NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES
By Stephen King
Viking. 816 pp. $27.50
ON THE RELEASE of his third short-story collection (and 32nd volume of fiction), Nightmares and Dreamscapes, what can possibly remain to be said about Stephen King?
The man has been writing indefatigably for the past 25 years. In all that time, his work has exhibited little change or sophistication in terms of either style or theme, rendering new stories indistinguishable from old. In the current collection, for instance, an early trifle such as "Suffer the Little Children" employs the same modus operandi and bag of tricks as the more recent "The Moving Finger": A protagonist undergoes what could be either a genuine encounter with the supernatural or a nervous breakdown, with dire consequences.
But aside from a forgivable continuity of approach and tone, many familiar flaws identified early in King's career loom just as large in more recent work.
Verbosity: "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" and "The Ten O'Clock People" (sprawling across 45 and 57 pages, respectively) are both much too long for their simple ideas. The former is a surprisingly mean-spirited use of rock and roll ghouls, considering that King has always traded on rock icons as symbols of freedom and hipness. The latter is basically a rewrite of Fritz Leiber's "You Are All Alone," as well as dozens of other Invaders Among Us stories.
Awkwardness of phrasing: "The way things turned out, it might have been better for everyone if things had actually turned out that way, but they didn't. . ." (from "The End of the Whole Mess"). ". . . But that time passed around the time Korea got over" (from "It Grows on You").
Cliched similes ("love, the fabled Big Enchilada"; "like a tiny string of roast beef between two molars") and a weakness for the gratuitous excrement reference continue to abound, as do severe structural defects. Inopportune flashbacks destroy suspense in both "The Night Flier" and "The Ten O'Clock People."
One final bad habit present in almost every King story is an over-reliance on certain icons. (A partial list of such talismans in the latest collection includes Edgar Wallace, Poe, Anne Rice, horror pulps, Republic movies, "The Twilight Zone," Shirley Jackson, Agent X-9, Lovecraft, and "Star Trek.") By having either a protagonist or omniscient narrator cite famous pop-culture ancestors, King plainly hopes to co-opt some of their appeal and also to make his fictional universe more realistic. All he succeeds in doing, however, is generating comparisons unfavorable to his own work. And when he turns his hand to actual pastiches, as in the Sherlockian "The Doctor's Case" and Chandleresque "Umney's Last Case," results are even more dismal.
But King himself has cheerfully admitted to all these faults at one time or another, deftly disarming critics who seek to focus on the myriad weak links in his mile-long chain of books. To reiterate these charges at this late date amounts to literary double-jeopardy.
Highlighting what King ostensibly does well is another pitfall entirely. The consensus has always been that, despite all his ham-handedness, King excels in three areas: accurately capturing in symbols our shared late-20th-century anomie; depicting believable ordinary folks, particularly small-towners (and lately, with some supposed success, women); and, most obviously, frightening the reader.
On closer inspection, all these virtues evaporate.
King has a remarkably old-fashioned consciousness, for all his rock-song and brand-name references. His kind of horror is neither deeply ancient like that of the late Robert Aickman nor fashionably New Gothic like Patrick McGrath's, but can be dated to his own impressionable Eisenhower-era youth (which he testifies to in his introduction and endnotes here). Specifically, he writes in the mid-'50s paranoia mode of movies like "I Married a Monster from Outer Space." Middle-class comforts are always being threatened by foreign creatures that communistically absorb or seduce or undermine. Rabid frogs in "The Rainy Season" and deadly jokeshop choppers in "Chattery Teeth" hardly typify postmodern angst. And King's archaic slang ("pardon my French," "sang like a boid," "pantywaist," "buttsky") further aggravates the problem.
But it is only when the author ventures into what must be called faux-Faulkner territory (see "It Grows on You," "Dedication" and "My Pretty Pony") that one begins to appreciate his stabs at modernity.
As for King's skills at drawing characters, he has generally but one figure in his stock company, and it's himself. Stories told in the first person convey the same sensibility as those told omnisciently. Children, mothers and the elderly share a mentality and a set of emotional reactions identical to the author's. Can you attribute the following two snatches of speech accurately to either a) a bona fide male genius or b) a female school teacher?
"And now we return you to 'Days of Our Lives.' "
"It looks like someone sneezed a mouthful of snuff onto a very old hamburger."
Even King's supernatural bogeymen -- horror's raison d'etre -- have forfeited much of their menace over the past two decades. In this age when one can lose one's body to a random car-bombing or one's soul to corporate complicity, King's monsters seem quaintly reassuring in their familiar recycled threats.
Stephen King resembles no other horror author so much as he does James Michener at his overstuffed, unchallenging worst. In the end, faced with the legion of King fans seemingly oblivious to -- perhaps even endeared by -- his flaws, a reviewer is reduced to trotting out the old adage: "If this is the kind of book you like, you'll really like this book."
Paul Di Filippo is the author of a forthcoming collection of novellas, "The Steampunk Trilogy."