Since age ten or so I’ve been an unapologetic fan of Stephen King (though I’m in good company; thanks, Margaret Atwood). My loyalty to him makes me an ineffective critic, but even his detractors mostly agree that he succeeds best when writing medium-length stories. Full Dark, No Stars, his latest book, collects four novellas that run 384 pages altogether, a much shorter length than most of his expansive novels. With fewer subplots and secondary characters to distract the reader, these novellas plunge straight to the heart of crisp storytelling.
The collection leads with “1922,” a ghost story set in middle America, well before the Great Depression but on the cusp of hard times for farmers. Our narrator, Mr. Wilfred Leland James, begins by confessing that he killed his wife eight years ago, back in 1922. Now we soon discover that Wilf has his faults, and no one wants to condone violence against women, but Stephen King makes us sympathize with the killer. Arlette was a shrew; she was greedy; she didn’t give a damn about her beautiful farmland. She had it coming.
Or did she? At the time of the murder, we find ourselves reluctantly sympathizing with Wilf; we even see why he coerced his teenaged son into helping with the justifiable homicide. But as Wilf begins to second-guess himself, we as readers begin to sympathize with the murdered wife. Her side becomes rather more persuasive once she appears as a ghost. It was a bad marriage, but the worst is still to come. The vengeful ghost has some scores to settle.
The supernatural plays no part in the second novella, “Big Driver,” though it is arguably the most horrific of them all. Cozy mystery writer Tess is on her way home from a minor speaking engagement when her car gets a flat. Somebody had carelessly left some debris on the road, and now Tess is stranded in the middle of nowhere. Salvation seemingly arrives in the form of a truck driver, but his initial concern for Tess soon takes a dark turn, a very dark turn indeed. Readers who can stomach the subsequent scene of rape and near-homicide will be rewarded with Tess’s transformation into bloody vigilante.
Story number three, “Fair Extension,” introduces a man dying of cancer. Dave doesn’t have much longer to live, but a chance encounter with a stranger changes all that. Mr. Elvid (can I get an anagram here?) offers Dave a bit of an extension, provided he’s willing to sell it for a fair price (hard cold cash, plus a tiny something else). The story is bleak and wicked and funny in a very naughty way.
The final entry, according to King’s afterword, is inspired by the real-life story of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. Though many found it unfathomable that Paula Rader could have remained ignorant of her husband’s crimes, King believes in her innocence. He plays with this idea in “A Good Marriage,” in which housewife Darcy Anderson accidentally stumbles upon a hidden nook in the garage. Her husband of twenty-some years has been using it as a gruesome hiding spot. The evidence is incontestable: mild-mannered Bobby Anderson is a serial killer. What should a faithful spouse do?
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