My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the afterward of “Full Dark, No Stars,” Stephen King says that the four stories collected here go into some dark corners. And he’s not kidding. Easily one of his darkest collections ever, the stories are all still vintage King, looking at ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. There are no happy endings here, but instead some fascinating, page-turning stories that will linger with you long after you’re done reading. (I know I’m sure still haunted by aspects of many of them.)
One of the great things about King is that after all these years he’s still willing to take chances as a writer. King has never been content to rest on his laurels and he’s earned the trust of his readers over the years. He’s experimented in the world of publishing and been successful at just about every venture.
He’s done a serial novel, collections of short stories and a couple of novella collections. His novella collections have yielded some of his most successful big-screen adaptations.
But it’s been a while since King delved into the novella world. With “Full Dark, No Stars” he delves back into it.
“1922” — The first entry in the collection reminds me a bit of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Only instead of a beating heart, it’s rats seeking our their revenge on the first-person protagonist. Told as a confession, Wilfred James reflects on the worst year of his life. When his wife inherits a plot of 100 acres next to his farm and plans to sell it to a local slaughter factory, Wilfred is forced to make a difficult choice. He and his son murder his wife and bury her down on old well. But that’s not the worst thing. As with all King stories, there’s a supernatural element to things as Wilfred tries to come to terms with the consequences of his actions.
As with many of King’s best stories, there’s a question as to whether or not the element is supernatural or psychological. But it’s still a fascinating tragedy of a story and while you won’t root for Wilfred, you understand where he’s coming from and why he does what he does. A solid star to the collection. ****
“Big Driver” — Tess writes cozy mysteries in the “Willow Grove Knitting Club” series and also does a few speaking engagements each year to build her retirement fund. When she’s asked to fill in at the last minute at a book club close to her house, she accepts. As she’s preparing to leave, the librarian in charge offers her a short cut that will cut ten or so miles off her return trip. Tess accepts the advice and sound finds herself in the middle of a nightmare. The road she travels has boards with nails on it, causing a flat tire. A guy shows up in a truck, offering to help but instead rapes Tess and leaves her for dead.
“Big Driver” is a revenge story but one with a dark, dark turn. Watching Tess’ transformation is fascinating and seeing just how far she goes is compelling. You may not like where she goes and where she ends up, but the trip is worth taking. Reading the first few chapters of this one, I thought this could be a nice movie. But then it goes dark quickly and I wonder if it would translate well to the big screen. *****
“Fair Extension” — The shortest novella in the book and one that channels the spirit of Richard Matheson. Driving home from chemo, Dave Streeter notices a sign offering a fair extension. Curious, he pulls in to find out more and soon is making a deal with the devil. He can get an extension on his life, cancer free. The cost is he has to name someone he hates whose luck will take a turn for the worse.
Dave names his long-time best friend, who he helped coast through high school and who stole his high school sweetheart. Even though Dave is happily married now, he resents the success his friend has while he continues to languish. The deal done, Dave heads home to find the cancer gone. And then his friend’s life starts to go down the tubes.
“Fair Extension” channels the spirit of Matheson’s “The Box” with the added twist of instead of bad things happening to someone you don’t know, they happen to someone you do. *****
“A Good Marriage” — In a book with stories on murder, rape and inflicting plagues upon your friend, you’d think it couldn’t get much darker. Then you get to “A Good Marriage” and realize that it can.
While looking for batteries for the remote, Darcy Anderson discovers a hidden adult magazine in the garage. It’s not your typical Playboy or Penthouse, but instead a magazine depicting bondage and torture. Darcy is disgusted, but not so much as when she hears a thud and leads her to a hidden alcove behind the box. In it is the box for cuff links she gave her husband years before. But inside aren’t cuff links but a drivers’ license with another woman’s name.
Is her husband having an affair?
Actually, it’s far worse than that. Seems Bob’s been keeping a pretty big secret all these years. And it’s one that will shake Darcy and their marriage.
A compelling idea for a story, “A Good Marriage” treads some dark waters. ****