Full Dark, No Stars
Scribner • 2010 • 384 pages
A Collection Critique
In the afterword to Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King states, "The stories in this book are harsh." He isn't kidding. With his first novella collection, Different Seasons, King showed he could stretch beyond horror; even his one supernatural tale in the volume, "The Breathing Method," is surprisingly gentle, its wraparound story more unsettling than terrifying. With Four Past Midnight, King explored some of his signature obsessions - writers, children, Castle Rock, and disparate people trapped in inexplicable situations - in more compact versions than his epics. With Full Dark, No Stars (its title suggesting a thematic sequel to his most recent collection of short stories, Just After Sunset), King finds his characters turning inward and finding absolute darkness. Where most of the novellas in his previous collections - excepting "Apt Pupil" - found humanity beneath the horror, here the stories are about stripping back that humanity to get to the horror beneath.
The collection opens with "1922," a chilling tale of murder, and the effect it has on murderers. The story serves as a confession: 1922 is the year that Wilford James kills his wife Arlette over a plot of land, and coerces his teenage son into helping. The consequences of the murder begin at once: the easy death he had imagined for his wife - and promised his son - goes horribly wrong. His method of disposal recalls that of Dolores Claiborne. While that book is essentially a mainstream story with moments of horror centered around Joe St. George's death, here, the story begins dark and grows darker, heightening the more grisly aspects of Arlette James's death.
The bad death of Arlette James serves as a portent, setting in motion a chain reaction of death and horror. In order to hide the body, Wilford has to murder his favorite cow, leading her to the well and sending her plunging down. His young son, traumatized by these events, first gets his girlfriend pregnant, then goes on a robbing and killing spree with her, leading to their deaths. His house begins to fall in. The title year is important, too: the farm and the acreage around it Wilford had murdered for would have been ultimately ruined by the imminent Great Depression, beginning just seven years later. Early on, Wilford states that killing his wife is saving those precious acres from becoming a hog butchery, and the creek on property from running with hog's blood. This becomes a recurring (and increasingly ironic) lament in "1922," as Wilford's troubles magnify; decades after the publication of Carrie, the recurring image of pig's blood in King's fiction remains potent.
Beyond his real-world devastations, Wilford finds himself haunted by the rats he'd first seen tearing his wife's body apart in the well. Increasingly he grows convinced that the rats are emissaries of his wife's spirit, and that they are coming for him. In some ways reminiscent of Skeleton Crew's "Nona," "1922" does a good job suggesting the supernatural without confirming it. As with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Blaze, whether Wilford James's visitations are real or delusions is initially left up to the reader to decide (it is no mistake that his son's name is Henry James, named for the writer whose The Turn of the Screw is one of the most famous ambiguous ghost stories). Telling the story in the first person, Wilford James is one of King's great unreliable narrators.
"1922" is one of King's bleakest tales to date, an exploration of the nature of consuming guilt. By the novella's end, Wilford James's justifications for murdering his wife are outweighed by the consequences of his act. Despite surface similarities to earlier works, "1922" is a unique entry in King's canon; indeed, all the novellas in Full Dark, No Stars are unique, finding King attempting plots and styles he has never quite attempted before.
"Big Driver" is perhaps the most "standard" story in the bunch, but even among King's recurring fascinations, we see something new emerge. Tess, a writer of popular (if marginal) mysteries is returning from a speaking engagement when she is accosted, raped, and left for dead by a giant man who has clearly done this before. The scenes focusing on Tess's rape and recovery are handled almost indirectly, in a fragmentory way, even as they manage to convey terror and revulsion (this recalls King's treatment of Gage Creed's death in Pet Sematary). The hallucinatory quality of these sequences gives way to Tess's new clarity, as she realizes that she must find her attacker, and murder him.
"Big Driver" finds King continuing a thread of fiction he first explored in the early 1990s with Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder (as well as, to some degree, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), books about inherent female power, and how it is channeled to break out of bad situations. "Big Driver" treats Tess's mission not as a revenge fantasy or a single-minded rampage, but as a realistic depiction of a woman who has a necessary job to do. Throughout the story, Tess's complex personality - intelligent, serious, funny, frightened, determined - shines through; she is instantly relatable and constantly interesting. Late in the story, when she believes she has killed the wrong man, she considers suicide, proof that Tess has not become some sort of killing machine. It is moments like this that make "Big Driver" compulsively readable. King allows for no easy answers in this or any of the other stories in Full Dark, No Stars, simply people making overwhelming decisions and finding out whether they can live with the consequences.
Consequences are the highlight of "Fair Extension," the shortest story in the book. Mordantly hilarious, the story follows Dave Streeter and his Faustian deal with a Mr. Elvid (a clever Twilight Zone-type anagram). Swiftly dying of cancer, Streeter agrees to a deal with Mr. Elvid quickly enough: a nominal sum of money, and the name of someone Streeter hates. This person turns out to be Tom Goodhugh, Streeter's best friend from high school who Streeter envies for getting the breaks Streeter himself hadn't - especially since Streeter helped Tom through high school and once dated the woman who later became Tom's wife.
King sets us up to believe that "Fair Extension" will be a layered, complex story along the lines of Needful Things, a morality tale with the message that getting everything you ever wanted will destroy you. Contrarily, Streeter gets everything he ever wanted … and he couldn't be happier. But unlike a tale such as Skeleton Crew's "Word Processor of the Gods," there are definite, shocking repurcussions. All Streeter's success and good luck comes at the systematic destruction of Tom Goodhugh's life (recalling Wilford James's karmic justice following the murder of his wife; however, Tom Goodhugh, unlike Wilford, has done nothing to deserve his fate), but not once does Streeter regret his decision.
Oddly, King juxtaposes Dave Streeter's run of luck and Tom Goodhugh's disintegrating life with celebrity scandals, including Winona Ryder's shoplifting bust, Rihanna's domestic abuse at the hands of Chris Brown, and David Hasselhoff's divorce. Whether King intends these mentions as a way of underlining the sometimes-arbitrary (and seesawing) nature of success is unclear; it is, however, just weird enough to be funny. Early in the story, Mr. Elvid explains to Streeter that he isn't interested in souls, but by the end of "Fair Extension," it seems clear that while Streeter hasn't exactly sold his soul, he has destroyed it.
The concluding novella, "A Good Marriage," pairs with "Big Driver," focusing on a normal woman whose life is thrown into calamity by a dangerous man. The difference here is that the dangerous man in Darcy Anderson's life is her husband. Unlike the bad husbands in King's female empowerment novels of the 1990s, however, the innocuously-named Bob Anderson is as good to his wife as she is to him; the title of the novella is both true and ironic. Darcy and Bob Anderson have indeed had a good marriage, until Darcy discovers that Bob is a serial killer.
How she proceeds with her knowledge is fascinating, summing up the recurring themes in Full Dark, No Stars in fresh ways. Darcy's research on her husband recalls Tess's in "Big Driver" (people in this collection use computers and gadgets far more frequently and with far more ease than in many of King's earlier stories; Full Dark, No Stars marks the first time King's characters have used GPS devices or mentioned Twitter). Like Tess, she worries how a public revelation of this secret will affect her life and the lives of those around her. Even the dénouement is like Tess's, in which she finds an unlikely ally who functions as both her confessor and absolver.
A murder near the end of the novella, however, starkly reminds us of the murder at the start of "1922," providing bookends for the collection. As Winford James states, "murder is sin, murder is damnation … but murder is also work." While the death at the end of "A Good Marriage" isn't nearly as messy as that of Arlette James, it is disturbing and difficult, proving that humans - especially in Stephen King stories - don't die easily. That this death is righteous while Arlette James's was not doesn't seem to matter. As the characters in Full Dark, No Stars discover again and again, taking a human life is not easy for moral people, even when the cause is good.
Early in the collection, Wilford James states, "I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger." Throughout the course of Full Dark, No Stars, this proves out, not only for the villains, but also - and more importantly - for the heroes. In each novella, our protagonists discover people inside themselves willing - and able - to commit horrible, heinous acts they previously couldn't have even conceived of doing. If these stories are harsh, they are also compulsively readable; one of King's great strengths has always been making even his most convincing horrors palatable to readers. The power of Full Dark, No Stars lies in forcing us to face the worst human behavior, and making it not only accessible, but also enjoyable to read.