Stephen King published nine books in the last five years, including this month’s collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. If you haven’t picked up any, then shame on you: you’re missing out on some killer writing. That level of productivity, while leaving his fans satiated, invites criticism from detractors. Quality not quantity is a fair enough flag to wave, but what if that maxim falls apart when you’re an author capable of both? King’s best work is not behind him. Here’s why you should dig into his newest material.
Approachability Is a Thing
Brevity has never been a concern of King’s. Gigantic doorstopper tomes are more his style, unspooling richly-layered stories over five hundred or so pages. If you’ve picked up The Stand and plopped it back down because its translucent Bible pages are too daunting, then don’t be knocked back from sampling his newer efforts. Those long form fictions are no longer the only King titles hitting shelves.
The Bill Hodges trilogy is the best example of this. Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, the first two entries published so far in the whodunit saga, clock out at around 400-ish pages. The hard-boiled detective milieu at its best strips prose to its bare bones, a writing choice that’s realized over the course of cop-turned-P.I. Bill Hodges’ first investigation.
“The two of them walked around the car again, this time noting blood on the tires and rocker panels. A lot of it was going to wash off before the tarp and the techs arrived; it was still forty minutes shy of seven A.M.”
Short and to the point.
King still produces lengthy works but only if the story demands it. 11/22/63 pushes 849 pages: and it’s worth devouring for his dedication to detail and hypothetical plotting toward an alternate history. Joyland on the other hand, doesn’t even nudge 300.
The 500 pages of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams splinter into 20 short stories. They each benefit from a short format, a perfect taster for those unsure about whether or not you’re willing to set aside a couple of weeks for King. But, as the author himself explains in the introduction, it’s a gamble that’s well worth it:
“But there’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar.”
Basically, reading one of King’s short stories is like a one night stand.
Moving Past Horror
“It’s not scary enough,” is a common complaint aimed at his recent material. Of those nine books mentioned only one truly mainlines horror. Revival shoots up wickedness into its black heart, a return to the themes King explored in his earlier years; the unrest of the human soul at the hands of unspeakable evil. The rest don’t pledge a similar intent, instead presenting a menagerie of fantasy, crime, and straight-up literary homage. Sleepless nights remain on the agenda — it’s the reason why you’re wide-eyed at 3 a.m. that’s changed.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams makes room for paranormal tales — as will no doubt always be the case with King — amidst a larger collection of whacked-out parables. New technology is explored in “UR”, penned to coincide with Amazon’s first-gen Kindle. Yes, it’s a shameless tie-in, and yet it’s my favorite story in the collection. A man’s first foray into e-readers finds him with a unique Kindle that offers literary works existing in alternate universes. “Premium Harmony” and “Morality” meanwhile channel the writing style of Raymond Carver, concise exhumations of modern marriage. And “Mile 81” works as a self-homage, riffing on the killer car concept explored long-form in Christine. You really never know what you’re going to get when you turn the page.
Likewise, King plays fast and loose in his gumshoe trilogy, contorting even his newest area of interest with sneaky genre twists. The Hodges series revolves around the experiences of a retired cop whose unshakable detective skills find him immersed in locating a mass murderer (Mr. Mercedes) and an unhinged convict with a vendetta (Finders Keepers). A fedora gifted to Hodges serves as a token, a nod to the world founded by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, that’s now lodged in the past and ready to be reinvented.
Ultimately, King crafts a page-turner detective story with a likeable hero. The polar opposite to the haunting dreariness of True Detective — which examined the deeper complaints of man beneath the surface with great success in Season 1 and emptiness in Season 2. That’s not really the meat of the matter for Hodges. He isn’t a youthful, spry protagonist torn by the existential wonderings of a scattered mind; he starts off out-of-shape and marginally tinged by conflict. Only later does he transform into a better man. Not for personal gain but because the case — and the story — requires it.
In short, King offers readers a Lazy Suzy of thematic and stylistic options for every reader. He’s got a wicked sense of humor as seen in “Drunken Fireworks”, a short story charting the escalating silliness between two warring families on the Fourth of July weekend, and the imagination to concoct narratives like 11/22/63 which imagines a doorway into the past allowing a high school teacher the chance to prevent JFK’s assassination.
I’ll crack open a new King book, not knowing what it’s about or which genre he’s dabbling in, because I’m what he dubs one of his “constant readers.” If you’ve yet to try his newest material, this is a method I’d recommend. The stories themselves surpass what’s largely expected of King — the ability to terrify — as if his tenure as a best-selling and widely-read horror maestro has directed him toward mining the rest of his mind other than its dark half. Instead of recycling a successful formula, King dwells in risk right now. You should totally do the same.