Dark Victory

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (2010): King’s third quartet of previously unpublished novellas isn’t as strong as the first (Different Seasons, which gave birth to three superior King movie adaptations: The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand by Me) but is stronger than the second (Four Past Midnight). Like Neil Young, King keeps rolling along, taking creative risks at an age when most writers are in their dotage, all without really altering that distinctive Kingian narrative voice: colloquial, perceptive, clear-eyed and often appalled.

The collection begins with “1922”, a grim tale of Dust Bowl murder and (possibly) supernatural vengeance. What a terrific movie this would make if the Coen Brothers could be tapped to adapt it! There’s a touch of King’s early revenge-horror novella “Nona” (c. 1980) in this story of a farmer who murders his wife in order to save his land and ends up losing everything in far worse ways than would otherwise have occurred. King yokes the story to two venerable horror-narrative tropes — the confession written under supernatural or psychological duress, and the newspaper-article coda that either confirms or problematizes everything we’ve read. The first-person narrator is a solid creation; one could eaily use this story to teach the concept of unreliable narration to a group of bored undergrads.

Next is “Big Driver”, a relatively familiar tale of vengeance. A minor mystery writer gets waylaid, raped and left for dead by a serial killer. But she survives, and rapidly pursues personal vengeance. There are some nice touches here, mainly lying in the protagonist’s struggles with her own need to get personal payback.

A second tale of woman vs. serial killer closes out the volume. In “A Good Marriage”, a 50-year-old wife who’s been married for nearly a quarter of a century discovers that her husband is a notorious serial killer (as opposed to the non-notorious type, I guess). This novella takes some surprising twists and turns, and again the female protagonist is drawn clearly and sympathetically. Her reactions to the situation seem natural and unforced throughout, and her solution to the problem fairly sensible. The semi-retired police detective who enters the story towards the end reminds me a lot of Lieutenant Kinderman from the Exorcist movies and novels, a nice grace note.

The most minor of offerings here is the third novella, so short as to almost be a short story: “Fair Extension,” in which a man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil to prolong his life. The action here chugs along with inevitability, the horror not so much arising out of the cost of such a deal but from the seemingly casual way in which King reveals the loss of the protagonist’s soul, a loss the character remains unaware of throughout.

This story hews most closely to King’s ‘subtext’ theory of horror (or at least some horror), in which the surface value (a deal with an actual devil) is a stand-in for something ‘real’ (the ways in which people get ahead and, in doing so, casually and cruelly harm both the people they know and the people they don’t). The devil here is equal parts Leland Gaunt from Needful Things and the man in the black suit from “The Man in the Black Suit.” Like Ray Bradbury’s sinister carnival owner in Something Wicked This Way Comes, this devil claims not to be buying souls at all, though the results suggest he’s lying.

All in all, Full Dark, No Stars made for a good weekend spent with Mr. King. This isn’t King’s grimmest volume (that would probably be Pet Sematary), but it’s awfully close. Highly recommended.

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