“Full Dark, No Stars” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2010)

Full Dark, No Stars
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Full Dark, No Stars.  Take a moment to think about that.  Usually titles for Stephen King books are pretty obvious, and for his novella collections, they’re kind of quaint, like Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons.  In this new book of four novellas, King chose the title carefully and specifically.  Imagine a night, complete darkness, with no stars, no light.  Darkness is a key word here, for fear, for things that go bump, but also for the emotional tone and power of these novellas.  Full Dark, No Stars will terrify you, but in a different way to King’s usual writing; these are dark, twisted tales that will shock you into seeing how far certain people will go for personal gain, personal satisfaction.  As King says in his afterword, these are stories of “ordinary people in extraordinary situations”; nevertheless, they’re still people you wouldn’t ever want to meet in a dark alley.

“1922” is a confession from Wilfred Leland James on how late in the summer of 1922 he murdered his wife, with the help of his teenage son.  She pushed him one time too far and was looking to sell off a large piece of land she owned and move into the city.  James wants this land for himself and is done with his wife.  This is the story of her murder, and Wilfred’s life after, as well as the life of his son, and the friends and family.  It is also the story of fate, and how if certain actions were never performed, how different life could be.

In “Big Driver” we meet Tessa “Tess” Jean, a successful mystery writer who never strays too far from her home for readings, as she needs to be back in time to feed her cat.  After a successful reading, Tess is offered a shortcut home that avoids the interstate and will get her back faster.  On the way she runs over some pieces of wood and soon finds herself with a flat tire.  After some investigation and clearing away the wood from the road, it seems like these items may have been intentionally planted.  She has no cell phone reception so waits for a Good Samaritan.  He turns out to be a giant of a man who pulls over to help change her tire.  Tess sneaks a peak in the man’s truck and sees more wood of the same type she found in the road.  The giant man knows he’s been caught and then grabs her, rapes her, beats her, and dumps her, thinking she’s dead.  As Tess slowly pulls herself together, she plans her revenge.

“A Good Marriage” begins with the story of an ordinary, average American man and woman who meet, fall in love, get married, and have a wonderful life together.  Then one day, while her husband is away, Darcy is looking for some batteries in the basement and finds a stack of her catalogs that apparently her husband hid from her.  In between them she finds a magazine for hardcore bondage.  Then behind the box of catalogs, she finds a secret compartment with a box that’d been a Christmas gift for her husband some years past.  Inside she finds a donor card, library, and ID for a woman she doesn’t know.  Then she does some research and discovers a horror about her husband she simply can’t accept.  He comes home and knows right away that she knows the truth about him.

In the final novella, “Fair Extension,” King makes a wonderful play on the idea of the devil granting you your greatest wish in exchange for something, but in this story it’s not your soul.  Dave Streeter has had a pretty decent life, a good wife, an okay job that he hoped to do better at, but hasn’t.  Then he finds out he has cancer and not long to live.  Feeling he certainly drew the short end of the stick in this life, he meets a man who offers him a “fair extension” on anything of his choosing, who goes by the name Elvid.  Yes, he will take away Streeter’s cancer, no problem, but if he’s to take away the bad, he has to give it to someone else.  That’s the deal.  Also Streeter needs to give him 15% of everything he makes each year for the rest of his life.  Streeter thinks the guy’s a nut, says sure, and chooses his supposed best friend, Tom Goodhugh, who has always gotten everything he wanted, was able to get through high school all thanks to Streeter, and even stole Streeter’s girlfriend (his first love) and then married her and had kids.  Goodhugh is the man Streeter wishes the bad upon.  Then Streeter’s cancer disappears and in a number of months he is back to perfect health.  Then things start to go real well for him; he gets the promotion he’s been wanting.  Meanwhile things start to go bad for Goodhugh; real bad, and Streeter enjoys every moment of it.

No Dark, No Stars shows that Stephen King really has improved as a writer and storyteller over the decades, and when writing novellas, he doesn’t have room to spend too much time setting up and going on for too long, or dragging out endings.  The weakest story is “Big Driver,” as it is a similar story that King has told before: one of a woman put through horrible situations and experiences, described in intense, emotional detail.  The strongest is “1922,” leaving the reader wondering about the choices the characters made , the events that happened, and what choices he or she might make and how it can affect one’s life.  No Dark, No Stars is a dark, moving collection that makes it clear to fans that the bestselling author has still got it, and also serves as a powerful introduction for readers wanting to know what the big deal is about this guy called Stephen King.

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Originally written on November 23, 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.