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Review: Humor sharpens horror in Stephen King's 'Bazaar of Bad Dreams'

Stephen King's middle name might as well be "Horror Writer." But the man has always had a wicked (in more ways than one) sense of humor, too, and it's often on display along with the scary stuff in his new short story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Take Ur, for example. One of the bonuses of Bazaar is that each story (18 of them, plus two poems, some new, some previously published, some revised) is preceded by a note from the author about its genesis. Ur, he tells us, came about after he turned down an offer from Amazon to write a story especially for the launch of the second-generation Kindle.

"Yet the idea lingered," he writes, "mostly because I've always been fascinated by technologies, especially those having to do with reading and writing. ... (T)he idea for this story arrived while I was taking my morning walk. It was too cool to remain unwritten."

So he ended up writing a story for the Kindle launch after all — about the Kindle from hell.

Or at least a portal, to many possible hells. Wesley Smith is an English professor at a small college in the days when e-readers were new (way, way back to about 2008). He's old school about books on paper, but after his students tease him and after his girlfriend, who coaches the college's women's basketball team, breaks up with him in part because of his attachment to books — "Why can't you read off the computer, like the rest of us?"— he orders a Kindle.

It seems a little odd that it arrives one-day delivery, which he didn't request. And that's not all:

"It didn't strike him as peculiar that, whereas the Henderson kid's Kindle had been white, his was pink.

"Not at first."

That pink Kindle, it turns out, has an "Experimental" menu that leads Wesley to something called Ur Books. Intrigued, he searches for titles by Ernest Hemingway.

The author page that pops up has the wrong dates for Hemingway's birth and death — and several titles Wesley doesn't recognize and assumes are a prank. But when he orders one, called Cortland's Dogs and described as Hem's final and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it flows onto his Kindle. And it's really, really good — and reads like Hemingway.

If only that were the worst thing the Ur menu led to — but, of course, it's not.

King lives near Sarasota for part of each year, and several of the stories in Bazaar have Florida inspirations he mentions in his notes. Batman and Robin Have an Altercation is one, and another story rich in humor. It's also an entirely realistic story, sans any supernatural elements — because its basic situation, a middle-aged man caring for a father with dementia, is plenty scary enough.

So is a road rage confrontation between that mild-mannered middle-aged man, whose name is Sanderson, and an angry 6-foot-2 dude with jailhouse tattoos, driving a jacked-up pickup truck. But Sanderson's dad, who seems so out of it most of the time, turns out to have something (maybe literally) up his sleeve.

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive gets a lot of mileage out of juxtaposing two very different kinds of characters in alternating sections. The story opens with Brenda and Jasmine, young women and longtime friends with lousy childhoods and worse romantic choices behind them and seven kids between them.

They're celebrating Brenda's $2,700 lottery win with a road trip with the kids in a rented minivan, a choice that gives us a hint at why neither of them seems to be able to turn her life around: " 'There's six hundred left over after I paid off the credit card balance,' Brenda says. 'Well, four hundred if you count the rental, only I don't because I can put that on MasterCard.' "

Along the same highway Brenda is driving on, a couple of notable poets pause at a rest stop for a picnic on their way to a book festival. Phil and Pauline are both in their 70s, longtime friends and occasional lovers, and King paints a sweet picture of their relationship: "The wind blows the gone-to-seed dandelion puff of his hair. His scalp shines gauzily through. He's not the young man who once came roistering out of Brooklyn, broad-shouldered as a longshoreman (and just as foul-mouthed), but Pauline can still see the shadow of that man, who was so full of anger, despair, and hilarity."

This is another story that doesn't need anything paranormal to become terrifying — just one moment of clarity for Brenda that leads to disaster.

If you're looking for King's paranormal horror side, though, Bazaar has plenty to satisfy you, notably its opening story, Mile 81. King tells us it's a reconstruction of a story he wrote while he was a college student, almost 40 years ago. "It was never rewritten, let alone published, because I lost it. Back then I was dropping acid regularly, and I lost all sorts of stuff. Including, for short periods, my mind."

This is another story set at a rest stop — King has often made effective use of how much of our lives we Americans spend in our cars — this one shuttered, with an abandoned restaurant where teenagers party and, one quiet afternoon, a 10-year-old named Pete has sneaked in for a look after his older brother told him he couldn't tag along there.

While Pete takes a nap inspired by a few sips he takes from a half-full vodka bottle he finds, bad things start to happen in the parking lot. Out on I-95, a man is driving along in his Prius, thinking about the biblical story of the Good Samaritan.

"If Doug Clayton had a horror of anything, it was of being like the Levite in that story. Of refusing to help when help was needed and passing by on the other side. So when he saw the muddy station wagon parked a little way up the entrance ramp of the deserted rest area — the downed orange barrier-barrels in front of it, the driver's door hanging ajar — he hesitated only a moment before flicking on his turn signal and pulling in."

Baby boomers who feel nostalgic warmth for Mom's station wagon may end up with the shivers over this one after what happens to Doug, then to the nice lady pulling a horse trailer, then to the young family who met the "horse lady" at the last rest stop and see her rig pulled over and stop to help. As 4-year-old Blakie warns Pete, "Watch out for the TII-YIII-YII-RE!"

And if you want King in full funny tall-tale mode, head for Drunken Fireworks. It's the hilarious story of how its narrator, a Maine native named Alden who lives with his mother in a modest cabin on the "town side" of Abenaki Lake, gets into an ever-escalating Fourth of July arms race with a rich guy on the other shore who's rumored to be "connected," if you know what I mean.

One lesson: Never buy a firework called Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Stories

By Stephen King

Scribner, 512 pages, $30

Review: Humor sharpens horror in Stephen King's 'Bazaar of Bad Dreams' 10/21/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2015 1:01pm]
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