Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Reviewed by Raz Greenberg
13 July 2011
Stephen King's latest collection, Full Dark, No Stars, contains four novellas about ordinary people who turn into killers. It's something of a departure from the primal evil of the psychopaths and monsters that have haunted most of his previous works. I don't think that King subscribes to the notion that there is a killer hidden in each and every one of us: the protagonists of Full Dark, No Stars are driven to killing by extraordinary and rather desperate circumstances, and it's obvious that killing doesn’t come naturally to them. But can such circumstances justify an act of murder? The collection's greatest failure is that it never even raises the question: in two of the four stories, killing is presented as absolutely the right thing to do, and in the other two, the killers have little or no misgivings about their actions. This, along with the setup for each story, which makes it shockingly easy for the protagonists to get away with murder, made reading Full Dark, No Stars a disappointing experience—it's not just moral complexity that's almost completely absent from the stories, but also most of the dramatic tension that is diffused in a very early stage of each one's plot.
The collection opens with "1922," the longest and weakest piece of the four. It is presented as the written confession of Wilfred Jackson, a Nebraska farmer living in the early 1920s who murdered his wife over a land ownership dispute, and has had to endure a life of endless misery since. In "1922" King tries very hard—often too hard—to tell a sadistic morality tale in which both Jackson and the readers take pleasure in some kind of moral sin, and then punishes both severely. But the story fails at evoking both the pleasure of the sin and the horror of its punishment. Jackson is an unbearably selfish person, whose voice is consumed with self-pity and self-righteousness, refusing until the very end to admit that there was something wrong about the murder he committed. He murdered his wife who (according to his version of events) was also an unbearably selfish and self-righteous person. With his wife gone, he tries to educate his son, who is a similarly selfish and self-righteous person. It all amounted to a big "who cares" reaction from me—by making both the killer and his victim extremely unlikeable people, King eliminated the emotional impact of their suffering.
Another theme of "1922," hinted at in the title, could have made it a far more interesting story: the notion that it was the hardship of American rural life in the 1920s that led Jackson to commit murder. American farmers, the story tells us, suffered hardships long before the Great Depression, and King gives his readers occasional glimpses of the protagonist's life at the mercy of weather and under the constant threat of greedy bankers and real-estate dealers. Had King chosen to further develop this aspect of the story, "1922" could have been far more effective. Alas, he devotes too much effort to a layer of supernatural horror, instead of focusing on the completely natural horrors that surround his protagonist.
If "1922" was a disappointing experience, the following three stories are frustrating ones. Each starts with a solid premise that falls apart as the story progresses. "Big Driver," though certainly the best story of the bunch, is the prime example of this flaw. The story's protagonist, Tess, is the author of a moderately successful series of mystery novels. On her way home after a pleasant speaking engagement, Tess is kidnapped by a truck driver who rapes her. She survives the ordeal, and instead of turning to the police for help, decides to take matters into her own hands and punish her rapist and his accomplices.
"Big Driver"'s opening feels a bit too familiar, even for readers who aren't particularly versed in the conventions of the horror genre (much like the self-aware heroine, who constantly recalls the few horror movies she's seen when she wonders what her next move should be): Tess begins the story as the innocent woman who is clueless about the cruelty of the world; she is quick to take advice from a dubious stranger about a shortcut that will bring her home faster, and finds herself hunted by a psychopath. It may be a cliché, but King uses it effectively as the story follows Tess's fast-track journey into nightmare—and when this nightmare materializes, he abandons all the trappings of the genre to provide the readers with an entirely different kind of horror. King avoids giving Tess's rape a sensational, cheap tone that would drag the story into torture-porn territory, opting instead to make his readers feel her pain and suffering, describing how the experience has left her scarred both physically and mentally. Tess's traumatized stream of consciousness, which the readers are exposed to throughout the rest of the story, makes her one of the most memorable characters ever created by the author—her writer's imagination runs wild, always coming up with likely and less likely consequences of possible actions, and makes her see her attacker everywhere:
She started to hang up the phone, and then a man—him, it's him—ran around the corner of the store and right at her. This time there was no chance of screaming; she was paralyzed with terror.
Problems begin when "Big Driver" turns from a horror story into a revenge fantasy. I have no problem with revenge stories, but I expect such stories to carry a certain measure of complexity—narratively, if not morally. "Big Driver" is almost completely devoid of such complexity—Tess plots her revenge and pretty much everything goes according to plan, the end. Though complications arise, they are resolved too quickly (and rather unconvincingly). King obviously wanted his heroine to get the closure she deserves, so he made things just too easy for her.
He makes things even easier on Dave Streeter, the protagonist of the third and shortest story in the collection, "Fair Extension"—only here, I'm not really sure what kind of reaction King was expecting from his readers. It's certainly not sympathy, because Streeter, as readers are very quick to learn, is a person they have no reason to sympathize with. A middle aged banker who is terminally ill with cancer, Streeter strikes a deal with Elvid, a shrewd businessman who is really (a fact that the story doesn't even try to conceal) an earthly incarnation of the devil, to make his cancer go away. The catch is, Streeter must choose another person to transfer his ill fortune to, and he is very quick to choose his best friend—whose successful life he always secretly envied—as the victim. Elvid assures Streeter that:
This isn't some half-assed morality-tale. I'm a businessman, not a character out of The Devil and Daniel Webster . . . if you think I'm going to show up two decades or so down the line to collect your soul in my moldy old pocketbook, you'd better think again.
And this statement is absolutely correct—"Fair Extension" does not lead to a typical deal with the devil twist. But it does not lead to any other kind of twist either: from this point on, readers learn only of Streeter's miraculous recovery, and how his life just keeps getting better, while he watches with satisfaction as his best friend's life turns into a series of tragedies. If King was aiming for a disturbing effect here, he failed; I walked away from the story feeling mostly disgusted. As in "1922," King attempts to tell a bigger story as well, spicing up different episodes of the protagonist's life with descriptions of landmark events from the first decade of the twenty-first century. But the link between these events and the events of the story is just too weak to make it what I suppose should have been criticism of moral corruption in the George W. Bush era. In this respect, reading "Fair Extension" reminded me of King's novel Needful Things (1991)—another tale of dealings with the devil, which was also written as criticism of a long era of Republican presidency—but at least there, he told the tale with a certain wit and sarcasm that are completely absent from his new story.
Darcy, the protagonist of the final story in the book, "A Good Marriage," stumbles upon a discovery that leads her to suspect that the man she has been married to for almost three decades hides a dark and terrible secret. The story begins with a great Hitchcock-esque setup, with Darcy making ever more desperate attempts at denial in the face of mounting evidence against her husband. But again, King resolves things too quickly: the mystery is solved less than halfway into the story, and readers are left with Darcy's dilemma of how to deal with what she has learned—a dilemma that is also resolved too quickly. Then comes the story's climax, which attempts to give the impression that Darcy is in some kind of danger when it is painfully clear she really isn't, leading the way to the predictable conclusion. Much like "Big Driver," "A Good Marriage" is a story that opens strongly, but loses its momentum because of King's insistence on making things too easy for its heroine.
With Full Dark, No Stars King proves that he still has a healthy supply of interesting ideas, but there is something too safe and overconfident about the manner in which he handles these ideas in the book. I wonder if America's most prolific horror author is getting lazy—or soft—in his old age.