Dark Dreams Bought and Sold

bazaarofbaddreamsI’m not overly fond of short stories any more (which is weird because all I ever do is write short stories that usually end up as long as a three-hour Uncle Morty War Story in which Morty gets his World Wars mixed up and tells you he shot the Archduke Ferdinand) but when Stephen King comes out with a new book of short stories, I eat them up. His newest collection is titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Throughout most of his writing life, King has set his novels and stories in Maine. Over the last few years he’s begun setting them in places like Florida. Reading them kind of feels like mom and dad sold your childhood home and moved away while you were at college. The stories are still good but they don’t feel like…home.

Many dismiss King as a horror hack churning out stories about monsters under the bed or clowns terrorizing children but they have it all wrong. Sure, in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams he writes about monsters like in the story “Mile 81” where a car (with hints of his novel Christine thrown in) eats people at a rest stop. King also writes about weird happenings like in the story “UR” where a man decides to bite the bullet and buy a Kindle. This was when Kindles first came out and there were a couple features on them that were ‘experimental.’ He finds out just what that means when he orders nonfiction books about historical events that never happened-in this version of the universe.

But King also writes about everyday life as shown in these stories from his latest collection:

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”: after a man lunches with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, they get into a road rage incident that has unforeseen consequences.

“Morality”: What does a financially strapped married couple do to get out from under the weight of debt and job loss? The unthinkable becomes possible.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”: A couple of octogenarian poets rekindle an old love during a picnic while a van full of kids and two down on their luck women barrel down a freeway.

“Premium Harmony”: The love is gone from this married couple and the wife’s damn dog is still in the back seat.

kingDo you want some straight up old school King terror? Try these shorties in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:

“Bad Little Kid”: Dennis the Menace has nothing on this supernatural punk, but can anybody else see him?

“Afterlife”: A man is dying from cancer. Is it the end or just another beginning?

“The Little Green God of Agony”: In 1999 Stephen King was run over by a van while out for his daily walk. He should have died. Instead, this story (along with many novels and stories) came out about a man who claims he can take physical pain from people and make it his own.

I sat up way late into the night reading this book. See, that’s the beauty of a Stephen King short story: you read the first few pages and think ‘Where the hell is he going to go with this?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know, man.  I just don’t know.’ He’s a wildcard. Wildcard!

I Already Forgot to Remember

thegreatforgettingThis is how James Renner’s The Great Forgetting opens: a Scoutmaster finds an ape-like arm, with a watch still attached to the wrist, at the memorial site of the crash of Flight 93, a plane hijacked on 9/11 but diverted from its intended course when the passengers overtook the terrorists onboard and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The Scoutmaster takes it to the coroner who was at the crash site all those years ago.

The coroner studies the arm and tells the man someone must be playing a prank on him. If it was an arm from the crash (and he very much doubts it is) it’d be nothing but bone. Many remains from that crash were vaporized on impact. The watch is engraved with a name that sounds familiar to the coroner. He checks the names of those aboard Flight 93 and the name on the watch matches the name of a man who died when the plane crashed.

But why does it look so ape-like?

Jack Felter, a history teacher, is headed home for the summer to help his sister take care of their ailing father, a former pilot in the Vietnam War who has a violent form of dementia. Jack’s childhood best friend Tony has been missing for two years. A psychologist working at a mental hospital, Tony was accused of funneling money from the hospital and disappeared. Tony’s wife, Sam, was Jack’s first love. She believes that Tony committed suicide and is now at the bottom of a quarry and wants Jack’s help finding the body. This is where the plot really takes a turn for the bizarre.

It seems Tony was acting strange even before he left, becoming more and more paranoid, boiling all of his drinking water and delving into conspiracy theories. He’d been an intense kid, but Jack hasn’t seen him in years. Jack reluctantly agrees to help Sam out, figuring he’ll ask around and get her questions answered, then return to his life in another town.

Jack heads to the mental hospital where he meets 16-year-old Cole who was Tony’s patient. Tony told Cole that one day his friend Jack would come for a visit. Cole begins telling him a story: There’s a group of people who have come up with a program called The Great Forgetting. They want us to forget important things like world events. They keep resetting time. They put fluoride in the water to make us forget. Start boiling your water.

“What day do you think it is?” Cole asks Jack.

Jack looks at him with that condescending indulgent smile sane people give to those they deem bat poop crazy and answers “It’s Tuesday, June16th.”

Cole says “It’s Wednesday, the 17th”. Boil your water, he tells Jack.  Begin to remember.

Cole is the only one who knows where Tony has disappeared to and thinks that finding him might save the world. Unfortunately, some very nasty things are not only after Jack and Cole but want to hunt down Tony as well. Jack and a motley group head for a secret bunker under the Catskills which leads them to a forgotten island in the Pacific and eventually the truth about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared without a trace a year ago.

The Great Forgetting is a fantastic book about time travel, enduring love, and setting things right. If you crave paranoid conspiracy theories with a little sci-fi thrown in, this book is the one!

I gotta boogie on out of here. I have 8 gallons of water to boil. I want to remember.

Check Under the Bed….And in the Closet. Just Check the Whole House.

Don’t you roll your eyes at me because this trio of books I’m going to talk about seemingly belongs in the area of ‘To Be Read By Children.’ By the age of 13 I was already reading Stephen King and Clive Barker. Not because I was precocious but because my brother left Stephen King’s Pet Sematary on the arm of the couch one day and it had a kitty on it and anything with a kitty on it had to be pretty good. If you know anything about that book (or about any Stephen King book in general) you know I was traumatized for months. But in a good way. Yes, there is good trauma. I think.

So when I first laid eyes on Alvin Schwartz’s first book for kids called Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark I thought ‘Oh, please! That’s supposed to scare me? Bring it.’

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_coverOh, it brought the scares. It brought them in droves. I bought the book because the picture on the cover made me uneasy, a man with his arms flung to the skies, his mouth stretched open in agony. Okay, cool picture. And then I began to read the stories inside. Hooked is not a strong enough word to describe what that first book did to me. I would read a story and then rush to read it to my mom. Schwartz relies on folklore and urban myth in many of the stories and he gives a background description of each story at the end of the book.

But it’s the stories wedded to Stephen Gammell’s illustrations that made the books for me when they first came out. These are horrifying pictures. I came across my copies of the books (one of them so often read that I repaired the spine with black electrician’s tape) about a year ago and I flipped through it, shuddering at the illustrations. Other illustrators were brought in for the newer editions of these books which the library owns, but Gammell’s illustrations are the ones that haunt me.

Part of me wants to warn parents that the books are a little too scary for small children to read. But another part of me thinks what the hell; read them to your little boogers and keep them in line. Tell them all about that thing waiting under the bed counting down the minutes until the lights are turned off.

scarymontage

Book One is Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Even the titles of the stories are terrifying: “What Do You Come For,” “The Hearse Song,” “Old Woman All Skin and Bone.” My favorite out of this first book is a very short story called “The Slithery-Dee”: The Slithery-Dee. He lives in the sea. He saw all the others. But he didn’t see me. That quote creeps me out for reasons I still don’t understand.

Book Two, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, amps up the frights even more with story titles like “Wonderful Sausage,” “Cat in a Shopping Bag,” “The Man in the Middle” and my favorite from this book,”The Bed By the Window.”

The third book is Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (Oh God, I just read a few of the story titles and had major flashbacks. I think I should sleep with the lights on tonight.) Titles in this volume include: “Just Delicious,” “The Dead Hand,” “The Red Spot” (I’m still afraid of this story actually being true and happening to me) and “It’s Him.”

These are just a smattering of titles from each book. You can read them in any order but study the illustrations closely. They, along with the stories themselves, will help your nightmares find you.

You Dirty Panda

lolitoOh God. This book was so disgustingly filthy I feel like I should go out and buy a copy for everyone I know who has a sick sense of humor like a 15-year-old boy. That means I would buy five copies for myself because I don’t know anyone else who is as immature as a 15-year-old boy. Except for me.

In Lolito by Ben Brooks, 15-year-old Etgar Allison is home alone during a school vacation. His girlfriend is away on some sun drenched island with her father. Etgar inadvertently finds out she cheated on him back at home, kissing some guy at a party. He spends most of his vacation raiding his father’s liquor cabinet and drinking his whiskey and watching porn because he’s a fifteen year old boy left home alone with his dog and his worsening depression over his girlfriend’s infidelity.

Etgar gets massively bored and decides to go online into an adult chatroom and meets Macy, a ’35’ year old woman in Scotland. And thus begins their raunchy cybersex….uh…. relationship. She doesn’t know he’s a fifteen year old boy sitting at home during a school vacation, letting the dog poop in the house because he’s too depressed to let him out. Etgar is so depressed he starts wearing a panda suit. Don’t ask. His friends try to get him out of the house-usually to a party to get him drunk. Seriously, what is it with British kids drinking all the time? Why not a nice quiet night at home getting tipsy and reading a book but not using the oven because you should never use the oven when you’ve been drinking at home alone. So I’ve been told.

’35’ year old Macy decides that she and Etgar should meet up. Meet up is a fancy term for get it on bang a gong. Etgar panics but only a little since he’s a 15-year-old boy and the promise of sex with a beautiful older woman would be enough to get him to eat lava. Etgar has a little inheritance from his grandmother. He uses it to book a hotel room in London. When I was 15 I was still riding my bike all over the place and watching cartoons. To be fair, I’m now 38, my bicycle is rusting in the garage and I still watch cartoons. I’m a real wild card. Watch out.

What happens next with Etgar and Macy….dear God. You will just have to read the book to find out. Graphic, lewd, crude and hilarious, Lolito had me giggling to myself like the immature 15-year-old boy I am. On the inside.

It’s All About That Death

meearldyinggirlOh, Jesus. Not another girl dying from cancer book. It seems like I just got over John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and now I’ve decided to pick up a book about a teenager with leukemia? That is what I thought when I took home Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. Why’d I take it home then? I’m a sucker for a good death. Or even a bad one. But as I got into it (and it is a FAST read) I found that this book is SO not about another dying teen girl. This book is about a goofy kid who sees himself as little more than a complete screw up.

The novel begins with Greg telling his story by writing a book. He’s in his senior year of high school and doing fine living on the periphery of things, not really having friends but o.k. with every group at school: the Goths, the jocks, the stoners, the theatre kids, etc. He has a sometime friend named Earl who he likes to make films with.

Earl is in my top ten favorite book characters. He’s a ghetto kid living in a falling apart house with half a dozen half siblings while his mom drinks from morning to night, keeps herself confined to an upstairs room and spends hours in online chat rooms. Earl is a foul-mouthed runt. No wonder I liked him so much. Here’s an Earl sampling:

  • Mr Cubaly want you to do some test while you in here but I got no idea how that supposed to happen so my advice is don’t worry about it
  • Oh I went to see your girl again
  • She got a bald-ass head right now
  • She look like Darth Vader without the helmet
  • Chemo is no joke, son

Greg’s feeling on top of the world because his senior year isn’t turning out as awful as he expected and then his mom tells him his former friend Rachel has leukemia. Rachel was someone he went to Hebrew school with when they were both 11. She had a little crush on him. He liked a girl with big boobs. Greg and Rachel stopped being friends (even though they had a couple of classes together and sat right next to each other) so he has a hard time trying to explain to his mom that it’d be more than awkward for him to show up and say “Hey. You have cancer. My mom said I had to be nice to you.”

He decides to go over to her house anyway, no matter how weird it might be. He makes her laugh. There’s no spark or feeling of long-lost love. She’s a girl he used to know who has cancer and now he’s forced to be nice to her because his mom told him to. And then he finds himself looking forward to hanging out with her.

Meanwhile, Greg and Earl make terrible films that only Greg’s family knows about. One of them is about Greg’s cat but cats aren’t cooperative actors. Who knew? Soon Earl comes along on Greg’s visits to Rachel. On one of these visits, while he and Greg are accidentally high, they tell her that they make films. They swear her to secrecy because they already feel their movies are crap and they don’t want anyone else to know how crappy they are. Greg hangs out on the edges of life, he’s failing school; Earl’s brothers are in gangs, selling/doing drugs; Rachel is dying. Life is falling apart.

Greg can’t get out of emotional tight spots by being funny (You can’t? I am so screwed.) My favorite line from the book sums up my life pretty accurately:

This book probably makes it seem like I hate myself and everything I do. But that’s not totally true. I mostly just hate every person I’ve ever been.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an unsentimental look at death, high school, and the question of “What the hell am I going to do with my life?” (If anyone knows the answer to that last question please let me know because I’m still trying to figure it out.) Underneath a sarcastic and hilarious shell, this book is all heart and hope, but not the smarmy “Life’s going to be great!” kind of heart and hope. I wouldn’t force that kind of book on you guys.

Did You Eat Your Bowl Of Darkness Today?

Toykoatnight

Sometimes I dream about traveling to far off countries, seeing historic sites, meeting new people. And then I think of using public toilets in a foreign country and I think: Nope. Nope. Nope. I have a problem using the toilets at work. Me, travel to a completely foreign country where I might get diarrhea forever? Or eat unrecognizable food. I might have to eat something raw from the ocean that is still opening and closing its mouth: Nope. Nope. Nope. I can’t imagine walking down a narrow street in Tokyo, thinking ‘What’s that smell?’ and ‘Am I ever going to see my mom again?’ and then WHUMP!  I vanish from the streets. Nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything. I never existed.

peoplewhoeatdarknessAs detailed by Richard Parry in the true crime book People Who Eat Darkness, that’s exactly what happened to Lucie Blackman in the summer of 2000. Lucie was a 21-year-old British woman in serious debt. The kind of debt that would take a lifetime to pay off. She and her friend Louise heard that if they took jobs as bar hostesses in Tokyo, they could pay off their debts fast. A hostess is basically a kind of fetish for the Japanese man. A hostess, often a foreign woman, gets paid to sit down and talk with a client for a few hours at a bar. Does prostitution come into play? Here’s where it gets a little murky.

Women who are hostesses can also go out on paid ‘dates’ with these gentlemen. The hostess gets part of the money while the club they work for also gets a cut. The men who pay for these dates are their ‘dohans.’ What the women do on these dates with their dohans is up to them. The hostesses are expected to let the men talk, flatter them, sympathize with their daily lives, and so on. Even if they’re the ugliest, rudest, most boring human on the planet. Sounds like a blind date where you’re way too nice to pretend to use the bathroom and then slip out the restaurant’s kitchen, so you sit for HOURS listening to him talk about his garage band and how he’s living in his mom’s basement ‘temporarily.’

One evening Lucie goes out to meet her dohan and calls her best friend Louise and says the man is giving her a cell phone, which was a pretty big deal back in 2000. And that’s it. No one hears from Lucie ever again. A man with perfect English calls Louise the next day to tell her that Lucie has joined a cult and will not be in contact with friends or family members. Lucie was in no way religious but she upped and joined a cult? Thus begins an almost decade long battle for Lucie’s family to find justice for her.

The Japanese police seem baffled as to what they can do to help and initially refuse to search for Lucie. Lucie’s father and sister come from England and begin searching for her, holding media interviews and setting up the Lucie Blackman Trust. There’s something slightly off about the father, nothing horrendously evil but something just this side of smarmy. He doesn’t grieve in the way people think he should. We all react differently to loss and if someone loses a loved one, especially to murder, we expect them to gnash their teeth and tear their clothing. But some people are subtle and subdued grievers.

Lucie’s sister, looking eerily similar to her dead sister, faces the public with anger and bitterness. Other hostesses begin to come forward, telling stories of waking up naked in a strange bed with the night before a blur and no idea what happened to them. They too were dismissed by the Japanese police. They all described the same man: quiet and on the sweaty side. But the man who spoke perfect English on the phone proves to be elusive. It takes several years for this man to come to trial, but it isn’t the end of the heartbreak for Lucie’s family. That kind of pain leaves a stain.

Reading like a novel, People Who Eat Darkness studies not only the relations between foreign countries and differing ideas of justice, but also the relations between family members and the inevitable toll debt takes upon a person. It’s also about a family that refuses to give up on finding answers: living through ten years of court battles that continue on to this day. The darkest hearts don’t reside just in our backyards or the familiar streets of our cities. They are everywhere. They wear the masks of politeness, culture and genteel kindness. But evil lurks behind the most unsuspecting of facades.

Fear the Banana Man

We didn’t have any urban legends in the neighborhood I grew up in. Not unless you count the story about Timmy eating yellow snow and it ended up being radioactive snow and now there’s a super hero called Pee Boy, but that’s a whole different story. As a kid, we kept our boogeymen where they belonged: in the closet and under the bed. And sometimes in the bathtub behind the shower curtain that flutters when there’s no breeze. Creepy. Where was I? Oh. Urban legends. Which brings me to the book What We Knew by Barbara Stewart.

whatweknew16-year-old Tracy and her best friend Lisa have the entire summer stretching out in front of them. They spend the hot nights drinking wine coolers and smoking pot in the jerk Trent’s bedroom. (Trent’s a jerk because he’d trip a 3-year-old just to watch him fall down and cry.) One night as the group of drunken teenagers walk around town, they start to talk about Banana Man. Banana Man is a boogeyman/pedophile urban legend who supposedly lives in a shack in the woods. He’s called the Banana Man because…..well, what does a banana look like? Yeah. Gross.

All the kids in the town have grown up hearing the legend of Banana Man: that he kidnaps small children and that they’re never seen again. While wandering the town, Trent says he knows where the boogeyman’s house is in the woods. Like a bunch of dumb teens in a horror movie they traipse out into the darkness (the only way you’re going to get me out into the woods at night where there might be some paranormal thing happening is to spike my Captain Crunch with Ketamine). This is the point where I started yelling at the book like I do when I watch horror movies: “Why are you going into the basement? Oh, the basement light doesn’t work? Better go all the way to the bottom of the stairs and call out ‘Who’s there?’ so the killer/monster can find you faster.”

This drunken Scooby Gang find a rambling structure of boards and tarps, not even a shack but a Frankenstein house cobbled together from found parts. Inside, there’s furniture, a piano, and a kitchen with boxed food in it. And a collection of glass eyes. GLASS EYES. People have been dumping stuff in the woods for years and the Banana Man collected it. There’s no sign of the boogeyman himself. The teens set about wrecking the place, breaking dishes, tearing cupboards apart. Trent, being the jerk that he is, pees in a corner. Tracy becomes uneasy and they all begin to freak each other out and run. Lisa loses her necklace and a flip-flop.

This is the beginning of the terror for Tracy and Lisa.

Lisa’s mom works the night shift at a local diner. Her strict stepfather works days so it’s up to Lisa to watch over her 11-year-old sister Katie. After going to the Banana Man’s tarp house in the woods, Lisa becomes obsessed with it. She wants to go back to find her necklace and her lost flip-flop. She also thinks the Banana Man has been coming into her room. She even wakes up one morning to find a glass eye on her dresser. Lisa’s paranoia starts to get to Tracy. Her friend’s fear invades every part of Tracy’s daily life, from her relationship with her boyfriend to her feelings about her deadbeat father and her mother who is struggling to pick up the pieces of her life.

Lisa begins to deteriorate further, pushing Tracy and everyone else away. Other secrets increase the sense of paranoia and fear with dark deeds coming to light. Tracy is sitting on her own secret, something that happened that she hasn’t told Lisa about, something she’s not sure she ever wants to talk about.

I thought What We Knew would be a book about a supernatural entity living in the woods that preys on young people. Actually, it’s more about long hot summer days and nights with your future spread out in front of you, but still not being able to let go of your past. There are secrets that are destroying you on the inside, but you believe it’ll be better to keep everything in. It’s about seeing your parents as something other than parents. It’s about trying to be a best friend and feeling like you’ve failed miserably.

Darkly intense and full of teenage despair and ennui, What We Knew will make you face your fears. And make you think twice about venturing into the woods in the night. Or during the middle of the day. Or any time at all.