The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (2015)

“I may be a professional writer, but in creative terms, I’m still an amateur, still learning my craft. We all are. Every day spent writing is a learning experience and a battle to do something new. Phoning it in is not allowed. One cannot increase one’s talent, but it is possible to keep that talent from shrinking.” From the introduction to Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Stephen King is a favorite writer of mine: I find his work consistently well-written, always managing to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. This collection of twenty short stories is no exception — each one exploring questions about life, death, fear, crime, and the unexplained–  but I find the most wonderful part of the book to be the Introduction and story explanations that King has included. King has taken the time to talk about the craft of writing fiction, in general, and also the specific circumstances surrounding the inspiration of each individual story. It is as fascinating to hear about the origin of each of these stories as it is to read them, with King giving great insight into the many ways his stories come to him and the events that provoked his interest in these varied topics.

Short fiction is a format that seems perfectly suited for a writer like King, where he can explore many different writing styles, introduce many different characters, and discuss multiple ideas, without being locked into telling one larger story. As a result, readers get twenty wonderful examinations of King’s favorite topics: death, desperation, human relationships, and the supernatural. “The reason fantasy fiction remands such a vital and necessary genre is that it lets us talk about such things [as death and the afterlife] in a way that realistic fiction cannot.”

Despite often being attributed (in my opinion, wrongly) as being a writer who specializes in blood and gore, that is only rarely the case for King. Yes, he is interested in dark subjects but he only rarely engages in the kind of horror writing that people associated with slasher films. At the very root of all of his novels, and indeed each of these short stories, are discussions about human nature. How will people react in a terrifying situation? What would motivate someone to kill? What would greed lead a person to do? How much money would it take for a person to violate their moral code?

It is through these explorations that King’s work really speaks to me. His stories may not always provoke fear in me (although they often do) but they always lead me to consider dark possibilities in a new way. His stories are most often haunting not because they are scary, but because they linger in the minds of readers long after the story has been read. That, I believe, is King’s true genius.

I loved all of the stories in this collection, but I really enjoyed “Premium Harmony,” “A Death,” and “Summer Thunder.”