s ill-fated excursion to Wal-Mart. King tells us in the advance note (one of which is attached to each story in the book) that this story was written in the glow of a binge of reading Raymond Carver. And sure enough, “Premium Harmony” has setting, characters and theme parallel to many of Carver’s stories, but moreover, it turns out to be an astonishingly well-wrought imitation of Carver’s sentences, diction and tone. The sense of layer upon subconscious layer of internal wretchedness is as lifelike as anything of Carver’s I’ve read.
Or for another example, “A Death” is a story of the Old West about a dimwitted ranch hand who seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets jailed and tried Plains-justice-style for the death of a young girl. The spareness of presentation in this story is different from the spareness in “Premium Harmony,” and to me sounds — in plot, character, setting and language — like an update of Stephen Crane’s, say, “The Blue Hotel” or “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.”
A prototypical King-style story line occurs in “The Little Green God of Agony,” whose well-meaning but mean-spirited protagonist — a nurse watching protectively over a bedridden billionaire whom she despises — seems to me to be a character straight out of a Flannery O’Connor story. Not to put too fine a point on it, but O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” which takes place mostly in a doctor’s waiting room, also features a well-meaning but mean-spirited main character who, like King’s nurse, also has a culminating epiphany. King’s is scarier.
And there are just vivid, typical Stephen King tales like “Mile 81,” which will make you relieved to remember the turnpike rest areas between Auburn and Portland are closed now, and “Drunken Fireworks” (already mentioned in this column) which shapes one of the most realistic Maine voices ever set in type (“Thinking of Marshall Dodge” is the tag note to this one). He is a master of his craft.
The trouble with all this is that some of us end up wanting to live in each King book, not just read it. When the story is only 10 or 20 pages, you’re in and out too quickly. It’s the kind of dissatisfaction that goes with a one-night stand: Whatever effect it produces is just a momentary jolt compared to the whole world of a spouse, whose electricity powers every minute of every day, not just bed and breakfast.
It’s possible to get so caught up by an author’s writing that you start wanting to live not only in the stories but in his actual life. This can get a little creepy. George Beahm’s book has probably been a nice balm over the years for this addictive aspect of pop-culture hero worship. “The Stephen King Companion” is a scrapbook, really, of writings and photos concerning King, his books, his family, friends and residences, his publishing history, and whatever else you can think of that makes up the backstory of a famous person.
How much of it actually is made up is hard to tell, because the sources for a lot of what’s offered in the book are not clear. But entertaining musings, discussions, interviews and even what you’d call documents abound on everything from King’s childhood in Durham to the genesis of “Carrie” all the way up to “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.”
Interesting is, for example, UMaine professor Burton Hatlen’s article, “Campus Columnist Publishes Novel,” which Beahm describes as “the first major, serious review of ‘Carrie.'” Memorable are two essays by one-man literary vortex Sanford Phippen, of Hancock, recounting personal adventures with King, and a little section on how horror novelist Rick Hautala — whom I used to chat with at Walden Books in the Maine Mall decades ago — was helped to gain some publishing traction.
The book is huge, so there’s almost no end to weird details for oiling your fantasies about who Stephen King, the living being, actually is.
On the whole, I prefer the novels. But if you don’t want to make the commitment, the stories in “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” definitely do their tricks, and more. And “The Stephen King Companion” makes a nice whet for your authorial dreams.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].