Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King (1992) 970 p.
This is King’s third short story collection, mostly assembling stories he’d written in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s since the publication of his last collection, Skeleton Crew, but also containing a few bits and pieces from the ‘70s and some unpublished work.
I was wary of this one, because circa 1990 is when King started to show sings of decline – and also because his story in Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse was absolutely terrible and actually dated from 1986, which throws my whole concept of King’s decline out of whack. But anyway. This was for the most part a decent collection with. My two favourites were ‘Chattery Teeth,’ about a travelling salesman in the deserts of the south-west, which was one of those moments King hits a pitch perfect note on setting and character, and also looked like it was going to be a very different horror story from what I’d imagined (but then was the original idea after all); and ‘The Moving Finger,’ about a mild-mannered man who suddenly finds a wiggling human finger impossibly sticking out of his bathroom sink plughole.
Some of the others are hit and miss. ‘Crouch End’ is a Lovecraftian tale about two American tourists who stumble into an ancient, eldritch part of London. The part told from the tourists’ perspective is great, but the other half of the story follows two local policeman. King is apparently unaware that American and British culture are, relatively speaking, almost identical, and their dialogue is overflowing with English slang – “Pull the other one,” “a swatch of the old whole cloth,” Give us a fag, mate,” “doddy old prat,” etc. Similarly, ‘Home Delivery’ is a good zombie story on a remote Maine island, with feelings of isolation that are simultaneously uneasy yet (given the state of the world) reassuring. King ruins this atmosphere with an interlude from the spaceship sent to investigate the orbiting alien craft creating the undead, which ends with a cliched scrambled radio transmisison as everything goes to shit, and is irritatingly narrated with calm detachment by the comic British professor figure attached to the mission. And then there’s a pretty bad story called ‘Dedication’ which bothered me not for the fact that it involves a black hotel maid eating semen off the bedsheets of a wealthy guest as part of a voodoo ritual, but more for the uncomfortable way King regularly portrays black characters, up to and including phonetic spelling for their dialogue.
The collection gets more experimental towards the end – there’s a Bachman-style crime caper, a Sherlock Holmes story (which is surprisingly not bad, given how badly King fumbled in ‘Crouch End’ when portraying those exotic, bizarre, non-American people known as the English) and a Raymond Chandler pastiche called ‘Umney’s Last Case’ which also has its own Stephen King twist, and which he says is his favourite story in the collection. Then there’s a fairly long non-fiction piece about a Little League team making it to the finals, which bored me the same way the movie Field of Dreams did – I assume if you’re not American, you just can’t understand. The book wraps up with a poem about baseball and an old Hindu fable.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes also has (and I think all short fiction collections should) a section of author notes at the back for most of the stories, describing their genesis and original publication and what King thinks of them. These were always interesting to read, if a little confusing sometimes – in the notes for ‘The Moving Finger,’ for instance, King says, “My favourite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen… I hate explaining why things happen.” This, from the writer who ruined more than one perfectly creepy story in Night Shift by explaining various frightening things as being caused by Satanic witchcraft rituals.
Overall, this is certainly the least of the three Stephen King short story anthologies I’ve read, but for the most part I enjoyed it and it was worth reading.