Full Dark, No Stars
Scribner, 2010, 368 pages, $27.99
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
I don’t usually review Stephen King’s books. The reasoning behind this is because a million other people will already be doing reviews, plus every novel and collection he gets published is guaranteed to sell a billion copies or more. My review won’t help his sales at all. Full Dark, No Stars, however, is the exception to my rule.
This collection of four novellas is so good that I feel the need to let other readers know about it in case they’re hesitating on buying it. The stories in this book brought back those wonderful memories when I first discovered the writings of Stephen King back during the late seventies. Mr. King’s writing was fresh and dark and scary, and there was nobody else writing like him. Each new novel was awaited with the eagerness of a little boy getting his dollar allowance so he could go buy the newest Marvel comic. These stories are like those earliest novels in their intensity, harshness, and utter brutality. These stories should have a warning sign at the beginning of each one that says – “Read at your own risk!”
The first story in the collection is “1922,” which is the sad and horrible story of Wilfred James, a farmer in Nebraska during the year of, you guessed it, 1922. Wilfred (or Wilf as he’s generally referred to) owns a patch of land he uses for growing his crops. His wife, Arlette, also owns a piece of land that was handed down to her when her daddy died. A hog butchering company wants to buy that piece of land from her because of the river running across the property, and Arlette wants to sell it to them and move to Omaha so she can open a dress shop and get a taste of big city life. Wilfred, however, loves the land and freedom he has. The idea of living in the city is distasteful to him. He wants to stay on the farm with his young son, Henry, and raise the boy right.
Over a period of time, however, Wilfred and Arlette get down and ugly with each other about selling the property. This is a battle of the minds. Arlette hates the farm and the life of a farm wife. She wants more and isn’t afraid to go after it. Everything, of course, changes when Wilfred kills her one night by cutting her throat and tossing her body down an old well shaft. To make matters worse, Wilfred talked his son into helping him with the dirty deed, which was a mistake for both men. They soon find themselves having to deal with their unspeakable actions and the unforeseeable consequences. You see, Arlette may be dead, but this is a Stephen King story, and dead people have a way of coming back when you least expect it and tormenting those who murdered them … tormenting them in the most terrifying and gruesome ways!
The second novella, “The Big Driver,” deals with a successful mystery writer named Tess (no last name), who does a book signing in a small town sixty miles from where she lives. On the way back home after the event, she takes a short cut to save a few miles and ends up driving over several nail-infested boards lying on her side of the two-lane road. Naturally, a flat tire ensues.
After she pulls over to the side of the road near an old, closed convenience store, a vehicle comes along with a giant of a man behind the steering wheel. He’s huge! At first she thinks the guy is there to help her, but that’s not the case. He’s there to rape and kill Tess like he’s done with several others in the past.
That she survives the ordeal is a miracle. The human predator leaves her in a culvert for dead and takes off, whistling a tune of merriment. Tess later wakes up to find herself in the presence of other female bodies that were also left by the big driver. As Tess crawls out of the culvert and makes her way back to the store where her clothes are, she deals with an array of emotions, one of which is whether or not to call the police. In time she decides not to report the crime and to take matters into her own hands.
You see, Tess wants revenge against the man who raped her and murdered the other women. She wants it in the most maniacal way, and nothing is going to stop her. The rest of the story deals with how she goes about completing her mission. Of course, there are several surprises included and nothing turns out how it was originally planned. If anything can go wrong, it will at the worse possible moment.
The third tale is “Fair Extension,” which is the shortest of the four novellas. This is somewhat of a take-off on the classic short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” by Stephen Benet, though it’s definitely more fun to read with its present-day implications. The story centers around Dave Streeter, who works for one of the local banks in Derry (think Bangor, Maine). Dave is dying from cancer. Though he’s lost a lot of weight, the worse part of the illness is still ahead.
One day, he stops his car along the Harris Street Extension near the Derry Municipal airport when he spots a small booth set up, selling “Extensions” of every kind: hair extensions, penis extensions, loan extensions, and even life extensions. The salesman is Mr. George Elvid (the devil?), a short pudgy man with very sharp teeth and a foul scent. Mr. Elvid offers to sell Dave an extension on his life at the cost of fifteen percent of his gross salary, plus the name of someone he hates so the illness can be transferred over to them. Good old Dave thinks about it for a minute and comes up with the name of his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, whom he’s known since grammar school. You see Tom has been hitting a home run all of his life. He’s always been a handsome dude and made it through high school and college with Dave’s help. Then, the rascal stole Dave’s girlfriend from him. And, if that wasn’t all, Tom struck it rich with a new business venture he started due to a loan he was able to get from Dave’s bank and with Dave’s help. Tom also has two wonderful children who seem to be as lucky as he is.
Dave hates his friend with a passion that’s nearly overwhelming in its intensity of burning anger, but good old Tom isn’t even aware of it. Tom thinks that Dave is the cat’s meow. Dave, however, gladly offers Mr. Elvid his friend’s name in exchange for ridding himself of the life-terminating cancer. What then happens to Tom and his family is the basis for the story. It certainly isn’t pleasant, and it goes to show that you can’t always trust your best friends, no matter how much you think they like you.
Here’s the fourth novella in Full Dark, No Stars, “A Good Marriage.” If this doesn’t have the married female readers out there thinking long and hard, then the Maestro hasn’t done his job, and that definitely isn’t the case with this book. Okay, imagine being married to loving husband for twenty or so years. He’s a great guy who treats you the way a man should, and he’s a wonderful father to the kids.
Now, let’s take this a step further.
Suppose your husband is out of town for a few days on a business trip and you happen to go into the garage to look for some batteries. You accidentally stub your toe on a box that’s sticking out from underneath the garage counter. When you search through the box to see what’s in there, you discover old catalogues and something else at the bottom – a magazine about men torturing bound women.
Okay, you think. Maybe my husband has a secret fetish and bought a bondage mag to satisfy those inner cravings he’s never mentioned to me. But, when you push the box back under the counter, you also discover a hidden niche that contains a wooden box you gave to your husband as a gift. In the box are the blood donor card, library card, and driver’s license of a woman who was recently murdered. You know because you saw her picture on the television news. Now, you’re thinking something else, and it scares you because your wonderful, loving husband can’t be the man who murdered this lady. Besides, she was murdered by a serial killer who has been in business for the last two decades.
You know your husband, and there’s no way he could be a serial killer. But, and there’s always a big BUT in a situation like this. Because your husband is an accountant and has kept the records of his business travels for the last twenty years, you decide to check the dates and locations of the killings to see if they match when your husband was out of town.
Oh, my God, they do! What do you do now? Who’s going to believe you? If it’s proven that your husband is the killer, who’s going to believe you didn’t know about it from the beginning? What’s going to happen to your children with the stigma of having a serial killer for a father drops upon their shoulders like a ton of bricks?
Well, at least you have a day or two to come up with an answer. So what if your husband just called to see how things were going. You managed to stay calm and didn’t let on that his secret was now out of the proverbial bag. You have time to work on a solution, but first you need some sleep. It’s been a damn stressful evening.
When you wake up during the night, you suddenly find your loving spouse sitting on the edge of the bed beside you. He decided to come home early because he knows that you know his horrible secret and the poop is getting ready to hit the fan! Don’t even think about trying to guess the ending. It would be a big waste of your time. King delivers this story like a sucker punch to the kidneys and there’s no second guessing him with the twists and turns it takes. Let’s just say, ladies, that if you have a husband who travels a lot, you’re going to be looking him a lot differently now, wondering if he is really the man you thought you’d married.
The four novellas in this collection are dark in every imaginable way. As I wrote earlier, they’re harsh and brutal. Most of the male characters in them are at their worse, bringing pain and suffering into the lives of their female counter parts. These stories are going to disturb a lot of readers. They left a vast emptiness in the pit of my stomach, not to mention a nightmare or two about breaking down on a lonely road during the middle of the night and then being murdered by a psychopath. Yes, they did.
I won’t go into Stephen King’s writing style here or his fantastic ability to create great characters. King is a master craftsman at the written word and at telling stories that capture the reader’s imagination. This author takes you back to his earlier years as a new writer where he left no stones unturned in seeking to scare you and to horrify you with his tales of the macabre. Though some of his stories are better than others, he never tells a bad one. That’s a promise he makes to you and keeps.
Full Dark, No Stars is an anthology that will definitely leave you with a deeper understanding of humanity’s dark side. These stories will compel you to think about yourself and what you would do in a similar situation. There are no right answers … only an understanding that when push comes to shove, we’ll do whatever it takes to survive. You won’t be able to come away from this unshaken and without a sense of having lost something precious like your innocence. This is profound stuff, ladies and gentlemen. Though written as horror fiction and entertainment, there are some lessons to be learned here … lessons that might just keep you alive. Anyway, read this anthology at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you!