Books: Stephen King's short stories are closer to philosophy than horror
Short stories: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton, tpbk, 496 pages, €22.50
Death hangs like a dark cloud over Stephen King's latest collection of short stories. His opening gambit, 'Mile 81' - in which a series of good Samaritans stop to lend a hand to a broken-down station wagon, only to find themselves drawn in and devoured by it - is vintage King: blood-drenched and uncanny.
But as we move deeper into the collection, something shifts. Though the body count continues to climb, the deaths become more commonplace; their causes mostly natural. A woman suffers a fatal heart attack while shopping at a convenience store; a man passes away on his retirement-home bed, "peacefully and with no fuss".
Flashes of the old black magic can be found in stories such as 'The Little Green God of Agony', where pain is transmogrified into a pulsing ball of "small evil" that squats in its victims' throats, and the excellent 'Bad Little Kid', featuring a carrot-haired, jug-eared imp who goads and jeers a man to the point of murder. But these are the exceptions.
For the most part, even when death tips us into the realm of the paranormal, the mood is closer to philosophy than horror. In 'Afterlife', for instance, a recently-deceased man finds himself in a cramped, windowless office being asked to choose whether to "wink out" like a candle in the wind or to live his flawed life over again. Death, in these stories, is not a monster that can be fought or fled from; it's just the door at the end of the hallway through which, sooner or later, we all have to pass.
King has built a career on pitting us against the monsters. There is a risk involved in turning his back on them, but it's a risk he can afford to take. For years he has been labelled (or rather, written off) as a genre writer, but his talents are by no means limited to shock and awe. King is a laureate of small towns; his ear for dialogue is unerring.
His books' real horror has always stemmed from his ability to stitch his demons seamlessly into pitch-perfect versions of contemporary America. He is also one of those rare authors who can write well about childhood. Most potently, King can sketch a full-blooded character in just a few pen strokes. This gift comes to the fore in his short stories, where every syllable counts.
All these skills come together in stories such as 'Blockade Billy', an easy, folksy tale in which King gives the all-American sport of baseball a twist just as vicious and unexpected as those in the best of his horror fiction.
The standout stories in the collection grip hard; the fact that they are set in the real world doesn't reduce their impact a jot.
But there are problems. This is a brick of a book, but only a handful of its 20 stories deserve a place in the King canon. What's more, while readers of his horror fiction may be relaxed about King's ability to go straight, King is not. In a curious and ultimately self-defeating bid for justification, he prefaces each story with a cosy introduction describing its journey to the page.
Although being privy to the sparks that gave rise to the stories is fascinating, these forewords feel like a mistake. His notes interrupt the flow and highlight the fact that, despite moments of brilliance, this is an uneven collection, lacking the coherence of earlier volumes such as Different Seasons or Full Dark, No Stars.
By telling his readers about the stories before they have had a chance to read them, King risks draining them of their life. Even in a collection that deals in death, this does, on occasion, prove fatal.