Review #34: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I’ve had this book for about two years, ever since it came out in 2010 (I even got the hard cover version), but somehow just got around to reading it. I love Stephen King. Most people complain about his overworked (and often “scenery chewing”) narrative, but that’s what makes me love his writing. I also have enjoyed his short story and novella works, often more than full length novels.

Full Dark, No Stars contains 4 novellas. Two are over 100 pages each and I even contemplated reviewing them separately since that meets the CBR4 criteria! According to Stephen King himself, his theme in the novellas was ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I think only two of the stories truly reflect that (i.e., they’re the only two we, as ordinary people, might be able to identify with).

1922 is the first story, and is the tale of a farmer who, along with his teenage son, kills his wife in order to preserve their farmland. All kinds of awful things happen following her murder, and the farmer slowly begins to descend into madness (or is his wife in fact haunting him?). It is unclear whether he is in fact going insane, or if there is a supernatural element, and this is left deliberately ambiguous. This story is fine, a bit long and dragging at points, but interesting enough.

Big Trucker is about a late-30s female author, Tess, who on her way home from a speaking engagement, gets a flat tire and is subsequently raped and left for dead by a trucker who stops to “help” her. She, taking cues from various revenge movies, decides to seek her own revenge on the trucker (he believes her dead). It is a really well-crafted tale, especially as the heroine remains throughout a regular lady. She doesn’t suddenly develop martial arts or weaponry skills, or become some skilled spy assassin. She makes mistakes, and she’s aware constantly that she might fail.

Fair Extension, the shortest of the four, was my least favorite story. Dave Streeter, recently diagnosed with a fatal cancer, finds himself making a deal with a wheeling dealing street vendor (who Dave assumes is crazy). He gives the vendor 15% of his income for the next 15 years of his life, and his cancer is taken away. However, part of that deal too, is he has to give his misfortune to the person he hates most in life. For Dave, this person happens to be his best friend who he holds a grudge against for stealing his girlfriend in college (keep in mind that Dave is nearly 50). I didn’t particularly enjoy this story as it left the least room for character development, and Dave feels no sort of remorse or moral qualm about the outcome of his decision. Perhaps that WAS the character development — sometimes people do shitty things for shitty reasons and actually feel fine with that.

The Good Marriage was probably my favorite of the four. Darcy has been married to Bob for 27 years. Their marriage is comfortable and happy even though the sparks have somewhat faded after over a quarter century together. While Bob is away on a business trip, Darcy discovers a horrible secret that he has been hiding, and in that one moment everything changes for her. For me, this was most in keeping with the ordinary people in extraordinary situations motif. Darcy’s discovery and decision are truly horrifying, and she had many options in front of her. In the end, the one she makes, while maybe not the one you or I would make, is totally justifiable.

I think, more so than “ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” King taps into a theme of our individual “others.” In all the stories, the main characters are faced with some deeper, darker, ego-driven part of themselves. This is made obvious in three of the stories; we’ve got The Conniving Man, The Courageous Woman, and the Darker Wife (plus we get some cameos from Tess’ GPS, Tom Tom, and her cat). This is certainly a fairly consistent theme across King’s stories, but I think the exploration of these other-selves is especially notable in these novellas since these other-selves seem to be what allows the protagonists to get through the “extraordinary” situations. It’s certainly an interesting notion — can we only get through difficult, unexpected, horrifying, unknown situations if we tap in to our deepest, darkest selves? Do those selves allow us to absolve responsibility for what we’re doing? Of course, since it’s Stephen King’s world, these questions are not answered in a black and white fashion. Some characters have better outcomes than others, but even those with the best must live with the knowledge of what they did in their extraordinary situation and the knowledge that they are no longer ordinary.