FULL DARK, NO STARS
By Stephen King
Scribner, November 2010 ($27.99)
Reviewed by Larry Jung
FULL DARK, NO STARS won the Bram Stoker Award in 2010 for best collection. The novella "1922" included in this collection was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for best novella in 2011. The name Stephen King is best known for being the author of such bestsellers as THE STAND, MISERY, CARRIE, and the epic Dark Tower fantasy books. So why a review of FULL DARK, NO STARS in Over My Dead Body!, a site for mystery and crime, suspense, and thriller readers?
For one thing, Stephen King is a great storyteller. But more importantly, King can write compelling suspense and crime fiction, not just horror and fantasy. Two of the stories, "Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage," have no elements of horror or the supernatural. "1922" is as much a study of the moral degeneration of a human soul as it of revenge from beyond the grave. "Fair Extension" is King's twist on the selling your soul to the devil tale and getting away with it on the installment plan. These stories show King as a master at dramatizing the darkest side of human passions: lying, cheating, adultery, sadism, rape, torture, and revenge. All this being grist-in-the-mill for readers of crime and suspense stories.
My favorite of this collection is "Big Driver." Tess Jean, a writer, gets a flat tire on her way back from giving a talk. She is stuck on an out-of-the-way two lane road, the road recommended to her as a short-cut. Naturally there is no cell signal. To her relief a big man comes by in a pickup truck and stops to help her. To her horror, he attacks and rapes her, leaving her in a drain by the side of the road for dead. Tess Jean finds she is one among many victims, one a young girl, of the man she calls Big Driver. But Tess Jean survives, barely. To her own shame, Tess Jean decides not to report the rape and attempted murder to the police for fear of scandal and people saying she was asking for it and enjoyed it. But her outrage works on her until she gives in and plots revenge on Big Driver. The twist to the story is that Big Driver picked the wrong woman to attack. Tess Jean writes cozy mysteries and uses the detective knowledge she has learned writing her books to track down her attacker.
In "A Good Marriage" Darcy Anderson discovers one day that her husband of over 25 years is a serial killer. Her husband Bob is the sick bastard who sends the police the driver's licenses or some other identification of his latest victim. At first she is in denial. She rationalizes away the secret compartment in the garage and the driver's license of a missing woman found in this compartment. Before her discovery, Darcy thought she knew after 27 years of marriage all the important things about her husband. But now that she knows the monster that is her husband, what should (or could) she do about it?
Wilfred James, the narrator in "1922," kills his wife Arlette in cold blood with the help of his teenage son Henry. His wife has inherited 100 acres next to his 80 acre freehold farm. She is offered good money to sell her 100 acres and she jumps at the chance to get away from back-breaking subsistence farm life to the city. Wilfred hates the city. He wants to live out his life on the family farm and pass it on to his son. He poisons his son's mind with horror stories about city life. Together they slit her throat and dump the body in a well by their house. Almost immediately Wilfred James becomes racked with hallucinations of his dead wife at the bottom of the well. He blames The Conniving Man for "making" him commit the mortal sin of killing Arlette. The Conniving Man is the evil side of Wilfred James. After the murder, his life and that of his son's suffer misfortune after misfortune. Wilfred James is convinced that this is his wife's revenge from beyond the grave.
In "Fair Extension" Stephen King introduces two twists to the often-told sell-your-soul-to-the-Devil tale. The first is the Devil doesn't want your soul, just 15% of your annual income for the length of the agreement. Secondly in order to transfer Streeter's future misfortunes he must assign them to someone he hates. In David Streeter's case, he hates his childhood friend Tom Goodhugh even though he goes to Tom's house and fakes enjoying Tom's hospitality and friendship. To get even for stealing his high school sweetheart Norma Witten, who is now Tom's perfect wife, Streeter eagerly signs the contract. As the years progress, Streeter's and his family flourish while Tom's family suffer every kind of misfortune.
All four of the stories in this collection deal with The Conniving Man that lurks just beneath the surface in all of us. The Conniving Man uses greed to get the upper hand with Wilfred James. The Conniving Man uses her brutal rape to drive Tess Jean to seek personal revenge. The Conniving Man uses a lifetime of betrayal to force Darcy Anderson to act. Finally The Conniving Man takes the form of the Devil himself to offer David Streeter a deal he couldn't refuse.
This collection by Stephen King is a thoroughly entertaining break from the usual police procedurals and mystery cozies. Go ahead and give it a try. (To sweeten the deal, the paperback edition of FULL DARK, NO STARS has an additional story not included in the hardcover edition.)
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