The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a collection of short stories by Stephen King. This book is aptly named. Much of what you’ll find in the pages feels nightmarish. Some stories err on the terrifying, others delightful, others somewhat forgettable, and a couple outright shocking. I can highly recommend this collection. It is, above all else, a fun ride.
I want to start this review with some back story about myself. Allow me a bit of self-indulgence to look back on my relationship with Stephen King novels, and I suppose, books in general….
I grew up on King, and I’m always reading King. I will always adore him, as I’ll always adore the horror and thriller genres. His books are a part of my childhood. To quote the King in On Writing: “I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that’s all.”
When I was little, my dad was always reading. He read to us at night before bed, and he could always be seen with a weighty tome in hand in between doing chores around the house. While the rest of us were watching TV he was in his chair, his glasses pushed down to the end of his nose, absorbed in a book, and you could just tell that nothing else existed to him then, not the TV, not us, just the world inside the pages.
When I picture him in his leather armchair reading, I typically picture him reading Stephen King. He reads plenty of other authors, but King stands out. My dad has read everything King’s ever written. For as long as I can remember we bought him the newest hardcover Stephen King for his birthday, and then when King started releasing them more rapidly, for Christmas and Father’s Day too. He’s read them all.
It surprised me, much later in life, when I pointed out that King was one of his favorite authors and my dad simply…shrugged. “But you’ve read every single one of his books!” I protested.
“He’s alright,” my dad said. “His books are great, usually until the end. His endings are lame.” Then he went on to tell me all of the exceptions to this. There were plenty of exceptions. I think he just never stopped being mad about the ending of It.
I could only laugh at dad’s nonchalance, because by then I understood his stoicism. My dad never gets outwardly excited about anything, for some reason. But whatever he claims, I know he’s about as big a King fan as he is a fan of anything.
I attribute my love of reading to my dad. I have the fondest memories of him reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to my brother and I (I’ve since worked out that Douglas Adams is, in fact, his favorite). He read me the first Harry Potter novels. He helped me with my book reports. He once told me that there was nothing to do in his tiny hometown, so when he was younger he spent all his time at the library. He would check out a large stack of books, as many as they’d let him, finish them all, bring them back and get a new stack. He did this every week. I was – and am still – amazed by this. In part because I’m not a fast reader like he is. But mostly because…people just don’t do that anymore.
I can’t say that I’ve read everything King has published. I’m still catching up. But I can say that King was my first introduction into adult books. Even before my dad was reading us Hitchhiker’s Guide, I was sneaking books off of his shelves. I think I was eight or nine when I pilfered my first one: ‘Salem’s Lot. I hid it in my backpack, read it secretly at school, careful to hide it inside of binders and notebooks. I read it at night in my room, when I was supposed to be asleep. And yes, it scared the ever-loving shit out of me. But I read the whole thing. Because my dad had told me it was his favorite. (I was maybe too young to read something so horrifying, but then again maybe I wasn’t. I think I turned out fine. This is the reason I roll my eyes when anyone insists kids can’t handle certain content. They can, but that’s a topic of discussion for another day.)
‘Salem’s Lot was the first, but not the last book I would secretly borrow from my father’s bookshelves. (I am, I might add, slightly proud of the fact that neither of my parents had any idea I did this until I told them a few years ago.) From that moment on, I was hooked on King. Part of my love for him is nostalgic in nature. But there’s a reason he’s called King…. It’s his name, yes, I know…but he is The King. With few exceptions his prose is lovely, his characters are complete, his plots both epic and honest. He doesn’t shy away from any topic, going where even horror writers hesitate to, preferring honesty above all else. As a friend of mine (a King fanatic) likes to point out, he’ll kill a kid in a minute.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams came out a few years ago. Several of these stories were published elsewhere already. Several others were previously unpublished. I had not read any of them. Bazaar was pretty far down on my TBR list, but something about it kept calling to me. Possibly it was the cover art. I am obsessed with the cover art; I mean I really just can’t look away.
I dig short story collections, though I spent years putting them on the back-burner. I’m glad I didn’t put off reading Bazaar. This was one I couldn’t stop thinking about. When I was at work, when I was hanging out with friends or with Angel (my live-in boyfriend, love of my life, and a decided non-reader), I just wanted to keep reading more stories. (Please don’t tell Angel.)
By far the most delightful story in this collection is “Ur”. In “Ur,” a college English professor decides he’ll finally join the ranks of those who read on the internet and order himself a Kindle. When it arrives, he’s surprised to discover it’s pink (this was when the Kindle was new and only came in white). He’s also surprised to discover that he can buy Ernest Hemingway novels that don’t exist, at least, not in our particular reality. If you love books, you will love this story. Though the ending was not what I expected (you’re not wrong, dad), it was so much fun. And if you know where I can buy a pink classic Kindle, please let me know.
Some of the stories are based on supernatural phenomena. This is always well done, and rarely campy, even in “The Little Green God of Agony”, which has all of the makings of a black and white horror flick from the ’60’s. And I’m still trying to figure out how, in “Mile 81”, King can make a man-eating car worthy of my worst nightmares. As if I need more reason to be afraid of cars (driving easily makes up more than half of my anxiety), there is a recurring theme of the killer car in this collection. Horrific stories of car accidents feature prominently throughout. The most important of these is “Henry Wouk is Still Alive.” There are car accidents in “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”, “Ur”, “Tommy”, and “Bad Little Kid”. Not to mention the story “That Bus is Another World”, which takes place entirely in a car while stuck in New York City traffic. Although I’ve never been physically run over by a car as Stephen King has, I do share his fear of reckless drivers. There is enough about cars in this to make you stick to walking for at least a week.
Undoubtedly some of these stories won’t leave you. For me, there were three. “The Dune” was one (yes Mr. King, the ending to this story is absolutely perfect). The others were “Ur” and “Afterlife”. In “Afterlife”, King explores one possible theory of…you guessed it, the afterlife. It’s entirely new, as far as I know. After you read it, I can almost guarantee you’ll continue pondering the possibilities long after. It’s dark, funny, and playfully philosophical.
If you do pick up this book, check the table of contents. Make sure it’s one of the editions that includes the story “Cookie Jar”. Some early editions don’t have it, and it’s not a story you want to miss. It has elements of science fiction and fantasy. It’s an interesting portrayal of mental illness, of war, and of whimsy.
This book won’t let you down. Even in those stories that just don’t work for me (“Morality”, “Summer Thunder”, and “The Bone Church”, which is actually a poem, and certainly not my cup of tea), I found that I could appreciate something in all of them, and that they never overstayed their welcome.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
By Stephen King
Published November 3rd 2015 by Scribner (first published 2013)
ISBN: 1501111671 (ISBN13: 9781501111679)
Next will be a review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman