Every so often — every five years or so, perhaps — Stephen King’s fans get a chance to see what, aside from churning out a novel or two a year — the author’s been up to.
Beginning with 1978’s “Night Shift,” King has shared collections of short stories that have resulted in some of the author’s most loved tales.
King fans are in for another in a long line of treats. His most recent collection of short stories, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams,” (495 pages, Scribner) will hit shelves Tuesday. In it, King shares 20 stories, including several that have been published before. But as King points out in his author’s note, just because a story has been published before doesn’t mean it’s done. A few of those included tales have been polished and revised, he said, and a crop of new tales are included.
He churns out novels like clockwork, and readers rarely have to wait long before the can eagerly devour a new one.
For loyal King fans who devour anything the author produces, these collections are tiny desserts: sweet morsels that can be consumed rapidly, without guilt. Like some? Fine. Love ’em all? Better. Hate a few? Oh, well — move on. Take a bite out of another.
For those who are new to King and unsure whether they’ll like what they find, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” provides a tasty sampler that, like his other short story collections, showcases the master’s array of talents.
King said a year ago that he was confident he could still “write stories that are sleep-with-the-lights-on scary.” And he can. (Try his novel “Revival” on for size, if you’re in doubt.)
But “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” is a collection of a different flavor and seems to reflect the maturing — and aging — of a writer who likely has left far more tales in his rear view mirror then he has remaining in front of his headlights. Recurring themes this time around include aging, dealing with aging and death itself.
And while that isn’t surprising in itself — there’s often a hefty helping of dying going on in a King book or story — the tone is different, almost melancholy at times, as characters face their mortality and battle with questions like the age-old unanswerable: What’s next?
Among those, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” is a story about the relationship between a son and his father, who has Alzheimer’s. The tale is touching, to be sure, but finishes with a decidedly King-ish flurry that mixes violence with melancholy in a deliciously bloody climax.
In “Morality,” a woman answers a simple question at the request of a dying man: Would you commit a sin — and videotape it — for a large sum of money? Her answer, eventually: Yes. But of course she can’t predict the way her misstep would change her life.
In “Obits,” King introduces us to an online reporter with a unique talent: He can write obituaries about living people, and they end up no longer alive. The tale is fascinating in its simplicity, but that character, Michael Anderson, learns that tinkering with such things can have unexpected, undesirable results.
King also revisits a common theme — the end of the world — in the book’s final tale, “Summer Thunder.” As humanity and animals alike succumb to the effects of nuclear armageddon, two men are left mulling their futures and determining their own reactions to the reality they face.
A tale that will appeal to a broad cross-section of readers — especially those who are a little bit squeamish when it comes to horror or gore — is “Drunken Fireworks.” King spins a yarn that will resonate with many rural Mainers, in which a rich family “from away” engages in a hilarious fireworks arms race with a local duo who have a camp on the same lake. The audiobook features Maine humorist Tim Sample, and readers would be well-advised to read the story in their best Sample imitation to achieve maximum enjoyment.
King leads into each story with a short preface, sometimes explaining how the idea percolated, other times sharing pieces of the writing process or pointing out parts of the story he particularly likes.
Case in point: Before launching into “The Dune,” King tells readers the tale “has one of my very favorite endings. Maybe not up there with ‘August Heat,’ by W.F. Harvey — that one’s a classic — but in the same neighborhood.”
In typical King fashion, the writer delivers on his promise with a classic finish of his own. Can’t tell you what it is. Can’t tell you why it’s great. As King himself might say, “Trust me, Constant Readers. You won’t be disappointed.”
And that’s the case with the entire collection, really. Constant readers of King will enjoy what they find. And newcomers looking to snack on some delectable King treats will find plenty to savor.
As a Constant Reader since 1975 — yes, I was 11 years old and probably not quite ready for what I’d find in the pages of “‘Salem’s Lot” — this offering was just what I’d expected: the unexpected.
Overall, the collection was short on the gore some accuse King of relying on but long on the kind of supernatural tales that give readers the shivers when they’re lying in bed after dark, trying to find a convenient place to stop reading for the night.
If there’s a weakness in the book, it may be this: None of the stories — save, perhaps, “Drunken Fireworks — stands out as “THE story” that seems an obvious choice to be the next shorter King work to receive the Hollywood treatment. (See also: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” a novella, and “Children of the Corn.”)
But that’s a small complaint, to say the least.
But King fans won’t dwell on that. Instead, they’ll appreciate their latest installment of riveting, tight tales that are told well, with a purpose.
And they’ll be wondering when they’ll get their next helping of the master’s short-form work.