by Stephen King
Published by Scribner, 2010
I, Constant Reader, have been a Stephen King fan since my teen years. I’m not his number one fan, I don’t go around digging up every short story, novella or article the man has ever written, but I do read many – if not most – of the books released. My favorite will always be, as I may have mentioned here before and will surely mention again in the future, The Stand: Complete & Uncut. I still have the hardcover edition I purchased at a little store called Readmore Book & Card, a shop that is no longer around, many moons ago. So, it is here that I now have in my hands the latest title from Stephen King, a new collection of short fiction – an art form that Mr. King has aced with flying colors many times in the past – titled Full Dark, No Stars.
If there be any doubt as to how well Mr. King can craft a short tale, then please allow me to point out a few titles, here: Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption, The Body, The Jaunt, Apt Pupil, The Mist … I digress … All excellent works of fiction by a master storyteller. I know, some might argue that Stephen King isn’t as much a master as we fans make him out to be, but seriously, the man is good at what he does, and that isn’t just scaring people. In Full Dark, No Stars, King once again shows that, even with limited word space, he can still throw the letters around into a fantastic yarn no matter the subject matter.
Included here are four stories, each a standout of their own and each touching on a dark theme of humanity, how far we go to protect ourselves or our ideals or even other people and things that we feel important or that might need protection. All four are well written, of course, and while all have a dark edge to them, not all of King’s children are created equal.
“1922” is the narration of one major, life-altering year from the mouth of the main character, Wilfred “Wilf” Leland James. A farmer in 1922 with a wife and son, Wilf finds his simple life as a farmer being threatened by his own wife. Wanting to pack up, sell their land and move to the city is Wilf’s wife. A feud erupts over the land and begins to drive a rift between the couple. Caught in the middle is the son, whom Wilfred begins to drawn to his side with a plan that will send both their lives into a dark and despairing pit from which they may never return.
King serves this one from the straight point-of-view of Wilfred James and Wilfred retells the events that lead up to the stories end, be it cheerful or dark. It is an interesting take on how strongly one will stick to their beliefs when threatened and how one wrong decision can forever mar the life you know. I felt sadness for the son, and while Wilf himself tries to draw you to his side of reasoning, I was never really there with him, despite, at times, seeing how he was getting to the conclusions his mind offered. A strong tale of tragedy, here, and of sad endings brought on by ones own hand.
“Big Driver,” a tale of revenge, left me a little reeling. Tess, a semi-popular mystery writer that is offered a speaking arrangement for a ladies group in a neighboring town. After completing her engagement, she is given directions for a shortcut that will help her avoid the interstate. Things are going well until she runs across well-placed debris in the road and gets a flat. A large man comes to her aide, or so she believes, until he beats, rapes and leave her for dead. Tess is afraid to go to the police or a doctor because of her career. She’s afraid it will ruin her, and she can’t afford that. So, after attempting to show us what an abused rape survivor might feel and think, King then shows us what happens when one suddenly starts using the brain that has provided their bread and butter for years. Tess begins researching her attacker, finding many surprising twists and turns, all the way up to the end, when she returns for revenge.
Of the stories, I have to say that right up to a particular scene near the end, which involves Tess sitting in a pick-up truck alone, it was a very predictable story. Not saying that Stephen King is the master of surprises, but in this particular one, I saw many of the twists and turns coming a page or two before we even got there. With one character in particular, you pretty much know right away by their actions how they will play out in the story. Not sure how I felt about Tess seeming to snap and lose a bit of sanity by talking to Tom and Fritz and suddenly having them speak to her with their own voices, especially when other people and things begin to join in near the end. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know when you get there! The “real ending” we get, which comes right after what I thought was the natural ending, seems pushed and fake to me, but who am I to argue with a man who makes his living doing this?
“Fair Extension,” the … most fun? of the four short stories here, takes the old “deal with the devil,” storyline and changes it up just a bit. Normally when someone makes a deal with the Devil, or in this case, Elvid, a paunchy man at a card table on a side street in late evening in a small “normal” town called Derry, things do not go as they planned. They write their soul away and end up paying some horrible price for it in the end. Here, King ponders the idea of: what if the devil really carried out his promise, no strings attached?
Thus, we are introduced to Dave Streeter, diagnosed with incurable cancer and only months to live. Dave is on his way home when he notices the man on the sidewalk, and for kicks goes to see what he is selling. Dave is no idiot, and Elvid offers to cure his cancer for 15 years as long as Dave pays him 15% of his income every year in return. No, no souls are exchanged here, as Elvid explains, human souls have become to transparent and cheap. However, 15% of Dave’s income for the next 15 years deposited into a trust account in the Caymans, and it’s a deal … with one catch. For Dave to succeed in life, someone else must suffer, must bear the burden of what is being lifted from Dave.
We are lead to believe, through out the story, that this is Dave’s best friend since grade school, Tom Goodhugh. Horrible things begin to happen to Tom, his wife, children, their careers … all while Dave and his family succeed beyond their wildest dreams. However, while this is going on, King also interrupts the 15 year narration by throwing in the other, large world events that happen with each year and the passing of time. I was left wondering if these things, in their off kilter way, were also Dave’s doing by making the deal, or if it was simply implied that Elvid was behind them as well in some form of his deal making. Regardless, Stephen King shows us that not every deal with the devil has to end badly. This story actually ends on an up note, despite the misfortunes that befall the Goodhugh family.
“A Good Marriage,” the last of the quartet, actually turned out to be my favorite, overall. I enjoyed the other stories, but this one in particular lets S.K. envision what he believes life for an ordinary woman would be like if she should suddenly and accidentally discover her husband had a much darker and violent side. The husband reminds me of Flanders from The Simpsons, but his dark side is shared with real-life folk such as the BTK guy, Dennis Rader.
Finally, the Afterword, in which Mr. King offers up his comments on the book and each story, sharing his thought process. If nothing else, pick up the book and skip straight to the end and read this. It’s only a page or two, but worth the read for a look inside Stephen King’s thoughts and writing process.
Full Dark, No Stars is well worth the price of admission for King fans, as well as lovers of good fiction. Will everyone like the stories? No. Should they? No. Everyone has their favorite genre, be it biography, fiction, self-help, religious, etc. But what readers will get from Full Dark, No Stars, in my opinion, is a tiny serving of all the above. The stories are dark, stark and harsh to fluff you may be accustomed to, parts may be difficult to navigate, but when you come out of the end into the light, you’ll be glad you took the journey.