Full Dark, No Stars – Stephen King (book review)

November 15, 2010

“From the start…I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrels with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”

So writes Stephen King in the afterword to his latest four-novella collection, “Full Dark No Stars.” His afterword in this volume is actually quite brilliant in itself, making me wish that it was longer and expounded on more of the details of the creative process of each of these tales. King has released a few of these four-novella collections before–stories too long to be included in a short story collection but too short to stand as a novel. His previous ones were good (“Different Seasons” and “Four Past Midnight”) and some pretty great film adaptations came out of some of those long-form stories (“Stand by Me,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil”). I’m not sure that any of these stories would (or should) produce such and adaptation–if any were  fit, it would likely be the first of these, “1922”. But on the merits of these stories as they are and how they fit together in this particular volume, I (at least at the moment) think this is the best of these ventures so far.

These are dark stories. “You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places,” King tells us after we finish these sordid tales. The protagonists in these tales are in horrid situations which are sadly realistic–tales that no doubt have actually occurred in one way or another throughout this country, at least in a good amount of their details. These characters faced with such dire circumstances react to them violently, and in the end, someone gets what they arguably deserve.

“1922” gives us a stark, pre-depression, early twentieth-century Nebraska. The setting is painted vividly, as are the characters. The lead confesses the crimes he has committed–when we meet him, he’s a selfish, prejudiced, hateful person in many ways (though likely not that different than many from his context), but the actions he takes to save his land lead him down an ever-increasing spiral which sucks so many along with him until his supernatural (?) judgment. “Big Driver,” gives us a protagonist suffering an all too likely sexual assault that is difficult to read (which makes this a story I would likely pass on if adapted to film), but her battle to “right” things is captivating and “just,” at least within the context of this story. “Fair Extension” is the story that defies the setup of the rest of the book on the surface–it’s a modern day deal-with-the-devil (who takes no stock in the “devalued” souls of the 21st century) story that turns conventions on their head. It’s a dark satire of such a set-up which I sadly think says far too much about modern life and personalities if only I could fully unravel its moral! “A Good Marriage” closes things out with a wife who finds out her husbands dark secret and attempts to right things herself.

These are well-written stories with real characters and great settings. “Big Driver” would be vile trash in the hands of any splatter-punk writer but King gives it heart, soul, and “biblical” justice. The imagery your mind is apt to create as you read the building tension of “1922” is scarier than any film you’ll ever see, and it’s a tale that builds up and even delivers through with its ending. The reverse-Faustian deal is so cynical and silly that it reaffirms goodness by default, if that makes any sense at all. “A Good Marriage” finds horror, love, duty, and secrets in plausibly horrific discoveries.

Great stories. King is hitting yet another creative peak this far into his career, which is good to know. As he writes, “I have little patience with writers who don’t take the job seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the question, ‘How can such things be?’ Stories suggest that sometimes-not always, but sometimes–there’s a reason.”

**all quotations from King are taken from the afterword to this collection.

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One Response to “Full Dark, No Stars – Stephen King (book review)”

  1. […] still heartily recommend Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars,” which I reviewed here. It was his best book in years. I’ve had a blast playing “Red Dead Redemption” on […]

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