by Stephen King
Is Full Dark, No Stars the best thing ever written? No. It certainly isn’t the best thing Stephen King has written. But lordy lordy, do these tales rip and roar, shimmy and jive. I had the best time reading them, probably more fun than anything I’ve read by the master in a long while.
The title really sets up the collection well — make no mistake, these are dark tales, in places gruesome and hard to read. All of these stories feature ordinary characters forced to make awful choices. What choices! And this is why I love King — he’ll find the horror — the real, true, white-knuckling, knee-buckling horror — in the most ordinary of places amongst the most ordinary of people. His scariest stories are often the ones you know could really happen.
In the Afterword, King writes:
I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal…if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion [only] when the tale has been told and the book set aside.
If that is his goal, he succeeds brilliantly here because when in the fierce, unrelenting grip of these stories you are not thinking, but feeling – terror and repulsion mostly. It’s a visceral experience all right. In places I was sucked into an almost fugue state where I forgot to breathe, because I was in the story, as if it were happening to me rather than as a third-party voyeur safely removed from the action.
These stories will haunt me, as will the choices contained therein.
1922: Beware the Conniving Man!!! This story has lots of gooshy parts and if you have a rat phobia, it may just put you in the nut house. What is it with King and abandoned wells? ::shiver:: So how far would you go to get your way? To maintain your life as you know it? When is someone worth more to you dead than alive? What I love most about this story is that it shows getting what you want often comes with too heavy a price tag – it’s the Monkey’s Paw conundrum.
Big Driver: This was my least favourite of the four, if only because of the subject matter – rape and vigilantism. It’s a fairly simple, straight-forward story, with a fairly predictable ending. Where the story’s strength lies is in King’s exploration of rape victim psychology. How Tess feels and reacts to what happens to her is how I imagine a lot of women think and feel in that situation. I hope I never have to find out.
Fair Extension: The shortest of the four, but wicked and horrible. It’s the classic Deal with the Devil scenario, but unlike you’ve ever seen it. What if all the things you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, suddenly befell them at your behest? I think the most shocking part of this story for me isn’t that Dave Streeter makes the deal, but that he becomes so gleefully accepting of the fallout as the years pass and the miseries heaped upon his best friend are so unrelenting. Not once is there a twinge of guilt, nor does he even have to turn away from the carnage. What does Streeter do? Pull up a front row seat and watch it all unfold up close and personal. Who is Elvid? He seems awfully familiar, and since the story is set in Derry, and at one point his teeth are pointed shards, I’m thinking he’s our favourite neighborhood clown, Pennywise. The kind of deals he’s driving though, made me think of Flagg too.
A Good Marriage: While Lisey’s Story will remain King’s final, beautiful, haunting word on marriage, this novella shares some worthy insights too, both soft and jagged. You can know someone, but you can never really know them. Is it possible to keep a secret from the one person who knows you and loves you best? You bet. This is my favourite of the four novellas, and I think the perfect choice to end the book. It’s archetypal horror – Pandora’s Box and Bluebeard are mentioned in its pages and with good reason. Is it better to know, or not to know? When presented with a secret, do we snoop or let sleeping dogs lie? When we snoop, and what we find is so horrific, what is our moral duty? Legal responsibility? To our children? To our society? I don’t know what I would do in Darcy Anderson’s position. Even when she went poking into that box, my heart was pounding. I was truly terrified by what she was going to find, and since I was feeling and not thinking, I was totally shocked by what she did find. In the moments leading up to the revelation, I was in no position to guess. I had to keep remembering to breathe!!!