Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

March 4, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): “I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger . . .” writes Wilfred Leland James in the early pages of the riveting confession that makes up “1922,” the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerizing tales from Stephen King. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife, Arlette, proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness.

In “Big Driver,” a cozy-mystery writer named Tess encounters the stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself.

“Fair Extension,” the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Dave Streeter from a fatal cancer but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment.

When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It’s a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends a good marriage.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I haven’t read Stephen King in a loooong time — maybe since Dolores Claiborne — so I didn’t really know what to expect here. I was pleasantly surprised by these stories. All were engrossing, and though not exactly scary, kept me turning the pages well into the night.
  • My favorite of the stories was probably “A Good Marriage.” It was based, according to King, on the BTK killer and how his wife purportedly didn’t know he was a serial killer for the two decades they were married. I know some (many?) people doubted the BTK killer’s wife and figured she must have been involved in some way, but I happen to agree that just because you’re married to them, it doesn’t mean you know everything about them. This story provided a good look at how something like that could happen.
  • I was surprised at how well King ratcheted up the tension in every single story. In “1922″, we didn’t know what was going on with Arlette and the rats, nor did we know if the Sheriff would get a clue and search the premises. In “Big Driver”, there was plenty of tension as Tess went on her manhunt for the guy who raped her. I kept expecting something bad to happen at Al’s mother’s house, then at his house, which was pretty nerve-wracking! Then in “Fair Extension”, I kept waiting for the hammer to fall on Streeter as they inevitably do in those deals-with-the-devil tales. Like maybe he would wake up one day to find his kids stricken with cancer or discover that his shower faucets have been inexplicably loosened, causing him to slip, fall, and crack his skull in the tub. It seems like he got off easy just sending away 15% of his income. And then in “A Good Marriage”, I kept waiting to see if Bob would kill Darcy despite his promise.
  • I liked the strong female characters in “Big Driver” and “A Good Marriage”. Both Tess and Darcy did what they had to so they could go on living their lives. Tess had to exact revenge on her rapist instead of going to the cops and forever being known as a victim. Darcy couldn’t let Bob live because she knew he would give into temptation at some point and start killing again. Murder isn’t the p.c. answer, of course, but like I said, these women did what they had to.
  • I liked that all the stories had a common theme that looked at the darkest side of ordinary people. We all like to think that we’re better than that, but we can’t really know what we’d do until we’re in those exact situations. This was particularly true for “Fair Extension”. The “bad luck” that fell on Tom as a result of Streeter’s deal was horrific — the kind of things you truly wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Yet if I were dying of cancer and had a chance to pass it on to someone else, would I? Probably.
  • The final twist at the end of “1922″ was pretty creepy and unexpected. I figured Wilf was crazy, but never would have imagined that he was biting himself like that because he thought the rats were still after him. Yikes!

Disliked:

  • I thought “1922″ got bogged down in a few places. This was the longest story and also the most boring because there were so many extraneous scenes that didn’t really need to be there. I had a bit of trouble getting through it, but just as I was ready to put it down, King sucked me back in by picking up the action/pace.
  • I didn’t like how in “A Good Marriage” Bob somehow automatically knew Darcy had discovered his box in the “hidey hole” just from a short phone conversation. So she was distracted and seemed a bit off… you mean to tell me that never happened in their previous 20 years of marriage? That part felt a bit thin to me.
  • I thought it was a bit too convenient/coincidental that the one person who could plausibly link Tess to the murders in “Big Driver” happened to be a rape victim herself and therefore wouldn’t say anything to the police about the murders. I know the statistics say 1 in 3 women have been the victim of sexual assault, but still… that was too contrived for my taste.

Rating:

I thought Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King was an excellent read overall. It contains three very good stories and a solid one, and represents a return to form for this author that I once enjoyed very, very much. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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