Every few years, Stephen King puts out a collection of short stories, starting with Night Shift in 1978, followed by Skeleton Crew in 1985. This edition contains stories written primarily on commission. In the beginning, King made a lot of extra income off these. In the notes for Skeleton Crew, he talks about how he had to explain to a bottom-line focused friend that short stories were not a waste of his time. The friend felt that, because King had made millions from novels and that short stories seldom paid more than a couple thousand dollars, that they were not productive. King disagreed, or he would not have put out two (now several more) collections. Indeed, some of the stories, such as Skeleton Crew‘s “Survivor Type,” were never published.
And so it is with Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Many of the stories were written by request, while one was simply an unpublished story King did not initially like. There’s something else here. King actually gets away from the supernatural in “Dolan’s Cadillac,” “The Doctor’s Case,” and the essay on Little League baseball, “Head Down.” “Dolan’s” could have come straight from Plots With Guns or Needle, the story of a patient man seeking revenge on the mob boss who murdered his wife. This timid school teacher takes a summer job for two years with the Nevada highway department and cooks up a brilliant trap for the mobster. In the notes afterward, King admits to fudging a few of the technical details in case anyone got the bright idea of trying that gambit.
“The Doctor’s Case” is a Sherlock Holmes story where Watson experiences the same flash of insight Holmes does on a regular basis. Watson describes the moment as painful, though I’m not really sold on King’s take. It is, however, a very clever locked-room mystery.
On the more supernatural front, King foreshadows World War Z with “Home Delivery,” where a pregnant widow watches the end of civilization from Little Tall Island, the same setting as Dolores Claiborne. Originally written for a tribute anthology based on George Romero’s Living Dead series, many aspects of this story later appear in Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse tale.
My favorite story is “The House on Baker Street,” based on a drawing King includes in the book. Something metallic is growing in the walls of the Bradbury house, and it may be the children’s solution to their growing wicked stepfather problem. The story is very much in the vein of the original Twilight Zone. So is “Sorry, Right Number,” where a woman is sent into a panic by a familiar voice on the telephone.
King ends this collection unusually for him. The long essay “Head Down” chronicles the state championship season of the Bangor West Little League team. It has a first baseman named Owen King whose father is a “local writer of some repute.” King wrote this almost-diary of his son’s team for the New Yorker, but spends more time talking about the team as a whole and the coaches. Once again, King is eschewing the supernatural to go somewhere else.
Nightmares & Dreamscapes has a different feel. This is King reaching out and pushing his boundaries, leaving the horror behind from time to time, much as he did in Different Seasons.