Even Two Bits In A Bum’s Upturned Hat Mattered

(“Cookie Jar”)

So, remember I said that The Bazaar of Bad Dreams had an extra story in the paperback version that wasn’t in my Kindle? That it was published in a magazine, apparently open to the public, but that I couldn’t access the story or the magazine? And that the only version I could find of it to buy was in French? But I said I’d keep looking for a copy and post about it if I found it? Well, I found it!

VQR Edition containing “Cookie Jar” by Stephen King

The framing device of “Cookie Jar” is that this is an old man telling a story to his 13-year-old great-grandson. The grandson is actually interviewing great-grandpa for one of those “interview the oldest member of your family” projects that kids are always doing in books (I’ve never met anyone who actually was assigned one of these projects in school, I think they just make convenient framing devices for grandpa to admit to being a notorious serial killer or grandma to suddenly come clean about her time as a government spy). In this one, great-gramps talks about Word War II and listening to the radio instead of watching TV — about what you’d expect. Then he tells grandson to turn the recorder off, and that’s when the fun stuff happens.

The story he tells is about his mother’s cookie jar, which is magic but also terrible. But despite the name and despite the magic, you kind of don’t realize that the story is about the cookie jar. Or you forget. Because it’s also about a fractured family, and mental illness, and suicide, and war. Maybe it’s even more about those things. The cookie jar is magic, and it’s also terrible, but it doesn’t actually do much. Mostly, it gives you cookies. The terribleness only comes into play if you empty the cookie jar — which is surprisingly difficult to do. And even then, when younger Great-Grampa empties the cookie jar, he sees something, but it doesn’t really do anything, except to him — and what it does to him is mostly make him determined to do as much good as he can in the world. Make up for some things. He reflects that “even two bits in a bum’s hat mattered” — in other words, it’s important to do good, even if all you can do is a little. Honestly, it’s not totally clear that his war experiences didn’t cause that instead of what he saw in the cookie jar. Or in addition to, maybe.

It’s not the scariest story. In a way, it’s sort of sweet. Like fresh cookies, even. As long as you don’t hit the bottom of the cookie jar. In the end, he gives the cookie jar to the nephew — tells him where to find it and that he can have it, anyway. And we end with the grandson excited about that — he probably doesn’t really believe Great-Grandad’s story, but if the cookie jar is where it’s supposed to be, and if it’s giving out fresh, warm cookies after spending years or decades stored away in someone’s attic, it’s going to be hard to deny the rest. Great-grampa reflects that no matter what the kid says, if he finds that jar, eventually he’s going to look for the bottom. Because it’s our curse, we can’t help it; we prefer the bitter to the sweet. Great-Grampa appears to have had a full life, and a good one, and to be a good person, so this may not be a bad thing. But before Great-Grampa had it, that cookie jar basically ruined and took his mother’s life, so maybe it is a bad thing. Hard to say; we’re left to speculate.

This may be meant to be a story about war, the nature of warring beings, and its senselessness of it. I think it’s at least partially about that; it’s a subject that’s clearly close to King’s heart. However, I think it’s also a story about life. Sometimes there are miracles. Sometimes miracles are great, and sometimes they aren’t actually good things. What ruins one person’s life might be something another person can get past and live a good life afterward. The option besides those is that the same thing might cause someone else to turn to evil. We just don’t know what it’s going to be until we’re there. We don’t ever know what anyone else is going to do, and half the time don’t even know what we’re going to do until we do it.

I liked this a lot. If you like Eyes of the Dragon, The Dark Tower books, or The Talisman books — you’re probably going to like this. It doesn’t really spend much time in a fantasy world but hits those fantasy buttons anyway. I suggest looking for a paperback copy of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams — or just a copy of the story, it is out there — because it’s really worth reading.

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