BFTA Review: Stephen King – Full Dark, No Stars

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Title: Full Dark, No Stars
Author: Stephen King
Simon & Schuster (Scribner)
Rating: 4/5
Read for: Amazon Best of 2010 Challenge // 2011 Stephen King Challenge // Stephen King/Richard Bachman perpetual challenge

“I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger…” writes Wilfred Leland James in the early pages of the riveting confession that makes up “1922,” the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerizing tales from Stephen King. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife, Arlette, proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness.
In “Big Driver,” a cozy-mystery writer named Tess encounters the stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself.
“Fair Extension,” the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Dave Streeter from a fatal cancer but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment.
When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It’s a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends a good marriage. (from dust jacket)

“1922″

The opening novella, a confession of a murder, begins with that confession and ends with a death. While Arlette’s death is fascinating, it is the subsequent descent into madness that makes this novella happen. Wilfred James kills his wife to end an arguement over 100 acres of land, and in the process corrupts his young son, Henry.

In typical King form, Wilfred confesses to the murder and recounts it, all within the first twenty pages. While the murder is what begins the story, it isn’t the main focal point; instead, the focus comes during the year after, when everything goes bad for Wilfred, and he begins to suspect that Arlette is getting her revenge from beyond the grave.

King’s horror is subtle; there is no vomit-inducing gore, no haunted house. Instead, it is the confession of a man who has already gone mad; we just haven’t discovered it yet. Wilfred seems quite sane at first, calmly recounting the murder of his wife, the hiding of the body, and the reactions of the neighbors. Slowly, Wilfred begins to feel the guilt weigh on him, but it isn’t until his son, now going by “Hank,” runs off that he really begins to feel it. Suddenly, nothing really matters. His farm becomes run-down, and eventually all he is left with is himself; not even a roof above his head.

It is Wilfred’s hallucinations that are the most troubling, however. Not because of what he thinks he sees, but because the reader is left without an explanation as to whether he’s hallucinating or whether this is another of King’s supernatural stories until the very last page. Also troubling are the rats; big rats that haunt Wilfred and seem to turn up just when Wilf thinks he’s won. No matter what Wilfred does, the rats keep coming back, until finally he thinks they are his jurors, and are waiting to convict him and carry out the sentence themselves.

Wilfred’s steady descent into madness makes this opening novella quite a story, and left me eager to move on to the next, if only to see whether “Big Driver” was just as good.

“Big Driver”

The second novella is even better than the first. It involves a touchy subject, and I don’t want to make light of it, but Mr. King handles it both with seriousness and casualty. Tess, a mystery writer, is raped, severely beaten, and left for dead inside a drain pipe with several other bodies. What follows is her revenge, carefully thought out and planned.

Tess’s mentality during the entire novella is interesting; she is less a victim, and more a vigilante; she wants personal revenge for what’s been done to her, and she does it carefully, planning out each step. Even when things don’t go precisely as planned, she improvises in a way that makes it seem like she knows what she’s doing, although Tess doesn’t really seem like the murdering type.

King brings to life Tess’s cat, and her GPS system, giving them voices in Tess’s head, and guiding her in the right direction. Tess’s subconscious is speaking to her, she just doesn’t realize it. Eventually, one of Tess’s main characters from her novels joins the fray of voices, and finally her victims’. At first, Tess thinks she’s crazy, but by the end of the novella, she has returned to normal, at least mentally. Whether Tess will continue to be “normal” (or as normal as a rape victim can be, especially when she’s constantly looking over her shoulder) remains a question. But for now, Tess is content with having gotten her revenge.

“Fair Extension”

“Fair Extension” is the shortest long story in the book, at a whopping 34 pages. It’s short, and it didn’t really need to be longer. While the quick blurb describes the short as the “funniest” of the four stories, I didn’t find it to be funny at all. I found it depressing and desperate. I don’t mean that King was desperate, but that the character, Streeter, was desperate. So desperate he makes a deal with the devil, and as his cancer goes away, his best friend’s life goes to hell (so to speak).

Is it fair? No, definitely not. But it’s what happens when you make a deal with the devil. Perhaps the most disgusting thing, though, is that Streeter doesn’t feel a bit of remorse during the whole thing. He wanted revenge against his best friend for having the life he never could, but it isn’t only his friend who suffers. His entire family suffers, and eventually his friend’s wife dies of cancer instead of Streeter.

The whole thing just made me really depressed and ready to move on to the final story in the book.

“A Good Marriage”

The final story in this little collection, and it’s a good one. I’ve often wondered how wives of serial killers could live with them for years and not know anything; it’s speculated on television shows from time to time, too. In the Afterword, King explains that he had read an article about the BTK killer, Dennis Rader, and goes on to explain how Rader’s wife, Paula, had lived with him for more than a quarter of a century without knowing, but that he wanted to know what would happen if a wife did happen to stumble upon “her husband’s awful hobby” (p. 368)

I kept expecting Darcy to go to the police, but of course in Stephen King books this never happens. Characters always take matters into their own hands, and most of the time it turns out okay. For Darcy, this is true. At least partly. She has to live, knowing what her husband was, and what her husband did to his victims, including a ten-year-old boy that her husband swore didn’t suffer.

Interestingly, it’s almost like Darcy is the final victim. True, she didn’t have to withstand the torture his victims did, nor the rape or sexual assault, but instead she has to live with the knowledge that she loved the monster that was her husband, and it seems like the knowledge of what he did tortures her. It’s a different kind of victim, true, but I’m left wondering whether it was unintentional. Her husband says he doesn’t want to kill her, but instead he lets the knowledge torture her.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It was a nice collection, and the order seemed to keep it flowing. Stephen King is always hard for me to review, because I always feel like I can’t do it without being biased, and I’d have given it a higher rating, but I really didn’t care for the third story too much, and I was glad it was short.

Originally posted 19 January 2011.

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