A Trip to the Bazaar: Stephen King’s “Premium Harmony” in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

bazaarI’ve come to conclude that one of the richest elements of Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams is the introduction he writes to each story.  I’ve also come to conclude that the stories aren’t scary, per se, but that’s okay; I don’t think he intends to scare as much in this book as he does in some of his more frightening novels, despite what the somewhat misleading book title would suggest.  What is particularly intriguing about The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is its rich variety.  Each story is distinctly its own entity, written with a different style.  I think variety in output is often the hallmark of true talent, though I need not make the argument that King is truly talented, because that seems like an understatement.  The stories stand alone as good writing, but combine together to form an eclectic view not on the infinitely terrifying, but on the darker side of life.

King writes “Premium Harmony” with an unusually bitter and morose tone that he credits to author Raymond Carver.  He notes in the introduction that “When I was a young man I wrote like H.P. Lovecraft when I was reading Lovecraft, and like Ross Macdonald when I was reading the adventures of PI Lew Archer.”  He explains that although he now has his own voice and style, these tendencies carry over sometimes, and occasionally he’ll find an author that intrigues him so much that his style still emulates that author’s.  During the creation of this story he was reading Raymond Carver, and the resulting, somewhat sardonic tone is a step away from what I usually read of King.  Personally, I liked his tone and style in this piece, though I thought it somewhat quintessentially post-modern: akin to a tone you might find among many contemporary or somewhat contemporary authors.

King writes of a man and a wife who have a somewhat broken marriage.  Though their fights are not the stuff of deep-seated animosity, they undergo almost continuous bickering.  The story is written from the husband’s point of view, and what I didn’t like was all of the “fat shaming.”  The man, Ray, is constantly making comments to the audience about his wife’s weight, and later about the weight of the other women in the story.  This type of reverse-objectifying got old after awhile, although I see why it might have been necessary to build characterization and imitate men who do see women this way today.  For example, when a large woman holding a bag of Bugles appears on the scene, the narrator repeatedly calls her “the fat lady with bugles.”  And the fact that his wife hides ho-ho’s in her upstairs cupboard is a repeated point of contention in their arguments, as if all overweight people are stashing hostess cakes in secret crevices the way an alcoholic hides bottles.  It seemed needlessly stereotypical and dehumanizing.

Ray’s wife’s name is Mary.  Ray is a janitor.  They’re in the car with their dog Biz.  Mary wants to stop by a local gas station to buy a 99 cent purple kickball for their niece, whose birthday is coming up.  Ray wants to go to Wal-Mart for a 79 cent kickball, but Mary’s not sure Wal-Mart will have kickballs in purple.  When Ray stops at the gas station with Mary, he asks her to buy him a pack of Premium Harmony’s – a cheap cigarette brand perhaps modeled off the disgusting Pall Mall’s (I used to be a smoker and those things were awful) – despite the fact that Mary despises his habit.

Because this takes up a predominant part of the plotline – it isn’t just an ending twist – I’ll say it:  Mary keels over in the gas-station.  Mysteriousness surrounds the death.  Everyone assumes it’s a heart attack, but Mary is only 34.  Mary’s age comes as a substantial shock; the way Mary and Ray bicker, and the way they talk about older days of their marriage, I assumed they were in their 50’s or 60’s.  It surprised me that Mary wasn’t that much older than me.  Had I been thinking about it, though, the dog’s part in the story would have been an apt age-indicator.

Despite Ray and Mary’s arguments, one gets the sense that Ray really loved Mary, and that this loss affects him.  The gas station owner gives Ray the purple ball for free, though he won’t spring for a pack of cigarettes.  The story seems partially a commentary on the trivial topics that we bicker about with loved ones, that let us divide one another.  In this sense, the story becomes more a commentary on marriage, love, and human nature than it does a horror story.  Save for one macabre twist at the end, the story didn’t seem much like the stuff of horror.  Children also gawk outside the scene of the death, taking pictures of the dead body through the store glass at their cell phones, which is probably a commentary on how people react in catastrophe and on the overuse of technology in society.

Despite its objectification of women – Ray keeps guessing which of the “fat” women will give him a “mercy fuck” – King’s story was original – although maybe it was only original to me because the only Carver I’ve read is “Cathedral.  The way the narrator views women, and his voice, in general, reminded me of the womanizing narrator in John Updike’s A & P, another point to re-enforce the fact that King becomes a sort of post-modern Everyman – or at least Every Author – in this story.  While I don’t find this story a work of genius, it’s certainly a quick, interesting read, and I would highly suggest investing in King’s collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams even if you’re not a horror enthusiast.  Based on the stories I’ve read so far, it’s more a meditation and reflection on mortality and the afterlife than it is a collection of horror stories.  And who doesn’t like a fictional, philosophical examination of death?  Not to be a complete downer, but we all face it.  We might as well think about it, and how the reality of our imminent death shapes how we live our lives.

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A Trip to the Bazaar: Stephen King’s “Premium Harmony” in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

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