For a man who supposedly retired from writing in 2002, Stephen King remains a prolific producer of fiction. “Full Dark, No Stars” is his latest release – a collection of four short stories. I’m a huge fan of King, so I was eager to dive in to the book as soon as Amazon so diligently delivered it to my door. I wasn’t disappointed.
In “Full Dark, No Stars”, Kings delivers four stories – “1922”, “Big Driver”, “Fair Extension”, and “A Good Marriage”. While all very different, they each manage to nibble around the edges of a common theme: What happens when seemingly normal people are put in a position to do horrific things? Head’s up to everyone – there will be some spoilers ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
In the first story, “1922”, a poor farmer – Wilfred James – has had enough of his marriage and enough of his wife Arlette. After a disagreement over farmland, he convinces his son Henry to help him murder Arlette and dump her body in an abandoned well on the farm. The knowledge of what they have done then begins to slowly eat away about both men “like ink spreading through water”. We watch as pain and suffering infect not only Wilf, but those around him as well. Everything black in his life flows from that one moment when he killed his wife. Getting away with murder ends up being the worst thing that ever happened to Wilf.
“Big Driver” tells the story of moderately successful author, Tess. After a speaking engagement, Tess gets a flat tire while taking a shortcut home. A man stops to offer her help but has no intentions of changing her tire. Instead, he rapes her, brutally beats her, and leaves her for dead in a drainage ditch. When she awakes, Tess has to come to grips with her situation and find a way back to both civilization and a civilized state of mind. She only finds one. She finds the only way she can deal with the trauma she has suffered is to find the man responsible and exact revenge. She is a good person – but the events of that night lead her to a place where she is able to do some very bad things.
The third story in the book is “Fair Extension”. It’s a play on the “sell your soul to the Devil for a bit of happiness” theme. Dave Streeter is dying from cancer when he runs across a roadside stand selling “extensions”. At the stand, a Mr. Elvid (none too subtle, that name) tells Dave that he specializes in offering people extensions – in this case, an extension on Dave’s life. All Dave has to do is give Elvid 15% of everything he earns from that day forward and choose someone close to him to “give the bad to”. Seems that bad karma can’t be cured, it can only be transferred. Dave reveals that he has always hated his best friend, whose success and happiness he envies. Elvid agrees to heal Dave and what follows, for his best friend, is truly horrible. Dave makes a selfish decision, ruins the life of an innocent man and – in the end – lives happily ever after.
The book closes with “A Good Marriage”. Darcy Anderson is in a good, if somewhat predictable and boring, marriage. While her husband is out of town, she discovers a secret hidden in their garage – a secret that leads her to the realization her husband is a serial killer. Overwhelmed by the knowledge, she struggles to regain her balance. When her husband suspects something after speaking to her on the phone, he comes home and confronts her with a calm, clear, and frighteningly rational argument. She needs to help him maintain his secret – for the good of the family. She still loves him, but cannot reconcile the husband she knew with the man she now sees. After initially agreeing to go along with his deception, she soon begins to struggle with the reality of her situation. Ultimately she decides to take matters into her own hands and mete out the justice denied her husband’s victims. Through the story we see a woman still very much in love with her husband, yet horrified by what he is. In the end, it’s that self-same horror that enables her to go to a place only her husband had been capable of before.
As I said before, I’m a huge fan of King. I don’t think the work he has put out since ending “The Dark Tower” has been on the same level as his early writings – but he’s still a remarkable storyteller. Does he still struggle at times with the ending of his stories? Yes. But – does he still develop characters and explore their motivations better than any other modern author? Yes.
In each of these stories, King examines what motivates people to do horrific things, and what ripples those actions have in their lives. For Wilf, the murder of his wife destroyed his own life – while Dave had no problem transferring all of the blackness and pain from his life to someone else. The rape and beating of Tess drove her to murder as a solution, while Darcy arrived at the same place by learning the truth about her husband. Each of these people took a different route, but ended up in the same place. A place where extreme action, even murder, seemed like the only logical next step. A place without hope. A place that was full of dark, without any stars.
King fans will find “Full Dark, No Stars” worth picking up. It’s a pretty quick read (at least as compared to last year’s “Under the Dome”). The distinctive King voice that we have all come to know and love is here in full force. The characters are interesting as are the stories, for the most part. Take the time to curl up next to the fire with this book over the winter – there are far worse ways you could spend you evening.
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