I developed a theory a while back that Stephen King’s short stories are more frightening than his full-length novels. That’s because, while his novels certainly explore strange and frightening situations (haunted hotel, town full of vampires, demonic shape-shifting spirit from underground), the focus of the book is on the characters. Over the length of his almost Dickensian works, you get to know, love, and admire the people he creates, and that makes a sort of buffer in between the reader and the horror. His short stories, on the other hand, are much less character-driven. The protagonists in collections like Nightmares and Dreamscapes are often types or sketches, Some Guy or Some Woman put into a creatively terrifying situation (the boogeyman in the closet, a hand reaching up from the drain) for the space of a few pages only. There’s not as much relationship to fall back on, just horror’s fierce one-two punch to the gut.
So Full Dark, No Stars, which is a collection of three novellas and a short story, falls somewhere in between. All four works play with the notion — horrifying when you think about it long enough — that you can never really know anyone else, and indeed can never really know yourself; that inside each person is another person, a stranger. All four are limited in length, and as much as I love some of King’s really long work (It and The Stand come to mind), he does beautiful things with this shorter format. (I plan to discuss the stories in detail, so if you’d rather not see that, you can stop reading here.)
I’m not sure I would have realized, if I hadn’t read Dorothy’s review, that all three of the novellas deal with violence against women. 1922, the first one, is the story of a man whose passion for his farm is such that he’ll do anything to keep it, including murder his wife and corrupt his son. What stood out to me about this story, though it was certainly gory, was the way the narration shifted from a fairly standard, stoic first-person narration into one where paranoia and psychosis seemed natural and normal. The story itself is pretty pulpy — at the end, the narrator dies a grisly death as he continues to write… his… CONFESSION! — but you absolutely can’t quibble either with how it’s written or with the central premise, that you scarcely know yourself until circumstances reveal what you’re really capable of.
That same message is at play in the second novella, “Big Driver.” In this one, cozy-mystery novelist Tess goes to a book signing, and on her way back (she takes the short cut! Never take the short cut in a Stephen King story! Don’t you know anything, woman?) she is brutally raped, beaten, and left for dead. Now, of course this story plays on some horrible fears, though the violence is never exploitative. But the real terror of the story lies not in the violence visited on Tess by a stranger (that’s plenty horrible enough) but on the violence that Tess finds within herself. She’s a calm, rational, middle-aged woman with a simple life. She has a cat she adores. She writes mysteries about a knitting club. But she finds herself capable of exacting vengeance, almost as if a Special Forces sergeant lay buried inside her. Whether this is realistic or not isn’t the point — it’s another example of the way King is juggling this idea of the darkness inside everyone, not just obvious psychopaths.
In reviews I’ve read, I’ve seen the third story, “Fair Extension,” dismissed as not fitting well with the collection or as being a sort of Twilight Zone episode. But in fact, this one stuck with me when the others had faded. In this story, Harry, who is dying of cancer, meets the devil at the fairground, and strikes a bargain. He can get an extension on his life — not immortality, just an extension — in return for telling the devil the name of someone he hates. It happens to be, nominally, Harry’s best friend. The rest of the story is predictable, plotwise: Harry recovers and thrives, while his best friend Tom is under a curse: his wife dies, his children, health, and business are ruined in the most heartbreaking ways imaginable. The question, of course, is could you do it? Could you save your own life and your family’s at the expense of someone else’s? Does that lie inside you? Is there someone you hate enough for that? And what does that turn you into, even if you were moderately good to begin with?
The final novella, “A Good Marriage,” watches Darcy Anderson discover that the man she’s been married to for twenty years — a golfer, a numismatist, a good dad, a good husband — is actually a vicious serial killer. This isn’t a new idea (Bluebeard, anyone?) but King does a lovely job with it. Darcy doesn’t wind up running frantically through the house being chased by a chain saw. No. This is her husband. She knows him (does she? does anyone really know anyone else?); she loves him. The ending has some interesting points to make about justice, love, and forgiveness.
Over all, I really enjoyed this book. It doesn’t make it into the very top rank of King’s work for me, but it’s a very solid performance, with a lot to think about and some great King-style writing — his dialogue is still unbeatable. Definitely recommended.