It may be (I’d be willing to bet good money) that the title of Stephen King’s latest quartet (following in the footsteps of Different Seasons and Four After Midnight) can be traced to how King frames the book in the Afterword:
‘The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places. If so, be assured that I found them equally hard to write in places.’
Certainly three of the stories feature serious damage to women who then go on, in some way or another, to wreak a terrible revenge. Only one story, the shortest in the book, ‘Fair Extension’ (which clocks in at a mere 30 pages compared to the 100 page+ of the other three), finds its narrator heartily better off at the end (and the fact that he is better off is down to the fact that he has done the dirty on a friend of his who is suffering Dorian Gray-like to allow him the eponymous fair extension). Over the course of the book, we have a slapdash throat cutting, a rat biting a cow’s udder off, a man devoured, a woman beaten and raped and left for dead alongside a cache of decaying former victims, a successful family ruined, a serial killer with a proclivity to bite his victims clear down to the bone and harsh justice meted out at the bottom of a stairwell. When King says full dark, then, King means it.
As for the stories themselves (the book is best approached as a trio of novellas with a wee short tucked away in the middle): ‘1922’ opens the book, a historical yarn of sorts, that sees a father and son do away with an overly ambitious wife/parent only to then find guilt gnaws and drives fate much as the wishes in WW Jacobs’ ‘Monkey’s Paw’ did. This is the longest tale herein and proof (for those continued naysayers) of King’s actual ability to craft a sentence as well as conjure a page turning plot, with King deftly incorporating Nebraskan idioms and early twentieth century turns of phrase to subtle effect. ‘Big Driver’ (possibly the harshest of these ‘pitch-black tales’) concerns Tess, a writer of mystery tales, who having been invited to address a reading club finds herself taking a suggested shortcut into the path of a demented rapist. As with Last House on the Left (which is name-checked in the story), the first half of the story is front-loaded with all manner of grisly horror thereby allowing the pay-off (when Tess enacts her revenge) to feel justified. Thankfully the revenge drama itself uncovers a family secret that elevates the tale beyond the realms of tired old revenge drama – although Tess’ habit of giving voice to whoever is around her (her cat, Fritzy, her Tom-Tom ‘Tom’, her rapist’s dog) gets a little annoying and in the way after a while. ‘Fair Extension’ takes a leaf out of Thinner’s book and sees a cancer ridden bank executive make a deal with a roadside vendor (along the lines of ‘would you take a million pounds if it meant somebody died on the other side of the world?’) and engage in some pretty venomous schadenfreude in a way that made this reader chuckle. Best of all is ‘A Good Marriage’ which follows in the footsteps of one Darcellen ‘Darcy’ Madsen who accidentally stumbles across a box of catalogues on her way to retrieve new batteries for the remote and then, step by step, uncovers a terrible secret about her husband. This story, perhaps more than the others, demonstrates King’s uncanny ability to tweeze out a terrific situation (that Beckettian sense of can we ever really know anyone, even if we’ve been married to them a couple of decades?). Certainly the mid pages of the story (in which the wife wakes to find her slightly unhinged husband sitting on the bed) are every bit as nerve-wracking as the mid-section of Emma Donoghue’s Room – and I say that with all of the praise I can muster as Room scared the bejeebers out of me.
Just about the only criticism you could level at Full Dark, No Stars is the cover – which shows corn silhouetted against a bright blue night sky absolutely chocker with stars! There is certainly corn in the book (Wilfred Leland James, the narrator of ‘1922’ is given to walking between the lines of corn when his mind is in tumult and he needs a break, and King himself isn’t averse to the odd bit of hokey corn in his writing but we don’t mind it) which is fine but the title reads FULL DARK. FULL DARK. NO STARS. To spatter a book that includes the words NO STARS with star after star after star (and again on the inside of the book) suggests that it was done for a reason (and it may be that that reason is to try and offset or placate the horror to come by gently letting the reader know that, hey, the stars are still there after all, you have just got to close the book and look at them) but it seems a little – well, daft. It seems to me that the best cover for Full Dark, No Stars would be a cover akin to the cover of The Dark Half – ie a black cover. One to bear in mind for the paperback eh?
Any Cop?: As far as I’m concerned, Full Dark, No Stars is just what I want from a Stephen King book: there are shocks, there are chuckles, there is horror, there is delight. What more could you ask?