Thursday, June 9, 2016

Father and Son

Stephen King may not be the only major writer producting short fiction, but he is certainly one of the few whose name still can get a collection of short stories into print and sell copies of it. His sixth short story collection, 2015's The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, has a couple of 21st century wrinkles -- two of its entries were previously published as e-books -- but it's not substantially different from 1978's Night Shift. King uses his imagination to bring to life some ideas or concepts that wouldn't have stood up as novel-length works but which sometimes shine brightly in the simplified bolder strokes of a short story.

And like Night Shift, Bazaar is a hit-and-miss collection. Standouts are stories like "Mile 81," a monster tale told with the kind of voice you might hear if Mickey Spillane wrote for Boy's Life. Or "Ur," which tells us what happens when a literature teacher at a small college finally orders a Kindle but receives something a little bit different than he asked for when he learns that this Kindle accesses material from alternative realities -- or even his own future. "Obits," "That Bus Is Another World" and "The Dune" are the kind of evil leering throat punches King wrote earlier in his career when he relied on sales from short fiction for income. The third one especially likes to twist its knife, reading like a Twilight Zone episode told by the Joker instead of Rod Serling.

Misses are the baseball-slash-crime novel "Blockade Billy" and its previously-published companion "Morality." The former never gets over its split personality and the latter still reads more like a typing exercise than a narrative -- these two weren't any good between the covers of 2010's Blockade Billy and they're no better here. "Premium Harmony" and "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" betray King's disturbing and continued disdain for certain kinds and classes of people, and the two poems, "The Bone Church" and "Tommy," are free-verse ramblings whose most important words are the three that follow their titles: "By Stephen King."

Some of the others are like much of King's current output, neither here nor there and fading from memory not long after the page turns. But they have the virtue of ending after only a dozen or two pages, instead of almost a thousand, so they don't really subtract much from reading the half-dozen or so really good outings Bazaar contains.
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In the initial stages of his career, Joseph King wanted to make certain that his supernatural-tinged novels were less identified with his father's work. He wanted to fly or fall on his own merits, so he shortened his mother's maiden name and wrote as Joe Hill. Heart-Shaped Box flew, Horns fell with a listless muddled thud and NOS4A2 went somewhere in between.

The connection is no longer secret, but King the younger has established himself as Joe Hill and so continues to write under that name. But even if the kinship wasn't out in the open, it would be difficult to deny after reading Hill's fourth novel, The Fireman, and realizing how much it echoes what may be his father's most famous work, The Stand.

Both concern humanity facing plagues that may wipe out the entire species, and the aftermath of those plagues which develops on the supernatural dimension as well. King the elder gave 99.8% if humanity a fatal flu, Hill gives them "dragonscale," a deadly spore that appears as gold and black swirls on the skin before eventually causing spontaneous combustion. Hill's narrative focuses mostly on one character, Harper Willows, as she resolves to survive both the spore and official attempts to "quarantine" victims long enough to deliver her baby. But before long a mysterious character who calls himself "The Fireman" appears, who might be the key to Harper's survival and maybe even a cure for the dragonscale.

Fireman wears its Standishness on its sleeve to the point of annoyance -- especially since said annoyance point has been lowered by Harper's own tendencies towards blandness and Mary Poppins/Julie Andrews obsession. The Stand's characters were much more interesting than Harper and had the advantage of spreading the story around several of them so as to disguise the places where they were a little shallow or less engaging. Several points of contact are probably deliberate in-jokes on Hill's part, such as the presence in his book of a deaf character named Nick, just as The Stand had a pivotal deaf character named Nick.

But even though touches like these are far more wink-and-nudge than bluster-and-thunder, they're still there to try to distract us from the man behind the curtain and the reality that we've seen this trick before. And we know how it goes.

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