Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars

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BLOT: (23 Nov 2010 - 12:44:04 PM)

Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars

I am reposting reviews that I have posted elsewhere for a couple of days. This one originally showed up on Goodreads. This version is edited, slightly expanded in places, and otherwise refined.

Before I get to talking about the pluses and minuses of this book, I want to point out what this book represents to me. I see it not so much as a return to form, or whatever various buzzwords are floating around about it, but more as an exploration of certain key themes that have surfaced a number of times in King's prolific fiction. If you go all the way back to his "Bachman Book" days (ignoring, as I am sure most do, The Regulators, but you can include Blaze) his Carrie and Cujo days, you find a handful of stories that increasingly fluff up, increasingly pad their text, but dwell heavily on four things: 1) brutality and its associated "corporal breakdown" as a release [wanted or not] from normality, 2) the everyday person in horrible situations, 3) the negative aspects of masculinity, and 4) horror as representative of the overall breakdown in day-to-day stability. Usually by exploring creative, obsessive types who go too far, or by exposing supposedly convivial relationships at their most vulnerable and near breaking point. What is The Shining, or Pet Semetary, or "Children of the Corn", or even The Stand if not an exploration of those above four themes? Violence destroys your life and frees your life, and much of King's violence exudes from the Yang side of things.

Now we have Full Dark, No Stars, a collection of four stories (depending on how you want to count it, you could say anywhere from four novellas to maybe three novellas and a short story, or maybe a short novel and etc etc...). All of them involve bad men. Literally men. For all the earned complaints of King painting women as harpy bitch queens (watch the first 30 minutes of the new Children of the Corn movie...), he usually hands the murdering, sadistic glee card to a male. Skip the psychoanalysis, or the statistics about real crimes, I just assume it is because he is dealing with what the brash bravado sold to men through TV and books and whatnot really means when it comes to quiet time with families about.

You have these bad men, and two of them are the protagonist of their giving story. One's a wife murderer and the other makes a desperate wish for more time. The other two are antagonists: a husband with a secret and a massive truck-driving rapist. In each, they do a bad thing, and other people deal with it. Most by a somewhat impotent suffering (a couple get revenge, if that is the right word, but somewhat sloppily and, of course, after suffering). Three involve the stresses of marriage and how bad things happen because of it, to cause it, or just around it (or maybe in spite of it). Two of the marriages are almost atypically typical. The third, in the first story, has some stress involved but it is not out-of-plumb levels of stress. The second story doesn't have a marriage, but something of a status quo, another life marked by normality. All four deal with changes coming on with age and time, and dealing with shifts in situtations. Basically, we have the four themes above: violence as the break from routine, the destruction of normality as horror, the negative aspects of masculinity, and everyday people thinking everyday thoughts when bad, bad things happen.

This is a King book, so you have references to hobbies, catalogs, everyday joys, little swap papers, Modern Family, pop sodas, and out of the way diners that no one else ever seems to remember in the way he remembers. He is kin to Bradbury in this regard: not merely summing up the past as location, but bending the past into a mythical landscape where things, OTHER things, might have happened.

This then sums up the ideas around the book, the connection it has to all of his stories. The way that it it represents a sparse, bare reveal of his main theses. How about the stories themselves? Well, *waggles hands*. All of them are fair, at least. Three of them go on a little long for maximum punch.

"1922"—above a farmer who kills his wife after involving his son and then has a bit of a breakdown (being a King novel, literally and figuratively)—takes 140 pages to squeeze out maybe a 100 pages of narrative focus and literary devices. There are at least 60 good and 20 great pages in it. Much of it, though, is foreshadowing of an event that would really, honestly suck if you were the dad but fails to punch the reader because you've spent two-thirds of the story being told something is coming, and by the time it gets there you realize that you've been off in left field, thinking of realllllly horrible things and what you get is much more of a logical conclusion to a bad situation. Could have been one of the best uses of Dramatic Irony out there (we the reader know the Dust Bowl is coming and the land he begrudges his wife enough to kill her will soon be worthless for a decade), but King sort of deflates that plainly. I am being a tad overly harsh on the story, since there are some outright gruesome moments here (probably the roughest of the four as far as teat-shredding details goes), and the reader is never quite sure how much of it is internal breakdown in our narrator and how much of it happened (I lean towards the "All Breakdown" camp, but your mileage may vary).

"Big Driver"—about a raped woman who wants her revenge—could have been a solution to all those crappy "pro-woman" rape-revenge movies that spend half the time lasciviously piling on rape details and then hand waving away the revenge as some cheap, schlocky special effect. I know that's a byproduct of the technology, but inverting the horror movie pattern where the monster comes at the end except the victim is the "monster" and there is reason fails to work if you make them look ridiculous or over the top. I hate hate that genre and its many, many missteps. I had hopes this novella would fix my issues, and it did to some degree. The horror happens to a fairly self-obsessed, introspective person who spends time making up voices when she is alone, which is a good start. Lots to work with in a written setting. As the mental breakdown continues, though, and therefore her view of reality blurs, we could have had confusion and uncertainty (see "1922"), but what we get is one of the most explained endings I have ever seen in a horror story. Part of me wants to assume that all the exposition was inside the breakdown. Really, on a scale of one to so pat it hurts, this story is all the way to eleven.

"Fair Extension": awesome. Seriously. 30+ pages about the way we remember our good fortune, about how we react to the bad. About how we really feel. Real deals with the devil. Real wishful thinking. And, right as you are ready for the ending you have been trained to expect, BAM! King pulls off the finest twist ending ever. Because, well, without spoiling it you and I have been trained to react in a certain way, and he denied us that. The story involves a man who is given a "life extension" in exchange for another person's quality of life. He agrees, and then most of the story is watching the breakdown of his mostly innocent victim. As the pages run out, you build up tension looking for the backlash, and what happens is possibly the coldest, most heartless thing that King has ever put to paper. This is almost a Lovecraftian story, about the utter inhumanity of the cosmos.

"Good Marriage"—the final story and about twice the length of the previous—is alright but takes an awfully long time to get going, and then doesn't have much of a place to go when it gets there, besides tight, tense circles with only a couple of dire exists. Mostly is about what you think about after the fact. Seriously. I could hate the novella and the way, like "Big Driver", it gives a final few pages to make sure that you know it's going to be ok, completely stripping the gut wrenching impact of the middle, but the fact that you can't know everything even about the ones you love the most is a bold statement in this day and age of no-secrets. If King spends too long trying to fling the "It's boring but happy!" card around, it is hard to think how the story could have been told in any other way. I'll give it the second largest thumbs up from the book, because though its imagery is not quite as gruesome as "1922", and its punch is deflated in the final section, somewhat, its message is likely the most honestly horrible in the whole thing. Screw truckers along backroads, it's the evil the spouse sleeping next to you has done that will keep you up at night.

From worse to best. "Driver" worries too much about offending women with its talk of rape and revenge, and while I appreciate going into details about why women might not want to report the assaults against them, it could have easily been half as long if it did not have to get all the puzzle pieces together just right. At least it glorifies the rape less than the revenge, unlike many of its brethren. "1922" could have been the quintessential King story, all about the breakdown of one family in contrast to the breakdown of a way of life with strong strokes of gruesome reality dripping through, but spends a long time telling you what's going show up and by the time it gets there, I guess it figures it doesn't need to dwell. "Marriage" is chilling, in an after the fact sort of way, and its brutal description of one death scene in an everyday place with every day things about adds a lot of flavor to contrast the happy home it invades. "Fair Extension" shows one way to reset the old stories that we have heard for 50+ years from the Twilight Zone and various E.C. comic replicas. Once this book hits paperback, it will be worth the $7.99 on its awesome lonesome. You'll feel like crap, in a good way, after reading it.

All four stories have some excellent moments of character probing, some of the best that King has done (but not as good as the maybe overly wistful character explorations in parts of From a Buick 8 and Hearts in Atlantis). Three of them, though, just fail to connect the dots as well as they could, mostly because two fo them want to take time to tell you that it really is ok and don't you worry, and that's the worst thing to do to a horror story. And though a lot of his light shines—his microscopic lens of the everyday—it often oversteps its own sense of earnestness, like he is being wistful more for his own sense of wistfulness past, rather than for the past that inspired it.

Final Rating: Slightly closer to Good than Fair.

LABEL(s): Horror novels, Books

BY WEEK: 2010, Week 47
BY MONTH: November 2010

Written by Doug Bolden

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