Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2010
Review: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
A case could be made for the notion that Stephen King’s talents find their purest, most effective expression in the novella form. Although he has written extensively in virtually every fictional mode, from the short story to the multi-volume epic, King has returned to the novella again and again, with generally impressive results. The form seems to suit him, forcing a disciplined approach to the material at hand while allowing room to explore complex combinations of character and circumstance. Earlier novella collections (Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight provided the basis for some memorable films (Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Secret Window), and contained some of King’s most enduring—and affecting—fiction.
His new collection, Full Dark, No Stars, stands squarely in the tradition of its predecessors, offering four long stories marked by King’s unerring sense of character and propulsive, deceptively effortless prose. As the title implies, and as King himself notes in an Afterward, these stories are, even by their author’s usual standards, exceptionally dark accounts of extreme human behavior. All four stories provide unflinching accounts of violence, cruelty, degradation, and revenge. The result is a complex reading experience as disturbing as it is compelling.
The opening entry, “1922,” is the longest story in the book and one of King’s occasional period pieces. The narrator, Wilf James, lives on a farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska (a location familiar to readers of The Stand) with his wife Arlette and teenaged son Henry. Unable to resolve a dispute with Arlette over the disposition of a recently inherited parcel of land, Wilf concocts a desperate plan. Responding to the urgings on an inner voice—an aspect of himself he thinks of as The Conniving Man—Wilf, with the reluctant cooperation of his son, murders his wife, conceals the body, and assumes the public role of abandoned husband. In the aftermath of that murder, “1922” evolves into a remorseless account of guilt and retribution filled with echoes of Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” Having committed an irrevocable act, Wilf watches helplessly as his life—and Henry’s—slide slowly out of control. With unsettling precision, King delineates the collapse and ultimate destruction of a haunted, tragically misguided man.
In “Big Driver,” the action moves to more familiar King territory: contemporary New England. Tess, the protagonist, is the author of a moderately successful series of mysteries featuring the members of a small-town knitting circle. When Tess accepts a speaking engagement at a nearby book club, her previously uneventful life changes forever. Driving back along a “shortcut” recommended by the book club’s president, Tess is raped, assaulted, and left for dead. What follows is the account of a deeply wronged woman determined to exact revenge on her attackers. This is, as both King and his heroine realize, very familiar material, and the text is littered with references to similar fictional scenarios, chief among them the 2007 Jody Foster film, The Brave One. But that familiarity never becomes a problem, never detracts from the story’s power. The abuse of women is an epidemic problem that shows no signs of diminishing, and King’s sense of outrage, together with his obvious sympathy for the victims of male aggression, permeates the story, lending it a level of moral urgency that resonates throughout.
The shortest of the stories, “Fair Exchange,” also addresses a familiar subject: deals with the devil. Dave Streeter, a discontented, mid-level executive, meets his devil at a roadside stand on a deserted stretch of highway. The devil, of course, makes Dave an extremely attractive offer: limitless worldly success. When his initial skepticism passes, Dave agrees to pay 15% of all future earnings in exchange for a piece of the good life. But that’s not the only price. Success and failure are delicately balanced, zero sum quantities. For Dave to succeed, someone else—someone of his choosing—must fail. Dave’s choice of victim is Tom Goodhugh, a longtime “best friend” who has constructed an enviably satisfying life.
“Fair Exchange” follows both the upward trajectory of Dave’s life and the downward spiral of Tom’s, a decline that takes on an increasingly tragic character. The dark heart of the story lies not simply in the description of Tom’s suffering, but in the mean-spirited pleasure Dave derives from watching his former friend brought low. The result is a unique new spin on a very old story and a mordantly satirical portrait of greed, callousness, and Schadenfreude in action.
My own favorite story, “A Good Marriage,” is an equally unique spin on what might be called The Stranger Beside Me theme. Inspired by the real-life relationship between the BTK Killer and his wife, this one tells the story of Bob and Darcy Anderson and their long, supposedly solid marriage. The story begins with Bob away on a business trip. Searching through their well-ordered garage, Darcy stumbles across evidence of Bob’s previously unsuspected—and decidedly kinky—nature. This is the first in an escalating series of discoveries that lead to an impossible—but inescapable—conclusion: that Bob, her gentle, attentive husband, is a monster, a serial killer who has spent many years torturing and murdering helpless women.
This discovery leads Darcy toward a harrowing moment of personal decision. It also forces her to reexamine her relationship to a man she thought she knew. King is at his best here, patiently assembling the quotidian details that, strung together over a period of years, constitute a marriage. The apparent normality of this composite portrait makes Darcy’s new knowledge all the more chilling, and all the more real. Like all of the stories in this book, “A Good Marriage” is about people encountering the darkest aspects of human nature, discovering, both in themselves and in those they love, a latent capacity for destruction. It’s a tribute to King’s unassuming mastery that he can turn such bleak, disquieting material into such a compulsively readable book. Like the best of King’s earlier work, Full Dark, No Stars is the work of a formidably gifted storyteller, a man with a dark, uncompromising vision and an utterly hypnotic voice.