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Full Dark, No Stars

Stephen King's latest effort is a collection of four intriguing, longish short stories. Two of the tales, "1922" and "Fair Extension," dabble in the supernatural. "Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage" chew on some weighty corporeal subjects--namely, the redemptive power of revenge and the nebulous nature of personal connection.

It's a compelling collection--a thought-provoking read that kept me up late a couple of nights and prompted an interesting reaction from Jeanne when I stayed up reading "A Good Marriage." That's a story about really "knowing" someone, even a spouse of twenty-seven years. I read that story and it stayed with me until the morning. I turned to Jeanne and told her, "If you ever need to know anything about me--anything at all--just ask. I'll tell you."

"That's a weird thing to say first thing in the morning."

I agreed and described the story to her; thankfully, the context helped a little. I think that's a testament to a good story. If it leads you to a discussion or a revelation beyond the mere reading of the piece, it's an effective work of literature. It's King's take on the story of Dennis Rader, Kansas's notorious BTK killer. The piece itself is an interesting yarn. I saw the conclusion coming, but it provided some catharsis nevertheless.

That's one of the themes that binds the four stories together--catharsis. The idea of release, of letting go, winds through each of the tales to good effect. Sometimes, this release is violent; other times, it's more subtly karmic.

"1922" is the most horrifying tale in the collection. It's also got the best voice--a pitch-perfect old timer writing a confession in his journal, surrounded by rats in a seedy motel somewhere, time quickly running out. It's King at his finest in terms of craft; I've said it before, no one does the epistolary better, no one does the creepy small town better, no one does an elderly narrator better (this one has all three, and a bit more). The truly sad thing about this story is what happens to Henry and his new wife in the tale's third act. That's a crushing narrative blow, rendered to great effect in this story of revenge and spite.

"Fair Extension," while engaging, is the shortest and least effective tale in the bunch. I liked the premise here, but the exposition is so brief that the payoff (the treatment of morality, greed, and revenge) is a little stunted here. Good, not great, story.

My favorite tale is "Big Driver." Tess is a perceptive, interesting character--a successful writer of cozies who is entrapped by a twisted woman named Ramona and her disgusting son. It's a frenzied tale of survival and revenge, one that doesn't skimp on hard details. Tess is a fighter, and I give this mild-mannered writer, who finds another source of strength inside herself in her darkest moments, a lot of credit as she deals with the events that happened to her. While not always plausible (I found the source of her decision to avoid going to the authorities paper-thin), it is satisfying. Like "A Good Marriage," it asks for some personal introspection.

King's writing is excellent here; his work is stronger in the last ten years than at any time in is career. These are hard stories, but they hit with the blow of a sledge and they deliver the goods. It might be an odd book to give for Christmas, but it won't go unappreciated...


Aaron Polson said...

I just finished the book and agree, almost to a word. I wish "1922" could have ended on a different note--it felt cheap somehow...

Daniel W. Powell said...

Don't disagree at all, but man, I'm still thankful for how King can tell a tale. I think the best is yet to come for him, and that's just a liberating thought...