Guess what? He’s afraid of growing old…
By Don Stradley
Stephen King is still here – an unabashed bestselling author of the seventies and eighties who still sells pretty well, even if he’s not the 500-pound gorilla that he used to be, back when people joked he could make a laundry list and sell it to Hollywood, when even his weak stuff was being gobbled up for movie projects, and he had enough clout to step behind the camera and direct his own feature about the trucks that came to life – and that’s cool. To make the kind of dough King made, with his telekinetic misfits, his revamped vampires, his apocalyptic smackdowns, his haunted hotels, his haunted cars, his haunted pets, and his Shawshank redemptions, was a unique, and uniquely American, phenomenon. It doesn’t matter that nothing in his past 10 books, including the latest, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, has really stuck to the ribs, or that I couldn’t name one of his characters since Gerald’s Game if you pressed a sharp blade to my throat. Like Colonel Sanders, he’s ours. We can’t get rid of him. By now he probably glows in the dark, like one of those old Aurora model kits of Frankenstein’s monster.
Early in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of 18 stories and two “poems,” we’re told about a car that eats people. Dumb, right? But King was in a playful mood, and it felt good. Unfortunately, it takes only a few stories for you to realize he’s no longer that sort of writer, not really, which is probably why he put ‘Mile 81’ at the top, the way Lou Reed used to start concerts with ‘Sweet Jane,’ just to get it out of the way. Nowadays King sees himself as more of a Ray Bradbury style fantasist. Not the rocket loving Bradbury, but the Bradbury who wrote about Picasso and time travel and Coke bottles that predicted the weather. King wallows in that style, but his slovenly characters are too busy sucking down soft drinks and fruit pies to be worthy of wonder. King writes in a variety of voices, from the all-knowing narrator to the trailer park knucklehead, but the stories collected here are overly long and flabby. While reading them, I felt King was fiddling and farting. He's like a guy who has the job and knows he’ll never be fired, so he’s not really compelled to impress anybody. I wanted to poke him so he’d just get on with it.
Most frustrating is the sense that he’s recycling old material. ‘Bad Little Kid,’ for instance, is a tired reworking of one of his best early stories, ‘The Bogeyman.’ You can tell how much King has changed as a writer by comparing the two. The earlier piece, published in Cavalier back in 1973, was succinct, suspenseful, and had a colorful jolt in nearly every paragraph. The new one is about three times longer, with several pages between each pop. And I’m sure someone will one day write a nice essay about how ‘Ur,’ which concerns a Kindle that predicts the future, is linked to ‘Word Processor of the Gods,’ in that both are about the frightening consequences that come with new technology. To me, it was just a rehash. Of course, King can still crank it up when the desire hits him. In ‘The Little Green God of Agony,’ King delights in describing the nasty thing that shoots out of a sick old man’s mouth during an exorcism, and how a nurse steps on it: “She felt it splatter beneath her sturdy New Balance walking shoe. Green stuff shot out in both directions, as if she had stepped on a balloon filled with snot.” Product placement and the gross-out, King’s peanut butter and jelly.
John D. MacDonald wrote in the introduction to King’s first collection of short stories, “Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest.” He added, “He does not write to please you. He writes to please himself.” MacDonald was correct on both counts. King has proven to be more than just a horror writer, and he doesn't follow trends. But I don’t think King is a better writer now than he was in 1978, when MacDonald was praising the great stories collected in Night Shift. King can still create strange and unsettling scenes, like in ‘That Bus is Another World,’ where a passenger in a New York cab witnesses a murder that no one else sees. But so many of the stories here take place in nursing homes and hospitals, coupled with a constant yammering about the difficulties of old age, that the reader is overwhelmed by what seems to be King’s own fear of aging and senility. He writes in one story,“…an old man’s body is nothing but a sack in which he carries aches and indignities.” There was a time when King’s characters used to wet their pants out of fear. It happens in just about all of his novels, and in several of the stories here. In the future, I suppose they’ll be pissing themselves not from fear, but because they’re incontinent. What next? A scary bedpan, perhaps. A haunted wheelchair?