Stephen King Audiobook ‘Drunken Fireworks' Fizzles

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Stephen King's newest short story was released four months early as an audiobook with a text version to be released in November. Simon & Schuster

"Drunken Fireworks," a Stephen King short story released on Tuesday in audiobook-only format, is either a very bad PSA for amateur fireworking, or a very good one for New England accents. Which is to say both should be avoided, but the latter at all costs.

The author of more than 50 novels, King has long been a fan of platform experimentation. He’s collaborated on an artist book with Barbara Kruger, a music video with Michael Jackson and a musical play with John Mellencamp. King was even dabbling in e-books as far back as 2000, when an attempt to publish his novel The Plant in online installments petered out after readers refused to pay for it. "Fireworks," which will be included in King’s November short-story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is the author’s latest foray into audiobook-only releases (the first was in 1999).

Narrated by Tim Sample and clocking in at just 80 minutes, "Fireworks" is presented as a police statement given by dyed-in-the-wool Maine resident Alden McCausland. An unemployed lummox of a man, McCausland spends most of his time getting drunk with his portly mother, and for years, the two have been embroiled in a July 4 fireworks competition with the Massimo family, their wealthy neighbors across the lake. McCausland refers to the feud as the "Great 4th of July Arms Race," which in his voice, sounds more like the Great Fouth of July Ahhhms Race.

From the jump, "Fireworks" is lackluster. The combination of Sample’s renowned Maine accent—sparklers give off stahhhbuhsts whose colors are gahhhgeous—and McCausland’s brash personality should have made this a natural audiobook adaptation. Instead, the accent is intensely distracting, as are the awkward and unnecessary detours into prejudice. McCausland and his mother waste few opportunities to refer to the Italian Massimos as "Itais" or "dagos," and it’s not clear whether their assumption that the Massimo patriarch is involved with the mob is based on reality or stereotyping.

"Fireworks" is also minimally compelling as a narrative. While the ramping up of the recreational arms race lends the story a certain inherent rising action, it also sets King up for an anticlimactic finish that he does little to combat. At $1.99, that would be inoffensively disappointing. But for $9.95, it feels more like a ripoff.

Not that this format is particularly significant. While audiobooks are growing in popularity—more than 25,000 titles were released last year, compared with 3,430 in 2004—a 2014 Pew study found that just 14 percent of American adults had listened to one in the past 12 months. That compares with 69 percent of adults who had read a book in print and 28 percent who had read an e-book.

King’s unparalleled success has always given him a certain freedom, and if there was ever a time to throw shit at the wall, this is it. Season three of CBS’s adaptation of Under the Dome premiered last week and 11/22/63, which earned King his first-ever spot on The New York Times’s Top 10 books list in 2011, is also headed for television. His 1978 tome The Stand is being turned into four movies (starring Matthew McConaughey), with the possibility of an eight-part corollary Showtime miniseries. And most recently, King’s Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, the first two books in a planned trilogy, have been praised by fans as a return to his thriller roots. Even by his standards, King has been killing it lately.

But while The Bazaar of Bad Dreams' place in the King canon has yet to be determined, "Drunken Fireworks" is a disappointing sneak peek. A tale of patriotic macho rivalry gone awry, "Fireworks" could almost be a commentary on American exceptionalism, or the nuclear arms race, or the military industrial complex. It may very well be. But whatever profundity King might have intended for his inaugural audiobook exclusive is hard to find amid the story’s humdrum execution. Or rather, it’s hahhhd.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that "Drunken Fireworks" was King's first audiobook-only release. Blood and Smoke, an audiobook that included three short stories read by King, was released in 1999.