"I shoot from the hip and keep a stiff upper lip."
- AC/DC (author's epigraph to:)
King's latest - his sixth collection of short fiction - came out last week, and for the first time in my history of pre-orders with Amazon, it was in my hands the same day it was released. Fifth or sixth time is the charm!
This was the first time in buying one of King's short fiction collections where I was already familiar with most of the material within. (Well, just-under-half: 9 out of 20.) Of the ones I'd read, "Ur" was heavily revised for its publication here, but not enough to make it seem like a radically different story or anything. (Cemetery Dance discusses the changes here for those interested.)
I always look forward to King's introductions and Authors Afterwards and was happy to discover Bazaar came with both a foreward and personalized intros for every story. But there's little in any of these preambulatory remarks that Constant Readers haven't seen or heard a few times before. But, I mean, the guy is almost 70 years old. I repeat myself constantly at 41, so I can only imagine.
Thematically, King repeats himself a little, as well, but who cares so long as the stories are good. And these are. I cared about some more than others, as is the nature of horse races, and I can't tell you much about the two poems King included, "Tommy" and "The Bone Church". I'm the wrong guy to evaluate poetry, despite having minored in the subject as an undergrad. There are some poems or poets I like a lot. And then there's everything else. Stephen King would be in the everything else category.
|Some nice illustrations by Phil Hale accompanying "The Bone Church" though. (Playboy, November 2009.)|
"Drunken Fireworks" is the penultimate tale of the collection and was previously available only as an audiobook. Which I've yet to hear, so this was a first-time-read for me. It's the story of a newly-rich drunk hillbilly couple on one side of a lake and their Fourth of July fireworks competition with the rich summer folks across the way. He says in the intro that he bristles at the term "local color" for such a tale, but if someone ever did publish a Stephen King's Local Color collection, this would be front and center, next to things like "It Grows on You," "Uncle Otto's Truck," et al. Harmless but not much to it besides its voice and agreeable pace.
Ditto for "Summer Thunder," though that one has the added pleasure of evoking The Stand and "Night Surf." It seems like a late-innings reflection on the latter, especially.
Ditto for another story, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive." It was published in The Atlantic and won the Bram Stoker Prize for Short Fiction in 2011. With that pedigree, I expected a bit more and was underwhelmed. It tells the story of two old poets who have stopped for a picnic at a rest stop on the way to the University of Maine and witness the fiery death of two drunk women and their seven children. I'd have liked it better, maybe, if the two poets were Gard and Bobbi from The Tommyknockers. (I know Bobbi wasn't a poet, and I know how that novel ends makes their appearance problematic. Don't bother me with the facts.) The title relates to things only in the vaguest sense. I didn't need for it to relate in a literal sense, just to point the way to some larger theme more than I perceive it doing. Not one of his best - I guess that puts me at odds with the general critical consensus.
Two others that only half-worked for me were "Premium Harmony," about a bickering couple's visit to the Wal-Mart of Castle County, and "Under the Weather," about a man's breakdown in the wake of his wife's illness and the grossness that ensues. I shouldn't say "half-worked." Both of them are very well-written, but the endings were too easy to guess. I don't think stories are just about not being able to guess the end, of course, but it can rob a story of its ironic counterpunch if such a thing is too clearly forecast. That aside, they're finely crafted tales.
|A little Dark Tower Easter Egg in "Under the Weather," though, which is always nice to see.|
Two stories are damn-near-perfect until their very last paragraph: "The Dune," about an old man who has spent a lifetime visiting a small island off the coast of Floria where he finds the names of those about to die written in the sand, and "Bad Little Kid," about a man convicted of gunning down a child in cold blood who gives a bizarre confession to his lawyer shortly before his execution.
|"Bad Little Kid" was previously only available to King's French and German readers.|
What is it about these endings that didn't land with me? I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don't want to know. (Tick... tick... boom.) The ending of "The Dune" is the kind of simple-twist that isn't even a twist. Harvey is unsettled because of the last name he saw on the beach. His lawyer assumes it was his own name he saw. It wasn't. The end. We're left to assume it's the lawyer's name he saw. Big deal. Everything leading up to it is vintage King, expertly letting the slack run out of a supernatural thread, but when he tightens the line, the fish is lost. It turns from a Twilight Zone episode to a Night Gallery episode right before our eyes. As for "Bad Little Kid," this one was even more disappointing, as the rest of the story is so damn vicious. The lawyer leaves the prison after the execution and finds his car keyed. (Good) Then he finds the bad little kid's beanie with a note. Bad. Bad bad bad. For one thing, it's the same ending as "Sun Dog" or other King stories and should have been avoided just for that reason. Moreover, though, it torpedoes the effective horror of the Bad Little Kid in the lawyer's client's life, which was earned so painstakingly sentence after sentence.
Okay, as for The Best of the Rest, let me count these down least-to-most-favorite.
Plot: A man in a nursing home knows he is going to die when he sees "Mister Yummy," a David-Bowie-looking young man from his past.
Not much to this one, but it reminded me of some of the better moments from Hearts in Atlantis. Which I keep telling myself I'd like to re-read soon. Just a nice contemplating-the-angel-of-death-through-the-artist's-prism sort of story.
Plot: A young man joins the staff of a Gawker-esque site to write snarky obits for celebrities. He discovers he has the power to visit death unto anyone he chooses by writing their obituary before he or she naturally dies. When his boss learns of his power, there are complications.
This is a bit of a retread of "Everything's Eventual," but not really. Where "E's E" is a little all over the place, this one is more restrained.
Plot: A married couple's financial problems lead them to accept a lucrative offer from an eccentric ex-priest who wants to feel what sin is like before he dies. As he is too physically weak to do it himself, he must participate it in vicariously. The sin? Randomly attacking an innocent child in the park. After the deed is done, they receive the money, but their marriage slowly disintegrates.
|First published Esquire July 2009.|
Winner of the Shirley Jackson award for Best Novelette - what the hell is a novelette, now? As previously discussed, the criteria by which King's stories are determined to be novels, novellas, short stories, etc. is highly arbitrary. Anyway - this is one is a tad on the improbable side, but it resolves itself quite well. Any story that takes morality as its theme is best served by a subtle touch, which King deftly employs here.
The Plot: Pete Simmons drinks vodka and looks at porn mags in an abandoned highway rest area before falling asleep. Outside in the overgrown parking lot, a mysterious mud-splattered station wagon of undetermined make/model rolls to a stop and eats a variety of folks who venture too close to it.
If "The Dune" is a Night Gallery episode, "Mile 81" is a 70s / 80s Movie of the Week. And it would've made a great one. Same way Roadwork and The Long Walk would have made fantastic American New Wave films. As the LA Times wrote in its review, "To call 'Mile 81' a coming-of-age story is not exactly accurate; it unfolds over a single afternoon. But for its protagonist, grade-schooler Pete Simmons, the mysteries of the world, both pleasurable and terrifying, bring him to a point of reckoning, after which he will never be the same."
The story ends logically enough, but what a bummer for Rachel and Blake, the other children of the tale, whose parents are the car's third and fourth victims.
"The Little Green God of Agony"
The Plot: Katherine is a RN for a wealthy man whose recovery from a plane crash is going too slowly (and painfully) for his liking. When conventional rehabilitation fails to end his agony, he calls upon the Reverend Rideout, who looks at pain as possession and himself as an exorcist.
This was adapted into an e-comic in 2012, which is where I first read it. I didn't think much of the e-comic, not only because the art is terrible -
but for all the reasons described in this lengthier review at The Truth Inside the Lie. It's just a very sloppy mess. YMMV, of course, but for me this is everything a story told in sequential-art format should not be.
The story, though, is great. The Rev reminded me a little of Reverend Jacobs from Revival, but not redundantly so.
The Plot: William Andrews dies after a painful fight with cancer and discovers what comes next.
As mentioned here "In this particular King story, 'what comes next' isn’t filled with angels or demons, gold-paved paradises or smoke-choked hells. Instead you get a dreary office and one of King’s classic blue-collar types: the overworked, underpaid stiff who has to eke his way through a literally endless workday. You also get doors (a King staple, as any Constant Reader worth his salt will tell you) and decisions."
|King premiered the story during a talk at UMass Lowell.|
I like these sorts of stories - always have and always will, I suppose. I was particularly tickled by this one because I wrote a very similar story (called "The Soul Cages") when I was 18 or 19. I'm not saying mine was as good as this one or anything, but it made me happy to think of us working out the same premise in a similar way.
When William demands to know why / how life and afterlife is the way it is, his case manager relays the story of Job as an explanation, ("Where were you when I made the world?", more or less) a parable King has returned to often over the years in interviews. That story really resonates with him.
The Plot: Granny Grantham, long-retired manager of the now defunct New Jersey Titans, relays the tale of "Blockade" Billy Blakely to a writer, "Mr. King." (Whether it's the real-life Stephen King or the one from the Dark Tower books or some other-dimensional counterpart is not revealed.)
"The game was played hard in those days, Mister King, with plenty of fuck-you."
When I originally reviewed this, I wrote: "I’ve criticized King in the past for unsuccessful attempts at the tale-told-by-one-character-to-another ('Dedication' or 'Ballad of the Flexible Bullet'), but here is one perfect example of how it can be done. I think giving the narrator a particular way of speaking and plenty of asides is the way to go."
This time around, I liked it even more. I agree with the WaPo's assessment: "(it) works as well as it does for a couple of reasons. The first is the narrative voice that King has conjured up for Granny Grantham. Funny, sharply observant and casually profane, it is the voice of a quintessential baseball insider who happens to be a natural raconteur. Equally important is the lovingly detailed evocation of the game as it was played in 1957."
"Batman and Robin Have an Altercation"
The Plot: Doug Sanderson is visiting his Alzheimer's-ridden father at the nursing home. He and his father reminisce as best they can about an old Halloween they trick-or-treated as Batman and Robin. On the way back to the nursing home they are sideswiped by some joker (sorry) in a big-ass truck. Things don't go well from there.
|First published in September 2012 in Harper's.|
King is circling themes of aging and losing control of your mind and body and watching it happen in family and friends more and more in recent years. Which is good because he has a firm handle on the subject. This is, all hyperbole aside, an airtight piece of short fiction; all details serve the theme. All things serve the Beam.
"That Bus Is Another World"
The Plot: An Alabama man is racing across New York City to make an appointment with an ad firm that just might be able to help the Gulf Shores Oil Company he works for rehab its image after a devastating oil spill. As he's stuck in traffic, he looks into the bus that has pulled parallel to his taxi cab and muses on the peaceful look on the woman whose face he sees through the window. As he's doing so, the man seated next to her pulls a knife and slits her throat. Traffic resumes.
This one is really a masterpiece, kids. The next three, really, but this one is an intersection/ traffic jam of unsettling themes. Ecological disaster, the murders that happen in front of our faces (and what else is an oil spill, when you think about it?), time is money, the 24-7 cable news advertising spin, and how easy it is to convince yourself that all / any of the above is some grand illusion.
The Plot: Jim Truesdale, a local simpleton in old-west South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated to be the case, is arrested by Sheriff Barclay for the murder of one Rebecca Cline. Jim denies having anything to do with her death, but circumstantial evidence and a lack of any better suspect leads to his conviction. Along the way, the Sheriff comes to believe in his innocence.
Another masterpiece. If it was just the tale of an innocent man hanged for a crime he didn't commit, it'd still be a pretty good tale: not a sentence wasted, everyone with a distinctive voice, great economy of description. That it elects to peel back another layer in the last few pages makes it great. I'll save the surprise for you - you'll like it better that way.
|First published as an e-book exclusive to the Kindle 2009.|
"He thought he would lie sleepless for hours, thinking of all of those other worlds, but in the dark they seemed as unreal as actors when you saw them on the movie screen. They were big up there - often beautiful - but they were still only shadows thrown by light. Maybe the Ur-worlds were like that, too."
Garrison Keillor has an ongoing routine on Prairie Home Companion about English Majors (here's one example) that always makes me laugh, partly because the preoccupations of English Majors are so uniform from region to region, college to college, even country to country in some respects. (English-speaking respects, I guess). I sure hope someone brings "Ur" to his Mr. Keillor's attention, as I'd love to see King invited on the show to contribute to one of these sketches. The two are clearly on the same page.
Keillor aside, this is one of King's most enjoyable works, even if you're not an English major. Though I suspect if you are, even moreso. Take this, the beginning to Hemingway's "last 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. The last was the one that outlived you. That was the winter dog. Cortland's winter dog was Negrita, but he thought of it only as the scarecrow dog...
Okay - this is not just good Hemingway pastiche, it is perfect Hemingway pastiche. (Oh and "Negrita" was indeed Hemingway's real-life dog, though he's called only "Black Dog" in A.E. Hotchner's bio. Also: Black Dog appears to have been killed by Batista's men in whatever level of the tower "Ur" inhabits; in ours, though, it was Castro's folks who clubbed him to death, which is what lit a fire under the Hemingways' ass to flee country before a similar fate befell them. Too bad, as Hemingway sympathized more with Castro than Batista, but revolutions are ugly business where a lot of lines get blurred.)
Almost all of the English-major-y asides in this one are equally delightful. Here's another one:
Whatever dimension (Wesley) looks in, Hemingway always wrote A Farewell to Arms. (And usually The Old Man and the Sea.) He tried Faulkner.
Faulkner was not there at all.
He checked the regular menu, and discovered plenty of Faulkner. But only in this reality, it seemed.
The mind boggled.
I love that.
Reading through some reviews at Goodreads for this, I'm shocked to discover this isn't universally loved. I have the same reaction to Duma Key, so maybe I'm just an anomaly among King fans. Whatever the case, though, I absolutely love "Ur." It's a love letter from start to finish, even if it's a bit of an odd one.
"What seemed real in this post-midnight hour was the sound of the wind, the beautiful sound of the wind telling tales of Tennessee, where it had been earlier this evening. Lulled by it, Wesley fell asleep, and he slept deeply and long. There were no dreams, and when he woke up, sunshine was flooding his bedroom. For the first time since his own undergraduate days, he had slept until almost eleven in the morning."
So how does The Bazaar of Bad Dreams rate against King's other short story collections?
Quite well, I'd say. I mean, it's not a contest, I know, but were I to rank them, I think Everything's Eventual might be the best, with either this or Nightmares and Dreamscapes in second.