Friday 12 November 2010

Book Review: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

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"I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger," writes Wilfred Leland James in the early pages of the riveting confession that makes up 1922, the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerizing tales from Stephen King. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife, Arlette, proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness.

In Big Driver, a cozy-mystery writer named Tess encounters the stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself.

Fair Extension, the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Dave Streeter from a fatal cancer but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment.

When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It’s a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends a good marriage.

Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, which generated such enduring films as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, Full Dark, No Stars proves Stephen King a master of the long story form.


Another year goes by, another notch etches itself upon the sliding scale of life, and how best to mark it?

Why, it's fortuitous you should ask: with a new Stephen King, of course! These days, precious little in publishing is certain - short, perhaps, the overpowering, not to mention lamentable success of Stephanie Meyer and her ilk. In a decade, are we going to be consuming our fiction on traditional tree pulp, e-ink displays or recycled human skin? Will the great unwashed's literature of choice remain, God forbid the thought, paranormal romance? Will Robert Ludlum have written a second Millennium trilogy in the late and lamented Stieg Larsson's stead? How many more times will the so-called "modern-day Dickens" with whom we concern ourselves today have retired in the time between now and then? Who's to say? This is, needless to say, a tumultuous time for the publishing industry; a time of great change, of upheaval and reassessment. One can be sure of nothing.

But perhaps... perhaps you never could be.

Thank the powers that be, then, that there's this one thing you can count on. The turn of the year will soon be upon us - again - and like clockwork, here we have it: your annual Stephen King fix. Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four novellas of varying lengths. Which creates certain expectations, of course; King has done this before, and very memorably.

So let's not beat around the bush. Full Dark, No Stars is not quite the equal of Different Seasons, King's first such collection, but it's a better book by a large margin than Four Past Midnight. It begins brilliantly, with '1922,' an insidious tale whose measuredness rivals even that bastion of this author's considerable accomplishments in short-form fiction, 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,' and it ends, too, with a stonker in the shape of 'A Good Marriage.' Between times Full Dark, No Stars is emblematic of one of the most problematic aspects of the tremendous professional success King and only a few other authors in this day and age enjoy: the unwillingness of editors, whose job it is to say what's good and what's not, to assert themselves in the face of such an unstoppable force. Everyone's read a story like 'Fair Extension' before, and short of bestowing upon this deal-with-the-devil narrative a sense of the affable that is characteristic of his writing, King does regrettably little to differentiate his entry into the time-honoured canon. At least it's not a long one.

'Big Driver,' on the other hand, is a long one, and it telegraphs its every beat long before the soundtrack to this dark revenge fantasy catches up with the action. That said, it remains a perfectly diverting narrative, and King approaches it with the selfsame sense of normalcy undone which help to make '1922' and 'A Good Marriage' such timeless treats. I should say, further, that nothing in Full Dark, No Stars is anything less than proficient, anything less than considered, entertaining, Stephen King to a T. It's only the contrast between the good and the great that foregrounds the relatively lesser aspects of this collection; it's only that when King's on, by God is he on.

"Here is something I learned in 1922: there are always worse things waiting. You think you have seen the most terrible thing, the one that coalesces all your nightmares into a freakish horror that actually exists, and the only consolation is that there can be nothing worse. Even if there is, your mind will snap at the sight of it, and you will know no more. But there is worse, your mind does not snap, and somehow you carry on. You might understand that all the joy has gone out of the world for you, that what you did has put all your hoped to gain out of your reach, you might wish you were the one who was dead - but you go on. You realize that you are in a hell of your own making, but you go on nevertheless. Because there is nothing else to do." (p.39)

In the year of our Lord 1922, a man kills his wife in cold blood. He cajoles his son into helping him do the dirty, come to that, and the fallout of this evil deed comes to touch on a theme that has fascinated King in recent years - and with good reason. '1922' is not alone in Full Dark, No Stars in that is shows how violence begets violence, evil begets evil, how one mistake can spell a murder of mistakes to follow. This is a motif King explored memorably only earlier this year, in 'Morality', the bonus short story included in the otherwise mediocre Blockade Billy, and in Full Dark, No Stars he wrings from it every fluid oz. of potential, tempering the forbidding (and indeed the forbidden) as ever with such touches of sweetness and kindness as to make even the most transgressive characters and acts somehow relatable. For instance:

"He threw his arms around me and kissed my cheek. For a moment it seemed like we were friends again. I even let myself believe it a little, although in my heart I knew better. The evidence might be belowground, but the truth was between us, and always would be." (p.62)

Cuddles and cornbread aside, in short order, father and son, Wilf and Hank, kill an old cow to cover up their other killing. They swallow the spider to catch the fly, as it were... perhaps they'll die?

Full Dark, No Stars is a heck of a collection, warts and all. By turns thrilling and thoughtful, '1922' alone would be worth the price of entry. But you know, I'd drop my £10 on King's latest for 'Big Driver,' too - certainly the least accomplished of the narratives contained in Full Dark, No Stars - and that's saying something. There's a reason they call Stephen King the grandmaster of horror. In this book, there are four.


Full Dark, No Stars
by Stephen King

UK Publication: November 2010, Hodder & Stoughton
US Publication: November 2010, Scribner

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1 comment:

  1. You know, you're really making it hard to stay away from newer King novels. For comparison's sake, can I ask what you thought of Everything's Eventual?