Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King Atrocious cover aside (even if I’m dumb and missing something greatly significant about a minimalistic cover with a woman making the figure nine on it, it’s still terrible), the title of Stephen King’s latest book is perfect. Full Dark, No Stars, ladies and gentleman, is one bleak book. And though King is no stranger to grim subject matter, when it comes to his novella collections, I think this is the darkest one yet. There are no stars. There’s little hope either. Some, but not much. One might almost expect to see Richard Bachman credited here such is the impenetrable darkness on display.

Those looking to King’s latest hoping for the supernatural will come away disappointed. Even though there are instances in which rotting corpses shamble through the night and ghosts whisper from old wells, all of the horror in Full Dark, No Stars, is of the human variety, the supernatural relegated to mere projections from decaying minds. Ambivalent hauntings are, when the source is considered, not that ambivalent at all. And because all the terrible things are authored by human hands, this quartet of nightmares is all that much scarier.

Inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, the collection’s opener “1922″ matches Lesy’s book in its bleak, wintry tone. After murdering his troublesome wife in order to keep her from selling his farm to the greedy Farrington Company, Wilfred James soon realizes, as the repercussions of his crime slowly radiate outward, infecting everyone and everything it touches, that no bad deed goes unpunished. In the author’s engaging style, we’re caught right along in the current as events quickly spiral out of control. There are some particularly well-crafted scenes here, not the least of which is the murder itself, but some creepy moments later in the game are very much reminiscent of King circa Pet Semetery. Mostly, however, “1922″ reads like an homage to Poe’s “The Black Cat”.

King takes tackles revenge fantasy with “Big Driver”, the story of modestly successful crime writer Tess, who accepts a speaking engagement at an out-of-the-way library and takes a shortcut into a nightmare. Raped and left for dead, Tess escapes but, rather than going to the police (an idea quickly rejected when she considers the media attention it will draw down upon her), she decides to seek vengeance herself.

This is one of the better stories in the book, even if it’s well-worn ground King’s dealing with. If you’ve seen the movies The Brave One (referenced in “Big Driver” more than once), Extremities, or any of the Dirty Harry or Death Wish movies, then you know what to expect, albeit with more attention to the emotional current that thrums through the protagonist than is usually afforded the unfortunate characters in this subgenre. King is clearly aware that he’s mining well-worn territory here too, but he does it with his usual style, keeping you rooting for Tess all the way.

Similarly, there is nothing staggeringly new about the concept behind “Fair Extension”, but as always, there is something new in the way King tells it.

David Streeter has aggressive cancer. He doesn’t have long to live. So when he finds himself offered a 15-year extension by a roadside trader named Mr. Elvid (groan), he enthusiastically accepts, convinced, as anyone would be, that it’s all a joke. This is a King story, so of course it’s anything but a joke, nor is the other side of the bargain, which means that, in order for Dave to enjoy a cancer-free 15 year extension, he must pass his misfortune along to someone of his choosing. Although this setup reminded me of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” (filmed recently–and not particularly well–as The Box), King, to his credit, elevates this tale above standard fare by resisting the urge to follow the usual direction of such “deal with the devil” stories. Like “Big Driver”, the author is well-aware that this kind of thing has been done before (Elvid even references “The Devil and Daniel Webster”), but nobody does it quite like King. I found myself particularly impressed with this one, though ultimately (as can really be stated about the book as a whole), “Fair Extension” is a grim and depressing piece of work.

The closing novella “A Good Marriage” is my favorite entry in the book. After reading the synopsis, I assumed I knew where King would take this tale of happily married housewife Darcy Anderson, who one night accidentally discovers something hidden in the garage that throws everything she knows about her beloved husband into question, and I was glad to be proved wrong. Riveting and heartbreaking, “A Good Marriage” poses the question, however deeply you wish to consider it: Do we ever really know each other?

A similar question sums up Full Dark, No Stars, and that is: Do we ever really know ourselves? Unlike King’s previous collections, there is a very strong unifying theme at play here, and that is a study of how people react when pushed, or how we handle the ugly choices we’re given. In all of these stories, people find themselves forced to face sides of themselves they might never have known existed if not for the intervention of exterior forces. In “1922″ Wilfred James finds himself driven to murder by the threat of losing the only thing he truly knows. In “Big Driver” a rapist awakens the primal vengeance of an otherwise mild-mannered writer. In “Fair Extension” a man is asked to condemn another for the chance at a new life. And in “A Good Marriage” an ordinarily housewife is forced to make the ultimate choice when she finds out her loving husband is not what he has pretended to be. Take away the safety and security, the gravity we take for granted and you truly see what we are behind the mask. Good people, King says, may only be good as long as they’re allowed to be. There is always a high and a low road, the good and the bad. But when the line of demarcation is not clear, when the gray area is a blur, and when we stand to benefit more from taking the path that will ultimately bring horror to others but an element of peace to ourselves, what do we do?

In Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King offers four unflinchingly brutal scenarios in response to that question. It is a grim and often ugly journey of discovery, but as always when it comes to King, one worth taking, if only to see what we look like when the masks come off.