Though he’s famous for generating some books with serious page counts, such as It, The Stand, and Under the Dome, Stephen King’s best work often seems to be his short stories and novellas (though he’s more successful with the former than the latter). Full Dark, No Stars, King’s new collection of four novellas, is a mostly effective look at how ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances deal with things. It’s also a dark, at times nasty look at how these circumstances don’t always bring out the best in people.
The first novella, “1922” tells of a farmer whose marital troubles get out of control and destroy his family and others’ lives. The farmer just wants to live on his land as he always has, while his wife wants to sell her adjoining property to a hog farming corporation. Seeing no way out of the situation except murder, and knowing he can’t manage the murder and cover-up of his wife on his own, the farmer enlists his son as an accomplice in the deed, with unpleasant repercussions for everyone.
The second tale, “Big Driver” is the least successful of the three. A mystery writer is on her way back from a reading when a flat tire forces her to seek assistance from a trucker. After the trucker beats, rapes, and throttles her, leaving her for dead, the writer doesn’t go to the authorities but seeks her own revenge.
“Fair Extension” is the shortest, nastiest, and in a dark way the funniest of the tales. A man who’s been diagnosed with cancer and has mere weeks to live is able to vanquish his disease and get a new lease on life, for a manageable monetary cost and passing Job-like misfortune onto a friend he’s annoyed with.
“A Good Marriage” takes its inspiration from real life, as an ordinary housewife finds evidence that her husband is a notorious serial killer.
King has never been one to shy away from the darker sides of human nature, and it’s nice to see that time is not depriving him of his ability to look into the abyss. These stories won’t be a surprise to any longtime fans – in terms of shock value nothing here comes close to stories like “Apt Pupil” or “Survivor Type.” What gives the stories in Full Dark, No Stars an added sting is that they deal with the banality of evil. There are no grand clashes of supernatural forces, or cataclysmic events such as plagues or invisible domes. Just resentment and revenge, denial and the poisons of petty jealousies. The impact on society is relatively small (with the exception of the serial killer in “A Good Marriage”, with his high number of victims) but the devastation on an individual level is significant.
“Fair Extension” in particular is one of King’s darker stories, for the devilish character who offers the protagonist a new lease on life says flat-out that he doesn’t want a soul in exchange. Human souls have become such lightweight, worthless things that the devil wants money instead, sent at regular intervals to an offshore bank. Now if that isn’t cynical, I don’t know what is.
Not all the stories are successful. “Big Driver” doesn’t work, not because of its obviously unpleasant subject matter but because of clumsy plot machinations and a cop-out ending. (Those of you who get annoyed with King’s “helpful advice from mysterious voices” trope will really hate this story.)
It’s a bit of a shame that Full Dark, No Stars follows the spectacular, gripping return to form that was Under the Dome. After that, most anything will seem anticlimactic. But when it works, Full Dark, No Stars gives us a nasty, dark slice of life that King does so well.