Book Review – Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I’m a little late to the party on this, I know, but it never stops me from posting my opinion. Stephen King has been working steadily throughout the years, churning out lengthy novels, but some of his best and most memorable stories have been found in his short story collections – and now that almost all of his books have been made into movies (some good, some not-so-good), it’s time for some new shorter stories from this craftsman of horror tales.

By title alone, one can see that Full Dark, No Stars works in a lightless void, and the stories contained within the novel have little to no uplifting messages to bring across to the reader. King, who has been becoming increasingly more bleak in his tales with time, writes less about how the past and the present combine in this collection and more about how age and time wither away the best qualities of life. Is the reason King delves into decay because he is getting older himself? Most assuredly so, and three out of four the stories contained within Full Dark, No Stars take an unflinching look at older protagonists who find their relationships with people dying as they advance in years.

It’s not really a metaphor for the real life occurrences when people age, losing friends along the way; it’s an emotional state of change, where people one has lived with all one’s life begin to lose the place they’ve held, whether it be friendship or in marriage. It feels as though King is living vicariously through these stories – always a good feeling for the reader, since that is in part why stories are written – although the plots within are the stuff of nightmares, the ideas one has late at night when they begin to question the paths they took in life and where another might take them. These obviously aren’t the feelings King holds, because the stories end on very somber, even bleak notes. But they are possibilities in the mind of King, and what makes these stories scary is the way that the ideas could possibly take hold in the unhappiest of minds.

For the most part, King works with basic plots. “1922″ is about a man who sets out to murder his wife; “Big Driver” is a rape-and-revenge tale; “Fair Extension” is about a man who gets a longer life while wishing ill upon another, with the help of a salesman curiously like the Devil; and “A Good Marriage” is about the evil hiding within a husband and the lengths the wife must go to to forget it. These aren’t original tales; they’re actually basic archetypes that have been used for hundreds of years. But that doesn’t mean King’s stories come off as stale or uninteresting.

Like all of his novels and shorts, King brings a flair to the writing that works to establish an originality within the basic plots. The characteristic dark comedy of his prose is here, as well as his inside jokes and references to his canon. It’s always nice to snuggle into King’s words, even when it does become a bit verbose (and the dialogue here does sway into exposition drivel at times).

“1922″, despite being the longest tale in this collection, is also the weakest. The setup works, the narrator is interesting, and the gruesome details King provides will entertain the gorehound. But it’s missing a steady flow of drama, and it often lingers in places that stagnate the tale. It could have used some excisions, and the length detracts from the overall experience. It’s good King, but it’s not great, and the basic plot structure of this story doesn’t work as well as the others.

“Big Driver” is a better tale, and it’s fairly disturbing for King. There’s rape, there’s murder, there are some moments where the protagonist lingers in a state of semi-delusional complacency. However, King doesn’t go too far – there’s not an excessive amount of offensiveness to the story like some of the rape-and-revenge movies, and there’s also a little bit of feminism tacked in here somewhere. It’s not mysogynistic, nor is it misandrist, but it sits somewhere in between, almost misanthropic as a whole but also not quite. It’s a really bleak story, but within, people get their dues, for better or worse.

Then there’s the fairly short “Fair Extension”, nearly like Needful Things with a roadside vendor who sells extensions. It’s typical stuff, but it kept my interest because of the way the protagonist never regrets his choice, even after his best friend for years begins to accumulate a lifetime’s worth of misery in just a couple of years. But King, ever the pessimist, draws parallels to our own time – he brings up 9/11 while the protagonist enjoys his good fortune, he brings up Michael Jackson’s death, other current events that have plagued us over the years. And the protagonist, who has caused so much difficulty for his friend simply because he wanted an extension on his life, sometimes feels partially to blame – he wished for more, and he got it, but with a gigantic price tag that he never truly recognizes. Despite its length, the story packs a whopping emotional punch, and it surely leaves the reader thinking.

Finally there’s “A Good Marriage”, which comes from an idea King had when he thought of the BTK killer who hid his killings from his wife for years. He questions: what happens if a wife finds out her husband has been involved in some particularly brutal killings during his marriage? All of those memories are difficult to forget, but in some way it has to change your perception. What would you do? And how difficult would it be to simply let that evil slide by you, as though you didn’t know about it? It’s an interesting concept, one that is both difficult and easy to accept – at first, it seems hard to think that something so momentous as murder could simply slip under your nose, but there are always secrets. The eeriest aspect of the story is not the actual murders, but the reflection after the fact by the reader – in relationships, it seems like we know everything, but when we think deep down, that’s entirely untrue.

Overall, Full Dark, No Stars is a surprisingly black read, working upon tropes that have been pre-established but never explored in this way by King. Sometimes, it’s good to go back to the simple and rework it; that’s what King has done here, and he’s crafted tales that make the skin crawl. They don’t always work, and they could use a bit of paring down here and there, but when they do hit, they tend to blot out the light of life, casting the reader in a dark and nearly humorless tunnel where the only escape is to keep plodding through.

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  • Jonny Metro

    I’ve got this sitting on my shelf just waiting to be read. As soon as I finish the books I’m working through now, I’m going to have to pick it up. You’ve convinced me to move it to the top of the list. I love a little bleakness every now and again.

    –J/Metro

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