Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King

Nightmares and Dreamscapes
By Stephen King
Copyright 1993

This third volume of short stories from Stephen King contains almost exclusively new material. Without the restrictions placed on him by various magazine editors, many of the works are long; some are bloated. But the volume also contains some of his finest short work including The End of the Whole Mess and You Know They Got a Hell of a Band.

Introduction: Myth, Belief, Faith, and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not
Stephen King opens his third volume of short stories by telling us that he was a gullible child who believed everything he saw and heard. He absorbed ghost stories and urban myths such as the one about the acid at the core of a golf ball as hard truths. As an adolescent casting his first vote, he sardonically notes, he voted for Richard Nixon because Nixon had a secret plan to get us out of the Vietnam War.

Most of the strange and macabre tales that filled King’s mind, he says, came from the comic book version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not which told of bizarre, but supposedly true happenings from around the world.

It is that ability to openly embrace the weird, the bizarre, and the supernatural that allows him to craft the stories and books that have frightened two generations. It is a necessary component of his psyche that the wisdom of years and the cynicism of middle age have not overcome.

It is also that release of reality that allows us to enjoy his stories. . .

Dolan’s Cadillac
Third grade teacher we know only as Robinson decides he is going to kill the mobster who killed his wife nine years prior. He develops a plan to capture the gangster in the middle of the Nevada desert and see him off.

To do so, he joins a Nevada road crew, working his summer off under the blistering desert sun to learn about roadwork; to gain the knowledge necessary to hatch his plan. Serendipitously, a detour is set on Route 71 – the route the mobster Dolan always takes in his spiffy Cadillac when going on holiday to Los Angeles – for the Fourth of July.

Robinson goes to the detour site and working tirelessly for two days, sets his intricate snare.

This was one of the longer works in the book, but could have easily been more bloated. This character is narrow and single-minded in his purpose. King weaves revenge tales with unabashed creativity and this is a creative end to a wicked little tale. A wonderful story with which to open the book.

Dolan’s Cadillac originally appeared in the Castle Rock Newsletter, February—June 1985.

The End of the Whole Mess
A man recounts in a final journal entry how his genius brother discovers a mineral that promises to end all hostility in the human race – and destroyed mankind with it.

The main character is introduced as a professional writer. He even remarks that he digresses too much as he chronicles how one man destroyed the human race. He knows he’s racing against time to get it all down, but it reads like . . . a Stephen King story with overdeveloped characters. Stephen King remarks in the notes section of the book that the genius brother was inspired by his own brother. The main character writes very much like Stephen King.

The End of the Whole Mess originally appeared in Omni, October 1986. It was made into an episode of Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King that aired on TNT in 2006.

Suffer the Little Children
A grades school teacher, known for being strict and having eyes in the back of her head notices one day (she uses trick glasses) one of her students morphs into a monster when her back is turned. He convinces her that all her students are in fact, just disguised monsters. So, the teacher comes up with a very practical solution to the problem.

I love the dark ambiguity of this story. While it was longer and its primary character more developed, it reminded me very much of Cain Rose Up from Skeleton Crew. We are left with a couple unanswered questions. Was the teacher simply insane, or were her students really monsters?

This story dates back to the days of Night Shift which might explain why to story telling is so tight and disciplined. It was dropped at the recommendation of King’s editor. Suffer the Little Children originally appeared in Cavalier magazine, February 1972.

The Night Flier
Richard Dees, the annoying bastard of a tabloid reporter from The Dead Zone, chases a vampire who prefers to fly – not with the wings of a bat – but with the jet engines of a private Cessna. At the request of his editor, Dees tracks a mysterious creature that travels from small airport to small airport, devouring the blood of those unlucky enough to be there when he lands. After days of flying his small plane south along the east coast, Dees catches up with his quarry.

The first time I read this story, I was reminded of the legendary Kolchak: The Nightstalker. Reading it again dispels that similarity. Kolchak was an optimist. He was always bemused, never terrified as he pursued the supernatural. Dees is a darker personality, bereft of humor. King shows once again that he can add yet another twist to the ancient story of the vampire and make it work.

Night Flier originally appeared in Prime Evil, an anthology edited by Douglas Winter in 1988.

A man with a bad gambling problem takes up child snatching as an occupation to pay his gambling debts. One evening, he snatches a lost kid from a mall who is preternaturally strong and with exceptionally sharp teeth. While on the way to deliver the kid to the flesh peddler, he meets the kids father – who bears a striking resemblance to the character from Night Flier.

It just goes to show you that even the children of the undead cannot resist the “must have” toy of any holiday season. One can imagine the difficulty Dracula would have chasing down Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures for his son. This story is much darker than my glib analysis and it is enjoyable to see the vampire play the hero for once without it becoming sappy.

Popsy originally appeared in Masques II, an anthology published in 1987.

It Grows on You
Five retired New England men sit around a stove fire in a general store, recounting the history of a strange, old house in Castle Rock. It’s deadly and eerie nature have kept it abandoned for more than a decade after the death of its builder, a textile manufacturer of some wealth.

The men note that after every evil event that takes place inside the house, a new wing is added to the already expansive mansion. One of the old men notes that someone has started a new wing on the house.

This was a yankee story pure and simple. The language, the mannerisms, and attitudes are all true to form for a provincial yankee town like Castle Rock. King was writing for an audience in this story.

A different version was published in Marshroots Fall 1973 – the University of Maine literary publication. King says he made major revisions from that version for Needful Things. Perhaps, but it is still a yankee story.

Chattery Teeth
A traveling salesman stops at a roadside convenience store in the desert. Besides operating a pet zoo in the desert, they sell gasoline and novelty gag gift items. His mind seizes on a set of metal chattery teeth because they look so unusually large and dangerous. He acquires them and returns to his car, which is now beset by a sand storm. A kid begs a ride and, as they travel the treacherous, sand covered roads in the story, the hitchhiker attacks him. The chattery teeth spring into action.

This is a prime example of the contemporary King – without editorial guidelines, pumping out stories that are way too long to be enjoyed as short stories. This as a great premise and King tells an interesting story. But the literary bloat! Too many words, too much backstory, and too much time building tension.
Chattery Teeth was first published in Cemetery Dance, Fall 1992.

A New York hotel cleaning lady receives a copy of her son’s new novel, dedicated to her, saying, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” After work, she sits in the hotel bar and explains to a colleague why that dedication is so true.

Stephen King, meet Alice Walker. Your idea for how to choose a father was done earlier by her in the book, The Temple of My Familiar. King actually defends the story in the Notes section. He then adds that the story shouldn’t need defending; it should stand on its own. It’s just more of that phase King went through in the early 1990s where he needed to prove he could write socially relevant stories. Not badly written, but the story is absolute rubbish.

This story was originally published in a horror anthology entitled Dark Visions published in 1989

The Moving Finger
Howard Mitla is dismayed to walk into the bathroom of his Queens apartment and find a single, human finger extended from his sink drain. Howard is “pee-shy” and can’t urinate with that finger with its single nail, extending from the drain and tapping on the sink. Determined not to spend the rest of his life using public johns, Mitla takes the matter into his own hands and does a little chemical plumbing. He ends up in a battle for his life and his sanity.

Stephen King has said that most of his story ideas start with, “what if.” As he states in his Notes, sometimes it’s fun to read a story without knowing why something happened. King doesn’t take himself or his idea too seriously and the reader comes away feeling as if he’s just read a delightful story from a comic book.

The Moving Finger was originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1990.

A recording engineer is at first curious, then apprehensive, and eventually terrified by a pair of old fashioned canvass sneakers in a toilet stall in the bathroom of a recording studio. He is able to learn the legend of the ghost that is supposed to haunt the bathroom. He eventually confronts the ghost.

This was an intriguing and engaging story with a disappointing ending. Too many words and pages expended to have a pointless ending. This story is a real bust.

This story was also published in the horror anthology, Night Visions 5

You Know They Got a Hell of a Band
Rock and Roll will never die! It lives on forever and ever in a remote Oregon town! A couple taking backroads through rural Oregon get lost in the woods and eventually find themselves in the remote town of Rock and Roll Heaven, OR. In Rock and Roll Heaven, Janis Joplin will serve you pie, Elvis will write you a parking ticket, and there is a concert every night!

I loved this story! King doesn’t mind playing with the ghosts of the dead and famous in this creepy story about a town run by dead rock stars. King keeps the tension between the couple simmering and slowly as they struggle to find their way on the narrow gravel roads in the middle of nowhere. Once we get to town, King makes no effort to conceal where he’s going. The reader is trying to guess just who they will see and what they will do.

This story was originally published in Shock Rock, published in 1992.

Home Delivery
The end of the world has come with the zombie apocalypse destroying the world one person at a time. On Gennesault Island, 40 miles off the coast of Maine, the locals prepare to watch over the island’s one cemetery to cut down the dead before they can get going. Meanwhile, a young, timid woman ponders the child in her womb and the world it will come into. Certainly the birth will be a home delivery.

I had forgotten that Stephen King had cranked out one zombie story before writing the superb zombie novel, Cell. This is one of his more graphic stories, written for a splatterpunk anthology called Book of the Dead which used the setting established by George Romero’s zombie pictures as its backdrop. Most horror fans would be surprised to learn that King is not all that graphic in his writing, usually. He ramps it up in this story.

Rainy Season
A couple rents a home in a small remote town to spend a year working on a book. When they get to the town, they are advised that they should leave for the day because this particular day in June, once every seven years, it rains toads in this particular Maine town. Convinced that the locals are pulling a prank on them, they decide to stay and ride out the storm.

Sometimes King takes an overtly absurd, silly concept and makes it horrific. This is one of those tales. It’s not the best story in this volume by far. But perhaps it’s the most creative concept.

This story was originally published in the Spring 1989 edition of Midnight Grafitti.

My Pretty Pony
A dying grandfather delivers a lecture to his young grandson about the nature of time and our perception of it; how it passes slowly when one is young, and gathers speed and momentum as you grow older.

King writes in the notes section that this short story was actually a chapter from a Bachman novel he was working on that fell apart. A gangster is waiting to make a hit. He’s reflecting back on this lecture his grandfather gave him. It’s deep, philosophical, and holds a lot more meaning for me now than it did when I first read it 20 years ago when time was passing somewhat slower.

Sorry, Right Number
In this teleplay, a woman receives a mysterious phone call from a sobbing woman. She is unable to make out what the woman says before the connection is broken. She is sure it someone close to her. She tries desperately to learn the person’s identity. She eventually does, many years later.

The script was originally pitched to Steven Spielberg for his television series, Amazing Stories. Spielberg thought it was too dark for the uplifting show. So King sold it to Tales from the Crypt where it worked much better, in King’s opinion. I’ve never seen the show.

The Ten O’Clock People
Pearson is a smoker who has cut back and trying to quit. One day, as he goes to his 10:00 AM ritual of smoke break, he observes that the president of the bank where he works is actually a deformed mutant. He learns from others who have recently cut back on their smoking that only those who reduce their nicotine intake can see these aliens and that crossing them is a bad idea. Pearson joins an underground resistance movement to kill these creatures.

I was a smoker who quit and I can remember the trippy dreams and strange thoughts that passed through my mind as I endured about a year of withdrawal. The story seems perfectly plausible. It is, however, too long. It consumed more than 50 pages when 20 might have been sufficient.

Crouch End
An American couple goes searching for a friend’s house in suburban London when they find themselves in a Lovecraftian nightmare – complete with homage to Yogsogoth. They struggle to find their way out, but only the wife makes it. She tells her tale to two London police officers.

This was an absolutely fantastic story with King recreating that ominous, washed out, completely bereft of color town like Lovecraft used to do. Reading this reminded me so much of Ramsey Campbell’s work. It may be because the story first appeared in an anthology, edited by Campbell, called New Tales of the Cthulu Mythos.

This story also was made into a screenplay for the Nightmares and Dreamscapes series.

The House on Maple Street
Four siblings, living an unhappy life with an emotionally abusive stepfather discover that, inside the walls of their home, metal is “growing.” The eldest boy figures out that, while they were away on a three month sabbatical with their stepfather, there home was somehow converted into a spaceship. As the hour for the blastoff draws near, they hatch a plan to rid themselves of their wicked stepfather forever.

I believe Ramsey Campbell wrote a story similar to this about an entire city block in London actually being a space ship that takes off. The crux of the stories is the same, but they are different tales. I think Campbell’s is the better of the two.

The Fifth Quarter
After finding his friend gutshot and left for dead, a man hunts down his friends coconspirators in an armored car robbery. Each of these three possesses a piece of a map that, when put together, lead to the location of the buried loot.

King attributes this story to Richard Bachman or maybe George Stark. I hope they write more exciting stuff than this because this was one dull story.

It was originally published in the February 1972 edition of Cavalier. It was also made into a screenplay for the Nightmare and Dreamscapes series.

The Doctor’s Case
In all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories, it is always the narrator, the seemingly oblivious and unobservant Dr. Watson who listens patiently as the brilliant Holmes explains the clues Watson has overlooked and how they fit together. Here, it is Watson that picks up on the important clue that solves what seems to be the perfect locked room murder.

King tries hard to imitate Doyle’s prose and actually does a good job while staying in modern diction and syntax. But I’m not a fan of Sherlock Holmes and this story did not excite me.

The story was originally published in the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes published in 1987.

Umney’s Last Case
A 1930s private gumshoe is disturbed when little details that have shaped his life since before he can remember change dramatically. He arrives at his office to find out things are decidedly different there too, upon orders of the owner. When the owner, who just happens to be God in Umney’s world, shows up, Umney’s life is completely redefined.

I suspect that most writers have had the fantasy of injecting themselves into a world that they have created just for themselves. One has to believe that J.R.R. Tolkien must have longed to sojourn in Rivendell and taken in the fine tobacco of The Shire. Here, we see King writing about an author who actually does take over the life of a character in a world of his own creation.

Head Down
In a piece for the New Yorker, Stephen King documents the pursuit of the Maine Little League baseball championship by the Bangor West team. Kings son played on the team.

A real change of pace in the book. It’s an amusing and enjoyable read for those who played little league baseball and know what life lessons come from it. As many King stories, it’s a little long.

Brooklyn August
This is a poem that is an ode to the old Brooklyn Dodgers of 1956, to baseball itself, and to summer.

I don’t know poetry, but I know what I like. While it’s no Greenfields of the Mind, it is still beautiful.

The Beggar and the Diamond
An Hindu parable about being thankful for what you have and what misfortunes have not befallen you when misfortune befalls you.

King wrote this story in a straight forward manner, with simple descriptions and a simple narrative. It is refreshing and engaging.

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