Is the King of the Crypt toying with us with the title FULL DARK, NO STARS? There is no denying that each of these four short, chilling stories plumbs the depths of darkness of the human condition, but each also shines in its own macabre radiance as four mere humans struggle with events that forever alter the course of their lives. This is not a book to lull you to sleep, unless you enjoy double-checking the locks and looking under the bed before you turn in.
In “1922” Wisconsin farmer Wilfred James takes matters into his own hands when his wife decides to sell off the portion of their land left to her by her father. She plans to accept the generous offer for the 100-acre parcel from a hog processing plant and move to town, with or without Wilfred. He loves farming and foresees the hog business bringing with it putrid odors, noise and ruination of his property value. Leave she does, but not without a chilling assist from her husband, who entices their teenage son to help in her murder and the cover-up of the crime. The longest and most gruesome of the four stories, “1922” describes the real and imagined horrors that visit the murderous husband as his life and that of his son gradually unravel. The story of Wilf’s journey into madness finds Stephen King at the height of his writing prowess.
“Big Driver” introduces us to Tess, a writer of cozy mysteries popular with women's book clubs. Her readers aren't fond of the "ooky" parts of mysteries, but when she narrowly escapes death at the hands of a serial rapist and murderer on a lonely stretch of road, she is faced with plotting and carrying out her own form of criminal justice. The real-life solution she creates out of her fertile writer’s imagination is deliciously satisfying as the self-sufficient young woman grapples with how to make sure he doesn’t kill again.
At a mere 34 pages, “Fair Extension” is perhaps the darkest and most thought-provoking tale of this extraordinary literary quartet. Dave Streeter, a successful, middle-aged family man, finds himself suddenly confronted by his own mortality by a virulent cancer. Feeling ill, he pulls off the road for a moment and notices a modest roadside vendor’s booth. Curious, he strikes up a conversation with the odd little man who says he gives people what they want through a fair exchange. The man learns of Streeter's plight and offers restoration of his health with a 30-day, money-back guarantee if he's not satisfied. The fair exchange that is required is that Streeter must consciously select a person he dislikes who will be on the receiving end of the trade. “Fair Exchange” is a classic tale of good versus evil, a subject that has been thoroughly explored in some of King’s most famous novels. The brevity with which he treats the subject snaps today’s world into sharp focus. Just how far-reaching and pervasive are the consequences of greed in the pursuit of personal gain?
The last entry is “A Good Marriage.” Darcy Anderson discovers that sometimes it doesn’t pay to be too tidy or too curious. Her entirely happy, if somewhat humdrum, world comes crashing down when she stubs her toe on something beneath her husband’s workbench. In a modern-day tale of Pandora’s Box, Darcy will find herself visited with knowledge best left unknown. Her solution, like that of Tess the mystery writer, is startling and darkly satisfying.
King steers clear of the supernatural this time out, depending on how the reader sees the little man in “Fair Exchange.” He offers the idea that there is the potential in each of us to kill, not only in immediate self-defense, but with diabolical cunning, if the situation warrants. He writes in his self-revealing afterword that each of the disturbing tales was constructed from real-life scenarios. Too often, he feels that the “whys” --- the reasons people do the things they do that appear in the headlines --- are not explored by the law or in the media. In FULL DARK, NO STARS, he explores these reasons through the eyes of otherwise ordinary people.
Here they are, through a glass darkly.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 22, 2011