Stephen King's first short story collection, 1978's "Night Shift," is 336 pages long and contains 20 stories that were originally published between 1970 and 1977.
His second collection, "Skeleton Crew," was published in 1985. It contains three stories from the '60s, one from the '70s and 18 from between 1980 and 1985. If you eliminate a 113-page novella, "The Mist," each story in "Skeleton Crew" averages about 18 pages in length.
"Nightmares & Dreamscapes" is Mr. King's third collection. It features four pre-1984 stories, and 18 after '84. The average length of the post-'84 stories is just over 38 pages.
The point of this little digression is this: It's tough to write and sell a short story. To do it, the writer has to work to make every word count; every word must move the story forward. There can be no fat.
Once upon a time, Mr. King had to work in this manner to get his stories published. He too had to make every word count. But then as he became more popular, as his stories grew in demand, it was no longer necessary for him to worry about such mundane things. Instead of having to hone his stories to razor-sharpness, he was allowed to indulge his every whim and the word count be damned.
The difference this makes is perfectly illustrated by two of the better stories in "Nightmares & Dreamscapes." The first, "Suffer the Little Children" (1972), concerns a teacher who slowly comes to realize that many of her students aren't what they appear to be. In 1992's "The Ten O'Clock People," cigarette smokers discover that sating the society-forced nicotine fit has opened their eyes to the fact that some powerful people aren't who/what they seem.
While the stories share similar subject matter, there's no comparison. It's like a Porsche Targa vs. a Volkswagen Beetle. They'll both get you there, but there's no question about which will be the quicker, meaner, more exciting ride.
This, though, doesn't mean that the lean old stories are automatically better than the "fat" new stories. While I enjoyed "Suffer the Little Children," I didn't particularly care for the other older pieces: "It Grows on You," "The Fifth Quarter" (which was written under the pseudonym John Swithen) or "Crouch End" (a Lovecraft/Cthulhu Mythos tale). Conversely, I enjoyed several of the newer pieces despite their wordiness/fat. Most notable were "Chattery Teeth," "The Moving Finger," "Rainy Season," the teleplay "Sorry, Right Number" and the previously unpublished "Umney's Last Case." To a lesser extent, I also liked "Sneakers," "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" and "My Pretty Pony."
"Nightmares & Dreamscapes" contains an introduction, a poem (about baseball), notes on the origins of most of the stories and 22 stories (one of which is a teleplay, another a nonfiction piece). As I've noted, many of these stories are quite good. But I can't help but wonder how much better each could have been had the old Stephen King (the one who worked to hone his stories to razor-sharpness) written them.
Gregory N. Krolczyk is a writer who lives in Baltimore.
Title: "Nightmares & Dreamscapes"
Author: Stephen King
Length, price: 816 pages, $27.50