'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams' is time well spent with Stephen King

King's latest short story collection shows the Master of Horror to be at the top of his form.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams By Stephen King Scribner 512 pp.

Say hello to Alden McCausland. A ne’er-do-well from Maine, Alden is prone to excessive talking and tippling, though not always in that order.

In a statement to the Castle County Police Department last summer, Alden explained how he and his alcoholic mother engaged in a fireworks war at Abenaki Lake with a trumpet-wielding family on the Fourth of July. His digressions prove to be just as much fun to read as the accounts of how and where to find contraband bottle rockets.

Early on, Alden tells his interrogators – the police chief and the arresting officer – about his lot in life. And his mother’s.

She used to work at Royce Flowers, Alden says.

And, he mentions in passing, her expertise was “not bad when it came to funeral arrangements, either. She did Dad’s, you know. Had a nice yellow ribbon on it that said HOW WE LOVED THEE. Almost biblical, don’t you think? People cried when they saw it, even ones Dad owed money to.”

This mordant tone propels "Drunken Fireworks," making it as delightful as time well wasted on a porch swing.

Dark humor and other kinds of fireworks abound in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King’s new collection of short stories. These 20 tales include a baseball-noir hybrid (“Blockade Billy”) about a man taking his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father out for lunch, accounts of unexpectedly violence (“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”), and the tale of a demented alternate-reality Amazon Kindle reader (“Ur”).

Those seeking classic charnel house-style King will want to start at the beginning, where “Mile 81” awaits. It carries a faint whiff of “Stand by Me” (the movie was based on King’s 1982 short story, “The Body”) mixed with “Christine,” the possessed Plymouth Fury and star of King’s 1983 novel of the same name.

As in “The Body,” King conjures child-like wonder and cynicism in perfect proportion in “Mile 81.” Ten-year-old Pete Simmons, banished by his older brother and a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, is bored and looking for an adventure. He hops on his bike and wanders into an abandoned highway rest stop, where, after quaffing two sips from a discarded vodka bottle to see what the fuss is about, he falls asleep in a shuttered Burger King. When he wakes up, the nightmare begins. Pete is left to figure out how to save two younger children whose parents have been swallowed up in Pac-Man fashion by a mud-splattered car.

The cream of the crop might be “The Dune,” an eerie tale set in swampy Florida. A retired Florida judge, 90 years old but still sharp, ponders a mysterious actuarial discovery made in his boyhood – and his reasons remain tantalizing all the way to the last sentence.

As good as the plot is, the opening might be even better. King writes, “As the Judge climbs into the kayak beneath a bright morning sky, a slow and clumsy process that takes him almost five minutes, he reflects that an old man’s body is nothing but a sack in which he carries aches and indignities.”

At 68, King isn’t quite an old man – and his literary career hardly suffers from any indignities. “Bazaar of Bad Dreams” is already atop The New York Times best-seller list and, more importantly, a decade-long hot streak continues. Some of his best novels (“Under the Dome,” “Lisey’s Story,” and “11/22/63”) and story collections (“Just After Sunset” and “Full Dark, No Stars”) arrived during these rich years, along with a trilogy of hard-boiled detective novels set to conclude next year. In other words, for King’s beloved Constant Readers, it’s been a dream come true.

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