Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Short Stories: Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King

At the time of its publication, I considered Stephen King’s third collection of short fiction, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, to be his Et Cetera Book. How else can you explain the wide variety of stories and genres between two covers. Of course you have horror. I mean, we are talking Stephen King here. But you also have some great pastiches (of Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, and Raymond Chandler), some SF, a revenge tale, and one of the best pieces he’s ever written...and it’s non-fiction.

Back in 1993 when this volume first came out, it was one of the few books made available in audio in an unabridged format. Granted, the 796-page book was split over three volumes of audiocassettes (this is just in the early days of books on CDs) but I shelled out the cash to get these stories read to me. And boy, let me tell you, it made all the difference.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes collected many (all?) of King’s short work for the latter half of the 1980s, picking up where Skeleton Crew (1985) left off. “Dolan’s Cadillac” kicks off the collection (read by Rob Lowe in his post-scandal, pre-second-chance years). It’s a fun tale of sweet revenge that is so logically plotted and executed you almost believe it could happen. To me, that is the genius of King’s storytelling. He makes the logical case that horrible things could happen or monsters actually live under your bed. He puts the supernatural in the natural world. And he makes a years-long revenge tale work brilliantly.

Other good horror stories are collected here. “The Night Flyer” is a vampire tale, decent, but forever linked in my head by the scene in the men’s room and what happens at the urinal. If you’ve ever wondered what the afterlife will be like with Buddy Holly and Elvis, “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” answers that question. And then you have the gross stories (“Dedication”) and the odd ball ones (“Rainy Season”).

It’s the pastiches that rise above the fray in this group of stories, much the same way “The Mist” was the best story in Skeleton Crew and, to me, “Jerusalem’s Lot” the best from Night Shift. I’ll admit that my first taste of Raymond Chandler is the Philip Marlowe-inspired “Umney’s Last Case.” Leave it to King to merge Chandler with science fiction. This first-person narrative pokes fun at the tropes of hard-boiled fiction at a time when I hadn’t read all the mystery novels I’ve now read. It’s a great story where the the detective, Umney, meets his maker...and his maker has an interesting proposition.

“Crouch End” is King’s Lovecraft homage. In the audio version, Tim Curry reads this story. His voice and timbre suck you into this story at the get-go. An American couple in London get lost amid the claustrophobic streets. The street signs start to appear in a weird language, and the people who live down there are strange show up and seem to want something from them...or just them. King loves words and enjoys letting us complete a scene in our own heads. Take this one as Doris, the American woman, sees something behind a hedge:
“Then she glanced back at the hedge and saw something else was moving behind there, something that was more than black; it seemed ebony, the antithesis of light.
And it was sloshing.”
It’s easily one of the most eerie stories King’s ever written and Curry’s vocal acting takes the story to a whole new level.

But of all the stories in this collection, there is one I’ve read over and over. “Head Down” is King’s non-fiction account of his son’s Little League season. King himself reads this one and it was the first time I’d hear his particular Maine accent. It took some getting used to. How could a guy who sounded like that scare the crap out of so many people? Anyway, “Head Down” is the type of story had any of us pitched it to a movie exec, they’d have laughed their heads off and made us pick up the lunch tab. King writes with such tenderness and devotion (this man loves baseball) that you get wrapped up in every pitch or every instance of boys just being boys. I have to tell you, it took (and still does) me back every time I read it. It is so pure and you’ll find yourself cheering the team’s wins and lamenting their losses.

Now that the new baseball season has started, you ought to pick up a copy of this book. Flip to the end and read “Head Down” first. Then, make your way through the myriad of King’s trips. Not all the stories are great but, taken as a whole, Nightmares and Dreamscapes is still my favorite Stephen King short story collection.

5 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've read a lot of his stories but not Head Down. Sounds good-little league baseball is a horror story in itself.

Dominic Fox said...

I loved reading Crouch End and enjoyed that episode when it was shown on TV - pity it wasn't filmed in the real Crouch End

David Cranmer said...

NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES is a great, great collection. I just bought his most recent collection, JUST AFTER SUNSET, and it's equally superb.

Near Death said...

It really doesn't get any better than weird horror stories. If anyone has some I am dying to hear them. Especially if you are a Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft fan >:)

ARCHAVIST said...

I still remember the story Survivor Type grossing me out. Not sure if it's from this collection.