Written by Renee Kimball
“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 disdain towards King for years arguing his writing is 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 brief review is a discussion of four novellas which are 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 of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice. Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each. Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice—black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.
1922: NOVELLA ONE
The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska. The story involves a barely solvable working family farm, a life of constant work, brutally harsh and unrelenting. The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who constantly harps to her husband to sell the farm and a plot of 100 acres that Arlette inherited from her father. Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and start again in the city of Omaha.
The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” verbally dominated and hen-pecked, is the browbeaten beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on his land. Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of Arlette’s plan. Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder Arlette. Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, then they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives on a close by, ever again. Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help with the murder of his mother.
As Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry, determine it is the time for murder. It is a clumsy and brutal murder, both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards. Arlette’s murder becomes the prelude to the story that evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference. Their deed results into the ultimate 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). (Photo Wikipedia.org)
BIG DRIVER: NOVELLA TWO
Big Driver is the second story in the collection. The main character, Tess, is a resourceful and successful mystery writer. She is the author of a “cozy” mysteries series and well known for her work in that type of genre. To ensure a little extra for retirement, Tess travels and gives readings of her books. She receives an invitation to read in a small-town library not too far from her home, and readily accepts. After reading, she takes a shortcut home on the advice of her hostess, the local librarian.
Things become dangerous when she has a flat tire in an isolated and abandoned area. When a seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritan stops to change her tire, instead of helping her, Tess is beaten and raped. Left for dead, Tess awakes to find herself in a culvert along with several decomposing female bodies. Pulling herself together, she leaves the area on foot and begins walking towards her home. She reaches her home and begins to plans her revenge.
Tess shows both sharp intelligence and quiet bravery, and no one portrays a woman’s strength better than King. Tess is a force who leaves the reader applauding her quiet inner strength and problem solving skills. When she meets up with her rapist/ would be killer, Tess achieves her revenge on a much larger scale than she imagined.
FAIR EXTENSION: NOVELLA THREE
While King’s Tess is resourceful and brave, the third novella, Fair Extension, is written from the perspective of a male, Streeter, who is a bitter and unlikable character.
Streeter, suffers from incurable cancer secretly blames his bad health, career, marriage, and lack of income, on the twisted idea that if he had not promoted and helped his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, through high school, Streeter would have had all the successes that Tom enjoys –money and success and a perfect family. Streeter believes that Tom should suffer the trials and tribulations Streeter has endured, after all, it is only fair.
Late on evening on his way home, Streeter takes an unplanned detour to a kind of roadside market. He had seen a sign reading “FAIR EXTENSION,” and became curious. A lone man named George Elvid, sits at the table with the sign. When Street askes what kind of “extensions” Elvid offers, Elvid responds all kinds but the type of extension depends upon the requestor. All extensions are tailored made and could be anything- credit extensions, love potions, to corrective eyesight. A Faustian trade ensues, and Streeter exchanges the extension of his life for the life of his best friend, Tom.
The Streeter story is a black tale of harbored grudges and selfishness. As Tom experiences horrific setbacks and death, he is slowly physically and mentally broken. As this is happening to Tom, Streeter becomes healthy and rich. In the end, Streeter remains unrepentant by his part in Tom’s tragic decline. FAIR EXTENSION fails to arouse the reader’s sympathy, and there is no retribution, rather, it is a tale of cruelty and Jealousy.
A GOOD MARRIAGE: NOVELLA FOUR
The fourth and last story, A Good Marriage, is thought provoking and believable. The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left to start their lives. Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, (who she believes she knows well), for over 25 years. She thinks she is living the American dream, or a semblance there of—not perfect, but predictable. Then, by shear accident, she trips over a misaligned carton in the garage. Darcy then realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, has a double life and is a serial killer.
Once Darcy does her research and 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 realizing that the carton has been moved. Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens. But that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges, he then promises he won’t kill again.
Bob explains Darcy is the reason he took a break from killing, being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his need to kill. Bob also says that it can all start up again if she doesn’t keep quiet and if she turns him in, then the children’s lives will be ruined and Darcy will suffer the consequences and will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.
Several years go by with both partners ignoring their shared secret and no killings. But Darcy, never feels at ease and in limbo. Darcy is ashamed and feels responsible because she knows she is the only one that can reveal thebtruth and bring Bob to justice.
Finally, Darcy stages and then succeeds in killing Bob. When a bit too tipsy from an evening celebration, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs. Darcy is cleared of any foul play, but she knows there will be someone knocking on the door sooner or later who knows she staged Bob’s murder. And, the day did come, and someone came knocking, but it wasn’t who she expected.
There is retribution in the end, and a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book.
You will enjoy this collection, it is something that will make you think, even if that is not King’s aim and may even surprise you. One can never really know what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.
Happy Reading . . .
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. (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html).
King, Stephen. FULL DARK, NO STARS, 2010. Simon & Schuster, New York. New York.
Kirkus Review. “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .” Kirkus Review. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-king/full-dark-no-stars/ Nov 10, 2010.
Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html
Image of Stephen King, press photo, via https://www.stephenking.com/the_author
Image of Full Dark, No Stars cover via Amazon.com
Image of semi truck by Kcida, free licence, via Wikipedia
Image of “Faust” by Harry Clarke, public domain, via Wikipedia
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.