Book Review: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

“From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face.  I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers.  Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King.  Literary elitists have shown distain towards King for years, dismissing his writing as story-telling for the masses.  This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre.  This is a brief review and discussion of two of four novellas found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King.  King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year-long career.  He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars.

Full Dark contains a common theme within each novella, a theme exploring the darker side of the human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice.  Redemption is not a theme, but revengeful retribution is revealed in each.  Even evil has the opportunity towards a twisted kind of justice—a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska.  The story involves a barely working family farm, constant work, brutally harsh, and unrelenting.  The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who harps without end her wish to sell the 100-acre farm that she inherited from her father.  Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and move to the progressive city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” dominated and hen-pecked, is a browbeaten, beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on the land.  Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of his mother’s, Arlette’s, plan.  Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder his mother.  Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives  close by, ever again.  Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help murder his mother.

When Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry determine they must go through with the murder.  It is a clumsy and brutal murder; both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards.   Arlette’s murder acts as a horrific prelude to a story which evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference.

The vicious murder results in the destruction of both father and son.  The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows.

(Spoiler:  If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale).

A GOOD MARRIAGE:  A Good Marriage is both thought provoking and highly believable.  The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left home to start their lives.  Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, for over 25 years.  She believes she is living the American dream, or a semblance of it – not perfect, but predictable, comfortable.  It is by sheer accident that she trips over a misaligned carton residing in the garage.  Darcy opens the carton and realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, not only has a double life, but is a serial killer.

Once Darcy confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years.  She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain.  Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life when he realizes that the garage carton has been moved.  Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens next; his life and their life together, as well as their children’s, hang on her decision.  Bob assures her that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges; he promises her won’t kill again, but she must make her decision to stay and keep their secret.

Bob explains to Darcy the reason he took a break from killing was because of her, that being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his urge to kill.  But if she breaks her word, the killing will start up again, and Darcy will suffer the consequences, will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Bob and Darcy’s lives resume; he goes back to work, Darcy takes up her house-wifely duties, and they ignore their shared secret and there are no killings.  But Darcy, never feels at ease; she is ashamed and feels responsible.

After years of silence, Darcy stages an accident and succeeds in killing Bob.  After an evening celebration with family and friends, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs, and he falls to his death.  Although Darcy is cleared of any foul play, she knows someone will come knocking on the door sooner or later.  And the day does come, and that someone comes knocking, but it isn’t who she expects.

Retribution comes in the end, along with a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book to find out.

You will enjoy this collection.  Both 1922 and A Good Marriage have been made into movies.  The book will make you think, and may even surprise you.

After all, no one knows what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

*

From the Afterword:
“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010.

***

References

King, Stephen.  FULL DARK, NO STARS. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Kirkus Review.  “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .”   Nov. 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. 

Photos: Courtesy of Pixabay

Book Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST –

Alfred Hitchcock at his Best

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

North by Northwest, a mystery thriller filmed in the 1950s, was Alfred Hitchcock at his best, and the movie received the 1960 Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture. 

The plot:  “A New York City advertising executive goes on the run after being mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and falls for a woman whose loyalties he begins to doubt.” (quote from IMB). There are a few terms and facts viewers should know before settling down in the jammies with the bowl of popcorn (light, of course). Warning: Spoilers included.

First—the Maguffin. An object or device in a movie or book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot and receives little in the way of explanations.  In a more current film, Titanic, the search for the Heart of the Sea diamond necklace is the trigger that drives the plot and the action, but Hitchcock popularized the concept of the maguffin. In North by Northwest, there are two: The microfilm of government secrets that James Mason’s character, Vandamm is trying to sneak out of the country, and the identity of George Kaplan, who doesn’t exist – not even in the movie.  

The movie begins in New York with a dramatic and dangerous encounter with foreign spies. Thornhill is mistaken for George Kaplan and is kidnapped, questioned, and almost killed by the Vandamm agents. He escapes and is then framed for the murder of Lester Townsend at the U.N. Grant/Thornhill begins his trek north by northwest by sneaking onto a train headed for Chicago, pursued by the evil foreign agents and the police. Here he meets Eva Marie Saint/ Eve Kendall, a confidant of Vandamm’s, played by James Mason.

In Chicago, Grant/Thornhill leaves the train disguised as a porter with the help of Saint/Kendall and is set up to meet the elusive George Kaplan at the Prairie Stop, Highway 41, a little-used route more than an hour outside of Chicago. Here, Hitchcock creates a scene that became the forerunner for future action movies, especially the James Bond Series. 

Hitchcock doesn’t do the usual dark city street motif for a deadly attack on Grant/Thornhill. Instead, Hitchcock has him vulnerable in an open field and targeted by a  small aircraft with firepower.  After diving to the ground several times, Grant/Thornhill sees a cornfield and runs for cover, but in comes the small aircraft again, this time employing its crop-dusting capabilities to cover him in a cloud of chemicals and flush him out.  As the small plane circles to make a second pass, a tanker truck barrels down the highway. Grant/Thornhill jumps out in front of it, forcing the driver to stop, but the small plane misjudges and crashes into the oil truck. Both explode.  Now a few innocent bystanders appear, traveling on this up-until-now deserted road. They stop their cars and get out, to get a closer look at the disaster.  Grant/Thornhill slinks past them, steals one of their vehicles, and escapes. 

As the story unfolds, we discover who Eve Kendall is, and we learn there is no George Kaplan, but the most dramatic scenes that end the movie take place on the remarkable stone-carved Mt. Rushmore monument, where Grant/Thornhill and Saint/Kendall try to escape by descending the faces of Rushmore, pursued and shot at by Vandamm’s agents.  

To my great disappointment, the only authentic shots of the remarkable stone carvings of Rushmore were from a distance.  Although Hitchcock had a permit to film at the monument, government officials banned the production when word got out that the writers scripted a fight scene and a couple of deaths. Thus, the hard work of climbing, falling, and fighting took place in Hollywood, and Mt. Rushmore was created by Hollywood trickery, using set pieces, special effects, and clever camera work—but don’t let that stop you from watching.

Of course, like most movies of those times, the good guy (Thornhill) gets the girl (Kendall), and like so many Hitchcock thrillers, the drama is intense even when you know it’s Hollywood and how it will end, but politics aside, Mt. Rushmore is its own dramatic story. 

ohn Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum created this remarkable feat of sculpting and engineering.  In the summer of 1925, at the age of 57, Borglum went to South Dakota and began the project. Work on the sculpture started in 1927. Borglum remained devoted to the project until he died in Chicago, and his son Lincoln put the finishing touches on his father’s vision. Sadly, however, what’s left out of this remarkable story is that in 1933, Borglum hired Italian immigrant, Luigi del Bianco as the chief stone carver and paid him $1.50 an hour. (Excellent pay in those days. ) Del Bianco was tasked with more than the rough work of blowing up rocks and carving out simple shapes. He was entrusted with many of the finer points of creating those faces.  Among his many duties, Del Bianco was entrusted with carving the detail in the faces. He cut Abraham Lincoln’s eyes and patched a dangerous crack in  Thomas Jefferson’s lip. 

Borglum constantly praised del Bianco for his outstanding abilities as a classically trained stone carver: “He is worth any three men in America for this particular type of work…. He is the only intelligent, efficient stone carver on the work who understands the language of the sculptor….We could double our progress if we had two like Bianco.”(Wiki)

Despite Borglum’s high regard, del Bianco, the Italian, was ignored until finally, three-quarters of a century later, his family fought for and won the recognition he so richly deserved. In 2017, a plaque was placed at the monument to honor his work as the chief sculptor.

So, one might say that North by Northwest is a mystery/ thriller filled with high drama both on and off the set, both fictitious and real. I’ve watched North by Northwest many times and always discover something new with each viewing.   

Enjoy!